Want to create nail-biting suspense? Want your audience hanging on tenterhooks? Brett Lamb looks to the experts to gather some tips and techniques for creating edge-of-your-seat tension in Dial S for Suspense.
Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, once famously explained the feeling by describing a bomb underneath a table. If the bomb explodes, the audience is given a shock. In a suspense film, however, the audience knows there’s a bomb underneath the table. It’s rigged to explode at noon and the clock is ticking. ‘In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene,’ Hitchcock explained. ‘In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.’
Suspense, then, is a feeling of anxiety that accompanies uncertainty about the outcome of a scene. At the beginning of Valkyrie (Bryan Singer, 2008), the audience is kept in suspense as Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) attempts to recover a bomb that failed to detonate. Singer uses dramatic music and low-key lighting to create unbearable tension as von Tresckow apprehensively attempts to retrieve the explosives. David Fincher uses slow motion and sound editing to heighten the tension in Panic Room (2002) when Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) leaves the safety of the panic room for a few nail-biting seconds in order to retrieve her cell phone.
But suspense isn’t just a staple of horror films and thrillers. Even in romance there is an opportunity to exploit dramatic tension. In the final scene of Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005), Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and Mr Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) meet in a fog-filled field. Long silences and lingering shots of the characters to draw out the suspense before they kiss.
Creating a suspenseful short film is a precarious balancing act that starts in pre-production and continues until the final cut of your film. It requires an awareness of audience, story, characters and how to effectively exploit the language of film.
To keep reading this article pick up a copy of Screen Education, Issue 67. Screen Education is a quarterly publication by the Australian Teachers of Media, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting digital literacy. Every issue is packed full of great articles to help you teach film, media and digital literacy. If your school doesn’t already have a subscription to Screen Education, get one now!
Use these techniques to ratchet up the suspense in your short films.
Handheld camera movement
When you’re making a film, the camera can be used in a variety of ways to generate suspense and contribute to the overall effectiveness of a scene. Although handheld camera movement has long been a convention of documentary film, there are many directors who have used it to increase the suspense in narrative films. In The Strangers, director Bryan Bertino uses handheld camera movement to create an unnerving sense of reality. The camera movement itself is subtle – only slightly restless – and conveys the impression that this is something real that happened to be caught on camera.
In The Village (2004), M Night Shyamalan uses framing to create suspense when Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is threatened by one of the creatures inhabiting the woods around her village. Standing on her front porch with her hand outstretched, Shyamalan uses space on the right hand side of the frame to imply that the threat will come from this direction. Instead, the creature emerges from the darkness in the middle of the frame. In 28 Days Later (2002), Danny Boyle uses shot size to create suspense when the characters are changing a car tyre in a tunnel. Cutting from a tight shot of the tyre to shots of the infected running towards them, Boyle generates suspense by denying his viewers an opportunity to properly assess the threat.
Point of view shots
Point-of-view shots are another powerful way to create suspense, allowing the audience to see through the eyes of a character. This helps the audience to identify with characters and makes them feel as if they’re in the scene themselves. In Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971), point-of-view shots are used extensively to encourage the audience to identify with David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a motorist who is terrified by a psychotic truck driver. When he pulls up at a gas station and the truck rumbles in beside him, Spielberg cuts from a close-up of Weaver’s concerned expression to point-of-view shots of the sinister truck driver as he idly kicks his tyres.
When creating suspense, close-ups are particularly important. They create intensity by emphasising facial expressions and, particularly in horror, can be used to create a sense of claustrophobia. In Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear, Thomas Sipos explains that close-ups can create suspense because they put the characters closer to an imagined threat: ‘Unseen and unknown threats lurk offscreen, waiting to pounce upon the characters, and because they are close to the frame line, they’re close to any threats lurking offscreen.’ Extreme close-ups can be used to generate suspense by emphasising small details – a screaming mouth, eyes wide in terror, a knife clasped in someone’s hand, a ticking clock.
Camera angle can also be used to create suspense. Shooting characters from a high camera angle may make them look particularly vulnerable and increase audience identification with them. In The Sixth Sense (M Night Shyamalan, 1999), Cole (Haley Joel Osment) arrives at school – a place that he finds particularly terrifying and intimidating. Here, Shyamalan increases audience suspense and anxiety by using an extremely high angle to make Cole seem small and vulnerable as he stands apprehensively in front of the building. Low-angle shots can be used to make your antagonist or a location seem ominous. In Cinematography: Theory and Practice Blain Brown writes: “When a character is approaching a complex or landscape as seen from a low angle, little is revealed beyond what the character might see himself – we share the character’s surprise or sense of mystery. The two can be used in combination for setting up a shock or suspense effect: if the shots associated with the character are from a low angle, we share his foreboding and apprehension at not knowing.”
Parallel editing – cutting between two events occurring at the same time – is another trick that directors use to generate suspense. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011), parallel editing is used to create suspense when journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) explores the house of Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård). Wind whistling ominously, Mikael opens the door. ‘Martin?’ he calls out hesitantly. Fincher cuts to a shot of Martin’s car crossing a bridge as he returns home. Mikael walks into the house slowly and there is a close-up of him taking a knife for self-defence. For a few tense, silent minutes, Mikael explores the house. The tension begins to rise when Fincher cuts back to Martin’s car rolling into the driveway. Cornered, Mikael has to evade him in a silent game of cat-and-mouse. According to Tom Gunning, parallel editing can be used to increase suspense by cutting away from the action when tension is highest: “Because parallel editing derives its effect from switching from one line of action to another, it is a logical next step to make the switch at the highest point of tension, suspending not only the unfolding of the action but also a dramatic gesture.”
