There are a variety of different ways to build tension in a film. Learn how to properly introduce sound and visuals to an audience and you’ll have tight control over their attention. Let’s take a look at four techniques in particular from Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film Babadook that will keep viewers in anticipation of what’s coming next.
A perfect introduction to the world of suspense, the film focuses on Amelia, a widow struggling to raise her unruly six-year-old son, Samuel. Grappling with grief, insomnia, and depression, Amelia is only further distressed when Samuel begins to complain of a monster hiding in his room. When a sinister children's book mysteriously shows up on Samuel’s bookshelf, however, Amelia begins to question her own sanity. The first hour of the Babadook succeeds at slowly building tension through a variety of different methods. Let's take a closer look at these methods.
1. Sound Design
A simple and subtle way to build tension is through the sound design. When Amelia and Samuel first discover the sinister Mister Babadook book in Samuel’s room, the film ratchets up the tension with sound.
This particular sequence is just under two minutes in length and starts off in an innocent tone. When Amelia begins to read the book, it’s rather playful for Samuel. By the third page, Amelia begins to notice that something is wrong. At this point, you can hear a soft droning noise slowly fade into the background. The noise slowly increases in volume as the artwork and text become more menacing. When Amelia quickly closes the book, the noise stops.
The droning noise fades back into the background immediately after she opens the book to start reading again. Once Amelia realizes the menacing nature of the book, new layers of discordant sounds are introduced and increased in volume. The scene climaxes with a death threat from the Babadook. The sound design serves the pacing of the film very well.
2. Camera Movement
One of the main themes of the Babadook is Don’t Let It In. We first see it in the threatening text of the Mister Babadook book. Then later we hear Samuel screaming it to Amelia, terrified that the Babadook is going to take his mother. One shot in the film, in particular, encapsulates this message.
The shot takes place at roughly fifteen minutes into the film. It’s one single take, a slow dolly in toward our protagonist as she calmly reads a book in bed. While Amelia is focusing on her book, the camera slowly moves toward her. When something catches her attention she quickly looks toward the camera, and the move immediately stops. This happens twice in one shot.
The shot gives us the feeling that something is stalking her. We don’t yet know exactly what that is, and neither does Amelia, but clearly, something is trying to get in. At this particular point in the film, Amelia is confused with Samuel’s warnings and visions, along with the mysterious book. She obviously doesn’t believe in monsters, but she can’t explain these bizarre occurrences, and she’s beginning to question everything.
Here, the movement of the camera perfectly communicates this situation, once again ratcheting up the tension.
3. Framing & Composition
In addition to the camera movement and sound design, both the framing and composition play a large role in creating tension. For the first hour of the film, we watch as Amelia struggles with loneliness, insomnia, grief, and the challenges of handling a disobedient child who’s seeing monsters. The cinematography brilliantly reflects this state of isolation.
In one sequence Amelia decides to take the afternoon off from work to go to the mall and relax. The scene is like a dream, as almost all of the shots are captured in slow motion via blurred reflections. When she gets into her car to leave the mall, we see her in a two-shot, with the empty passenger seat clearly in view. Then we have a cutaway of her looking at a loving couple in another car.
Even when she is in the company of other people, the framing always gives a very isolating and negative feel for Amelia. At one point she’s talking to two teachers at Samuel’s school. In the shot of the teachers, we are looking up at them, both in frame together. Their body language is negative as they scold Amelia for Samuel’s misbehaviors. The reverse shot looks down on Amelia, alone in the frame. One reverse shot even includes the teachers surrounding Amelia, with her lower in the frame.
We can also see Amelia’s isolation when she interacts with her sister Claire. In yet another scene with Claire and her friends, Amelia is again positioned alone in the frame during a dialogue scene, with the rest of the women huddled together in one wide shot. And again, they are positioned above her, condescendingly talking down to her.
All of these scenes help add to the emotional tension of the film.
4. Reaction Shots
When it comes to horror, it’s often what we can’t see that is truly horrifying. The Babadook plays with this technique well, using Samuel as a window into the monstrous world of the Babadook. Through various reaction shots of Samuel, we are made aware of the Babadook's apparent presence.
Throughout the first half of the film, Samuel claims that something is after him. Amelia nor the audience can see what it is, and this contributes to Amelia becoming increasing emotionally unhinged. Even when Samuel is alone in his room, the audience can’t see what’s he sees. Tension is built via his reactions in conjunction with the absence of a clear visual of any creature.
The most notable instance of this is the scene inside the car. Amelia finally reaches a breaking point with Samuel’s disobedience, and she pulls over the car to yell at him. During the fight, Samuel begins to yell at something in the back seat, just next to him. Amelia looks but sees nothing. This classic reaction shot can quickly build suspense.
As you can see, through sound design, camera movement, composition, and reaction shots, a filmmaker can quickly increase tension on screen. This tension will keep your audience glued to the screen, giving them a greater appreciation when/if the payoff comes.