Forced Perspective: Add Comedic Magic to Your Day

forced perspectivePerhaps one of the world’s most exciting and entertaining tools, forced perspective brings giants to life, allows us to hold the Leaning Tower of Pisa with one hand, and creates the illusion of architectural space. Forced perspective can add comedic magic to our everyday experience, and can offer a new appreciation for photography, sleight of hand tricks, and optical illusion.

Used historically in art and architecture, and more recently in film and photography, forced perspective is a method that utilizes the manipulation of objects within an image to create the illusion that an object is larger or smaller that it actually appears. The technique is best represented in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy to show the dramatic height differences between the different groups of characters. The technique allows the Hobbits to remain tiny when compared to the elves and giants, despite the fact that the actors employed are of relatively similar human size. Artists and architects including Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty and Michelangelo’s David used forced perspective to give the viewer a sense of proportional accuracy when viewing these sculptures from a single vantage point. Both statues’ upper proportions are larger when seen head-on because the view from the ground would visually minimize their upper halves. Forced perspective can be used through a standard camera or cell phone. To learn more, check out Chet Davis’ iPhone Photography Secrets.

When is Forced Perspective Used?

As mentioned above, forced perspective is best represented in photography, film, and architecture, and some of the best examples of the technique can be found in the Statue of Liberty and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy. But where else is forced perspective used?

  • Architecture

Queluz National Palace in South Central Portugal was built in the 18th century for Dom Pedro of Braganza. An excellent example of the overtly decorative and flowery architecture of the Rococo period, Queluz National Palace was designed by the architect Mateus Vicente de Oliveira and employs the use of forced perspective in its west wing steps. The steps were designed to create the illusion of a higher and longer space, and gradually reach a divide where they split, which further contributes to the impression that the steps (and in turn, the building itself) are taller and grander than in reality. For more information on the history of the Rococo period and its place within the historical canon of art and architectural history, look into Professor Kenney Mencher’s Art History Prehistory to the Renaissance.

  • Comedy and Film

Often used to create hilarious travel photos (a quick online image search yields: a tiny woman standing on a soda bottle, a giant man preparing to swallow a cloud whole, and a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing down a small crowd) forced perspective isn’t simply a film trick. Used to create fantasy elements in film, like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, forced perspective has also been used to offer comic relief.

One of the 1990’s best sketch comedy television programs, The Kids in the Hall, utilizes forced perspective in the character Headcrusher. The depressive and unhappy character frequently squints his eyes and places his thumb and forefinger in front of his face while simultaneously searching for an innocent (pretend) “victim.” The target’s head is then placed between Headcrusher’s thumb and forefinger, thus creating the illusion that the person’s head is about to be crushed. The skit utilizes forced perspective to create a hilarious take on a silly and amusing activity, and provides an excellent example of how the technique is used for comedic purposes. If you’re interested in stand up comedy and learning more about the entertainment business, check out Philippe Schafer’s Ultimate Beginner’s Class to Learn Stand Up Comedy.

Forced perspective was also used in the comedic film “Elf” to show that Buddy the Elf wasn’t an elf but was instead (spoiler alert!) a human. Standing next to Bob Newhart’s character (Papa Elf), Will Ferrell appears gigantic. If you’re interested in learning more of these and other filmmaking techniques, look into Dave Basulto’s Film School on Demand- How to Make and Sell Your First Movie.

Create Your Own Forced Perspective Image

The possibilities of creating a forced perspective image are vast and amusing. To create your own forced perspective image, you’ll need a digital camera (or cell phone with a camera) a friend (or a tripod to affix your camera to so you can act as your subject), and open space with lots of faraway and close up objects.

  • Step 1

First, choose your object. Find a puffy cloud that sits low on the horizon, or a mountaintop that isn’t too distant. Consider slow-moving boats along the surface of the water, people along the beach, or your favorite local landmark.

  • Step 2

Position your friend (or yourself) in a way that he or she may easily access the mountain, boat, or landmark. Think about how he or she could humorously interact with the subject. If you choose to take the photograph alone, you might have to snap a few to get the positioning correct. Have your friend place his or her finger on the top of the mountain, or open his or her mouth so that a passing cloud appears as though it will soon be swallowed. The possibilities for creating a hilarious and entertaining photograph are endless.

  • Step 3

Once you’ve snapped your photo, you’ll better understand the technique of creating a forced perspective image. Think about playing with scale and incorporating tiny objects to make them appear small. Matchbox cars and plastic figurines make great props for playing with forced perspective imagery.

Whether you’re interested in optical illusions and film tricks, or you just want to amuse your family and friends, forced perspective can be a fun and interesting tool for photographers, filmmakers, and artists. To better understand photography basics and incorporate forced perspective into your everyday photography practice, head to Larry J. Foster’s popular course The Fundamentals of Photography, and learn how you can become an adept and better skilled photographer.