The Subjective Camera

Sometimes a subjective voice is desired. It is not altogether analogous to the first person voice in prose, but it shares that narrative function by allowing the audience to participate more fully in the interior life or perceptions of a character. The subjective camera allows us to see what our subject is actually experiencing. An example of this occurs in Notorious, when Alicia wakes from a drunken sleep to see Devlin at an angle in the doorway, watching him turn completely upside down as he comes closer to her bed.

The subjective camera should not be confused with simply using a point of view (POV) shot, which is an approximation of what a character is seeing. The POV contains the dynamics of the spatial relationship, thereby conveying an awareness in the audience that this is indeed what the character is seeing, but there is no shift in voices. It is altogether analogous to a novelist writing in the voice of the third-person narrator, "She sees him," rather than the first-person voice of the character,

"I see him." However, the POV can have a high potential for "sharing" the perception of a character, and can be an important tool in building a subjective voice. (In Part II, Chapter 8, I will introduce the concept of the strong POV.)

(The subjective camera should also be distinguished from the flashback, a narrative dimension that can be rendered, and often is, with an objective camera; as are other modes of reality, such as dreams, memories, and hallucinations.)

Overusing the subjective narrator can minimize its dramatic power. One way of overusing it is to assign it to more than one person. That one person is usually the protagonist.

The distinctions between subjective and objective camera will become clearer as we proceed through this book, especially in our thorough analysis of Notorious (Part III, Chapter 13), in which Hitchcock uses an active (interpretive) camera as well as a subjective voice.


There are five questions to answer that will help us determine where to put the camera, and all of them can be subsumed under one general question: What jobs must be done?

1. Whose scene is it? This is not always the same as whose film it is. The late Frank Daniel, a great dramaturge and my former colleague at Columbia, told me the following story. The director Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life, 1946) was holding a question-and-answer session with students and faculty at the American Film Institute, where Mr. Daniel was then dean. Mr. Daniel asked Mr. Capra, "Could you tell us something about the concept of whose scene is it?" Capra, obviously never having been asked this question, shot back, "You've stolen my secret!"

The most useful factor in answering the question of whose scene it is — the one that will help you most as directors — is, Whose head does the audience have to be in to fully appreciate the scene?

Here is an illustration of how awareness of this question can help you with your camera design. It is from a simple exercise that was done for my first-semester directing class at Columbia. In the scene prior to the one we are going to examine, the protagonist, a young man, is preparing to leave his apartment to go out on the town to try to pick up a lover. It is his first time and he is nervous. In the second scene, our protagonist returns home with another young man, the antagonist. The director chose to capture the beginning actions of this second scene by placing the camera behind the stereo (Figure 5-1). From this long shot we see the two men enter. The protagonist stops near the door as the antagonist continues toward the camera and stands in front of the stereo, inspecting it. After he is finished, the antagonist turns toward the protagonist.

This is an instance in which the scene belongs to the protagonist, yet the director chose not to be in his head, but instead to merely render the action. What is actually required in this scene is an interpretation by the narrator/camera as to what is going on emotionally inside the protagonist. In a novel, we could have been helped either by a first-person interior monologue or a third-person rendering of a char-

Camera outside the protagonist's head.

acter's interior state, but because of where the camera is placed the protagonist's anxiety and yearning are obfuscated by the dynamics of the shot. Yes, we know from the previous scene that the protagonist is anxious, tentative, and wants so much for everything to go right — and yes, all of this is in the actor's behavior — but it is tangential information. As narrators, we are obliged to make that anxiety, that yearning, palpable to the audience.

How can we do that with the camera? One way is to get the camera inside the dynamics of what is actually going on. And we can do that if we place the camera so that the angle on the antagonist at the stereo is from the protagonist's point of view (Figure 5-2). The audience can then more closely align itself with what he is feeling when he looks at the antagonist's back, which is turned to him. And because a POV should be preceded or followed by a close to medium shot of the character whose POV it is, I would choose to start with a fairly close shot when the two enter the apartment. But then the audience won't get a good look at the antagonist. Exactly! I would make sure they did not! Effective would be just a hint of someone else, such as a shoulder moving through the frame. The protagonist would behave the same as in the first shot — his yearning and anxiety would be the same — but because we have now made them the essence of this moment they have become more significant, and therefore more powerful.

The preceding design not only allows the audience to be where they should be in this scene — in the head of the protagonist — but it prolongs the reveal of the antagonist. It makes us curious about him. It raises a question. We already know the antagonist has the upper hand when he walks "deep" into the apartment. And when he does turn, he is revealed through the dynamics of the protagonist. Suppose he turns with a drop-dead smile? Or a scowl? Whatever the case, the audience will feel its impact on the protagonist because it has impinged on them!

2. What is the essence of the moment that I have to convey to the audience? Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, that what he had come to realize in his

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook


  • J
    How to do a subjective camera?
    8 years ago

Post a comment