Repetition – Fixed angle

Before moving on to a thorough discussion on repetition in film storytelling, let me dwell for a page on the concept of fixed angle. A fixed angle is a shot configuration that is used more than once in a movie in order to make a specific place or action sink deep into the audience’s mind. Provided that this shot configuration is unique and easily recognizable, it will get associated to that place or action throughout the entire movie — which happens to have a number of interesting side effects.


Recognizing important places

In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (S. Spielberg, 1982), the same shot configuration (i.e. camera position/orientation and shot scale) is used to establish all the scenes taking place in Elliott’s garden throughout the film — only the shape and position of the moon change from scene to scene as time passes. In The Blue Lagoon (R. Kleiser, 1980), the dreadful passage to the sacrificial altar is associated to a fixed angle so that we recognize it throughout the film, even at night. In both examples, associating a fixed angle to a most important place is critical to sinking it into the audience’s mind so that they recognize it instantly whenever they see it, even when the staging (e.g. the lighting) differs slightly.

In some cases, this technique even works when the stage is not fully recognizable. In Alien (R. Scott, 1979), a fixed angle welcomes Ripley each time she emerges from the hatchway to the rescue shuttle — a most important set in the film. Although the environment is not recognizable, the shot configuration is — in spite of a slight shift in scale –, which implicitly introduces the place through the character’s emotions. Warning: In the Director’s Cut version, the last cut-out shot as been …well cut out, which considerably lessens the effect.


Measuring elapsed time

Using a fixed angle twice in a short time span has an interesting side effect: It measures elapsed time. In Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), using a recognizable fixed angle over the men toilet entrance twice in a very short time span helps us figure out how closely Max is being followed.

Only one shot separates both instances of a fixed angle in 9½ Weeks (A. Lyne, 1986), putting the chasers only one shot away from the ‘chased’. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981), two instances of a fixed angle are edited consecutively, making for an even closer chase.


Comparing dramatic actions

As we saw earlier, the environment is often less important than the shot configuration itself as far as fixed angles go. This is why they are so efficient at comparing the same action at different times in a movie. Look how two similar actions have been made to parallel each other in Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993) by matching the shot configuration, scaring the audience into believing that the second character is bound to meet the tragic fate of the first one — yes, the first character dies. Note: Needless to say, this technique should be used sparingly — probably no more than once — in a given movie.

Fixed angles are also very efficient at bringing out changes in staging. For example, in Conan the Barbarian (J. Milius, 1982), using a fixed angle to edit the scene where Valeria briefly appears to Conan as a ghost emphasizes the moment she disappears by contrast. In Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), a fixed angle is used to show Elizabeth’s window, so that the audience notices her absence after she died, and sympathizes with Sherlock as he knows he will never see his girlfriend again. Sticking to one shot configuration helps bringing out a difference in staging, simply because nothing else changes.

Now here is food for thought. I think the following excerpt showcases a missed opportunity to resort to a fixed angle as a way to compare two similar actions. At the beginning of Romancing the Stone (R. Zemeckis, 1984), the heroin of Joan Wilder’s book seizes a hidden knife and throws it at her foe. Near the end of the film, Wilder — wishing to do the same ‘for real’ — throws a switchblade at Zolo. Sure the comparison effect works as is, but wouldn’t it have been even better to resort to a fixed angle to compare both actions? I’ll leave it up to you.


What’s up?

Using a fixed angle to sink some important place or action deep into the audience’s mind might sound uncreative, but it is in fact a very efficient storytelling technique. For one thing, it helps us instantly recognize that place or action throughout a movie — which can be a great way to measure elapsed time in a chase scene. Besides, all the emotions we felt the first time we were acquainted with it get lastingly embedded within the shot configuration — which makes fixed angles very efficient at comparing similar actions emotionally.

Now that repetition has been introduced, let’s look in detail at two major topics: portrait galleries and evocations.


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