A Dreamer Walking

Alfred Hitchcock – An Observation – The Young Spunge

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on October 24, 2018

Young AlfredYes, believe it or not this is Alfred Hitchcock. Not the self confident and slightly cocky man you see in later years. Rather, a young man just starting to understand the numerous possibilities of his artform and his role to play in the medium.

Hitchcock started exploring cinema in the mid 1910’s, making title cards for the start of films. From there he went into script writing and art direction. Though he said in a Peter Bogdanovich interview he had no ambition for becoming a director, he displayed a great amount of talent for the job at an early age. Infact, one of the things that got him in trouble in his job as Art Director was this nasty habit for telling the cameraman where to place the camera on the sets he was working on.

The latest film on my list to study has been  The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. This silent 1927 film is considered to be the first real “Hitchcock” film, though he had directed two before this point. The main reason, it was his first mystery film – the genre he would become most famous for directing. In this film you can see signs of everything to come. The amount of control he had over the young medium is breathtaking. You can see the influences clearly; his love for American’s dramatic pace, the Soviet Union’s use of montage, and German’s extreme use of light and camera placement.

What struck me the most when watching The Lodger is the fact that I could see such a deep connection the artist had with the material. Yes, influences abided throughout the film, yet each technique was being used for the purpose of getting deeper into the psychology of the characters. Nothing felt showy, because the extreme angles, imaginative framing, and exhaustive montages were constantly giving us insight about the characters and their world.

When one of the main characters observes a whole montage of images in a footprint in the snow, it’s not because Hitchcock was tickled by Sergei Eisenstein’s use of montage in Battleship Potemkin. Rather, Hitchcock wanted to visually show the thoughts that were connecting like dominoes in the character’s head. When we see a combination of dramatic lighting and extreme angles as the mother wakes up and creeps into her lodger’s bedroom, it’s not because Hitchcock was a die hard fan of  F.W. Murnau’s films, even though he was 😉 . He wanted to let us in on the mother’s startling suspicions that the lodger could very well be The London Strangler.

No artist simply comes out fully formed. They are always influenced by those around them. Hitchcock had some magnificent artist to inspire him during his day. Yet, the reason he became great himself was due to his ability to absorb his influences and make them his own. Today, I see a great amount of copying going around. I need to admit I don’t see much copying of the masters from the silent era, but rather I see copies of the most recent Youtube prodigy. To be inspired by someone in your medium is totally fine. However, when it comes to your storytelling, you can’t simply make decisions based off of those who inspire you.

The difference between copying and absorbing comes down to the question you are trying to answer. Copying has a very easy question to answer, “What?”. If you can figure out what someone did to create a shot you can copy it. As long as you have the equipment any complicated piece can be copied. And to be sure, great filmmakers such as Hitchcock found answers to what went into making their favorite shots. Yet, Hitchcock was also able to figure out the answer to the other question, the far more important question. “Why?”. Only if you discover the answer to the question of why, do you understand how to mold the technique to your personal storytelling.

Hitchcock never seemed to be stealing techniques from other filmmakers. Instead, he  found personal and profound reasons to apply them to his stories. We often come out of a Hitchcock movie believing there was no better ways to use the camera. Time after time The Lodger gives us profound insight into the passions, fears, and insecurities of the character’s we see on screen. The reason is because their passions, fears, and insecurities are even more important to Hitchcock than his shots. Once he knows the character’s inner most feelings does he understand why he needs to use the shots he uses. An insert of a hand reaching for a doorknob, a POV shot of someone walking toward a house, or a reflection of a man walking toward a painting, are all powerful expressions of the character’s inner most conflicts.

A sponge doesn’t simply hold water, it absorbs the liquid into it’s very being.  We all need to have inspirations, yet we must also have enough confidence in ourselves to let those inspirations further our personal development as artists. A mere copying of those around us will produce stale material, easily forgotten. Yet letting those inspirations build upon who we are, can produce magnificent pieces of work. Work, like that of Hitchcock’s The Lodger, that could be remembered far beyond our lifetime.

Suspense 101

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 1, 2012

There are two ways to create entertainment for those who choose to watch your film. 1. You create entertainment through enlightening, humoring, or awing your audience in the present tense. 2. You create entertainment through expectation of the future; creating a sort of mystery and suspense that keeps your audience member on the edge of his or her seat in anticipation.

