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The Art of the Freeze Frame

David Goodman

Learn how to use the simple effect of the freeze frame to hold your image on screen and in the minds of your viewer.

Top Image: The Wolf of Wall Street via Paramount Pictures

What Is a Freeze Frame?

A freeze frame halts the perceived movement in your image, effectively converting it to a still shot reminiscent of a photograph. Freeze frames are self-reflexive, so they call attention to the filmmaking process and to the filmmaker, but they are invaluable in adding emphasis, covering up for lack of footage, or creating a note of ambiguity.

The Art of the Freeze Frame: Thelma & LouiseThelma and Louise via MGM

In the days of shooting with film, the selected shot was optically reprinted to achieve the effect. With digital technologies, freezing your image has become as easy as tapping a few keys — so the real question becomes how and when should you use the freeze frame?

Ways to Use It

Freeze frames can be used at the beginning and throughout your movie. It’s all a matter of setting the stylistic tone of your work. For example, you may want to give your title card a little extra punch as Soderbergh did in his 1998 film, Out of Sight (via Universal).

The Art of the Freeze Frame: Out of Sight

Soderbergh continues his playful use of the freeze frame during the opening act of Out of Sight as a transitional device and as a way to introduce a new character (another great place to use freeze frames early in a film, especially if you are running voice over on your soundtrack). In his film, Election, Alexander Payne uses freeze frames during his character introductions for a comedic effect.

The Art of the Freeze Frame: ElectionElection via Paramount

Martin Scorsese uses the freeze frame to great effect in films like Goodfellas, The Departed, and The Aviator, as you can see in this video compilation of Scorsese’s editing techniques. Justin Morrow includes freeze frames as one of Martin Scorsese’s influential editing techniques in this article.

Freeze Frame as an Ending

It seems that the most common —and memorable — use of the freeze frame is at the end of films. Employed in this manner, the freeze frame can be a way to avoid showing gruesome details of a character’s demise and instead leave your viewers with a note of romance and ambiguity. Though many of these endings are the stuff of legend, this is your official spoiler alert.

Instead of seeing the titular characters from Thelma and Louise (via MGM), plummet to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we are left with their car hanging in mid-air, seemingly defying gravity as the two characters hang above a chasm representative of their situation both as outlaws and as rebellious women in a male-dominated world.

Another famous use of the freeze frame as a substitute for a bloody finale can be found in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (via 20th Century Fox). When the two main characters are trapped and outgunned, they confront their fate head on.

The freeze frame can present an opportunity to halt — and highlight — the atrocity of violence, as seen in the final frame of Gallipoli (1981). The splotch of blood on the main character’s chest echoes a shot early in the film when the same character races through the red ribbon of a finish line.

The Art of the Freeze Frame: Gallipoli Gallipoli via Paramount

One of the most famous freeze frame endings occurs in François Truffaut’s French New Wave classic, The 400 Blows. Although the final freeze frame does not suggest a violent death for the main character, Antoine Doinel, the image creates uncertainty, ambiguity, and concern for the life of Antoine.

The Art of the Freeze Frame: The 400 BlowsThe 400 Blows via mk2 

It’s not uncommon to use a freeze frame of the main character as a backdrop for conveying story information that happens after the plot of the film. Animal House (1978) uses this technique to a comic end, but the approach can have a more serious tone, as evidenced by the final freeze frame in Bloodsport (1988).

The Art of the Freeze Frame: BloodsportBloodsport via Cannon

While we’re considering Jean-Claude Van Damme’s involvement in the freeze frame ending, let’s not forget this classic pose from Street Fighter (1994).

The Art of the Freeze Frame: Streetfighter Street Fighter via Columbia

The freeze frame isn’t immune to parody, as made evident in the ending of Police Squad! (via Paramount and ABC).

The freeze frame ending gives a moment of pause and consideration for your audience. Everything that preceded the final, frozen instant can take on additional dramatic weight and helps in the transformation of a seemingly ordinary film ending into a mythic one.

The Art of the Freeze Frame: Death Proof Death Proof via The Weinstein Company

What are some of your favorite freeze-frame moments? Please share in the comments below.