Video Editing

What is a freeze frame in film?

Posted April 29, 2021
Written by Clipchamp

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Looking to create drama and impact in your video? Try using the freeze frame effect.

This is an essential video editing technique that takes some practice to be done right. That's why we’re breaking down all the key questions like what exactly is the freeze-frame effect and when to apply it in videos. Let’s dive in.

Skiing jump in the snowy mountains in freeze frame

What is a freeze frame effect?

Oops, the name might be giveaway a bit here! A freeze frame effect is just that—a frozen video frame within a piece of video or film. Freeze frames halt the movement within the video. They essentially convert the moving picture into a still photography shot for a given period of time.

What value do freeze frames add to a story?

Lots of movies don’t use any freeze frame effects, so we’re not going to be dramatic and say you absolutely need to use one in your video project. But lots of great movies and TV shows use it well to emphasize a point or a moment.

A pause in the midst of the action can build suspense. 

It can also be used as a device to put the focus on the narration for a moment. 

Freeze frames are also self-reflexive. This means that they momentarily call attention to the filmmaking and video editing process. Filmmakers who use freeze frames are breaking the suspension of disbelief on purpose. This means if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be a risky move. You might call attention to the wrong point of your narrative or freeze on the wrong frame within your film. Let’s explore the many possible uses.

When to use the freeze frame effect?

There is no hard and fast rule for when freeze frames work but freeze frames are most often applied at the beginning or at the very end of movies. 

How to use a freeze frame?

Often the best way to learn is by example. There are so many filmmakers who use freeze frame effects in their movies but no one does it better than Martin Scorsese! So that’s where we’ll start.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Scorsese is regarded as one of the best directors of our time and for good reason. His use of the freeze frame effect in The Wolf of Wall Street helps introduce the character. The narrative opens with a very chaotic and unusual scene and literally pauses to let the narrator introduce himself via a freeze frame.

It’s a great tool to pique the audience's interest straight away. The freeze frame works well with the narration to create humor and makes us want to learn more about the main character.

Scorsese also uses this technique in The Goodfellas to the same effect. He wants to highlight the narration and a great way to achieve that is to pause everything else for a moment. This helps the narration become more impactful for the audience.

In The Departed, Scorsese uses freeze frames to achieve a more subtle effect. Instead of stopping on one frame for a long period of time, he changes the frame speeds. This is so subtle that on a first watch you might not notice it (so go watch it again!). It’s most obvious in the final, iconic elevator scene. Anytime a character is shot, the frame freezes for only a fraction of a second longer than usual before continuing on.

This adds emphasis without the audience even realizing it’s happening. It helps build the climax of the various betrayals.

Rocky III

Rocky III is probably the most famous freeze frame ending going. As the two fighters have battled it out throughout the movie, the audience is still unsure even at the end who the best boxer is.

The use of the freeze frame here plays into that narrative. It freezes on both the fighters hitting each other with equal power and then the movie ends. The audience is left wondering who would be victorious.

It’s a very deliberate choice by the filmmaker, Slyvester Stallone. It allows us to make up our own minds as to who won or keep us guessing until the next film at least.

A little bit of trivia too, Rocky III is often credited as being the first movie to end on a freeze frame. Many other movies and TV shows included references to a “Rocky III freeze frame ending” including Scrubs and Chuck. But it’s not the case. In fact, the first freeze frame ending was from a French movie called 400 Blows released in 1959!

Thelma and Louise

One of the most iconic female empowerment movies ever made, Thelma and Louise will go down in history as having one of the most memorable freeze frame moments ever.

At the end of the movie, the girls are on the run from the police. Events have spiraled out of their control and the cinematography is chaotic. It builds stress for the viewers, they don’t know whether the girls will survive.

The girls have run as far as they can and they’re at the edge of the Grand Canyon, where we get the now-iconic scene of them driving towards off the edge of the cliff before the film freezes and ends. Pretty epic way to end the movie, right? 

There’s no ambiguity around whether the girls die or not. Rather Ridley Scott employs the freeze frame effect to create an emotional and poignant ending to the movie. It stays with viewers for years to come after watching.

Learn more about video production

The freeze frame effect is a great video editing technique for video makers who want to draw attention to a particular moment in the narrative. When used well, it can engage audiences and further engross them into the plot or scene. 

If you want to further improve your video production skills, make sure to explore Clipchamp’s glossary of video editing terms!

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