I have seen several moments/scenes/sequences in film that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was in awe of the land of Pandora when watching Avatar for the first time. The sequence where Jake and the rest of the Na’vi go up the mountain cliffs to ride the ikran was unbelievable and an unforgettable experience. Red Skelton, Bill Cosby, and Robin Williams have given us thousands of hours of entertainment through masterful comic timing with their ability to create humor from pretty much any scenario. There are also moments in film I will never forget because of the overwhelming emotion I have felt while watching them. The black Union solders making the charge up the hill of Fort Wagner in Glory, Raymond Babbitt reaching out to touch foreheads with his brother in Rain Man, and Jefferson Smith making his speech at the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, are just a few of those moments which not only entertained me but effected who I am and what I will do for the rest of my life.

However, this post is not about addressing the present. It is about creating suspense in film. This is just one of several posts I will do on the subject. In this post I want to tackle the basic idea of suspense in film. Suspense has been in film from almost the very beginning. As soon as filmmakers realized they could cut back and forth between scenarios that were happening in completely different places, they realized they could create a tension through giving the audience a curtain amount of information but keeping us in the dark with knowledge of the final result. To explain the basic idea of suspense I will call upon the “master of suspense” himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

The bottom line is you create more entertainment through suspense then you do with shock. Shock will only last seconds, suspense can last through whole films. One of the greatest ways to create suspense is by giving the audience more information then the characters on screen. If you let them know the Reaper is coming to kill the babysitter and show several minutes of the babysitter just sitting around, you are building suspense. If you show the babysitter about to leave and the Reaper coming, you build even more suspense because you are creating a scinerio where the unknown victim is seconds away from being safe. Imagine the babysitter leaves and a few seconds latter comes back in because she forgot something. You know the Reaper is close because we keep on cutting back to him with the huge blade in his hand and the music getting more and more intense. You know his intention is to kill the babysitter. Yet, there she is just looking for her keys. “They are on the MICROWAVE!!!”, we yell. She can’t hear us. A few seconds later she finds them. But now she begins to talk to Mrs. Smith about eye makeup of all things. We all know if she gets into her car and leaves she will be okay. But no. IT’S TOO LATE! the Reaper is finally there.

We have had several minutes of entertainment through just watching this babysitter search for her keys and talk about eye makeup; two very boring things to watch and listen to if just shown by themselves (at least far more boring then talking about baseball as Hitchcock seems to think 😡 ). We as filmmakers must learn how to draw entertainment out of our scenes. We also need to know when to give our audience a break from suspense. There are many examples in film these days where the filmmakers wear their audience out with suspense. If we don’t let the audience rest and we get too gory, we will begin to numb our audience. There needs to be a perfect balance.

The heart of a film can not be tension and suspense. Suspense is only worth anything if we care about the characters first. Something I will get further into in a different post. It is very important to understand suspense can be created in any kind of movie, not just in the horror and action genre. You can create suspense through creating a scenario where we don’t know if our protagonist will or will not pass and important test, whether the guy will or will not end up with the girl of his dreams, or whether the guy from the slums will or will not make something out of his life. The more you connect your world and characters with the audience the more effective the suspense in your film will be.

Some people, including Hitchcock, think suspense and mystery are different. I do not. Both need to give a curtain amount of information to intrigue the audience and keep a curtain amount of information hidden to keep the audience guessing. We knew, in the example above, the Reaper was coming, but we didn’t know if the babysitter was going to escape. (Actually, we still don’t know if she lived or died, or at least you don’t ;). This leads to the last point Hitchcock made in the video above– Must the Reaper never kill the babysitter or has the audience member changed in the last few decades? Has the tragedy become the new “happy ending”? I will address this question in my next post.

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

A True Artist

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on August 19, 2011

Did you know I do not like Alfred Hitchcock very much? Yes that is right, I do not like the master of suspense. The thing is I am fine with calling Alfred the master of suspense. He has done some brilliant things with suspense. My favorite movie of his is Psycho. I was dreading every turn in that movie. Killing off the main character half way through the film was brilliant. You had no idea what was going to happen after that. Hitchcock could give you a fright like no one else in the film business. However, none of this stuff makes me think Hitchcock was a great filmmaker. I personally think he was a very shallow filmmaker. After watching Psycho I was ready to eat not think.

