How “tilt shift” in movies unites form and content

I’m teaching film studies this quarter, and one of the small pieces of information I introduce to help students develop a vocabulary for talking about movies is the concept of “tilt shift” photography.

I’m no expert on the technology itself, except to know that what used to be done with camera lenses and movement can now be done post-production using software. For some basic background on tilt-shift photography, check out the Wikipedia article here.

My students are analyzing films, not making them. So when I teach them about lighting and lens focal length and camera movement, we are primarily concerned with the image within the frame—what we see when we view a movie.

A few years ago I noticed something new onscreen that I’d never seen before. It took awhile to learn what it was called (tilt shift), but I’m really intrigued by its use and what it contributes to my experience of a film.

Basically the effect of tilt-shift photography is to create a visual impression that what you’re seeing on the screen is a miniature set, almost like a doll-house world.

The first place I noticed it was in the opening credits of the BBC’s “Sherlock” television series.

Can you make out the miniaturization of London in this clip? I have no idea why the tilt-shift effect (plus a cool use of time lapse) was employed, but I can tell you how I interpret it. That London is Sherlock’s playground, his game board, and he sees the city as just a tiny, blurry setting against which the clarity of the intellectual puzzles he loves can take over as the central focus.

I next noticed the technique in The Social Network, at the Henley Royal Regatta, where the Winklevoss twins are racing for Harvard’s rowing team in the Grand Challenge Cup. Take a look at the opening 20 seconds of this clip. Can you see the miniaturization effect on the longer shots?

I read an interview with The Social Network director David Fincher (here) in which he said the reason for tilt shift here was practical:

We could only shoot 3 races at the Henley Royal Regatta; We had to shoot 4 days of boat inserts in Eton. The only way to make the date for release was to make the backgrounds as soft as humanly possible. I decided it might be more “subjective” if the world around the races fell away in focus, leaving the rowers to move into and out of planes of focus to accentuate their piston-like effort.

But for me as a viewer, ignorant of Fincher’s shooting schedule and creative decisions, the use of tilt shift in that scene was to make the Winklevoss twins—portrayed in the film as holding very high opinions of themselves and their place in the world—appear diminished. The twins think they’re such big shots, but this race is puny in the larger scheme of things. And their influence on campus, which they think is so significant, is actually equally puny, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing (as seen in their meeting with Harvard’s president).

One last movie where I’ve noticed the tilt-shift technique used to great effect is Jack Black’s 2010 Gulliver’s Travels. The “miniature” theme is obvious and literal in this movie, but I especially like the way tilt shift is employed in the title sequence to convey a sense of size distortion from the very beginning.

So this is the kind of stuff I’ve been doing in my work life lately. I hope you find it as interesting as I do!


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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3 Responses to How “tilt shift” in movies unites form and content

  1. Interesting. Amazing how we are somehow manipulated, but we can’t say quite how1!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating! i never heard of tilt shift!

    Liked by 1 person

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