Observational tension is a tool of the storyteller, more often felt than discussed. Its subtle power renders a disquieting tone that invites audience emotion to enter the scene. The tension of a shot that lingers on a subject after the dialogue or apparent action has ended can deliver extraordinary poignancy. It does not work in this way automatically, it requires the right moment in a story, perhaps during an emotional dialogue, or monologue or action during which a character is wrapped in a physical experience.
Observation is part of the idea at work. It can be the observation of the character, akin to documentary, where the camera is objective to the scene, a bit removed from the action. But observational tension can also exist in the subjective as we are inside the scene and with the characters, we can then relate to their objective observation within the story. We are with them.
Experienced directors and cinematographers, actors and editors will look for and create moments to put the tension of observation to work in service of the story. Being attuned to these moments in the creation of a script, filming a scene, a documentary as it unfolds, and in the edit is an essential skill.
These moments of tension, of observation, can be as simple as the slow unfolding of ripples from a pebble dropped into a still pond, the uncomfortable silence between two characters, an expansive view of a prairie, or the lingering, insecure glance of a lover. Allowing a few extra beats on these types moments accentuate the tension of the observation.
The internal tension of these scenes is enhanced, by the intention of what comes before, as well as what comes after. It is the juxtaposition of image and emotion, scene-to-scene, shot-to-shot, beat-to-beat that gives the observational moment the additional tension that amplifies its emotive power. It moves the story along.
A subjective view of a brash, young driver inside a speeding car racing and swerving through crowded streets. Followed by a scene of an old man, walking very slowly across the road, approaching a step up a curb, the camera stays fixed on the old man as the car flashes by obscuring our view of the old man, only to have him emerge once again unscathed. The camera lingering on him for a few extra beats as he wobbles a bit, amplifying the frailty of our existence. The car roars off into the distance.
Observational tension or the tension of observation, no matter how you look at it, it’s a perspective worthy of attention.