Building Tension in Film

One of the things we wanted to look at for our chain of happening in our animation was the build up of tension in movies- leading to the reveal of the monster or creature responsible. I found this article, using it as a basis as my research, then looking to add more to it.

One of the main examples we looked in this instance was Jurassic Park (1993). We looked at the initial T-Rex reveal scene. A series of events lead up to its appearance, starting with the ripples in a glass of water. This allows us to see that something is considerable size is shaking the earth, combined with the booming sound as it gets closer to the gate. The reconnection of the line “what happened to the goat” ties in with the idea the T-Rex would eat the animal, the jump coming as it’s leg lands on the windscreen. It is only then that we see the dinosaur, after understanding it is of significant size and power and is capable of killing.

The initial T-Rex Reveal scene. (YouTube, 2016).

I wanted to explore what other technique we could incorporate into our scene to how a build up in the tension- other than just having faster light movement etc.

Allowing breathing room for viewers

One of the things advised was to not use quick edits and fast pacing- this encourages a false sense of build up. For real suspenseful editing, allow extra on screen time for characters, creating a slow, methodical pace, giving rise to extreme close ups. The longer the hold on the event- the more anxious the audience will feel.

Time the Reveal

Suspense is based on the anticipation that something is building up to, and how the story unfolds as it reaches this point. Allowing the cuts to build to the reveal without being too hasty is a great technique- shown in The Dark Knight (2008) in the reveal of two face. The music also adds in this role- as Harvey Dent reveals his new face.

Harvey Dent’s new face. (YouTube, 2016).

Mixing Lens Choices

Using the visual field in film to create suspense is a crucial technique. How much depth you place in your image is important, especially when your suspense is built around an environment. Try utilizing different lens types in your scene to help build the tension. As you transition from a wide angle 24mm to a 50mm, the difference will cause your audience to pay closer attention while giving them important surrounding detail. Or if you really want to throw them off, try going from a super wide 16mm to a shallow 85mm. The difference could help your audience stay connected longer.

This technique is shown in the clip below from Psycho (1960). The shots start wide, following the character enter the house, as an onlooker. This continues as we see a bird eye view of the mother walk to him, with a knife in hand. We are then put into the POV of the mother, having slashed Arbogast, letting him fall down the stairs, remaining in more close angles, adding to that sense of confusion and death as he falls.

Arbogast and Mother. (YouTube, 2016).

Pull Back Reveal

Slowly pulling back the camera, allowing for a bigger picture to be revealed. This is great when wanting to tease the audience by prolonging the reveal until the perfect moment.

A Clockwork Orange intro sequence has this exact method. Pausing to show the men’s face, before moving out more- revealing a weird room with women as tables.

A Clockwork Orange opening shot. (YouTube, 2016).

Long Tracking Shot

A staple for filmmakers, the tracking shot is great for any form of storytelling. As your scene progresses, the lack of cutting could create a more realistic feeling for your audience and the constant motion of the long take will engage your audience in a way that quick cuts may not.

One of the examples shown to me recently was that from Birdman (2014). The pan is unlike most superhero films- either following the characters flight from above, as a POV, or just focusing in on their face. However, watching Birdman fly gives a weird sense of unease here, as it something isn’t quite right.

Birdman flight scene. (YouTube, 2016).

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