Hitchcock’s films never felt like they went very much farther then the movie theater. They were admirable from a filmmaking standpoint but not from a personal standpoint. His suspense and storylines all felt like a means to an end not a beginning. I was reviewing a interview the other day on the artist Ralf Eggleston. He is a art director at Pixar. He talked about the importance of getting the idea down. He explained if you are not doing your art for the idea and emotion but only to make it pretty, it is not worth your time. Even though he was talking about the art of animation in his interview I think what he says applies to filmmaking in general. It is not good enough to have one of the two. If we create a movie with a lot of emotions, like Hitchcock did, but there is no real idea behind your film it won’t be worth much. If you create a movie with a lot of good ideas but don’t get the audience emotionally involved, we won’t care. Filmmaking is about the emotion and idea. Only when it is about both the emotion and idea, does it stop being a “nice thought” or “pretty picture”, and become something that will impact generations.

Most filmmakers these days don’t need to worry about falling low on the “emotion” aspect of movie making. They have all the tools to take us on an emotional roller coaster ride. However, most of the emotions they give us are pretty shallow. They know how to give us magnificent action sequences, luxurious love scenes, and gut wrenching shock moments. However, the ride ends as soon as you leave the movie theater. Their films usually do not satisfy because they don’t make us think. The audience is not as stupid as most movies these days lead us to believe. We can think, we actually want to think. The great filmmakers know this and they create characters, stories, and worlds that can be explored far after the audience member leaves the theater. Painting should never be about just making something look pretty and neither should film. We should not do our job just to give the audience eye candy.

Filmmaking is a personal medium where the emotion and idea is everything. Your films will stand and fall based on the strength of the idea and how well you are able to connect your audience. You are not a great artist because you can draw a pretty picture. The piece of art does not need to be pretty, it needs to be impacting. A great artist is someone who can impact us through the picture he draws, paints, or films. I personally want to make films that impact and at times even change peoples lives.  A true artist is a servant to the idea not the audience. Just, usually the best way to express the idea is through entertaining the audience. The reason why I want to give the audience a piece of “entertainment” is so they can be open to the actual idea I am presenting. You want your films to be warm enough to have audiences feel they are allowed in. However, don’t show them everything they want to see. Show them something that will impact and challange their thinking. People go to the movies to see things they haven’t seen before. Our jobs as filmmakers and artists is to explore new ideas, show the audience new perspectives, and unlock their imagination.

What Makes a Great Film?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 14, 2011

What makes a great film?

Is it cutting? The music? Many people say that it is the actor. Or maybe, maybe it is the idea that makes for a great film. Of course the idea can’t be expressed very well if you don’t have a good director. So is it the director?

Actually, you sort of need all of them.

I am trying to tackle a pretty untouchable subject here. There have been people who have devoted their entire lives to discovering what makes a great film. How possibly can a twenty one year old explain it?

Actually the question arises after researching a broad range of directors. Through out the last few months I have devoted my studies to understanding filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, Frank Capra, and Marin Scorsese. All these guys are considered good. In fact, by many they are considered masters at the craft of filmmaking. However, the more research I put into these guys, the more I realize that they have completely different styles of filmmaking. So I guess the question is; if all these guys are great filmmakers but have completely different ways of going about making films, then what is the magic formula? What makes for great films?

I will tell you one thing, I certainly like certain directors movies more then others. Frank Capra’s movies speak volumes more to me then Hitchcock’s. David Fincher, has curtain movies that speak to me more then others. Scorsese’ style is completely unique and stimulating, but the heart can sometimes hardly be seen. I can see the true talent in all these directors, but why do they not impact me in the same way or to the same extent.

Of course every movie you see should not impact you in the same way. The beauty of movies is that they all give you at least some kind of different way of thinking of things. However, realizing that all movies are different and make you think in different ways, makes the question, “what makes a great film?”, all the more complex and hard to answer.

All I can give you in this personal blog is my opinion on what makes a great film. A great film is not necessarily created through epic actions scenes, a happy ending, or a complex story line. A great film is a film that has stayed true to the heart of the director. With all the directors I have researched, one thing is consistent; They all have a visions that they will not allow to be altered.

A great director makes a film that is personal to him or her. The reason why the films are unique is because each one of the directors are unique. All of the great directors I have studied have a rich education. They learned to perfect the way they deal with camera, acting, music, and editing. But that is not what makes them great. They have learned how to separate themselves from other filmmakers and movies. They takes risks and create stories that the producers and even themselves are not completely sure about.

Some of the greatest movies ever made are the ones were said to never be able to make it. Whether it is Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the directors pushed through and made their movie no matter how many doubters they faced.

