The Dutch Angle: A Cinematic Technique That Makes Viewers Anxious

by | Jul 11, 2018 | Video Editing

Image courtesy Christopher Brown/Unsplash.

The Dutch Angle is one of those cinematic techniques that just oozes creativity, unease and — also, among some — also a little bit of controversy.

Want to convey tension, anxiety, uneasiness, confusion or similar feelings of disorientation in a composition? Tilting your camera angle to one side — essentially, the camera equivalent of tilting one’s head to look at something — can achieve this.

Also known as the Dutch Tilt, German Angle, canted angle, canted camera, or oblique angle, the technique consists of an angled camera shot where the horizon line isn’t parallel with the bottom of the frame, and vertical lines are at an angle to the side of the frame. It’s been used in hundreds of films including classics like “The Bride of Frankenstein” (directed by James Whales), “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles), “The Third Man” (Carol Reed) and “Maltese Falcon” (John Huston).

It’s often used in scenes where intoxication or feelings of madness are present, such as Bruce Willis’s arrival at a mental hospital in “12 Monkeys,” and can involve slight, five-degree tilts all the way to extreme 90-degree angles.

A video compilation by Jacob T. Swinney shows a variety of Dutch Angled scenes of varying severity throughout the decades.

It can also be used in a static shot or employed simultaneously with panning, zooming, or other forms of tilting, according to MediaCollege.

Where did it originate?

Despite its name, the Dutch Angle didn’t originate in Holland. The term wasn’t even coined by anyone Dutch, as far as we know.

In fact, it has its roots in the Expressionist movement of First World War Germany, when the exchange of films to and from the country screeched to a halt under the British naval blockade (the story goes that “Deutsch”, the German word for “German”, became “Dutch” over time). True to the era, expressionist films regularly touched on suicide, betrayal, psychosis, terror and other “dark mental states.”

By the 1930s, the technique had gone stateside and was soon being used by directors in dozens of popular films such as the aforementioned classics by Welles, Whales and Huston. And there have been hundreds since.

But why does it make audiences feel so anxious?

According to Hollywood Lexicon, standard compositions that follow standard horizontal-vertical lines are easier for the brain to assimilate. Dutch Angled compositions, on the other hand, convey motion and are harder for our brains to process.

This conveyance of motion, of fluidity, can, in turn, inspire emotions of anxiety and confusion in audiences — the shifted horizon and feeling of vertical lines falling away can give viewers a sense that something isn’t right.

Is it overused?

Depends on who you ask, but most film experts say that, like any technique, it should be used sparingly and at the right moments.

It has become somewhat contentious recently because of perceived overuse in some films, such as “Battlefield Earth” — director Roger Christian reportedly said only one scene in the entire movie wasn’t shot using this technique — and “Thor,” which was criticized for relying too much on the technique.

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