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How to Build Tension in Your Edit According to There Will Be Blood


The editor behind There Will Be Blood discusses techniques to build narrative tension during the editing process in this video.

Top image via Miramax.

One of the stellar motifs of the Nerdwriter channel is how often they break down some of our favorite films. In a recent episode, we go into the mind of the editor behind Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnum opus, There Will Be Blood. Dylan Tichenor‘s work on the Oscar-winning film broke new ground for playing with the form and defining what editing can mean.

I think one of the most important points to remember is that the longer your shots or takes are, the more effective your cuts can be. When they’re less frequent, each cut carries more significance and demands more attention. As an editor, it’s absolutely essential to put yourself in the shoes of your audience.

Consistent Pace

Tichenor’s Oscar-nominated work on There Will Be Blood  experimented with the art form by maintaining a consistent average length of shots throughout the film.

How to Build Tension in Your Edit According to There Will Be Blood — Pace

Image via Nerdwriter1.

This consistency goes to show just how possible it is to maintain a certain pace and tone. Further, when you know exactly what your story is, creating this mood, environment, and tone pushes your film toward greatness. Much like There Will Be Blood, a well-edited piece of work doesn’t toy around with the audience, but instead guides them into a familiar world to live in for a few hours.

Cutting Dialogue

The example in the Nerdwriter video and the breakdown from the interview with Tichenor analyze a scene when the protagonist sits down with another character and proceeds to have a tense, slow-building conversation at the dinner table. The scene almost plays out like a horror movie with the two leads staring each other down through long, consistent pauses. It’s a magnificent feat of direction, acting, and editing.

In a simple over-the-shoulder shot, Tichenor cuts out dialogue from the character off camera so it appears to be a silent stare down between the two. Given the dark, disturbing nature of the film, this silence builds inescapable tension and a level of awkwardness that demands the audience’s attention. It’s no wonder Tichenor received an Oscar nomination for his work here.

Removing Micro Expressions

In other interviews about his work on Brokeback Mountain, Tichenor describes working with Ang Lee to eliminate one simple movement that Heath Ledger makes in a scene. Following one cut, Tichenor explains the power of removing small tics and movements and the power that can have over how the audience perceives your character. This precision even affects the actor’s performance, shedding light on aspects that could change the meaning of the film itself.

Even though Tichenor is a powerhouse editor, his willingness to collaborate with directors is the key to his success. This is the case for any good editor: trimming, moving, and tailoring a story is the key to building good working relationships and landing consistent work.