Camera Angles: a brief look at low- and high-angle shots
—E. Kline


Bad Girls is generally filmed in a style consistent with traditional UK television series: the blocking is very careful, almost theatrical in its precise layout, and the camera angles utilized in most shots, along with the slower pacing, all serve to remind us we're watching a British product which places a premium on storytelling. These elements usually blend to make an unobtrusive backdrop which privileges the acting and dialogue. Yet there are moments where the camera angles stand out and are used to less traditional ends. These atypical moments, all deliberate, in which the camera angles diverge from expected affect, accent the story in a different way. In the examples discussed, their purpose is to articulate an emphasis on power relations in the prison, and like the show as a whole, they reveal everything to be reversed, backwards, not what it seems. Bad Girls' explicit agenda, after all, is to upset and complicate the idea that prisons are necessary to promote/keep 'order', and that current prison policy and procedure is the only way to meet these goals.


"A low-angle shot, in cinematography, is an upwards shot from a camera positioned low on the vertical axis, often at knee height. This technique is sometimes used in scenes of confrontation to illustrate which character holds the higher position of power, and is a common element in the aesthetic texture of certain genres such as film noir." (Wikipedia)


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Shot #1:  low-angle shot of Helen after she's broken up with Nikki, end of Series 3 episode 1; near tears, wrapping her arms around herself, looking up. Initially, this seems a simple shot to begin with, yet its use here makes us respond in a way that is emotionally directly counter to a normal low-angle shot.

This shot takes place at the end of an extremely tense episode—it's filled with a great deal of action, certainly by Bad Girls' standards, and is also unusual for having no minor plotlines: the two "A-stories" running in parallel both involve Helen and serve to bring all of her professional and personal dilemmas to a crisis. The first story concerns itself with the horrible irony of Helen being forced to bring the woman she's in love with, and has just slept with for the first and perhaps only time, back in to prison; the second involves Shell's attack on Fenner, where Helen becomes involved in trying to negotiate what's turned into a hostage situation. At the end of all this, Helen wordlessly views Shell's blood-splattered cell, object lesson in everything that can go most wrong about a prisoner-jailer relationship. She then goes to calm Nikki, who's raging in her cell, only to be confronted with the fact that Nikki has a cellmate who knows everything that's happened—something Helen's allowed herself to forget (either until the previous scene, or right at the moment she sees Barbara). Unable to juggle the enormous stresses the relationship's always presented but which have been brought into direct conflict on this night, she breaks up with Nikki, and the shot of her, alone and distraught, ends the first storyline of this episode. It's a fittingly dramatic shot: the rest of Helen's story will concern how she tries to navigate (and ultimately resolve) the barriers between her desires and her principles.

The shot is so distinctive anyone familiar with the show will immediately be able to recall it without a visual aide: it's a slow push-in, almost 25 seconds [53.31-53.55], a long time for any shot but especially relative to the fast action that's characterized the rest of the episode. In the final seconds, as the camera finishes closing on Helen, the angle is further steepened (note the increased space between her head and the top of the frame).

Following a conventional use of the low-angle shot, what this view of Helen (in another context, sans distress) might show would be similar to any kind of John Wayne-type shot: tall stranger walks into town, we look 'up' at him thus we 'see/(understand)' he's in control, the new guy with the power, in authority. Where I'm going is plain enough: such a reaction to Helen's present state is impossible here, it's antithetical to what the shot conveys. Whatever a viewer may have subconsciously expected from such a shot, emotionally, is effectively reversed. Helen's completely surrounded by bars, everywhere, almost dwarfed by the physical prison, which is obviously also a metaphor for her emotionally trapped, scared, isolated state.




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Shot #2:  To move on to a more complicated scene and make the last first, as it were: Helen and Nikki in Nikki's cell in solitary, where Nikki's been sent after a confrontation with Helen in front of the entire wing (Series 1 episode 1). This scene starts with a high-angle shot of Helen entering the room, Nikki far below us on the floor, and progresses from there; after Helen sits beside Nikki on the cot, the visual balance is returned to something more 'normal'-looking to our eyes (though we're still looking slightly 'up' at Helen in the rest of the shots which follow through the first half of the scene). Again, however, the high-angle shot is striking.


