A Dreamer Walking

How Much Information?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on October 3, 2010

In film there is always a delicate balance between giving the audience enough information to stay interested while making sure you do not give too much away so they have a reason to keep on watching. Alfred Hitchcock might have been the master at knowing when to use information to draw the audience in. Hitchcock knew that information was the key to suspense.

Hitchcock was one of the first to explain the clear difference between suspense and shock. In most horror films, we see many scenes that surprise us. Usually at every turn we see something scary like a man in a mask holding a chain saw. This kind of thing can come as a shock to the audience, but it has nothing to do with suspense.

Shock comes when the audience does not have enough information until the very last minute. When the information finally comes it overloads us creating a shock. Suspense comes when you have too much information. We are told something that the characters in the film are not. We know something is coming but usually don’t want it to come because it will hurt the characters we care for. Let me give you an example of the difference between shock and suspense.

Example 1: Shock: We see two people meet at a local coffee shop. They sit down and have a boring conversation about the weather for about five minutes, then suddenly a bomb goes off and they both blow up. We the audience are not expecting anything. Naturally the bomb going off comes as a shock to all of us. The only problem would be the five minutes where nothing really happened.

Example 2: Suspense: We see two people meet at a local coffee shop. They sit down at a table that we the audience see is rigged with a bomb that is counting down from five minutes. Now the audience is caught up in what is happening. The two people are talking about the weather and we the audience can see they only have three minutes left. We are all caught up and are hoping that the two people look under the table or leave so they don’t get blown up. Every second that they stay builds up more suspense. Because of the suspense we are entertained all the way through the five minutes.

With suspense we give the audience more information. However, if we want the audience to keep on buying into that suspense we can not always have the typical thing happen. For example, the two people who sat down with the bomb under the table. As a filmmaker it is good to milk that kind of thing to the very last second. However, if we have the bomb blow the people up, we will have an audience that probably isn’t very happy with us. That is why the majority of time, the two people see the bomb at the very last second and get away. The information given to the audience is often a deception, meant to lead the audience into make a false conclusion.

The reason why Hitchcock was said to be a master at controlling our emotions, is because he was able to lead us on so well. At the end of Psycho the lead villain, Norman Bates, was so scary to us because we were lead to believe that he was a completely different kind of character then he ended up being. Hitchcock intentionally lead us to believe Norman’s grandmother was the person making all the murders, when we finally find it to be Norman, we are all completely shocked and taken for a ride. The beauty of Hitchcock is that he used information to his full advantage, he built up suspense with it and he shocked us with it.

The greatest example of using information to draw the audience in, for me, is in the beginning of Mission Impossible III. Although I do not think the movie as a whole was that good, I can not think of a better opening to a film. The film starts with the main character Ethan Hunt tied up with a interrogator asking him, “Where is the Rabbit Foot?”. The interrogator has a girl with him and tells Ethan that he will count to ten, if Ethan hasn’t told him where the “rabbits foot” is he will kill the girl. We the audience is a bit clueless, we do not know what the “Rabbits Foot” is and we don’t know who the girl is. Through out the countdown however, we begin to get just enough information to completely draw us into the scene. For one, Ethan is very interested in the girl and is bagging the interrogator to not kill her. Ethan also tells the interrogator numerous times that he gave them the “Rabbits Foot” already. However, the interrogator keeps on counting down getting more aggressive the further down he goes. We are given hints that Ethan knows this interrogator and that they have had a rough past, we are seeing that the interrogator is getting more and more aggressive and emotionally Ethan is at his weakest point.  Ethan wants more then anything to save this girl, but be is tied up and rendered useless as the interrogator counts down. At “zero” there is a fast cut and we go to the opening titles, we do not see what happens to the girl. After the titles we realize that we have been brought back in time and are now waiting almost all the way through the movie for that scene we saw at the opening. Through out the movie, we begin to answer questions that came up. We find out who the girl is and why Ethan is so interested in her. We know who the interrogator is and we even get a better idea on what the “Rabbits Foot” is.

The opening scene of Mission Impossible III is a great example of how to use information to get the audience interested. We as the audience feel involved, because we develop a lot of questions that need to be answered through out the movie. When we come back to the scene towards the end of the film we are even more caught up because we have more information on who the characters are. We care more for the girl who is about the be killed, we understand the history the interrogator has with Ethan, and we can see the journey Ethan has taken and how stressful the situation really is for him.

As filmmakers, how much information should we give our audience? I think the correct answer is “just enough”. That answer might not help much, but we need to give the audience just enough information to draw them in. We need to be careful that we do not miss lead the audience too much or they will stop paying attention. I do not think it is our job to let the audience understand everything, we need to have faith that the audience will come up with some of the answers by themselves. At the end I think we need to give the audience enough information to come to the right conclusions.

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