"Where Do You Put The Camera?" Or, How To Make A Horror Film Scary

I was sent this video, a taster of the supplements on the DVD and Blu-ray of The Conjuring.


Well, that's a great start. The last comment by James Wan there, about a camera that follows a character and mirrors their subjective point of view, is one of countless techniques a horror film director might employ.

Perhaps even more interesting was this, from Rob Cowan, the producer:

It's more about where do you put the camera, how do you frame it, how do you use empty spaces to build suspense.

That's not only the general question about horror films and suspense pictures but, really, any film. Or at least one of the general questions. One of the key ones, I'd say, alongside "When do you cut and what do you cut to?"

Though that, to be honest, is even more open and complex and is, really, any number of separate questions disguised as one.

I have a copy of The Conjuring here on Blu-ray, and after seeing the above comments, I decided to stick it in the player and have a good look through, hunting down examples of good choices on Wan's part.

And broadly speaking (though don't get me started on the shots where the image ends up inverted after the camera arcs head over heels) Wan seems interested in two ideas with his camera placement.

One is holding back information so that the audience get it at the same time as the characters. That was essentially what he was talking about above.

But arguably more fundamental to this particular film is the exact opposite: it's when we're looking somewhere the characters aren't.

If you've seen the film, or even its trailers, you may recall a sequence in which the characters play a game with a blindfold and a ghost decides to join in.

This sequence generates suspense by showing us the ghost while the characters don't see it. It's dramatic irony, plain and simple.

And then, not too far away from this, are the scenes where we're looking over a character's shoulder at the space behind them, often at an "empty" area of frame in which we'll anticipating something to appear.

Sometimes this "thing" does appear, sometimes it doesn't, but it's the visual availability of that space – and the threat of seeing something malevolent appear in it before the characters are aware of it, thereby ensuring that they appear particularly prone – that makes these sequences work.

Overall, The Conjuring scares people so efficiently because there's a combination of all of the above, all mixed up. As the requirements of the narrative shift and the different possibilities open up, Wan makes choices with his camera that make sure tension is being generated, being suspended or being released.

I think he does a great job. The pattern of the script is a strong one too, sequencing the suspense and release brilliantly, and giving him a strong recipe to follow. It's safe to say that The Conjuring is Wan's most accomplished film yet and one that's left me very keen to sit down and have a chat with him about all of these techniques.

The Conjuring is available now on DVD and Blu-ray in both the US and the UK and I really do recommend it.