How Spielberg Creates Tension

We don’t often acknowledge it, but the director is a master of suspense.
By  · Published on June 20th, 2017

We don’t often acknowledge it, but the director is a master of suspense.

Though it’s not often the first thing we think of when we think of the director, Steven Spielberg is a master of suspense. Anyone who’s seen Jaws knows that, but across all his films, not just the action-oriented ones, Spielberg employs a variety of methods for creating tension, from the blatant to the subtle, and the best are featured below in the new video from our friend Phillip Brubaker for Fandor entitled, plainly enough, “How Spielberg Creates Tension.”

Brubaker has selected three Spielberg films in particular – Jaws, The Color Purple, and Munich – as representatives for the director’s most prevalent tension-building techniques. In the former film, it’s all about framing – where he directs our attention and the emotional ramifications of this – perspective – both objective and subjective – and the balance of shot lengths within a scene and how they speed up the action, resulting in heightened tension. In the second film as well short-length and pacing is a primary technique, here though slowed down to draw out the action, and thus our anticipation of the action, while in the latter film distraction is the technique du jour, narrative and visual asides that act as stumbling blocks along the characters’ primary journey.

As Brubaker pointedly notes, each of these techniques is intentionally manipulative. Spielberg is making us feel a certain way and in the process also attempting to trick us into believing that feeling is organic. But this manipulation comes from a good place, one in which the director removes himself momentarily from his authorial responsibilities and just considers what he’d like to see if he was sitting in the theater instead of behind the camera. It proves, among other things and once again, that the best filmmakers are first and foremost film fanatics.

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