"In film, a high angle shot is usually when the camera is located high (often above head height) and the shot is angled downwards (in contrast to a bird's-eye shot). This shot is used sometimes in scenes of confrontation and fights to show which person has the higher power. The subject of a high angle shot looks vulnerable or insignificant; if the shot represents a character's point of view the shot can also be used to make the character tall, more powerful or threatening."  (Wikipedia)

And again, what we're being shown appears evident: Helen's the one in power, in all ways. The contrast couldn't be much more dramatic: Wing Gov, free to come and go, standing, outdoor clothes—even her shadow towers over Nikki (it completely covers her at one point). As for Nikki, she's literally bound on the floor, in strips (not part of Helen's instructions when sending her into solitary). Button button, who's got the button?

Nikki, of course. Helen is not the subject: Nikki is. This is a totally Nikki-centric scene, and her position defines everything that will take place, from emotional tone to physical logistics. Helen's wrong-footed from the start: greeted by the unexpected sight of Nikki in strips, Helen loses her composure and shouts at the guard on duty, then sends the guard for Nikki's clothes—at the very least righting a wrong, albeit after the fact. Next Helen apologizes to Nikki for having been put in strips in the first place, and it's a sincere apology, personal as well as professional (as the first episode makes clear in a number of ways, Helen's conflation of the two is one of the main issues she'll need to resolve; it works equally for and against her, depending on the situation, as we'll go on to see here). Then Helen sits down—a strategic move, to be sure, but also sincere: she really does want to communicate. She demonstrates this by making further accommodations after her initial conversational gambit, a studied emphasis on the word 'cooperation'—its careful pronunciation subtly if unintentionally patronizing Nikki—is hurled back at her in no uncertain terms; Nikki's acerbic mockery of this clumsy start has Helen making a series of very rapid adjustments as she reevaluates this famously difficult (and obviously intelligent) prisoner. Mindful of the lousy weekend Nikki's had, she chooses her next words with better sensitivity, and frames them in terms of a personal appeal as she tries to find common ground. ('Look... Nikki. I intend to make a lot of changes here, but I can't do it without your help.') Her tone's still awkwardly cautious (emphasis on 'your help'), but it's an honest attempt, whatever reservations or discomfort she feels about the tack.

But the character with the real power is Nikki, doing her Gandhi thing on the floor. I'm not being facetious: this reversal locates Nikki as the character with genuine moral authority in the scene, the authority of the lowly. (Helen's authority is externally conferred, [1] and one of the things that's going on between them in these early days is Helen's need to prove her sincerity to Nikki; that she's not a mouthpiece, a suit. That's got to come from within Helen, which is why she winds up with the appeal to trust her.) When we see photos of Gandhi, movies portraying him, documentaries, it's invariably the same composition: everyone else is standing up and cringing a bit, and he's just sitting there, perfectly at ease, perfectly comfortable. That's Nikki here. She might be all tied up, but she's speaking Truth, and Helen's got to get down to her level to listen properly, to get the message(s). [2]

The director could easily have filmed the scene without the very high angle which opens it; yes it adds 'interest' to the shot but that's not its primary function. It suggests that of the two characters involved, Helen's in the position of power (which equates with moral authority)—then goes on to show a very different, much more complex set of dynamics.

By the time the scene breaks with Helen saying "well you're just going to have to trust me: I don't [believe in a system that locks up pregnant women]," it's the last time we'll see her 'above' Nikki: with this statement—admission or maneuver, as audience we're not quite sure which, yet—Helen has ceded a shared truth which signals a shift in her relations with this prisoner. The second half of the scene begins with a number of important changes to the physical logistics between the characters: Nikki is standing; she's in the foreground (relative heights reversed); she's once again clothed. (The characters are both wearing tops of almost identical color, possibly the only time this happens in three seasons' worth of episodes.) Helen's in the background by the window, turned away to give Nikki privacy, as she continues her attempt to convince Nikki they must team up or the 'old-boys' network' will be the only winner. In other words, from this point on they're negotiating on more equal ground both literally (in terms of their positioning and Nikki's release from restraints) as well as intellectually, with some presumably shared criteria on the table. Helen's appeal for 'trust'—and the fact that she can only make this appeal work after coming to terms with the prisoner on a more personal level—means their relationship involves a kind of complicity from the very start: as Nikki herself made perfectly clear during the confrontation which landed her in strips to begin with, 'you lot can't run this prison unless we help you'. And, as always—right from the very start—Helen's been listening quite closely. But to make deals with a prisoner in order to win her over as an ally is already to be compromised according to any 'official' standards. It's built in to the system: Helen can't function in a vacuum without the help of Nikki or someone like her.


