A Dreamer Walking

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 Audience’s Comfort

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 14, 2012

Andrew Stanton said in a recent interview that there is nothing he likes more then to feel he is in good hands at the beginning of a film. He wants to know that there is a master storyteller helming the wheel and he is in for a great adventure. You want to let your audience know they are not wasting their time, that they are seeing something they have never seen before. This however has more to do with trust than comfort.

Honestly the new is often uncomfortable for the audience member. Most of the entertainment in film comes from creating a story that puts the audience in suspense. We put the audience in suspense through putting the audience in a state of unease.

One of my greatest problems with most classic films from the 30’s through the 50’s is the clear black and white line they draw with almost every situation and every character. There usually is a clear good guy and a clear villain. The goal is obvious and usually not too deep or insightful. Classic westerns, for example, tried extra hard to villainize the Indians so we didn’t need to think twice when one of them were shot. The Hollywood system created stars who were reliable. The good guys were always good.  The bad guys were always bad.  And, the beautiful women were always beautiful. Even John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart, with a few exceptions, were characters who seemed to have rough edges but were dependable for coming to their senses at the end of the film. The result from this was a lack of suspense, specifically for the younger audience member. Because the big studios were unwilling to take many risks and create characters who walked the line between good and evil and create stories that did not always end in the politically correct way, the studios’ power over the film industry died off. In the sixties we saw the rise of the independent filmmaker. These filmmakers began to blur the moral line with films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), to the point that in the 70’s our interest in the anti hero grew, expressed most vividly in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver  it was hard to know what was going to happen in any given scene. Scorsese and writer, Paul Shrader, put us in a state of unease by creating a main character, Travis Bickle, who was always in a questionable state of sanity. He was not out to do the right thing, however he wasn’t the villain. He was the character we were supposed to get to know the most in the film. The choice he made at the end of the film brought us as an audience out of our comfort zone. He did not choose to do the right thing like we were so used to. Instead, he commits a great crime and gets away with it. The film did not give us any clear answers. We didn’t know who to hate and we did not know who to like. The film did things we were not used to and had a character we were not morally in agreement with, which put us in a state of unease. This unease created a suspense that made each scene more interesting to us.

I am not saying you should create films with characters we can’t like or who don’t do the right thing sometimes. However, don’t try to please us when making your story and characters. Every character you make should have both good and bad qualities. We are not supposed to like everything about them. A good example of what I am talking about is the TV series Deadwood. In the series we are introduced to a ton of characters, all of whom have both good and bad qualities. Through out the three seasons the series aired we explored several different aspects of these characters and found that some of the characters we first labeled “villain’s” had truly redeeming qualities, and some of the characters we thought of as “hero’s” were corrupt and wrongdoers in many ways.

The series Deadwood kept its audience on their feet in many clever ways. It was a show where the audience was not supposed to be comfortable. They took us out of our comfort zone by having the characters talk in extremely profane ways. David Milch, the show’s creator, knew that the language by itself would help the audience realize we were not watching any old classic western. In all of the first four to five episodes we see a character die. Some of whom seemed to be quite established. This took us out of our comfort zone and created interest and suspense. Viewers never knew exactly what was going to happen. There were things I saw in the series that I was morally against and frustrated with. However, the more I thought about it the more I was happy with Milch choosing to go against the audience’s expectations and do the politically incorrect thing.

You will never satisfy every audience member with your movie. Don’t try. Take the audience out of their comfort zone and do things we are not used to. You will now doubt have your share of critics if you choose this path. But, it will make your films worth something. Your personal vision on any given subject is what matters. To take the unknown path is not only scary for your audience but you as well. However, it’s the very thing that keeps the cinema alive. The unexpected keeps the audience member interested, connected, and inspired.

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!

The Pen of a Filmmaker

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 16, 2011

Making a movie is sort of like creating a piece of literature. Your pen is the camera and the paper is the canvas for the world you are going to create. It is the filmmakers job to figure out what to write and how to space it. You can even say something like “cutting” is the equivalent of  “periods” and “exclamation marks“ in writing.

What a good filmmaker tries to do is create a rhythm or a flow to his or her movie. We need to not only have a good story but also be able to express it in a way that is interesting and unique. Literature has many different ways of expressing itself. There is plain factual writings (text books), fictional and non-functional writings, poetry, journalism, ant etc… All of these types of writings can take a subject and express it in completely different ways.

One of the beauties of filmmaking is we have many ways to express ourselves. In fact the tools for film are getting more extensive every day. It is like we have paint brushes today that filmmakers in the past could only dream of having.

The extensive amount of tools we have today to express ourselves do not make the films of the past look like armatures however. It is good to study the great filmmakers of the past if not for the sole purpose of understanding how they could express so much with so little.

It is a common mistake for most young filmmakers today to care more about the tools then the actual subject matter. I have worked with many fellow students who seemed so caught up in making a cool shot or pulling off a cool effect that they forgot about the core of what filmmaking is about. In literary terms it is like writers who are so interested in using sophisticated words that they forget to think about the meaning behind them.  The core of filmmaking is and must always be the story. The meaning behind the effect or cool shot is what matters. Everything should be done to support and express the story in the best way possible.

Even if your story is just some factual information that you want to get across to the audience (News), the first question should be, “how can I best communicate this information to the audience?”. The cool shots and fantastic special effects should only be used to make the information more clear and more acceptable to the audience.

Figuring out the different ways we can express ourselves in film is like looking into the different ways people express themselves in writing. Even if something like poetry is not your thing it is a good idea to try to understand it. The ways filmmakers can express themselves is endless. The more I look into film the vaster the medium seems to get. I personally think this is a good thing.

I want to be a great filmmaker like any writer wants to be a great author. I think that the similarities between the two mediums are fascinating. Looking at the camera like it is your pen is a good analogy. We have the potential to make mistakes and create masterpieces. However, nothing will happen until you are able to build up the guts to put pen to paper.

(By the way, this is post 100! Thank you so very much for everyone who has been checking out this blog. I will try my best to continue to improve my writing and push my dreams forward. I am glad you are can share in my experiences. Do not be afraid to comment and tell me what you think 🙂 )