Watching and Being Watched: Power of the POV Shot
Cinema, like literature, has the unique ability to change point-of-views whenever it likes. There are many ways to do this, and each method has its own distinct result, but one of the most common and most effective ways is with the subjective, point-of-view shot.
In a shot like this, the audience member sees exactly what the character sees. With it, viewers have the opportunity to see through the eyes of the film’s characters in a literal sense. They’re able to put themselves right in the character’s shoes, and this can be an incredibly useful artistic device. Not only does it open up new and exciting storytelling opportunities, but it allows access to a character’s thoughts and feelings in a way that is unique to film and unparalleled in any other artform.
When used correctly, point-of-view shots can be one of the most powerful tools at a filmmaker’s disposal. In tender moments, these tools can emphasise love and romance, letting the audience fall for someone right along with the main character. In dramatic films, a point-of-view shot can offer insight into a character’s disposition or feelings about a certain topic. In horror movies, it can be used to unsettle, by placing watchers inside the heads of people they might not necessarily want to be close to. It’s a powerful tool that, when used correctly, can make or break an entire scene.
One of the most iconic point-of-view shots is in John Carpenter’s 1970 horror classic “Halloween”. The entire opening of the movie is shot according to this method, though it’s not immediately evident whose view it is. Either way though, the audience is along for the ride, and, as the character whose eyes we’re sharing begins to stalk, follow and eventually kill a young girl, it’s a ride that most would want to get off.
Then comes the master reveal—the person whose view we’re seeing does not belong to some serial killer or madman but that of a young boy. This opening immediately sets the tone of the film, and, at the time, it was unlike any other horror movie on the market. The “Halloween” franchise and a number of other horror movies (including the entire “found footage” genre) continue to use the technique today.
Another fantastic use of the point-of-view shot is to depict and give insight into any one character’s mental state. One of the best and easiest ways to show that a character might be hallucinating or going crazy is to simply show the viewer what the character is seeing (or, in some cases, thinks they’re seeing). This technique can be seen in lots of movies with psychological angles—thrillers like “Black Swan” (2010) and “Midsommar” (2019) use it to great effect.
The latter, partially filmed in Budapest, uses POV shots particularly well when showing the effects of psychedelic drug use. Whether through substances or psychosis though, this is an excellent tool for filmmakers looking to show a characters’ fractured or altered mental state.
There are a number of other ways to use the point-of-view shot, and the technique can be utilized to emphasize almost any narrative moment of character trait. Lots of these methods are not even immediately recognizable because they pull the audience member in so thoroughly and fully. Other uses of it, like in the opening of “Halloween”, are meant to be noticed and called out. How you use it is up to you, but one can be sure that, when used correctly, the point-of-view shot will elevate almost any film.