One of the first things you should do when you’re starting a new project is figure out the point-of-view (POV) you’re going to use, both visually and tonally. Different POVs have vastly different looks and meanings and can invoke different emotions from the audience, so it’s important to be able to distinguish between them for maximum effect on your viewers.
Some of it may come naturally — you may already know that there’s no omniscient narrator or entity who’s telling/observing the story, for example. Or you may know that your character is going to have a group of people looking him in the eye as he faints. Or you may want to have a character with a running inner dialogue. Either way, these scenarios can all be told with different points-of-view. Here are the POVs that are typically used in videos and films.
The first-person shot (aka “POV” shot — I know that’s confusing) is when we see everything subjectively from a character’s perspective. It’s usually from the main character’s perspective, but it can used for other characters as well (though it’s rare). It gives viewers a sense of what it’s like to see what that character sees. The other characters look directly into the camera, the camera pans and moves to see what’s going on, enhancing the viewing experience and making us feel like we are a part of the story.
There aren’t many full-length movies entirely shot in this perspective, mostly because it forces a limited scope of the world — you can only see so much without being able to cut away to another perspective. It’s also partly because it’s not as easy to have an emotional connection to the main characters if you can’t see them. Additionally, you have to be creative with your edits if you’ve got everything happening all from one single perspective.
This is still a “POV” shot, so the camera positioning and perspective is the same as above, but in this case, our first-person perspective is coming from someone other than the main character. It’s not a super common shot that you see used in films, because it can be strange for viewers to be in the eyes of a supporting character. That said, it can work well when it’s used in a certain genre.
That’s right, a lot of horror movies use this perspective. We see the main character or subject from the killer’s perspective and observe their actions from afar. The benefit to this is that, as a filmmaker, you can make the audience feel the vulnerability of the protagonist while also implying the feelings of the killer. An added bonus is that you can push the story forward or throw in some exposition within this perspective without it being super obvious.
The second-person shot is also known as the fourth-wall break. It’s not a “POV” shot like above because the camera isn’t taking a character’s perspective; instead, it’s from the audience’s perspective. The character addresses the audience directly, and the camera is pointed right at him or her, creating a relationship that may or may not last throughout the entire piece. Fourth-wall breaks can be incredibly fun and can make the viewer feel like they’re a part of the story. It really can break the illusion of the world of the movie, however, so be sure to use it only when/if the situation calls for it.
A third-person perspective is the most common one that you’ll see. It’s a point-of-view that puts the camera on the outside looking in, watching the story unfold without anyone acknowledging its existence or presence in the world of the movie. There are a few different distinctions that fall under this perspective, actually.
The limited third-person point-of-view is usually the more common of the third-person perspectives used. It shows us the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of one or several character(s). Wide shots of people talking or interacting, over-the-shoulder shots between characters, and more are examples of limited third-person perspective.
When an all-seeing, all-knowing entity or narrator enters story and conveys that to the audience, whether it’s with narration or through flashbacks or dream sequences, the perspective becomes omniscient. Typically, a narrator will be the one giving all the details of everyone and everything in the world of the movie in this point-of-view. As far as the camera’s position, it can be tough to distinguish as omniscient (as opposed to limited) without some sort of visual representation of getting into a character’s head with VFX.
You can mix and match all these different perspectives in your work however you like, even within the same scene. The quid pro quo scene from The Silence of the Lambs (directed by Jonathan Demme) is a great example of this.
And if you aren’t sure which point-of-view you want to use, you can always experiment with different camera angles and shot types to see what works best for your story.
Explore some of the most compelling POV footage from Pond5 in this special curated collection: