All movies cheat, but horror, fantasy films, and science fiction films are a special case. Every motion picture shoots its scenes over and over, then edits the best bits together to hide the seams: camera angles conceal objects the filmmakers do not want us to see; lens filters enhance the look of real locations, while unreal locations are built on sound stages; computer-generated imagery airbrushes away flaws in live-action photography. Fantasy-oriented film-making takes this make-believe a step further: miniatures assume gargantuan proportions on the big screen; makeup alters men into monsters; and CGI creates not only imaginary creatures but also entire worlds in which they live.
In such a context, when everything seems possible and much of what is visible on screen exists only because it was created with special effects, how does one define a movie cheat? Like this: In most films, whether they are achieved with live-action, animation, or special effects, the techniques used are supposed to be invisible to the average viewer, creating a sense of verisimilitude. The film is meant to unreel as if the events are actually happening, and the audience accepts what they are seeing without questioning how it was achieved.
Some filmmakers, however, are bolder than this. Sometimes in order to make a dramatic point, or more often to spring a surprise on the audience — the filmic equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat — the filmmakers will violate the “internal reality” of the film with a clever visual or audio cheat. This is different from the special effects that create a fantasy environment: wizards and monsters exist in the imaginary world of LORD OF THE RINGS, so it is hardly a “cheat” to portray them by whatever means necessary.
In this context, a “cheat” means a piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand that pulls a fast one on the audience, that shows something contradictory or impossible according to the film’s own logic. In short, a cheat works because the trickery is visible – intentionally so – otherwise, the impact would be lost. You may need sharp eyes (or the reverse button on your DVD player), but you should be able to spot the subterfuge if you look for it.
Take, for example, Walt Disney Pictures animated gem, TANGLED (2010). Computer-generated imagery takes us so far into the realm of fantasy that one may question the wisdom of pointing out a cheat; after all, what reality is there to violate? Yet, this wonderful animated fairy tale does indeed include a classic movie cheat, one previously seen in Dario Argento’s TENEBRE (1982). Watch the following sequence of shots to see how directors Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard use a movie cheat to create an impossible surprise.
When Flynn Rider first enters Rapunzel’s tower, he is seen in long-shot, clearly alone; there is nowhere for anyone to be hiding behind him.
As he pauses to open a satchel containing a stolen crown, the film cuts in to a closer angle, hiding the (previously empty) space behind him. However, before he can enjoy his ill-gotten gains….
Rider is wacked from behind, falling to the floor and revealing Rapunzel standing behind him, a frying pan in her hand.
How did Rapunzel manage to get behind Rider without being seen by the audience? In the long-shot that begins the sequence, there is nowhere for her to be hiding (unless her pet chameleon Pascal has somehow magically transferred his powers to her).
Presumably, Rapunzel sneaked up from behind, but there is a wall at her back and no object to provide cover. She could have entered the scene only from the right side of the frame, which should have made her visible to us – unless we are to assume that she crawled into the waist-high medium shot on her hands and knees, and then rose up once she had positioned herself so that Rider would hide her from the camera.
In short, Rapunzel’s appearance behind Rider is impossible within the “reality” presented by the film TANGLED. Does that make this a film flub? No, it is a wonderful example of an excellent movie cheat used to create a memorably effective moment that might have been mitigated by restrictions to the semblance of reality. This is movie magic at its best, using basic techniques of camera placement and editing to create illusions so convincing that we do not question them, even when they are “impossible.”
This article is the first in a series of favorite movie cheats visible in fantasy, horror and science-fiction films. These are all moments that catch the eye and/or provide dramatic impact because the films dare to violate the dictates of “realism.” Hopefully, exposing this sleight-of-hand will not undermine your appreciation of the magic; if anything, awareness of the cheat should increase your appreciation of the deft techniques used to achieve these remarkable and startling effects.