Everything in our lives happens for a reason. One of our decision at some point of our life would completely shape a further event at a latter part of our life which happens quite unknowingly without our knowledge. A film in every plight is quite closely associated with our lives, Hence when every frame in a film contributes to the following frame that in turn shapes the whole plot in it makes it more existing to us. In film language, this kind of portrayal is termed as the set up & pay off. Without it, there might not be any kind of films that we watch today, Especially the mystery ones for sure.
Setup & payoff is a technique that is adopted even by stand up comedians who set up a completely irrelevant detail at the start of a show which seemingly becomes quite vital for the audience to kindle their laughing bones when a joke is uttered. In filmmaking, one could apply this technique for any number of events so that none of the frames dissipate without any basis. In literal terms, it is giving a ground idea of a particular event or a trait or anything that may seem quite irrelevant but is very significant when the plot unfolds and it provides the solution to it.
The Character Setup.
One of the very fundamental ways of adopting this technique is by establishing the character traits of one’s character in the film. This could be any kind of a trait. It could be the environment of the character. For instance, how varalaxmi’s left hand trait was established in Vikram Vedha that was a very vital clue that untied the whole plot! This could take shape in a character’s mannerism or even a habit. Like how in Thupparivalan, the heroine’s habit of pickpocketing does result in a positive information for the protagonist in it. So, the establishment of the habit of the lady in the film wasn’t merely just an establishment shot. It was a tool in plot movement.
It could also come in the form of props in a film. Like how the erri goli in Jil Jung Juk wasn’t just an item to be stared at. It helped in creating a chaotic event in the film! And it didn’t come just before the chaotic event. The sight of the erri goli was initiated to us right from the beginning! Now that’s what is a good set up. In Anbe Sivam, in the scene where Kamal Haasan and Madhavan are sharing a room, an air pillow is being blowed by Kamal Haasan that is afterwards used by Madhavan when he falls into the swimming pool. Now, that’s a set-up and pay off that happens within a blink of eyes!
It’s not just for Clues in a Mystery Film!
The set up and pay off doesn’t gets applied only to mystery films. Of course in mystery films, it becomes largely significant. Without, it isn’t a proper mystery too. Like the above mentioned examples, it could be applied to any kind of a film as it offers more authenticity and relatability. How Vaibhav in Meyatha Maan is established as a guy that often attempts suicide in the very first scene of the film has a say in the ending of the film where he yet again indulges in the same act. It provides symmetry in one’s film that is a treat to watch.
What happens When a Film Doesn’t do this?
Now, when one doesn’t quite involve the setup and payoff mechanism, the results are unpleasant for the viewers. Take Puli for instance. The flashback in Puli is narrated by a new character (the old man) that appears in the frame out of nowhere literally! One wouldn’t have noticed that character in any of the previous scenes. There happens to be no clue about who that character is or was! Let me give you a situation. If there happens to be a plot where a college guy (who is like us literally) lands in a trouble with a gangster, would you accept if he suddenly goes on a one on one fight with the gangster and wins them single handedly? We cannot accept it for sure. But if the college guy was established in a way showcasing that he has been into training of martial arts or something (just a small example), it would be more believable. This is it, The set up! This is something that most of our heroic films miss on.
Innovations in these setups and payoffs!
There are instances where the setup is quite blatant on the screen (this is with respect to mystery). When it is that unavoidable on the screen, one tends to predict it’s after effects and scope in the plot. Like how in many films, the broken leg of a chair or the door being loose is established in out of sync of the plot, Many of us would predict that someone is yet to fall from the broken chair or the door is going to fall off on someone’s head for sure! Therefore, these set-ups in every way got to be very subtle and only then the payoff is going to bring up some kind of an emotion in the audience!
Helps in Misdirections!
Sometimes when a setup is being made in a film, few people are already predicting how it is going to affect the plot. But, one could always misdirect these people by providing them with a seemingly pay off for the moment but keep in store the actual pay off for the final showdown! Like how the makers of Sherlock did in its 4th season! In the first episode of the season, we are shown a woman in the bus whom Dr.Watson witnesses and falls for. Later, when his wife (Mary) dies, there’s a sense of guilt in him. Now, this is what all of us would’ve believed to be the pay off of the woman that was set up in the bus. The makers had clearly misdirected us into this and all of us are quite amused in the end when the major payoff of that character is revealed to us.
Watch this video to infer more on set-up and payoff!