Dynamic contrast – Camera moves

Since the beginning of our exploration of image contrast in storytelling, we have only considered still images. But moving the camera can change composition and let light sources into the frame, increasing image contrast and therefore tension. Let’s see how a camera move can build up contrast in a shot.


Let there be light

In Reservoir Dogs (Q. Tarantino, 1992), the camera circles around and towards Mr. Orange to let a strong red light enter the frame and contrast with the dark environment at the back of his head. This is when he is trying to convince the teem of crooks he wants to infiltrate that he is tough enough to be part of their next heist. He has to be convincing, his life is at stake. The contrasting red light entering the frame conveys his increasing tension to the audience.

In The Lost World – Jurassic Park (S. Spielberg, 1997), Hammond tells Malcolm he has already sent his paleontological behavior specialist and former girlfriend Sarah as a scout on Site B ahead of her crew. Hammond’s revelations are supported by a circular camera move around him, briefly intercut with a shot of Malcom’s reaction. The latter’s tension is conveyed by a ceiling light — an allegory for his alarmed thoughts (read more in Adding contrast – Hidden messages) — and strong vertical light from the background. But Hammond’s attitude is increasingly offensive, so the shot starts with a moderate reflection on the headboard and ends including a dazzling window behind him. With such contrast, no need for the audience to listen to his words to feel their threatening content.

In Jurassic Park (S. Spielberg, 1993), Nedry shuts off power to allow him access to dinosaur embryos, and in doing so, enables the animals in captivity to roam freely on the island. In the following excerpt, the camera moves around the cold storage room to show Nedry stealing embryos. The containers have been designed to emit light when open, and the room to be dark enough to maximize contrast so that the audience is dazzled each time Nedry opens one of them. A child may not understand the plot, but he would know this guy is doing something bad or dangerous, thanks to increasing contrast. The camera stops at a desk lamp oriented towards the camera to add even more contrast to the shot (read more in Adding contrast – Visible light sources).


What’s up?

Moving the camera around a character can raise tension by revealing concealed light sources, dynamically adding contrast to the shot.


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