A Dreamer Walking

Steven Spielberg – Director – Saving Private Ryan

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 4, 2014

Spielberg #1

Saving Private Ryan is one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest films. This film revolutionized the war and action genre . It brought a grittiness to the World War II scene not seen before in cinema. There is no attempt by Spielberg or Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to glamorize the action depicted in the movie. In fact, Spielberg and his crew worked extra hard to take away the glamorization of war in the the film by showing the drastic consequences of the fighting. They made us feel as if we were in the midst of the battles taking place and they forced us to witness the casualties along with the successes of war. Spielberg wasn’t afraid to linger on the moments most audience members would like to bypass. We saw soldiers with limbs blown off. We observed characters die slow deaths. And most importantly we were made to care about most the characters who ended up making the ultimate sacrifice. After watching a movie like Captain America: The Winter Solider I get the feeling the only characters who are allowed to die in today’s blockbusters are the characters who have no sentimental value to the audience. The heroes in the pictures are always going to make it through no matter how bad the scenario gets. They need to for the sequels, right? However, the problem with this lack of consequence is we begin to stop caring. No matter how great the visuals the suspense has been taken away because we know everything will be fine in the end.

Now back to Saving Private Ryan. I wanted to concentrate on this moment in the film because I believe Spielberg does something here few directors are capable of doing. He has the patience and faith to slow things down. This scene takes place towards the very end of the movie. These two characters, Captain Miller and Private Ryan, are listening to music and having a casual conversation about home life. Slowly during the conversation we forget about war and the improbable situation the soldiers are in. Instead, thanks to a superb performance by Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, we are transported back home. Spielberg doesn’t use flashbacks; he has faith in his actors. He gives Damon’s character the time to relate a fun story about when he last saw all his brothers alive. Private Ryan is only introduced towards the end of the second act of the movie, but this moment allows us to completely buy into his character and root for his success.

The visuals you see in this frame actually make for a good contrast of the story Private Ryan is telling. There is no questioning these two characters are soldiers in the middle of a war. The costuming, scenery, and body language all say as much. I love how Captain Miller looks more battle weary then Private Ryan. Ryan just looks a little more headstrong then Miller – where we see Miller sitting back Ryan sits forward. The story Ryan tells is also upbeat where in the past when Miller told about his background it was told in a more somber tone. All this is setting up the last act of the movie. Spielberg is allowing the story to breath before he throws us into the climax of the film. After Ryan’s story is done everything has been set up. We have had time to take a break from the war scene. The connection between Miller and Ryan has been set. And we the audience have a new found appreciation for Ryan and the kind of guy he is back home. This scene just goes to show Spielberg understands if we don’t care for the characters it doesn’t matter how magnificent the action is we will simply not invest.


Suspense 101: Creating Meaning

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 4, 2012

Great suspense does not come through mastering its technique. Of course without good technique you can’t create good suspense. But, as I said in past posts Hitchcock is considered by many, including myself, to be the master of the technique of suspense yet for me his films rarely exceed the level of mediocrity. I have yet to find a non film student who thinks any more then I do about Hitchcock’s movies. His characters are too one dimensional and dry. We never are able to really connect with them. When the audience can’t connect with the characters of a film the film’s suspense loses it’s power.

What matters more then perfecting the technique of suspense is creating a story where the suspense has true meaning. You must establish the characters before you put them in danger. You must give them a voice that is unique and approachable. In a world full of violence where we imitate killing people for kicks and giggles, in games like Call of Duty and Halo, we require more connection then ever before if we are to care about a characters wellbeing. The reason why the most action and suspense is held until the end of a film is because the climax is the time the audience is most involved with the story they are watching. One of the greatest mistakes a filmmaker can make is trying to put too much suspense and action into a movie. Most young filmmakers today feel they will bore their audience if they don’t have a big chase, sex scene, or gun fight every ten minutes. A monster does not need to be around every corner.

What you need to make sure you have is interesting characters and a good story. To create good suspense you need to understand its place in storytelling. Suspense can not carry a film, it is only the icing on top. The combination of great story and just the right amount of icing is what makes film so worth watching.

