The 5 Best Movie Gimmicks in Modern Cinema

Filmmaking 19/06/2019 7 min read

Movie gimmicks are a great way to help create buzz for a film. Down the years we’ve seen them tried and tested in multiple ways — vibrating theatre seats, smell-o-vision, “found footage” — and every time, regardless of the film’s quality, they’ve managed to pull a crowd.

But there’s one other thing for which movie gimmicks don’t get much credit, and that’s helping directors hone their craft. When you, say, limit yourself to working with a bygone camera lens or an unconventional narrative style, you restrict your freedom as a filmmaker which, in turn, requires you to be more bold, more daring, and, most importantly, more creative.

It is for this reason that we think each and every filmmaker ought to try their hand at a gimmick at some stage throughout their career. And to help get the inspo juices flowing, we bring you the five best movie gimmicks in modern cinema!

Inspiring Movie Gimmicks to Check Out

1. Filmed Entirely on an iPhone 5S – Tangerine (2015)

‘Tangerine’ Film Poster – Duplass Brothers Productions

Tangerine wasn’t the first film to be shot on a smartphone, but it’s definitely been the most successful. And why’s that? Well first off, the plot—wherein transgender sex worker Sin-Dee sets out on the streets of LA to exact justice on her cheating boyfriend—makes for a hilariously engaging watch.

Secondly, the production as a whole kicks serious buttootie. And to be clear, this isn’t despite the fact an iPhone was used, but because of it. Working with a smartphone allowed director, Sean Baker, to work with a smaller, more mobile crew and it also freed him up to shoot in real-life locations (such as in the street or in restaurants) without having to close places off and fill them with extras.

(On the set of ‘Tangerine’ – Duplass Brothers Productions)

What’s more, because of the iPhone’s sub-cinematic image quality, Baker was required to get a little experimental in post, which ultimately led to the films overly saturated look. Saturation is something filmmakers typically shy away from. But in Tangerine it works like a charm, brilliantly intensifying all the color and grit of the West Hollywood and Santa Monica streets where the film is predominantly set.

One more perk: shooting on a smartphone made the whole experience a lot less intimidating for the cast, most of whom were first-time actors. And as we all know, the more comfortable the actors, the better the performance!

2. Four Narratives Each with a Continous Take Shown with a Split Screen – Timecode (2000)

Still frame from ‘Timecode’ – Screen Gems

Shooting a feature-length film in a single continuous take is one thing. Filming four feature-length films whose plots interlock then simultaneously depicting them on the same four-way split screen is simply next level.

So, how did director Mike Figgis pull off this impressive feat? Exactly how you think. With a LOT of practice. All of the actors involved in the production rehearsed their separate but interweaving stories on loop for 15 days straight. Come day 16, it was time to roll!

To help with pacing, the actors were instructed to improvise the majority of their performances while also sticking to a predetermined structure. Then during the editing, Figgis increased and decreased the volume on each narrative’s screen quadrant according to when and where the most important action was taking place.

As far as experimental cinema goes, Timecode is way out there. So much so that for much of the film, the story feels upstaged by the technique. Still, for us cinema buffs, there’s plenty to enjoy.

3. (Almost) No Dialogue – A Quiet Place (2018)

Still from ‘A Quiet Place’ – Platinum Dunes

Imagine that a bunch of visually-impaired aliens with crazy good hearing have set up camp on planet Earth and are picking off humanoids one by one. What do you do? Ah, you keep your big fat pie hole shut. That’s what.

This is precisely the conundrum facing the Abbott family in A Quiet Place, and as far as premise goes, it’s pretty meh. The family does manage to find a few moments to utter some verbal along the way, but it’s very much an exception rather than the norm.

Still from ‘A Quiet Place’ – Platinum Dunes

But because every character is on continual guard to make zero noise, Director John Krasinski had to really lean into the old film adage “show… don’t tell.”  The result is that the audience was left to take their cues from all the other elements of cinematic storytelling like character expression, sound design, music, and cinematography.  

