A Dreamer Walking

Suspense 101: The Unexpected

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 6, 2012

Hitchcock says after you tell the audience the bomb is going to go off it must never go off. If the bomb goes off and the character your audience cares about ends up dead the audience will be displeased and might even walk out on you. At least, this is how the movie going audience was in Hitchcock’s day. Today it is a bit different.

We have a job as filmmakers to satisfy our audience. We must satisfy them enough for them to want to come back again. This does not mean we need to give the audience everything they want. The audience member has come to expect a happy ending. They have begun to understand our tricks. Suspense is not as strong in film anymore because the audience knows in the end everything will be alright. Today, film must not be so predictable. Loss is needed to keep the suspense in film alive. If you have a small bomb go off and kill some key characters in the middle of the film your audience will be more worried about the bomb at the end of the film.

Audience members want to believe in what they see. For them to believe, our stories must feel real. They need to have all the joy and pain we see in everyday life. Everything does not go just right in our own life, neither should it go just right in film. The key element in both suspense and mystery is wonder. We don’t know what will happen. Keep the wonder alive and you will keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Even if a “happy ending” is eventually going to happen don’t give in until the last possible moment. Andrew Stanton (writer of Toy Story 1 & 2Finding Nemo, and Wall-E) talked about the importance of suspense in the Pixar films. In the first Toy Story movie Woody is given a match toward the beginning of the third act. At the end of the act Woody and Buzz are chasing Andy’s van when the battery of the remote control car runs out. All is lost until Woody realizes he has the match and could set Buzz’s rocket on fire and catch up with the van. He lights the match and is about to light the rocket when a car drives over them and extinguishes  the match. The surprise, dread, and heartbreak created in every 3rd-8th grader was priceless. Eventually Woody lights the rocket and get to Andy’s van, but there was a tremendous amount of entertainment generated by the creators of Toy Story not giving into the audience’s expectations right away. Pixar just got better after the original Toy Story. They had Woody save Jesse in Toy Story 2 only to have the plane door close right before they were able to jump out. They had Lotso Hugging Bear get up to the “stop” button only to not press it and doom the whole toy gang to be terminated in the furnace in Toy Story 3. Only when all hope is gone and the audience truly begins to wonder if the Pixar creators are really going to let these toys, we have come to love, die does “The Claw” come and save them.

Filmmakers must walk a delicate line. If you draw the suspense out for too long you will exhaust the audience. If you go against what the audience wants you run the risk of pissing them off. Great film is created when the creators get the little details right. I think the most important thing is to go with your gut. As Frank Capra (director of It Happened One Night, and It’s a Wonderful Life) said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness”. Your story will be dull if the audience knows what is going to happen. Keep them guessing. Tension is only created when the audience does not know what is going to happen next.

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

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

The Responsiblity of the Filmmaker

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on December 16, 2011

I watched something the other day that pissed me off. It was a “Christmas Special” video created by the Christian youth group I used to attend.  In the video we see a group of college students acting as cliche secret agents whose mission is to hunt down Santa Claus. Watching the video it is obvious these guys are inspired by games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and movies like Man on Fire and the Transformers franchise. In the video we see these guys load up on their share of guns and follow a lead to where Santa might be hiding. They find Santa Claus and like we often see in violent video games and movies, they murder him. There is absolutely no explanation as to why Santa Claus is dangerous and why he needs to be murdered. The guy portraying Santa acts like a stupid monkey. He is nothing like the character we associate with Christmas except he is wearing a similar suit. The driving force behind the film is a bunch of loud music taken from the soundtracks of many big budget movies and a bunch of college kids who don’t look like they know the first thing on how to actually handle a gun. They play around with objects that can KILL people like it’s the “cool” thing to do. They seem completely unaware of the example they are making for the mostly younger audience watching the video at the youth group. What boggles me is that the video was able to be played in an actual youth group (you know, the kind that claims they want to follow God). The youth group is filled with a bunch of middle schoolers and high schoolers, including my younger sister. Leadership didn’t even seem to think twice about it. One of my friends, and one time mentor in film, who works at IHOP (International House Of Prayer) called the filmmakers who created the film “cinematic geniuses”.

I wonder why movies with any kind of sexually explicit material are condemned by the church while movies with mindless violence are  not only accepted but produced by the Church. We all know what words like “frick” and “fricken” are substitutes for, yet for this “Christmas Special” it was perfectly fine to use them. I guess in this instance it was okay to break the spirit of the law as long as they kept to the letter. I stopped really caring about building based Christianity a long time ago.  However, the video I saw the other day is not okay whether you do or do not go to Church or are or are not a Christian.

