Point of View Shot: Why a Subjective Shot Is Important in Film

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Point of view shots give audiences a view from a character’s perspective by positioning the camera right where the character’s eyes would be.

These shots cast an illusion of access to a character’s inner life, which makes POV shots very popular in TV and film. Review a shot list from a film or television show with artistic aspirations, and you’re likely to see multiple first-person POV camera angles included on the list.

Here’s a deep dive on this essential shot, including how best to use it and some of the classic film scenes that made it famous.

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What is a point of view (POV) shot?

A point of view shot (typically abbreviated as a POV shot) is one that shows the audience what the world looks like from a particular character’s perspective. While standard-issue establishing shots, wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups offer an objective perspective of the scene, a POV shot offers a subjective point of view, as though we in the audience were standing in the shoes of the character on screen.

A well-framed POV shot offers a camera angle that shows what a character sees, which might include:

  • Another character’s reaction
  • Visual stimuli like TV screens, computer screens, phone screens, and book pages (all from the first-person point of view)
  • Blurred or hazy footage (indicating the character is impaired)
  • Vision obstructions (like eyelids opening and closing, or lights being shut off)

How to use POV shots

First-person perspective film shots appear in all genres of movies and television series. You’re likely to find many opportunities to use them in your own film project. Here are some guidelines to follow when considering a POV shot.

  1. Start scenes with objective viewpoints before switching to POV. Audiences typically need to gain an objective perspective on a movie scene to orient themselves before a first-person perspective will make sense. Achieve this through the use of establishing shots and wide shots before switching to first-person POV. Or conversely, be aware of this effect and purposefully use POV at the top to disorient your audience.
  2. Use POV shots to build stakes in a heated discussion. When two characters are trading lines in an argument, many directors opt for simple over-the-shoulder shots or two-shots. But toggling back and forth between the two points of view is an option that can really raise the stakes. This means that as we look at each character through the eyes of their counterpoint, we get an intimate view of their reactions and facial tics. This can keep the audience engaged by literally putting them in the middle of the argument. After all, it feels very different to see two people arguing from across the street, versus having some guy come up to you and scream in your face.
  3. POV shots work well in action sequences. POV can play a key role in fight scenes and action sequences. Directors often use a technique called cutting on action, where a character might do something like wind up to throw a punch. They start with the perspective of the character rearing back to punch, and then the director cuts to a POV shot of the other character seeing a fist hurtling toward their face. Usually followed by a cut-to-black if the character is knocked out.
  4. POV is great for building dread in horror sequences. Horror directors use first-person POV shots to put the audience in the character’s shoes as they explore their terrifying surroundings. This is what helped make The Blair Witch Project so scary — witnessing an unsettling scene as if you’re right there in the room is a perfect recipe for terror.
  5. POV is also a hallmark of dream sequences. Many celluloid dream sequences pivot around a series of POV shots. In a dream, you’re usually the main character, and the things you’re seeing are so particularly odd that watching them head-on amplifies their effect. Think lovingly upon the ceiling baby with the spinning head from Trainspotting (1996).

6 famous examples of point of view shots in films

To see how POV shots enhance real movies, consider these classic examples.

  1. Lady in the Lake (1947): In one eerie, unnerving sequence of this film, director Robert Montgomery shows what a character would encounter when entering the strange office of Adrienne Fromsett, an oddly cheery editor. In this case, the character in question is hardboiled LA detective Philip Marlowe, played by Montgomery himself. In fact, the entire movie is from Marlowe’s first-person POV. The only time we see Marlowe himself is when he directly addresses the camera.
  2. Jaws (1975): Director Steven Spielberg plays up the gruesome death of Quint (Robert Shaw) by including some first-person POV shots of the great white shark breaching the water, landing on the boat, and thrashing until Quint tumbles into its gaping maw. When we see the shark lurching forward, it’s from the point of view of the boat’s crew, who are cowering on one end of their tiny ship and hoping not to tumble down toward the hungry shark. Quint isn’t so lucky. But his death isn’t shown via a POV shot; we just see him straight-up get chomped on, a shot that was aired on network TV all the time, traumatizing children across the world. Farewell and adieu to you, Quint.
  3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991): In the harrowing final showdown scene from Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of a Thomas Harris book, serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) stalks Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) using night vision goggles in a darkened basement. We see Clarice through those night-vision goggles, which gives viewers the unsettling experience of seeing her from the killer’s point-of-view. The Silence of the Lambs took this seedy perspective and incorporated it into a piece of award-winning cinema, even as earlier films that used this kind of shot, such as Peeping Tom (1960) and Maniac (1980) were derided as lurid and exploitative.
  4. The Blair Witch Project (1999): One way to show point of view is to use camera footage filmed by someone holding that camera at eye level. The 1999 low-budget horror film The Blair Witch Project does this via handheld camera footage taken by college students running through the woods while making a documentary about the mysterious Blair Witch. This was so effective that some credit this film for spawning the whole “found footage” sub-genre of horror, or at least the “shaky handcam” variety popular in the early 2000s. Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project elevated this tactic by weaving it into the themes of the film, with the lens a way for main character Heather to distance herself from the trauma she’s experiencing. And in the most parodied shot on the film, she turns that lens on herself to deliver her snot-nosed “I’m so sorry,” speech, further inverting the trope of this shot to reveal that she’s absolutely aware of how screwed she and her classmates are.  
  5. Elf (2003): In a snowball fight scene — which maps to the beats of an action film — director Jon Favreau cuts to a wide array of shots, several of which are POV angles of incoming snowballs. In one such cut, Favreau starts with a teenager popping up from behind a hill and throwing a snowball toward the camera. He then “cuts on action” to the same snowball hitting Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell) in the nose. This kicks off a two-minute scene with similar cuts, many of which start as POV shots from the perspective of someone who’s about to be hit with a snowball. The scene ends with a reversed perspective — a shot showing the character’s POV as their own snowball hurtles through the park and hits its chosen target.
Written by
Written by
Lara Unnerstall

Video Producer at Descript. Filmmaker, writer, and dog weirdo.

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Lara Unnerstall

Video Producer at Descript. Filmmaker, writer, and dog weirdo.

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