‘Suspense is essentially an emotional process,’ Alfred Hitchcock once explained. ‘Therefore you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.’ Using cutaways, you can reveal particular information to the audience to increase tension. In Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Hitchcock uses a cutaway to create suspense when private investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) investigates the Bates house. As he slowly climbs the stairs and the suspenseful music increases in intensity, Hitchcock cuts away to a shot of a door opening. This cutaway creates anxiety and increases suspense by implying that the malevolent Mrs Bates is nearby. As Gunning notes, ‘Through a cutaway, for instance, the editor will reveal a killer waiting around the corner as the protagonist wanders down a dark alley. The aim here is to expose information that the audience, in knowing, will feel intense concern for the hero.’
Slow motion is an excellent way to increase tension by drawing out a scene. In Unbreakable (M Night Shyamalan, 2000), slow motion is used to generate suspense in the film’s climatic scene. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is pushed from a balcony by a vicious murderer. When he lands on a pool cover, Shyamalan cuts to several slow-motion point-of-view shots as it slips into the water, building agonising suspense before abruptly cutting back to real-time as David plunges beneath the surface.
Diegetic sound can also be used to create suspense and build tension. In Zodiac, when Robert Graysmith thinks he might be trapped inside the house of a serial killer, he races towards the front door. In the background, the diegetic sound of a kettle boiling is used to increase suspense. In the opening sequence of Scream, Wes Craven uses popcorn to similar effect, constantly cutting back to the foil container that pops and crackles as the intensity of the scene increases. In The Strangers, Kristen is home alone. Throughout this scene, Bertino uses a range of diegetic sounds to ratchet up the tension – an eerie pop song, random notes played listlessly on the piano, the clatter of a bottle opener, the shrill sound of a smoke alarm and mysterious knocking at the door. In isolation, these sounds have little impact on the audience, but cumulatively, they create a sense of uneasiness and contribute to the suspense being developed throughout this sequence. In both of these scenes, Craven and Bertino often cut abruptly to these diegetic sounds from relative silence – an effect that subtly helps to create a sense of unease.
While diegetic sounds can be used to create suspense, silence is also very important. As a filmmaker, you need to think of how you can use periods of silence to build up the suspense in your film. In The Lovely Bones (2009), director Peter Jackson uses silence to nail-biting effect when as Lindsey (Rose McIver) searches for evidence in the house of serial killer George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Jackson lingers on a shot of George standing backlit on the basement steps, listening. He cuts back and forth between George and Lindsey, using silence to create unbearable tension. In Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005), sound editing is used to emphasise the drama and suspense of a botched terrorist bombing. When Avner (Eric Bana) realises that the daughter of their target will die in the blast, he desperately tries to stop the detonation. At this moment, all the diegetic sound in the scene fades out and is replaced by a suspenseful rumble and the sound of another agent fumbling to insert the key into the detonator.
Low key lighting
Low-key lighting is a staple of suspense films. What we can’t see is far more terrifying than what we can. In Signs (M Night Shyamalan, 2002), a family seeks refuge from alien invaders in their basement. When one of the characters accidentally smashes a light bulb, there are a few suspenseful minutes as the film is plunged into complete darkness. When you’re lighting a low-budget film or video, it’s not enough to shoot in darkness. The sensors on consumer video cameras often create a significant amount of noise when you’re shooting in low light. The solution? Ensure your scene is carefully lit so that your camera captures enough detail. Assuming there are no shadows or overexposed areas, you can always adjust the brightness in post-production to create the required atmosphere.
Suspense can also be created through the use of under-lighting and backlighting. Positioning the key light underneath or slightly to the side of an actor creates ominous shadows across their face. This is particularly useful when you’re characterising a villain. Even in a low-budget film, it’s possible to use desk lamps and other lights to create these sorts of effects. Backlighting a character by having them stand against the key light – whether it’s a window or a lamp – is a great way to create an ominous and suspenseful effect.
When you’re making a suspense film, editing programs allow you to tweak the colour of your film to increase audience anxiety. Make it look gritty and dark. Spend time watching tutorials on YouTube to develop an understanding of how to use the colour correction tools in your editing program. Bleach bypass is one look that has been particularly popular in suspense and horror films. ‘The bleach bypass process is used to de-saturate colour and enhance the grain structure, which give films a more gritty look,’ explains Blain Brown. ‘If the story is a grim drama, this look enhances the story all the more by creating an ominous environment where colour seems to be drained from the character’s worlds.’
Handouts and Presentations
The above presentation doesn’t include any video. A list of great suspense films, including the timecode of effective suspense scenes can be found in the above PDF. I suggest purchasing the DVD and using Handbrake to rip scenes to your computer.
Blain Brown, Cinematography: Theory and Practice : Imagemaking for Cinematographers, Directors & Videographers, Focal Press, Amsterdam, 2002.
Sara C. Caldwell, Splatter Flicks: How to Make Low Budget Horror Films, Allworth Press, New York, 2006.
David Howard, How to Build a Great Screenplay, St. Martin’s, New York, 2003.
John Rosenberg, The Healthy Edit Creative Editing Techniques for Perfecting Your Movie, Focal Press, Burlington, 2011.
Thomas M. Sipos, Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, 2010.