Uploaded to MoviePilot on July 18th 2017

Recently, I had the joy of seeing the 2016 hit film Don’t Breathe. While I may be a year late to the party, the film was everything that’d been promised and more — a compelling villain, a great ensemble cast and an almost constant feeling of tension. It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking with a truly compelling story. It also has, without a doubt, the most amazing scene filmed in complete darkness that I’ve seen in a long time.

When it comes to scenes that take place in darkness, there are several tricks to avoid a black screen. When it comes to cinematography, I can’t imagine there’s anything harder than shooting in the dark. For starters, lighting on a film set is a tricky thing. In order to make something appear visible on camera you have to blast it with powerful light. When you see a scene appearing to be in total blackness, chances are that there’s a substantial amount of light on the set. Let’s talk about how movies have previously attempted to pull off a “total darkness” scene and how it worked.

The Silence Of The Lambs

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Arguably one of the most memorable scenes to take place in a completely dark room is one of the final scenes from the 1991 film The Silence Of The Lambs. In this scene, Clarice Starling has stumbled into the home of Buffalo Bill and is trying to find him. As she is looking for Bill, he cuts the power leaving her in the dark, trying to figure out where her target is. The scene actually pulls a fairly neat trick by cutting from the shot of Clarice seen through night vision goggles to a shot of Bill.

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The shot of Buffalo Bill lets the viewer see how dark the room is, cluing the audience to the fact that Clarice can’t see anything. The problem with this shot, however, is that Bill himself seems fairly well lit, to the point where the lower half of his face is cast in shadow. Since we’re in his basement, this tells us that there is a light source nearby, and lingering on this shot for too long would force audiences to wonder how Clarice didn’t spot him right away when he was mere inches from her face.

The scene is shot so the majority of the time we looking at Clarice through the night vision goggles. Here, Bill is using the Image Enhancement kind of night vision, which gives everything a green look. This Image Enhancement night vision makes shooting the scenes with Clarice easy, as all filmmakers have to do is put a green filter over the footage. However, sometimes filmmakers want to throw characters in a cave with as little light as possible. How would that look?

The Descent

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The Descent is very clever in how it creates the feeling of being lost in the dark. For the majority of the movie, our main characters are trapped in a series of dark caves with headlamps as the only available light sources. Throughout the film, there are sequences where the light sources may be a very different colour than the headlamps. In general, the film is actually fairly well lit, and in some sequences, you can see everything.

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This contrast is what makes the sequences in almost total darkness so effective. Often, you don’t need to keep the scene in total darkness for too long. The longer the main characters are stuck in the caves, the more their eyes adjust to the lack of light, and so the movie gets progressively brighter and brighter. The audience doesn’t notice the change because their eyes also adjust. The pitch-black darkness is used sparingly for effect, including possibly the most beautiful shot of the movie, which uses a limited light source as a great illusion (see below).

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Don’t Breathe

For the majority of Don’t Breathe we’re in a fairly well-lit house; the light from outside gives everything a bit of a glow, and it’s easy for everyone (except The Blind Man) to see. This changes when the characters end up in the basement and The Blind Man kills the power, engulfing the characters in blinding darkness.

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This scene uses similar effects from both The Silence Of The Lambs and The Descent. Everything audiences need to see, we can see. We’re not left in total darkness, we have all the information we need, but we’re seeing only actual light. Notice how the image seems to get progressively darker the further back into the room you look? The film is restricting your field of view, something used to great effect in one particular shot.

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It’s very hard to pull off a slow vanish on camera that doesn’t look cheesy, but this shot is a very clever way of showing the audience just how close the characters have to be to see each other. In one slow tracking shot, we understand the characters’ poor vision in this environment, which means every shot from then on could potentially hide The Blind Man. It informs us of the danger in one quick shot that dramatically racks up the tension.

The film also pulls off another clever effect that is rarely achieved in other films. Whenever The Blind Man hears someone moving, he fires his gun in an attempt to hit them. Normally, the frame might look like the one below:

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However, after firing the gun, the sudden shock of light brings colour back into the world for one frame.

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This single frame of film is the second little touch that gives this scene a sense of realism that pushes it over the edge. That feeling of being able to see everything for an instant is perfectly recreated on film. It is the ideal combination of tension building, creative framing and innovative use of lighting that sets this scene above others of its kind. It gives the audience all the information that they need without giving someone night vision or turning on a random red light.

Night Night

While a lot of movies might utilize a black screen with a few sound effects, visual effects like the ones we’ve looked at are always going to be more interesting ways to show darkness. While many films may rely on the effects used in The Silence of the Lambs, I hope more will try something like Don’t Breathe and create a stylized version of reality that maintains the feeling of being trapped in the dark that we so rarely see done well in cinema.
What other scenes of characters trapped in the dark do you think match the imagery in Don’t Breathe?

One thought on “‘Don’t Breathe’: The Art Of Filming In The Dark

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