Suspense is created through uncertainty. As I have said before, the uncertainty in a story does not need to come from a character being in physical danger. The uncertainty in film revolves around the arc of the story. The arc of a story usually has to do with the inner and outer conflict of the main protagonist. For example, the outer conflict might be the young man trying to win over the woman of his dreams. However the inner conflict would be something like the young man fighting to believe in himself enough to pursue the girl. The more invested we are with the inner conflict the more interested we will be in finding out if he will get the girl or not. My problem with Hitchcock is he is usually just concentrated on the outer conflict, which creates a much weaker suspense. The suspense generated from inner conflict is like adding several more strings in order to create a much stronger rope. You are taking a risk when you dive into inner conflict, because you force your audience to get emotionally involved. Like any kind of deep relationship, you have the potential to break one’s heart.

Hitchcock said the reason suspense is so much better then shock, is because suspense lasts and entertains for much longer. The reason I believe emotional suspense is better then just physical suspense is because I believe emotional suspense lasts much longer. When you connect a character with your audience you create a bond that lasts much longer then any movie. You bring the uncertainty the audience member observed in the theater and make them reflect upon it in their own lives. We begin to wonder if we can do the things we saw those characters do on screen. We begin to start our own journey and create our own arc.

Suspense has the power to entertain. It does not have the power to satisfy. In order to satisfy we need to go beyond suspense and into substance. We need to make our stories worth telling and give our audience something to take away and come back to.

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: 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

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

The Power of Wonder

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on July 14, 2011

“Satisfaction is the end of desire”

I first heard this quote come from Steven Spielberg when he was on Inside the Actors Studio.  I think far too often filmmakers make the mistake of feeling they need to satisfy all their audiences needs; all the questions need to be answered and everything you show needs to be explained. However, I find when films give the audience all the answers there is no wonder left and when there is no wonder there is no interest….. and if you have no interest you have a empty movie theater :/

Steven Spielberg talked about the longer he could hold the audience in suspense the better. Every movie has suspense. Whether it is through the question of, “What kind of monster is going to come around the corner” or “What is this character going to choose to do”, we as filmmakers are demanding the audiences attention through the power of wonder and suspense. It is the filmmaker job to learn to use the power of wonder and suspense wisely. If we give the audience too much information they have no reason to keep watching the movie. However, if we do not give the audience enough information they will leave and not be coming back.

An important thing to understand is the audience brings their imagination with them to the movies. It is not our job to show the audience all of the world the characters live in, we just need to show them some of the world and they will create for themselves the rest. It is not our job to show the audience all the hardships and happiness our characters have gone through, hint to a little and the audience will imagine a lot. As filmmakers our job is to guide the audience. We must understand the audience can think for themselves, we just need to give them something to think about.

The best kind of movies for me are the ones where I feel every character I see has a story worth telling. Great films like the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars series give plenty of wonder for us to carry away from the movie theater and think about for days on end. One of my favorite pass times as a kid was going outside with my brother and continuing the stories of the movies we had watched. Of course we would improvise and create our own plots, but we were originally inspired by the worlds and characters we saw on TV and in the movie theater.

In every story there needs to be a curtain amount of satisfaction. As I said before, if you do not give the audience enough they will not be coming back.  However, movies should not give you stories with a beginning and an end but rather a beginning with no end. Do not ever make a movie where an audience member is looking at his watch wondering when the film is going to get done. Keep them wanting more. The story keeps on going on even if the chapter is finished. We are not supposed to tie everything up into a perfect bow for the audience but rather keep on giving them a reason to come back to the worlds we have awoken. It is through wonder that people keep on returning to the movie theater. They do not want to be entertained just for two hours. They want us to create something they can keep going back to and even show their kids someday. We as filmmakers need to inspire, so other filmmakers can create worlds and stories we can’t even imagine. Wonder is what keeps us living and wanting to explore. We must constantly remind ourselves we work in a medium of wonder where there are no limits.

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.

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.