If you’ve ever watched a TV show or a movie and felt a creeping sense of anxiety because of the camerawork, chances are you were looking at a Dutch angle. Often used in horror and psychological thrillers, this cinematic technique creates the feeling that viewers are tilting their heads to the side and that everything is off-kilter.
The Dutch angle (aka Dutch tilt, canted angle, or oblique angle) is a camera shot where the viewer feels like their head is tilted. Capturing one is simple, in theory: you just tilt the camera in your hands or while affixed to a tripod. The camera is placed at an angle on its axis so that the shot it produces is completely off-center, canted in one direction or another.
Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins once said that the best cinematography doesn’t stand out, it just fits within the movie. Filmmakers usually abide by that guideline, since they want the audience to be lost in their movie or TV show without being distracted by the mechanisms behind movie magic. However, the Dutch angle is an exception to the rule that allows filmmakers to push viewers out of their comfort zone.
Even though Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov was the first to famously use the Dutch tilt in his 1929 film, “Man With a Movie Camera,” the shot name has its origins in German Expressionism.
The Dutch angle was brought to public attention in the German silent horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920), which used the shot as part of its dark, twisted visual style.
The original term for the shot, “Deutsch,” is the German word for “German.” This was then mistranslated as meaning “Dutch.” From there, the Dutch angle was born.
The Dutch angle is used by filmmakers to:
- Portray uneasiness or tension
- Make the audience feel on edge
- Create a dark or ominous mood
- Heighten emotion, especially when done in close-up
Whether a character is in peril or in the process of discovering something disturbing, the Dutch angle creates a sense of abstraction, subjectivity, mystery, and disorientation—just from slanting the camera a tiny bit.
“Do the Right Thing” Courtesy Universal Pictures
To engender a sense of unease and uncertainty in your film through inclusion of the Dutch angle:
Use sparingly: Don’t overdo it when shooting canted angles, since the shot loses weight if it appears in too many scenes. Use the shot sparingly to emphasize heightened emotions.
Get creative with camera placement: Be intentional about where you put the camera and how you frame things. Try different levels of focal lengths—wide, medium, and close—and see how the Dutch angle affects the audience in each.
Try varying degrees of tilt: Remember, this shot isn’t just flipping a camera on the side and shooting. Instead, use varying degrees of tilt. Whether a steeply canted angle where everything is sideways, or a smaller tilt to imply that things are slightly uncanny, having options is a filmmaker’s best friend.
Keep things moving: Although many people shoot using a stationary camera when they try this technique, don’t be afraid to move around. Camera movement can add to the overall effect of the camera angle by further steeping the audience in that uneasy feeling.
Test it out: Testing is key for framing effective shots. When you tilt a camera, sometimes you unintentionally pick up parts of the background you didn’t plan on being captured. Do a run-through with your actors to see what you might get onscreen.
Contextualize: Think about the shots immediately before and after the Dutch angle shot in terms of how they will edit together. Does the inclusion of the Dutch angle shot create a disruptive sense of tension? If not, you may consider using the shot at a different point in the film.
From the literally tilted hallway fight scene in “Inception,” to the disorienting drug use depicted in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Dutch angles have been used since their own inception to create feelings of, well, fear and loathing in viewers. Some of the most notorious examples of this camera shot include:
“Batman”: The Dutch angle was used as an ongoing visual pun throughout “Batman” (1966) to indicate that the protagonists had entered a bad guy’s lair. In the scene below, the Dutch angle implies that the Joker and his lair are crooked.
"Evil Dead II": Director Sam Raimi is known to employ Dutch angles throughout his work, particularly in his "Evil Dead" movies as a way to sell the chaos being experienced by Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell).
“Mission: Impossible”: Brian De Palma uses the Dutch angle as a pastiche of old and new cinematic techniques in the filmic take (1996) on the TV series. In this conversation between Ethan Hunt and his handler, the Dutch tilts get steeper as things take a turn for the worse.