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The “Uncomfortable” Profile Shot in Filmmaking - David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino

There’s a ton of film and video resources on the Internet explaining basic camera shots in filmmaking, so I’m not going into any detail about those essentials in this post. Most of us have been seeing films our entire lives and we’re therefore somewhat conditioned into “knowing” what to expect when watching films. This process is largely subconscious and the average moviegoer doesn’t have to think about it. The average viewer won't sit through a film and analyze camera shot selections by the director like: “This character really seems to be in control during this dialogue scene since that slightly lower-angle camera shot in comparison to his counter-partner makes him look more powerful”…..Yeah, I doubt that happens.

Filmmaking has been around for a little over 100 years now, and as filmmakers have “evolved” in the camera, directing, editing and production process (albeit not always in the best direction), the audience and their film-watching expectations have likewise evolved alongside the filmmakers. As average moviegoers, we know when there’s something “fishy” in a scene, we know when a film works or doesn’t, but we can’t really pin-point exactly as to why the film or scene works or does not. It’s subconsciously embedded in our minds after a lifetime of watching TV, movies, series and so on. In a strange way, we’re all film experts.

That’s to me one of the fascinating aspects about film analysis. Pretty much any professional film out there is a textbook on filmmaking and story structure (once again, albeit not always in the best direction). Obviously not all camera shots mean the same thing in every film. Same camera angles and shots may be interpreted as completely different things depending on what movie you’re watching. It’s all up to the vision the director and filmmakers involved want to present.

One small example I’d like to illustrate regarding choosing specific camera shots in scenes is a fun and creative way a filmmaker may use profile shots in films, more specifically, in uncomfortable situations.

Normally when shooting an actor you want to see their face by bringing the camera around to the front in order to better empathize with the character and/or see their emotions. In other words, we see them head-on. So whenever the cameraman shoots them from the side in a profile shot, something feels different, it’s a little bit “stranger”. And in the following examples I'll be presenting: it's “Uncomfortable”.

I’m a huge fan of David Fincher, his movies are like advanced courses in filmmaking; analyzing his body of work is always extremely educative. “Se7en” has numerous examples of creative ways to use the profile shot in order to illustrate characters’ different moods and tones.

Here’s a quick and subtle one:

There’s a scene between Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) that illustrates the use of the profile shot as it correlates to how the two characters feel before, during and after a brief telephone conversation with Mills’ wife Tracy (Gweneth Paltrow). At this point in the movie, Mills and Somerset’s relationship is still very cold and they’ve been keeping their distance from each other. Tracy calls her husband at work (he’s asked her before not to do that) to invite Somerset over for a late supper at their apartment in order to “break the ice” and have the two men get to know each other outside of work.

The phone rings and we get a head-on shot of Mills as he picks up and leans back on his chair to answer.

David Fincher Film Analysis - Head on shot
Head on shot - Mills picking up the phone
David Fincher Film Analysis Head on shot - Mills talking on the phone
Head on shot - Mills talking on the phone

Once he realizes it’s his wife, he immediately leans forward in his chair and whispers on the phone so that Somerset can’t hear the conversation. This is when Fincher cuts to a profile shot of Mills, he’s definitely not comfortable with the situation.

David Fincher Film Analysis Profile Shot - Mills leans forward
Profile Shot - Mills leans forward

We can’t exactly hear what they’re saying, however Tracy asks to speak to Somerset. Mills embarrassingly hands the phone over to him. Both men are confused at this point.

David Fincher Film Analysis - Mills hands the phone over to Somerset
Mills hands the phone over to Somerset

Once Somerset begins to speak, we see him from a profile. He’s obviously uncertain and confused about the situation and the camera shot selection emphasizes this circumstance.

David Fincher Film Analysis Profile Shot - Somerset on the phone
Profile Shot - Somerset on the phone

As we can see from this cut away shot of Mills, he feels pretty trapped, embarrassed and insecure. The negative space, the closed surroundings and his expression says it all.

David Fincher Film Analysis - Cut away shot - Mills
Cut away shot - Mills

Somerset at first tries to refuse the offer and we stay on his profile shot, however she insists and makes him feel more confident about the invitation. As he warms up and accepts the offer, Somerset turns his shoulders towards the camera and we now get a head-on shot of him. He’s definitely not as insecure or confused anymore about the situation.

David Fincher Film Analysis Head on shot - Somerset accepts the invitation
Head on shot - Somerset accepts the invitation

Another great example is during the diner scene in Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic “Pulp Fiction”. Needless to say, studying Tarantino’s films is like taking a master class in visual storytelling.

In the scene, Vincent (John Travolta) and Mia (Uma Thurman) order their food, talk about her acting role in Fox Force Five, and he tastes the five-dollar milkshake she ordered. They’ve been chatting and getting along up until this point, and the head-on camera shots used emphasize this.

Tarantino Film Analysis Head on shot - Vincent
Head on shot - Vincent

Tarantino Film Analysis - Head on shot - Mia
Head on shot - Mia

All of a sudden they seem to have nothing else to chit-chat about, and a long uncomfortable silence takes place. And once again to emphasize this shift in mood, Tarantino shifts the camera angle selection to individual profile shots of the two.

Tarantino Film Analysis - Profile shot - Vincent
Profile shot - Vincent

Tarantino Film Analysis - Profile shot - Mia
Profile shot - Mia

She even spoon-feeds us this sudden change in mood when she breaks the silence, further reinforcing the change to a profile shot:

Mia: “Don’t you hate that?”

Vincent: “Hate what?”

Mia: “Uncomfortable silences”

Posted by Vitor Goncalves

Vitor Goncalves - Filmmaker Camera Operator Vienna
Vitor Goncalves

Vitor is a filmmaker, cameraman and editor based in Vienna, Austria. He is the owner of Reel Arts Media.

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