I am probably not going to get many people who agree with me in this post but I need to express my opinion on this kind of ignorance in filmmaking. Film is a huge source of entertainment, but it is also something else. It’s influential. It is a powerful medium that influences the direction of nations. There are many talented filmmakers out there who create some really crappy stuff. One of the reasons I have not chosen to do a study on a talented filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino is because I so morally disagree with the glamorization of violence in his films. I have heard interviews of Tarantino saying he thinks violence is just a way to entertain. He does not think he is actually harming anyone in his films by “entertaining” people through showing  someone slashing up another mans face or carving a swastika in someones forehead. In my opinion that is like saying children who watch their fathers abuse their mothers every night are not getting harmed because the violence is not being taken out on them. What we see has an impact on us. The sexual stuff we see on television and in the movies has an impact on what the public thinks about sex. The language we hear used in the media influences the way we talk. The same goes for violence.

I have been truly impacted by the violence I have seen in film. Movies like Schindler’s List and Blood Diamond were extremely sobering for me. They allowed me to understand true evils going on in this world and they pushed me to do something about them. However games like Modern Warfare and movies like Transformers and Inglorious Bastards have done the opposite for me. Their purpose is to entertain through showing graphic violence. They have numbed me. They have stopped me from understanding the true consequences of abuse and murder. Abortion is at a all time high, there are millions of people dying from starvation each year, and we still have tens of thousands of people in our own nation committing suicide. Why? Because we have not been taught responsibility, we don’t care about death, and we are not given enough of a reason to live. Film can help change this. Film has the power to teach people about responsibility, to let them understand what it means to kill, and give them a reason to live. Yet with  every Schindler’s List caliber film, there are ten times as many Inglorious Bastard‘s. The new Modern Warfare game just past Avatar as the fastest game/movie to get to the one billion dollar mark, only taking sixteen days.  At least in movies we are just observers of the killing going on, in the game Modern Warfare we are the ones doing the killing.

It is much easier to be ignorant of what violence, vulgar language, and sexually explicit material does to our psyche. This is not a blog telling you never to use that kind of material in film. In film we see all kinds of characters. Many of the characters I see and many I create I don’t agree with. However, my motivation for filmmaking is to make this world a better place. Film can do wondrous things. Film is the art form of the 21st century. The medium gives us understanding of the past and vision for the future. So, my question is what will our future be? As filmmakers will we contribute to the kind of entertainment that numbs us to the evils of this world? Or will we take on responsibility as filmmakers and give our audiences an entertainment that gives them a vision for a better tomorrow?

It breaks my heart when I see media used in such destructive ways from people who claim to be following the same God as I am. The vision and responsibility I have as a filmmaker comes from my Creator. I along with those who made this “Christmas Special” can give the rest of this world vision and hope. We can show others how great our God is. Instead too much of Christian media seems to be full of condemnation, double standards, and lack of vision. It’s time to change. It’s time to take our role as people who claim to know the “truth”, seriously. We can be open to the world while not being a product of it. Let us be the light on top of the hill and give this world visions that reflect the heart of our Creator.

Was that Funny?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 3, 2011

Humor in the media these days seems to be full of belittling and mockery. It is an appeal to the lowest common denominator of our society. As if we are still kids who can’t feel strong unless we put someone else down.

I saw an article on CartoonBrew yesterday that really frustrated me. It was a phony letter that The Onion posted of John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Pixar animation, basically insulting everyone who considers Pixar to be a great studio. The title of the article was Commentary: I’ve Got you Dumb Motherfuckers Eating Right out of my Hands. I still do not understand how this article is accepted as being “funny”. Has our conscious really gone that far down the toilet?

I originally said on the comment section that it might just be my inability to understand the kind of humor represented in The Onion. But after thinking about it, I have realized that is not the case. I understand the humor. I have been part of both sides, the person mocking and the person getting getting mocked. To be honest I usually laughed no matter what side I was on. I have news, just because someone is laughing does not mean that someone thinks it’s funny.

In most cases, if a child is getting mocked, he tries to avoid any more attention then he has to. Thus, laughing along with the bully settles the bullies need to feel superior and the bully leaves, at least for a little while. But if you are getting your high from the belittling of someone else, you are never really satisfied. The bully always comes back and usually the insults become more intense.

Why are there bullies? Why is the kind of humor that puts others down okay these days? It partially has to do with the abused inability to stand up for himself. Usually the case is that the abused just takes the abuse and eventually becomes the abuser to someone else. But, the key reason why verbal insults and mockery keeps on spreading is because the type of abuse has a audience. We keep on laughing.

Belittling and mockery is the easy way out. Anyone can put someone down and sadly that is what most comedies rely on these days. But the comedians and movies that rely on belittling and mockery for humor, will not last. That kind of humor is easy to come by. It does not take much talent to push someone down, anyone can do it.

The bottom line is that the audience chooses what stays and goes in the entertainment business. If we are okay with the bare minimum, we will be given the bare minimum. If we start to stand up for something greater the industry will be forced to produce higher quality work.

Let’s not laugh just because the canned laughter ques us to laugh. We need to look at humor in a different way. Even with humor you need to think about what you are getting out of it and why you are laughing. Humor has the power to reveal truths about the society we live in and the kind of people we are. Humor can even help us examine those truths. Humor has the power to strengthen the insecure and reveal injustice. Humor has the power to lift our nation up rather then push it down. It is our choice!