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How Camera Movement Makes Horror Terrifying

How Camera Movement Makes Horror Terrifying

There’s a slow, creeping, build-up of tension deep in your body. You know what you’re seeing isn’t real but the overwhelming terror becomes so strong that you can’t help but to look away, turn off the sound, or even walk out of the cinema. Everyone who has seen a horror movie knows this feeling. So how exactly are filmmakers able to leverage our own psychology against us and induce feelings of deep terror just by showing us a projection of 2D images in a cinema?

In this article, I’ll break down how camera movement and framing create scary images by going over the three stages of horror and analyzing some terrifying techniques used by cinematographers to create deep psychological dread.

How Camera Movement Makes Horror Terrifying

The Three Stages Of Horror

Horror films are a cinematic dance between cinematography and editing. Both have to align perfectly and support each other to produce terrifying visuals. Although it goes without saying that there are many different ways to approach creating a horror film, there are certain tropes that apply to most movies in the genre.

One trope is how they are structured. I’d break down this structure of horror into three parts: downtime, where there is no threat to the characters, build-up, where a sense of horror or anticipation of a threat grows, and finally, the scare.

This cycle of downtime, build up and scare usually happens numerous times throughout a film. Of these, downtime is clearly the least frightening. This time is needed as a pacing device for the audience to take a breath and compose themselves before the next onset of horror.

If a film is always scary it’ll either lose some of its impacts or become overly terrifying and unwatchable. I would argue that the scare, what you expect to be most frightening, is in fact not as truly terrifying as the build-up to the scare. A scare is like a plaster, if you rip it off quickly it’ll hurt but the pain will quickly be gone.

Peeling a plaster off slowly, gradually, bit by bit, until you’re begging for the director to just yank it off quickly is far worse. This is the build-up. True horror. So let’s go over some cinematic techniques used in the build-up which create a terrifying effect.

1. POV Push In

Classic trope involves cutting between a character and their point of view (or POV), usually as they are approaching a threat which will lead to a scare. To inject this moment with maximum anxiety and anticipation a slow push in, or moving forward of the camera, is used to mimic the feeling of someone moving closer.

In Shutter, this very stable push-in is accomplished by using a dolly, which is set up on tracks and then pushed slowly by a grip during a take.

The low to the ground push used to show the ominous light under the door could’ve been done different ways, such as with a job arm or underslung on a slider, but the most common method is to first ‘break the neck’ of the dolly, attach an extension bracket to frame out the tracks, and then using an underslung head, such as a Cartoni Lambda head, which allows the camera to be operated inches off the ground. In It Follows, the POV push-in is used often.

2. Open Space

This technique leverages a base, psychological human fear. We feel safe when we are protected by a physical barrier. This is one of the reasons people often position their beds, sometimes subconsciously, so that their back is against the wall and they are facing the doorway.

From this position, we are able to see and deal with an oncoming threat. The Invisible Man takes this fear and translates it visually by using empty space. The camera slowly pans and dollies around the empty space in the house before finally settling on our character.

Again, smooth camera motion is used. Although some horror films use rapid, handheld camera work successfully in the build-up, I feel this style excels more during quick scares. Smooth movement is usually a more reliable method of gradually ramping up tension during the build-up.

The slow movement of the camera paired with the empty space in this scene introduces a feeling of vulnerability like an attack could come from anywhere. It Follows also uses this technique in its opening shot where a wide frame pans around a suburban neighborhood creating a sense of invisible danger. The film also uses background action in frames to build in a feeling of vulnerability.

3. The Unseen Threat

It may seem counterintuitive but sometimes cutting to a shot without any threat in it can be terrifying. What we can’t see is scarier than what we can. Building up a scene with off-screen sound design such as the scene from The Wailing and then staying on our main protagonist is fear-inducing. The character reacts to the threat but we, the audience, are unable to see what is being reacted too.

The camera remains still, on a tripod, and objective. Unlike the POV push-in technique where we cut back and forth between the perspective of the character and their point of view, in The Wailing director Na Hong-jin often holds off on cutting to a POV scare shot until the last minute, building up tension before the cut.

Us uses this idea too but in a different way. Director Jordan Peele frames the threat in the same shot as the character but blocks the character so they are prolonged from seeing it. They use a stable but more reactive camera, operated on a fluid head from a dolly, following the motion of the character.

Just as in The Wailing we, the audience, are begging for Na to cut to the POV shot of the threat, in Us we desperately want the character to turn around. Both use this idea of the unseen threat to slowly build up more tension before the moment of the scare. The Invisible Man takes this a step further and literally creates a threat that we are unable to see.

For a fight scene with an invisible enemy, DP Stefan Duscio employed motion control. A motion control rig, such as a Bolt, is a robotic arm on a track that can move the camera smoothly on any axis. Software is used to track and program a specific move at a specific speed, which the rig can then replicate as many times as necessary, frame for the frame so that each move is exactly the same.

This allowed the filmmakers to shoot one take with a man in a green suit attacking our character. Once they’d got the shot they ran the same move again without actors to get a plate shot which was identical.

In post-production, it was then easy to mask out the man in the green suit and replace the background he blocks with the plate shot. The effect is a realistic feeling fight scene, where the character’s performance and interaction with the invisible foe feel real.

Last words

These three techniques form the basis for just some of the creative camera movements which can be used in horror films to amplify tension and terror during the build-up. Camera movement may serve as an important base for horror cinematography but it’s important to note that it’s just one element. It takes a combination of lighting, performance, VFX, make-up, production design, music, editing, and many more elements to build up a high level of visual tension.

To truly manipulate the audience’s emotions, filmmakers need to add just the right touch to each of these carefully measured ingredients to achieve a deep, unsettling build-up to a scare. I’d be interested to hear other techniques you’ve found effective in horror films in the comments. 

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