When the camera peers at the characters from behind a tree

Movies and TV shows often show us a view of the main characters through a window (say, looking through a window into a lighted living room from a dark outdoors), or from behind a tree, or otherwise at a little bit of distance. And frequently, when I see such a shot, I interpret it as meaning that (within the fictional world) someone is watching through the window or from behind the tree. But most of the time in the kinds of movies and shows that I watch, that turns out not to be what’s going on.

So I’m curious about what in particular leads me to that false impression, and whether others have the same reaction.

I poked around online to see if I could find out more about this, and found a couple of useful resources:

  • A section from Cinematography: Theory and Practice, by Blain Brown, talking about subjective POV (where the camera is showing what a character would see) vs objective POV. So I think one way to describe the phenomenon I’m talking about is that the filmmaker intended the shot to be objective POV but I’m reading it as being subjective POV from an unknown-as-yet character.
  • Killer POV: First-Person Camera and Sympathetic Identification in Modern Horror,” by Adam Charles Hart, talking (specifically in the context of horror movies) about “Killer POV—a subjective camera without a reverse shot,” and noting that “Killer POV signals to the viewer the presence of a threat without displaying the monster/killer/bearer of the look onscreen.”

But I kinda think there’s something further going on in the kinds of shots I’m talking about: I think maybe they tend to call attention to the camera placement (for me, anyway) by including partially-obscuring physical elements (like the window or the tree) between the camera and the characters being shown. So I think that some part of my mind pattern-matches with where I’ve seen that kind of shot before, and comes to ominous conclusions: if the camera is viewing from behind an obstacle, that’s the same kind of shot that’s used to indicate that a person is observing while hiding behind that obstacle.

So now I’m wondering about what leads filmmakers to use that kind of shot when they don’t intend it to be subjective. What is it meant to signify when an objective-POV camera is observing from partial concealment?

(…I suppose it’s not only partial concealment that misleads me this way. For example, moving shakycam shots can also feel to me more subjective than I think they’re sometimes intended to be.)

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