Why tilt the camera? The history and use of the Dutch Angle
For most photographers and filmmakers, making sure that the horizon is level is of vital importance… Well, usually. This is mainly because any deviation from the norm looks like an accident; like we don’t know what we’re doing. However, it is possible to tilt the camera angle intentionally with both photography and filmmaking. This adds emphasis or effect depending on the shot you’re after.
We call this a Dutch Angle. But what is it? Why do people use it? How and why did it start? And most importantly, how can we implement this tilted camera angle effectively in our work? This fascinating video from the folks at Vox looks at the history of the Dutch Angle and how we can use it in our work. And it probably appears in a lot more movies than you realize.
The history of the Dutch Angle
First of all, let me start with all the names of the Dutch Angle. You may also know it as the Dutch Tilt, German Angle, canted angle, canted camera, or oblique angle. Many names, but they’re all the same technique. It involves setting the camera at an angle on its roll axis so that the shot is composed with the horizon line at a diagonal to the bottom of the frame.
There are two interesting things about the Dutch Angle. First, it doesn’t even come from the movies or photography. In fact, it was first introduced in fine art. And second, it’s not Dutch, it’s Deutsch – it actually comes from Germany. When foreign movie imports were banned during World War I, German filmmakers weren’t influenced by Hollywood as they had no access to the movies. So, they turned to art for inspiration. Specifically, the German expressionism.
Initially, the Dutch Angle shot didn’t involve tilting the camera. The camera was level, and filmmakers would twist and distort the sets to add a level of nightmarish unease to the shots. The first example is the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1920. It’s a German silent horror movie about a hypnotist who uses his sleepwalking patients to kill by proxy. Its distorted figures and harsh angular lighting weren’t the only things making it unsettling. The whole movie was noticeably askew because the entire set was literally tilted.
The technique seemed to work, ushering in a whole new filmmaking technique. But the later filmmakers realized they could get that crooked horizon line of the shot by simply tilting the movie camera and leaving the sets and locations alone. Hollywood eventually picked it up and modified it further.
When should you use it?
The Dutch Angle is now well entrenched in cinema, photography, and even video games. It’s typically there to highlight tension or to intentionally make the viewer uneasy. They often represent concepts like madness, disorientation, psychosis, drug influence, or possession by the forces of evil. All in all, filmmakers, photographers, and video game creators most often use it for these unpleasant and unsettling moments.
However, it doesn’t have to be sinister and tense. This recognizable camera technique can work well for positive and happy scenes, too. Remember, though, that they’re generally more difficult to achieve effectively.
Ultimately, though, it’s a stylistic choice. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s all going to depend on your vision and abilities.
Famous Dutch Angle examples in movies
When The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari came out, critics called it “the most remarkable picture ever shown.” This wasn’t only because of the incredible acting and innovative story. What made the viewers and critics really excited was that exquisite, unusual set design. This movie led to a new art-centric era for movies, and other iconic movies followed its lead.
Expressionist classics like Metropolis and Nosferatu came shortly after The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They used the same lighting, drama, and the Dutch Angle. But instead of tilting the set, they achieved the same effect through camera shots. They tilted the camera and simplified this technique.
From there, the Dutch Angle spread to film noir. Other famous examples include Citizen Kane and The Third Man. Then, it found its way into thrillers. You’ve seen it in Hitchcock’s The Birds, Strangers on a Train, and The Lodger. Hitchcock himself said about The Lodger that expressionism heavily influenced him when making this movie. Even its poster has a crooked perspective.
By the 1960s, yet another genre picked up the Dutch Angle. Each of the villains in the 1966 Batman had their own specific tilt. And from there, the angle really took off. Some famous examples include Taxi Driver, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Mission: Impossible, and Pulp Fiction, to name just a few.
On the other hand, not all movies do it well. You know how some techniques tend to be overused (like slow motion)? Movies like 2000 Battlefield Earth and 2011 Thor have been criticized for using the Dutch tilt as a crutch. Just because you can use the technique doesn’t mean you have to. And this type of camera shot won’t save your movie if it’s not a good one to begin with.
The Dutch Angle today
Some filmmakers and directors love tilting the vertical lines, and they do it right! Some examples are Spike Lee, Terry Gilliam, Quentin Tarantino, Roger Christian, and Tim Burton. They use the Dutch Angle to highlight tension or add distortion and confusion to a frame.
Today, you’ll still find the Dutch Angle in movies, TV series, video games, photography, and even commercials. You’ll see it across basically every genre, including action, horror, thriller, and even comedy. It’s a versatile and powerful technique – but remember, don’t overdo it!
The Dutch angle or Dutch tilt is a type of camera shot where the camera is set at an angle on its roll axis so that the shot is composed with the horizon line at a diagonal to the bottom of the frame.
The first example is the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from 1920. It didn’t involve tilting the camera: it was level, and filmmakers twisted and distorted the entire sets. This added a nightmarish unease to the shots.
The Dutch Angle is a technique used to create tension and unease. It represents concepts like madness, disorientation, drug delirium, and possession by evil forces. It is mainly used for unpleasant and unsettling moments.
Famous examples of the Dutch Angle include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Nosferatu, Citizen Kane, The Third Man, The Birds, Strangers on a Train, Batman, Taxi Driver, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Mission: Impossible, and Pulp Fiction.
Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.