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Buildup in Movie Making Explained

Nov 22, 2007
Once you have mastered the basics of the structure of the sequence, the mechanics of smoothness, coherence, and camera logic you are ready for something that relies on your "feel" for motion pictures, on that intuitive extra something that can set your work apart.

We have studied pictorial continuity in terms of achieving smooth, coherent action. Now let us apply it to get good story coverage, to create audience interest, to inject variety and color into the trite and ordinary. Buildup is what does this. It puts the frosting on the movie cake.

Buildup cannot be contained in a rigid definition, but it may be broadly defined as the use of incidental shots or sequences which are subordinate to the main action but round out a story by giving it meaning, clarity, suspense and excitement. Although such shots are but modifiers of the main action, they are truly indispensable to complete coverage.

That's quite a chunk of definition. Let's look at it in picture terms: a movie of a garden party.

Your main action is simple and clear and breaks up easily into sequences. Your first sequence establishes the locale - the back lawn, with its grass, flowers, summer furniture. People come into the scene. They are greeted, served refreshments, introduced to others. You make special sequences of the punch being served, of guests consuming sandwiches, of someone playing a musical instrument, of card games, the award of prizes, and finally, of the party breaking up.

You now have a simple story containing most of the action common to all garden parties. You are going to introduce buildup to round it out, pep it up. You will seek out revealing, colorful details, shoot lots of close-ups.

In your opening sequence you make sure that you get shots which emphasize the gala nature of the event and the fact that it is a bright, sunshiny day. If there are flags or streamers, you take shots of them snapping in the breeze. Guests come and go.

Instead of shooting the arrival of each guest, you make a series of buildup inserts of Mother's hand (recognizable by its distinctive dress-sleeve and ring) shaking a variety of hands, easily identifiable as male, female, or child. This series of buildup shots suggests a number and variety of guests, saves film, and gives a new slant to the prosaic, everyday business of shaking hands. When courtly Uncle Hal kisses Mother's hand, you get a novel shot: Mother's hand is already in the view-finder; in comes Uncle Hal's to grasp it, followed by his face as he puts his lips to her fingers.

In the refreshments sequence, you take pains to get full-frame close-ups of the punch being poured; then as a tray is passed and the glasses are removed from it one by one, you follow a particular glass with the camera, show it traveling up to a guests mouth, being tipped over and emptied, and close with the satisfied expression of the drinker.

As for the musical sequence, a typical buildup would be shots of a player's hands as they thrum the ukulele strings or press the keys of an accordion.

This description of garden party buildup shots touches only the highlights, the more obvious examples of the buildup material contained in a familiar story. Most of your movies will he equally familiar ones: activities of family and friends in their homes, in the garden, on the tennis court, on picnics, at the beach.

All such subjects are commonplace, but the cameraman who learns to use buildup artfully can make them stimulating and engrossing. Familiar as they are. They can usually supply enough colorful detail and action to give you buildup material.

The poorest motion-picture story will always be improved by buildup. It is up to the cameraman to cultivate it carefully.
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