Image contrast is crisis

Adding bright areas in an otherwise dark environment adds tension to the scene. More than tension, it adds a feeling of crisis, of a concentration of tension. The audience is forced to squint — well at least to contract their pupils — to deal with the difference in lighting. In return, they cast the physical tension they feel to whatever is on the screen. The more contrast in brightness, the more important the reaction. This effect is ubiquitous in movies, you’ll find it everywhere. It’s powerful, easy to implement, and makes for beautiful pictures.


Contrast adds tension

Here are two screenshots from Gladiator (R. Scott, 2000). In the first one, Lucilla discovers that her son is being manipulated by her brother and emperor Commodus, and has probably been betrayed. She is now in danger and so is her son. The low-key ambiance indicates that death is looming but the growing emergency of the situation is suggested by the mild contrasted areas.

A few minutes later, Commodus threatens Lucilla. This time, the contrast is heightened. Commodus is out of his mind and is thinking of killing Lucilla and her son.

“And as for you, you will love me as I have loved you.”


Contrast is emphasis

The word crisis, as I use it, doesn’t mean that the situation is good or bad. It means that tension is magnified. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981), when Indiana Jones is about to discover the tomb where the ark has been buried, his brain is literally on fire. The contrasting disc of sunlight by his face tells us a great deal about his state of mind. In this case, it’s a positive crisis.

Conversely, this very effect can make for a negative crisis, as shown in the most violent scene in Scarface (B. De Palma, 1983), where Angel is going to have a hard time in the bathroom. In that case, the contrast in brightness emphasizes his fear.


What’s up?

In low-key scenes, image contrast goes a long way towards conveying tension in it’s most concentrated form. Whenever you need a feeling of crisis, positive of negative, think image contrast.


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