But the one HUGE benefit to the rule of “be quiet” was that each moment of suspense was amplified to the nth degree! Let’s be honest, silent films are nothing new. But where this movie hits it out of the park is by incorporating it into a horror flick with nearly flawless execution.

Still from ‘A Quiet Place’ – Platinum Dunes

Having the actors use their faces to express fear adds a whole new level of horror flick finesse that you just do not get with other scary movies. The limited audio also forced the directors to break away from the common tension-building tropes (jump scares and the like) and come up with new ways to terrify its audience. Which it did. A little too well for my liking in fact.

4. The Appearance of a Continuous Take – Birdman (2014)

Still from ‘Birdman’ – New Regency Pictures

As Timecode proved, shooting a film in one single continuous take ain’t no thang. So why then did everyone get so excited about the 2014 hit Birdman? Well, because instead of being shot in a single continuous take, it was made to look like it was one continuous shot. A small caveat but, as it turns out, a crowd-pleasing one. And if you find this inspiring, we have some tips on how to hide your cuts in this tutorial.

As for the film’s substance, not everyone was able to get on board. The plot, which follows a washed-up actor as he preps for his big Broadway debut, was knocked by many for lacking universal appeal and speaking more to those involved in the entertainment biz than the general masses.

But regardless of what people thought of the story, it didn’t really matter. Because what ultimately ended up winning everyone over was the film’s outstanding cinematography.

Still from ‘Birdman’ – New Regency Pictures

The camera (which switched from handheld to Steadicam) moved as if it were an appendage of the actors and in doing so, helped create an endless flow of intimate shots that had audiences feeling like we’re actually inside the scenes themselves. Add to that all those trippy levitation special effects and Michael Keaton walking through Times Square in his granny undies and you have yourself an Oscar—or nine. Pfff, who’s counting anyway..

5. Filmed Over 12 Years with the Same Actors – Boyhood (2014)

Still from ‘Boyhood’ – IFC Productions

When it comes to movie gimmicks, this one takes the cake. Filmed as a side project over the course of twelve years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood certainly caused a lot more buzz for its production than it’s plot.

And what plot is that exactly? Well with Boyhood, there isn’t really one. The film simply ambles along depicting the day-to-day life of Mason Evans as he traverses from childhood to adolescence. What makes the movie so special is the fact that Mason’s journey mirrors that of the actor playing him (Ellar Coltrane) who was 7 when the production began and 19 when it wrapped.

Still from ‘Boyhood’ – IFC Productions

For a lot of people, this movie got pretty boring pretty quick. But for fans of the film, the rare opportunity to watch a young actor grow up before their very eyes (awkward preteens and all) served up enough charm to have them crying out for a Boyhood sequel. Manhood?

Because of its lack of plot arc, each individual scene in Boyhood carries very little weight. Instead, it’s the collection scenes as a whole that gives the film its gravitas. Together, they reflect back to the audience what each of our lives essentially boils down to: an endless succession of moments, some more interesting than others. It’s one of those ubiquitous truths that’s impossibly hard to convey in cinema, and it’s safe to say that if it weren’t for its gimmicky 12-year production, there’s no chance Boyhood would have been able to do it.

Still, for all its gimmickiness, Boyhood ended up losing out on the Oscar for Best Picture to fellow gimmicky film, Birdman. I suppose you could say it got out-gimmicked.

The great thing about movie gimmicks, cinematic gimmicks at least, is that they don’t cost a ton of money. In fact, sometimes they can end up saving you money. Making a film without dialogue? That’s $500 saved on sound equipment right there. Making a movie on a smartphone? That’s potentially thousands of dollars saved on camera expenses!

Then there’s the best bit of all: that movie gimmick buzz! If you’re looking to grab the attention of viewers, film festival judges, colleagues in the biz, whoever, why not try your hand at some crazy-ass gimmick? Even if your movie flops, you’re bound to learn something along the way.

Okay, that’s enough from us. It’s time to hear from you guys! If you have any movie gimmick ideas you want to bounce around, drop them into the comments section below. We’d love to hear about them!