One of a filmmakers goals is to elicit emotional responses in audiences. To engage with them in a very personal way. Be this to excite, scare, bewilder or make question, whatever the story requires has to be achieved in each and every frame. This is a task that many relish, a task that despite being at times overwhelming creators can't help but engage with. However despite this predilection even generally successful directors and actors sometimes fail to match the emotion they, or the script writers, intend. So with such a difficult task given to them, what can filmmakers do to make their jobs easier and avoid being overwhelmed? Here we discuss just a couple of methods that can be employed to help bring your story to life and make your scenes count.
1. Consistency of Character. A character's emotional responses need to be consistent. If you have characters that bring a realistic and believable emotional palette to the story your audience will buy into it. Make your characters reactions appropriate to the trigger that leads to them reacting.
Let's look at a recent blockbuster film that fell short when setting up for a big character reaction. Doctor Strange (2016). Marvel have ventured into the realms of sorcery, and a key relationship in the film is between the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Karl, having been saved and trained by the Ancient One, trusts her and serves her loyally. He is aghast when his trust in her is broken. He feels betrayed and turns away from his path and onto a much darker one as seen in the post-credits scene. The major reversal in moral compass and apparent swing from good to evil comes across as a major over reaction due to the way the character has been presented throughout the film. There is little consistency between what we are shown and the reaction we are given. Karl is presented as loyal because he believes the Ancient One serves good, protects the natural order. He is shown to be in some ways a confidant and advisor to the Ancient One not just a subservient Master Sorcerer. You would expect the character to be deeply saddened, feel betrayed and question his loyalty to the order upon the revelation regarding the Ancient Ones misdeeds, but not to become a new evil and future antagonist.
2. Backgrounds in the Scene.
A mistake that can be seen time and time again is too much focus being put into the foreground; the action, the characters, that the background and set dressing is left to stagnate. Whilst you should in no way ignore or lose focus on your foreground action and presentation you can tell a lot about a story from what is in the scene. What is shown, not told. If you wish to suggest something, or set up a plot device for later use, you can easily signpost this with careful set dressing. You don't need to explicitly say it, or have extensive exposition to set anything up.
One good example of this is in the web series, LonelyGirl15 (2006). The story itself was initially presented as a video blogging girl, made to look like a real video blogger and presented as factual, not as a fiction piece. However the director deliberately placed items in the scene that gave clues to the larger plot. Posters relating to the occult for example, which, whilst being cryptic, gave the audience something to question and think about; another layer of intrigue and interest.
Lighting can make or break it for you. If you mess up with your lighting then chances are you are going to portray anything but the intended emotion. A key thing to remember is that your lighting doesn't always have to be 100% accurate to life, unless you are specifically going for that look. If you want to suggest a sinister nature in a character, then simply ensuring that there is no light in their eyes can be a good way to signpost this, especially if you need to find a subtle way to convey this without dialogue.
If you need to show beauty or mystery then looking back at 30's and 40's film Noir can provide a good study for how to light a character. You don't need to present an entirely Noir look to achieve your goals. Addams Family Values (1993) makes brilliant use of this when lighting Morticia, presenting her with a strip of light across her eyes and upper face with everything else being slightly darker. It presents an air of mystery and grace that adds to the character portrayal and thus the scene at large.
4. Shot Choice.
Your choice of shot is vital. You are deciding what the audience does and does not see, providing them with space, or sometimes a lack of it. This is where you can provide real emotional weight to a scene. The simple matter of choosing a wide or close shot may seem obvious but there is more to consider. Do you move the shot with a character, where is your primary focus, how do you layer what is in shot to achieve what you need in the frame?
There is a pre-disposition to think that a tighter shot is needed when the emotional impact of a scene needs to be focused on. However I would challenge this, and say that a wider shot can be used to convey emotion just as well as a close up, if used in the correct way with the correct scene.
Take the bicycle scene in Kramer Vs Kramer (1979). Billy (Justin Henry) is being taught to ride by his father Ted (Dustin Hoffman). The shot is generally quite wide, with Ted eventually falling into the background as Billy rides forward and the camera tracks back with him. This shows the audience a distance building between father and son, foreshadowing what is to come, and providing the emotional foundations by showing a father and son bonding. Another good example of emotion presented through a shot is the iconic club entrance scene in Goodfellas (1990). The scene itself is worthy of a much more in depth study, which many scholars have undertaken, but let us for the moment consider the shot and movement only. It seems simple enough on the surface; a steadicam shot (albeit a long one) that keeps Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his partner Karen (Lorraine Bracco) in mid-shot as they enter through the back entrance into the Copacabana nightclub. However this shot allows us to move through a labyrinth of corridors along with the couple, and be immersed into their world right along with the characters. The audience is shown Henry's power in the crime underworld and the influence he holds as if we are right there witnessing it first hand. The emotional power of taking your audience on the journey right alongside the character in this way is an invaluable tool. These are just a few ways to help frame emotion and display intent within your films, and is by no means an exhaustive list. Some may not be applicable to your specific scene and some might; the point here is to keep thinking. It is easy to slip into routine and in turn let the finished product feel routine and lackluster.