Cinematography Tutorial: Why Manipulating Character Size Is an Incredibly Powerful Tool

Citizen Kane Cinematography
We've all heard the age-old adage that shooting a character from below makes them appear larger and seem more powerful. However, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the power of manipulating character size.

In a new excerpt from the fantastic Lynda series Pro Video Tips with Anthony Q. Artis (which is definitely worth checking out if you subscribe to Lynda), Artis breaks down the multitude of ways that cinematographers, directors, and even set dressers can manipulate character size within a frame in order to visually tell the story and elicit an emotional response from an audience:

As a cinematographer, my favorite piece of advice from this tutorial is the bit dealing with focal length, something which I've talked about at length in the past. Using wide-angle lenses and staging certain characters either closer or farther from the lens can create an exaggerated illusion of depth and character size, with the characters closest to the lens appearing larger than they actually are. For fantastic examples of how wide angle lenses can exaggerate spatial depth and character size, check out the trailer for Terrence Malick's latest film, Knight of Cups, which features more brilliant wide-angle cinematography from Chivo:

However, there's also something to be said for artificially manipulating the depth and size cues within a scene in order to make characters seems larger or smaller. Obviously, Citizen Kane is the seminal example of the technique, as Orson Wells famously had slightly smaller sets constructed in order to make his rendition of Charles Foster Kane seem larger than life. For most of us, this type of manipulation is well beyond our budgetary and time constraints, but it's something to keep in mind.

What are some of your favorite techniques for making characters seem larger or smaller within a frame, and in what situations do you like to employ those techniques?     

Your Comment


My favorite example is history of violence...

December 27, 2014 at 4:10PM


Could you elaborate a little? It's one of my favorites, I just don't remember this style being used.

December 30, 2014 at 2:25PM

Emerson Shaw

I think this is something that we are seeing less and less of with DSLR's because shallow depth of field is fetishized so much right now. You don't see as many wide angle shots, aside from establishers/scenics. At the professional level you still see if but low budgets or indies don't seem to be using them much.

December 27, 2014 at 8:03PM

Joshua Bowen

That would also have to do with budget. With wider shots, there's more in the frame that requires control over. For example, if I'm shooting a conversation in public, by the street. For wider shots, I would need traffic control and etc etc but for medium to close ups, there's less elements required.

That's why indies stick to tighter shots.

December 28, 2014 at 5:39AM


Mr. Artis is brilliant and has so many practical insights. I checked out several of his other production-oriented entries (safety, batteries, truck loading), but this post goes into framing psychology. It's worth following this gentleman.

December 28, 2014 at 12:38PM, Edited December 28, 12:38PM

Douglas Boe