Arts & Entertainment

Toying With the Audience: Building and Releasing Tension

James Cameron

Lesson time 11:46 min

James teaches you how to build and hold tension—and tells you why audiences love it.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: Honor Your Relationship With the Audience • Increasing Jeopardy: Build and Prolong Tension • Building Tension Across an Entire Film


[MUSIC PLAYING] JAMES CAMERON: When we buy a movie ticket, we're putting our-- we're creating a little bit of a social contract with a bunch of people we never met to go into a dark room and experience something and be quiet and be passive and be submissive and not stop, not stop the experience. The experience is in a dominant position relative to our consciousness. And we do it willingly because it's one of the few times in our lives where we do that, and where we stop our phone from ringing, and we give ourselves that respite, and we give ourselves a moment, might be a two-hour moment, might be a three-hour moment, to experience something uninterrupted and unbroken. And if we have to get up and go to the bathroom, you run because you don't want to miss something. And that's a unique experience. I think as a filmmaker, you know that you have a dominant or authoritative position relative to the audience's consciousness. And you have to honor them, which is, I'm not going to do something that-- that's so obvious you can figure it out exactly. And you get to the end. And it's been predictable. But I also don't want to do something that's intentionally obscure to where I'm just sort of pirouetting how smart I am and all the big words I can use, and you're lost. And we've all seen the ones that strike that perfect balance where you're rewarded for having paid attention and picking up the clues. And you go, aha. And I think there's one thing that a lot of filmmakers take a while to figure out, which is it's okay for the audience to be ahead of you. It's okay because the tension that goes before a reveal or a cathartic moment is so much more delicious when it's actually paid off in a way that you hope for than some utter surprise that's not satisfying at all. Sometimes, filmmakers create too much importance around the idea of surprise versus paying off in a satisfying, satisfying way. It's all about this contract. It's about this dance with the audience and honoring them and encouraging them to participate and pay attention. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] - Well, I can drive that loader. I have a class 2 rating. - Be my guest. [LOADER WHIRRING] JAMES CAMERON: And part of the way you do that is you plant something, and then you pay it off. And you say, see how it works? I want to put something here. And you're going to think about it, and then-- and then it's going to be satisfying here. [MUSIC PLAYING] - Get away from her, you bitch. [END PLAYBACK] JAMES CAMERON: So that creates a bit of a promise that we're going to continue to do that. We're going to do that right through to the end of the film. The plant might be something that only the audience knows, that that character needs and wants and can't express. And you feel that I wish I could just walk into the screen and shake that other person and say, look at what this character's going through. You know, y...

About the Instructor

From The Terminator and Titanic to Avatar, James Cameron has directed some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Now, for the first time in his 40-year career, he opens up about his process. Through behind-the-scenes breakdowns, James shares his approach to developing ideas, storylines, and characters; harnessing technology; and worldbuilding on any budget. Explore the innovation and imagination behind epic moviemaking.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

James Cameron

Academy Award–winning director James Cameron teaches you the tricks of the trade and shares his approach to epic moviemaking on any budget.

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