A Dreamer Walking

The Power of Subtlety

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on September 15, 2010

In film, the most subtle parts of the characters and stories often are the most powerful and meaningful to the audience. As a filmmaker you often want to create a BIG film. If you are given a big budget you often want to use the money to enhance the visual effects and action sequences, so you can make your movie “bigger and better” then anyone else.

The idea that “bigger is better” is a lie. Movies always need to be lead by the heart of the story and often the heart of the story asks for depth in character and plot rather then action. It is a fact that almost every sequel has a bigger budget then its original film. Sequels often have far more impressive actions sequences where the visual effects “blow our minds”. Why then do sequels hardly ever get as good reviews as the original films? The answer is subtlety. We are not given the subtle things in sequels that are often needed to create good films.

Things like character depth and story development are often rushed in sequels. It is easy to be impressed with a big effect, they don’t take much effort from the audience, they often happen right in front of you, and they are instant gratification. It is much harder to be impacted by a individual characters or the meaning behind a story, for those things require more indepth thought from the filmmakers and  the audience’s participation. With meaningful stories you need to trust your audience and you as a filmmaker need to have more confidence with your ability to tell a story.

Story telling in general can be very generic. There is always a beginning, middle and end, and we often see the “happily ever after” theme come at the end most films. Even if you have the sad ending, that kind of thing has been done a million times before. The question is how will you make your film unique? What is different about the way you tell the story, from a Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock? Usually it is the subtle things that make all the difference. The individual performances and the unique messages that you bring to your films is why audiences keep coming back to the theater.

The actor can make all the difference. I am often impressed by actors like Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, and Will Smith because of the subtle differences they bring to many of their roles. Someone like Captain John Millar from Saving Private Ryan, seems to be a very ordinary Character. Put in less capable hands, Captain Millar could have easily fallen flat. Captain Millar seemed to be nothing special, he was a middle aged, middle classed, school teachers forced like most Americans to do his duty in the war. The power came in the way Tom Hanks portrayed Captain Millar, we became sympathetic to him as a character and the situation he was in. Tom Hanks owned his role and all the subtle things seemed to be thought out. We were not even shown Captain Millar’s wife and kids, but we feel his love for them through out his journey and his compassion for his regiment is clearly seen. The little subtle decisions and the way Captain Millar carries those decisions out, makes all the difference, it creates a unique character that we have not seen before.

With the story of Saving Private Ryan, it was the small subtle moments that impacted me the most. When Captain Millar is dieing because of his choice to stay and help Private Ryan, he tells Ryan in a whisper, “Earn this”. This was the most powerful statement in the movie, the audience was tremendously impacted by what Captain Millar said. It did not need to be a shout, the power actually came in the subtle way Millar said the words.

Film is a very subtle art form. Subtlety demands that you pay attention, but you will find that the subtle things can often impact the audience the most. Even when Alfred Hitchcock made his suspense films, it was the subtle things that made his films so powerful. When it comes to horror and suspense you would think that bigger is better, but Hitchcock realized that often less is more. There are scenes such as at the end of Psycho, where you are impacted in maybe even subconscious ways. At the end of Psycho you see the recently revealed murderer Norman Bates face change slightly, Norman’s face is combined slightly with his mothers skull, right before we see the end title.  We don’t even know if we saw something, but we did, that subtle image will stick with us long after the movie has ended.

Think hard about what makes your film Unique. What can you bring to your characters that has never been seen before? Messages in films do not need to be obvious. Make the points of your film subtle and give the audience something to talk about afterword. “Less” is often is “more” in film. Sure, have those big actions scenes if your story calls for it, but never forget about the little things that make your movies unique and that can influence the audience the most.

(IF YOU HAVE NOT WATCHED PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS DO NOT WATCH THIS CLIP OR READ ANY FURTHER!!! This is a scene at the End of Pursuit of Happyness. The power comes in the subtle way Will Smith first reacts to the news of getting the Job. The controlled and subtle emotion impacted me far more then any outburst or uncontrolled reaction)

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