A Dreamer Walking

Suspense 101: Technique

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 5, 2012

Creating good suspense requires many elements. One person can not possibly do it alone. You must have a good team around you. Steven Spielberg has one of the most gifted crews in the history of film and he has had most of them for his entire career. Just think what Jaws would be without John Williams iconic two note music, what Jurassic Park would be without Richard Hymns haunting dinosaur sounds, or how movies like Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, or Munich would be without Michael Kahn’s masterful editing? Suspense is working at its best when all the technical parts of cinema come together to enhance the tension.

I do not think there are many better people to study then Alfred Hitchcock in order to understand how to master the technical aspects of creating good tension and suspense in film. Hitchcock seemed to know exactly where to place the camera, when to bring in music, and how to stage his acting in order to create the greatest amount of tension on screen. Hitchcock would not blast his audience with quick editing, a bunch of music, and extreme close ups in order to get his point across. Rather, he was very calculated with what he used and what he kept out. Sometimes it was silence that created the most tension on screen. Sometimes to create strong suspense he even used the opposite of what one would expect.  Just look at his movie Rear Window and how Hitchcock has classical music playing while we see Jeff’s girlfriend Lisa sneak into potential killer Lars Thorwald’s apartment while he is just coming home.

To create great suspense you need to understand the elements of what makes great film. You need to gather a team around you who are masters at their craft. Don’t look for the composer who wants to be the next Mozart, look for the composer who knows how to handle the most complex score, where to place the most simplistic of themes, or when to use no music at all. Don’t look for the cinematographer who wants to put up a light show with dazzling colors and extreme compositions, rather look for someone who understands the importance of a single light and the kind of information the audience can get from the simplest of compositions.  With Spielberg the simplest objects were used to great dramatic effect. In E.T. Spielberg didn’t have a very functional puppet to represent the title character E. T. so what he chose to do was reveal very little of E.T. for most of the film. This created a sense of wonder and allowed the audience’s imagination to create a much more lively character then even the best of CGI could have done.  Spielberg was able to speak volumes by just shooting E.T.’s hands. In Jurassic Park one of the most suspenseful moments comes from a shot of ripples in a cup of water. We know what is coming when we see this and the reveal of the tyrannosaurus rex is that much more satisfying.

Good cinema has less to do with the ability to shoot with the latest camera or utilize the latest editing system. It has much more to do with being able to use what you are given to your advantage. Suspense is all about information–the information we reveal and the information we keep hidden.  We shouldn’t show everything, which is hard to enforce in the digital age we live in. Executives feel like we should show the audience everything. They can’t wait to introduce the villain. The plot needs to start right away. Action needs to be packed into every scene. This all adds up to a lesser dramatic effect. The technique of suspense is discovered through restraint. Let the unseen become just as entertaining as the seen. Relish in the anticipation rather than rush to the outcome. The term less is more speaks volumes when it comes to filmmaking. The reason why so many go back to the past to study suspense is because filmmakers like Hitchcock and Ford were forced to create a lot out of a little in film after film. They were technically restrained in the ways they could tell their stories. And, partly because of this they have become icons in the world of film.

Here are links to the rest of my Suspense Series:

1. Suspense 101

2. Suspense 101: The Unexpected

3. Suspense 101: Technique

4. Suspense 101: Creating Meaning