What I look for more then anything when I am studying directors is the origin of their passion. I want to see the vision behind the movie’s they made. What made them push the envelope? What made them convinced something completely unfamiliar was going to work? If you want to know what makes for a great film, you need to figure out what makes for a great artist.

A great artist consists of individuality more then anything else. As a Christian I believe God gave us all a unique vision. The great filmmakers fallow that vision whether they know the author or not. We as filmmakers need to be able to figure out the technique. We need to know how to deal with the camera, acting, music, and editing. But all this is worth very little if you do not have a vision. The vision dictates all the other things. And, following the vision is indeed what makes for a great film.

Suspense Vs. Heart

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on September 21, 2010

I have been studying two directors who seemed to be the best of the best at two very different specialties in film. One is known for being the master of suspense and the other is considered to be the master at creating the heart felt emotion. The two I am talking about are the two that you see on your left, Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra. These are two of the greatest film directors in history and both seemed to have completely different ideas on what film making was all about.

Alfred Hitchcock knew exactly how to use the camera in order to create that curtain feeling that completely held us back in suspense. We were both dreading and longing to see what was going to happen next. Hitchcock thought it was his job to be the audience’s entertainment. That is why he thought the audience went to movies, so they could be “entertained”. He created entertainment through drawing our attention completely to what was happening on screen. Hitchcock demanded the audiences complete attention and made us get involved with the film. We needed to put two and two together. He made it so we thought we knew what was going to happen next, creating an extreme suspense because we did not want our theory to be correct. Hitchcock’ mastery was in the ups and downs and twists and turns he was able to put us through. As soon as we thought we knew what was going to happen next, Hitchcock would change it on us. Hitchcock would intentionally lead us  to believe one thing in order to surprise us with the reality of a completely different thing. In the best of Hitchcock movies we were entertained throughout the picture, always interested in what was going to happen next, and completely surprised throughout the unfolding of the story.

Frank Capra was not a man full of twists and turns. His movies were not built on suspense or on a fear that a murderer would pop out of nowhere and kill the main character. Frank Capra’s movies were full of ups and downs. They had some deep and often meaningful but sad commentaries on real life. His movies were full of villains that were not about physically kill the body but instead they were about destroying the soul of the protagonist. Frank’s movies seemed to be more about overcoming the corruption of society through the belief in the best of human nature. Through Frank’s great direction in comedy and depth in character development, he created very entertaining movies. However, it seems that film making was more then just entertainment to Capra, it was a way to make his voice heard in the world, film was his appeal to make the most out of our lives and use the examples from his films as inspiration to make this world a better place.

I no doubt think that Frank Capra’s style of film making is more interesting and meaningful then Alfred Hitchcock’. I think that film needs to be first and foremost about appealing to the good in human nature and a beckoning to make this world a better place. However, I think that Alfred Hitchcock’ suspense is loved by so many people for a reason. Suspense is entertaining and I have been learning a great deal through the way Hitchcock went about creating his films.

So this finally comes to the blog title, Suspense Vs. Heart. The title accurately expresses the difference between Capra films and Hitchcock films. However, I think good filmmakers will learn from both styles of film making, for good films have both suspense and heart. We as filmmakers are essentially entertainers, our job is to keep the audience interested in the story we are trying to tell . It does not matter how powerful of a message we have if we can not attain and keep the audience’s attention. Suspense can often be a powerful tool for holding attention. We need to give enough information for the audience to stay on the edge of their seats and we need a good pay off at the end. Having our worst fears come to realization often creates a strong immediate emotion, however I feel that it often wears off after a short while. I think the greatest pay off is the kind that sticks with you. We want to build suspense and then give the audience something they will talk about later that night and remember for years to come. We as filmmakers should have ambitions to create emotions that go much farther then immediate shock.We need to create emotions that appeal to the heart, where we can start to break molds and create change.

I think entertainment is the best way to get a message across to a group of people. In all my movies I want to create stories and characters that people have not seen before. Both Capra and Hitchcock created the type of movies that were never seen before and have not quite been seen sense. You as a filmmaker want to create an experience that the audience has never had before. However, we must always remember why we are doing what we are doing. I consider film making to be about expressing images and ideas that go farther then plain entertainment. The filmmakers viewpoint must not just be dropped after the audience leaves the movie theater, our films need to appeal to the very reasons to why we live our lives. The greatest type of films are the ones that stay with us and change us. In order to get those kind of films we need both suspense and heart.

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)