It’s common for beginners to get caught up in metaphors, character psychology, and symbolism -- those things that high school English teachers beat into us. Yes, intellectual complexity makes for a good story -- and good art. But, those things aren’t going to keep your viewers engaged. Filmmakers should never let highbrow complacency get in the way of good showmanship. Alfred Hitchcock at his best found the perfect balance between the two.
With Hitchcock, his primary goal was to make things as easy for the audience as possible to understand. He removed all vagueness. That way, once he had you, he could make the suspense even stronger.
At Hitch20, we’ve been studying Hitchcock’s 20 works of television, and here are some techniques that have come to the forefront in our research. Employing these tactics into your films is sure to make for a better audience experience:
Some jokes only work when told by a certain comedian. It’s all about the attitude, tone, and personality that the crowd buys into before the joke even begins. The same is true for film. If the viewer doesn’t feel the attitude of the director behind the camera, they might not get the film. At its basic level, a film is like a campfire tale being told by a skilled storyteller. By creating a strong storytelling presence, your film could avoid falling flat.
Hitchcock did this by crafting his own brand as a recognizable director -- through his cameos, his TV introductions, and his clever manipulation of the press. He built up his persona so well that you can’t help but feel his storytelling hand behind each camera move. Our episode on “The Perfect Crime” tells us how he did it:
Once you realize this next trick, you’ll start seeing it in some of your favorite films. Get your audience involved early in a secret that only one character knows. If this secret gets out then all is lost and the story will end. Then, tease your audience by setting up situations where that secret almost gets out but doesn’t. The other characters are hopelessly unaware but just might stumble upon the secret by accident. This allows the hero’s anxiety to build tension each time they’re about to get caught. We explore facets of this in several of our Hitch20 episodes. Here’s one:
Focus on Simplicity
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that your film can’t have intellectual complexity, but the focus of the narrative (the things your camera focuses on) should be small, trivial, and simple. Your scene might be about an epic lovers’ quarrel, but they should be fighting about the car keys, or the TV remote. Tying your epic story to trivial objects allows your camera to do the dramatic work, and makes the story more fun to follow. After all, who cares about a couple fighting? But when a missing USB drive turns up in the meatloaf -- that’s visual storytelling!
Hitchcock liked to focus simply on eyes, hands, and feet. The eyes glance at something, the feet show confidence in a surrounding (or lack thereof), the hands hold onto an important object. This visual simplicity makes it much easier for the audience to follow the character’s logic.
Stream of Consciousness
There are many ways to get into a characters mind, but one that is often overlooked is a stream of consciousness narration. Let the audience hear the hero’s thoughts in a voice-over in real time during the action of the scene. They did this a lot on Seinfeld to great comic effect. The fact that we can hear Elaine’s thoughts allows us to share a personal moment:
In the same way, we are glued to Joseph Cotton’s every thought because he is paralyzed and has no way to signal to his rescuers that he’s still alive:
The trend today is with fragmented framing, shaky-cam, and fast editing. While this can enhance tension if used cleverly, it’s is a lazy way of synthetically imposing tension onto a scene that isn’t already there, and it can fatigue your audience if overused. Strategically mix in some long shots. Using long shots can hold onto tension already inherent in the scene and allow your set space to become a tension device. Even adjusting the camera’s distance to the actors can manipulate intensity in a single shot:
Dramatic space allows two opposing forces to interact within a single frame (often foreground vs. background). Tracking shots through the length of a space can enhance an emotional reaction. In “Lamb to the Slaughter”, Hitchcock found clever ways to generate tension in the space of a simple three-room set:
Whether you’re making a thriller, drama, or even a comedy, Hitchcock’s techniques can lure your audience into the story quicker and hold onto their attention longer. Learn more in our docu-series Hitch20, free on YouTube.