Other shots  Although there are other visually arresting shots, such as Helen-in-front-of-the-riot-guards (Series 3), they aren't unusual angles which communicate something counter to a more traditional filmic grain. Thus the many high-angle shots of prisoners alone and miserable in solitary (Shell, for ex.) aren't of interest in this context because they're not conveying anything out of the ordinary: we look down on Shell and feel a bit sorry for her (despite her unpleasantness as a human being), which is by definition how this kind of angle is typically employed: "The subject of a high angle shot looks vulnerable or insignificant". (Same for the bird's-eye shot of Shell curled up in the shower after Pam's attack.) [3]  That's not Nikki in the scene discussed above: she might appear insignificant but everything about the scene tells us she's exactly the opposite.[4] 

Similarly, though the shot at the end of the first Helen/Thomas kiss, where the camera pulls drastically back and up away from the couple, is an emotionally significant cue, it does act in accordance with normal high-angle shots: yet again we see Helen's figure dramatically reduced both by distance as well as angle. Becoming involved with Thomas is Helen's choice, but the camera's telling us she's not especially in control here. I don't mean sexually but rather: of events piling up around her and of sea-changes going on within her.

I suspect, further, we'll wind up finding a lot of these shots clustered around Helen in particular, and that they will undermine/contradict her official position within the prison, working to add complexity to her character and story even beyond the level of Lahbib's superb performance.


To return to the first shot discussed: there is another way to read that shot of Helen, surrounded by the bars of Larkhall, as totally traditional; not at all against the grain, and in keeping with the textbook definition of a low-angle shot—if we assume Larkhall is the other character. By this light, Larkhall isn't any kind of metaphor: quite the reverse. Thus the point could equally be made that the prison itself 'holds the higher position of power', which would be consistent with what the shot is also showing: that all the events of the evening which have brought Helen to this crisis are to some extent determined by the structure she works in, for—and under.

Good camera-work is often almost invisible, but both aspects of this double-reading are available to us; both serve to make even clearer why the shot's so especially moving.



 


[1] Prior to the Series 1, episode 1 scene between Helen and Nikki discussed above, a traditional use of the low-angle shot prepares the ground for their later confrontation: during the Wing-meeting where Helen tries to explain the events leading up to Carol Byatt's miscarriage, we get a low-angle of Helen, surrounded by prisoners on the landings above her. The "prisoners and the prison itself [stand] even taller over her"*. As does Nikki, who for the majority of that scene gradually descends the staircase as she makes her points on behalf of the rest of the women. Again, height-difference is exploited through low-angle shots to suggest the difference between Helen's institutionally conferred authority and Nikki's moral authority as practised in the prison setting.* Helen does reassert authority when she literally gets up into Nikki's face; the scene is very thorough in its coverage of this dynamic with its many attendant ironies.

[2] The core message—that there's something fundamentally unworkable about a system that 'locks up pregnant women'—is mission-critical to the show; to any future understanding Helen and Nikki will develop towards each other both individually (emotionally) and politically (intellectually); and to Helen's journey as it plays out on personal and professional levels.

[3] Similarly, the long overhead tracking shots of the central corridor used throughout the show don't necessarily convey anything more than: this is prison, it's all bars and walls, everyone and everything in it's 'down' (and, more significantly: this is the world in which all our stories will originate). (Additionally, even with the very high camera angle on Helen, I think the final 'balcony scene' shot as Helen leaves the prison for the last time is a different animal.)

[4] We get a lot of high-angle shots of Nikki at the end of this episode as she announces the fashion show's back on; arguably these could be included as continuing the Nikki-as-significant/spokesperson theme, but they're not as compelling: it's a big space to cover physically; it's a crowd scene so there's the issue of how to make it good TV and keep as many bodies in view as possible; and the dramatic effect, although very good, isn't the kind of super-heightened thing that really skewed angles convey, which is what I'm focusing on.



* Many thanks to JT for contributing these points, and for her very helpful suggestions in revising this essay.


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