Stanley Kubrick’s Use of One Point Perspective

It wasn’t until viewing the video “Stanley Kubrick’s One Point Perspective” (below) that I realized how extensive his use of the technique was.

In the video, you see shots from every film from the major phase of Kubrick’s career (The Shining, Barry Lydon, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, 2001: A Space Odyssey), plus from his early film Paths of Glory.  Missing, however, are shots from his pictures such as Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, Spartacus, Doctor Strangelove and Lolita. Of course, one-point perspective was used in those films as well, but it seems the video compiler had more than enough footage from his major phase to make a compelling point.

What is the point? That Stanley Kubrick used one-point perspective a lot? To me this seems like an over-simplification of his work. After all, one-point perspective is the first thing you learn when you set out to draw scenes. From there on, you learn two-point perspective, and if you’re adventurous, three. In a sense, one-point perspective is so common in art that many major artists despair of it.

In the early days of cinema, one-point perspective was the norm, largely because the set designs were so cheap that if you angled the camera to the right or left, you’d see where the set ended and the stage began (in most early cinema, hallways didn’t go anywhere, they just abruptly ended). Also, if you tilted the camera up, you wouldn’t see a ceiling, you’d see lights and rafters. In a sense, one-point perspective became the formal, traditional way of filming simply out of necessity.

Later, the mark of a maverick filmmaker was to eschew one-point perspective as much as possible. Orson Welles immediately comes to mind, who frequently used wonky or canted angles to create tension in the scene itself, often lending scenes a vertiginous effect–a sense of dread or foreboding.

In Stanley Kubrick’s work though, you get a very similar feeling of dread and foreboding without Wellesian flourishes. In a way, the towering, nearly mythic appearance of the character of Charles Foster Kane is replicated in the black monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It seems then that if you’re willing to call Stanley Kubrick a revolutionary filmmaker, he should be considered revolutionary in his decision to revisit the traditions of filmmaking. A large part of what makes his films stand out is his frequent refusal to use modern filmmaking techniques such as rapid editing and canted angles.

As time goes on, I can only wish that more filmmakers would take a page out of Stanley’s playbook and stop using completely random angles in their movies. Alfred Hitchcock once pointed out that however crafty his use of different perspectives might be, he’d never place a camera where an eye couldn’t be, i.e. behind a fireplace. Contemporary film though is chock full of such moments, thanks in large part to advances in technology, but these are innovations we frankly don’t need (do we need to see the world from a bullet’s point of view, or see an actress’ face from a dozen different angles during a single monologue?)

As I mentioned before, the video inadvertantly over-simplifies Stanley Kubrick’s complex aesthetic. You’ll notice that in many of the scenes featured above, the mesmerizing effect of the imagery isn’t only created by the use of one-point perspective, but by Kubrick’s use of a graceful, roving camera (a technique he learned from studying the French filmmaker Max Orphuls) as well as his stylistic choice to feature ample backlighting (lighting a scene not from overhead sources but from behind the set itself, often by employing superhot bulbs and placing them near windows). Of course, there are other factors too, such as the strong performances Kubrick inevitably got from his actors.

In the end, calling attention to Stanley Kubrick’s use of one point perspective is to take note of only one facet of his artistry. It’s like saying Van Gogh’s paintings are beautiful because of his frequent use of one-point perspective, without ever mentioning impressionism.


To see an extensive use of canted angles, make sure to watch The Third Man.

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What’s your opinion of Stanley Kubrick’s use of one point perspective?


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