Filmmaking Lessons from Hitchcock's Television Work

Create with tips from "The Master of Suspense" in mind.

“There is this omnipresent feeling of a storyteller’s hand behind the camera.”

Most of us know Alfred Hitchcock for his more than fifty feature films, including such classics as North by Northwest, Psycho, and Rear Window. Less discussed are the twenty episodes he directed for his television anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, ranked by the Writers Guild of America as one of the 101 Best Written TV Series. It’s a shame, really, because each twenty-five minute episode is a distillation of Hitchcock’s genius.

We were delighted, then, to discover that filmmaker and Hitchcock scholar Jeffrey Bays has taken it upon himself to produce “Hitch20”, a documentary web series examining Hitchcock’s television episodes in detail.

The pilot breaks down “Revenge”, Hitchcock’s television debut, exploring the impact of setting, roaming camera, casting, eyeline, and other filmmaking techniques. Take a few minutes to learn from “The Master of Suspense”:

Especially interesting, here, is the discussion of the juxtaposition of moods; how Hitchcock created ironies between laughter and tension.

“The more happy go lucky the setting, the greater kick you can get from the sudden introduction of drama,” he said. “Focus first on the fripperies of people, and the lightness with which they live.” Words of wisdom for making a character sympathetic, a necessary step in rallying the audience’s support of a film’s protagonist.

Each episode of “Hitch20” is packed with insights such as these. Naturally, we got a hold of Jeffrey to discuss his motivation for and approach to the production of the series:

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Thanks for putting together such an educational series for filmmakers, Jeffrey. “Hitch20” is no small undertaking! What inspired you to produce this project?

Thanks! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series and finding it useful. We’re hoping that it generates more interest in these forgotten works of Hitchcock. Not much has been studied of his twenty works of television, so it has become a useful exercise of exploration – to extract as much of his technique as possible in small bites, and raise the discourse on his overall work.

This project was really born out of popular demand – there’s a palpable craving out there among filmmakers for insight into Hitchcock’s genius. There’s something about Hitchcock’s approach to storytelling that seems to resonate with today’s filmmakers. Perhaps it’s because he believed storytelling was a flirtatious dance between director and audience. In all of his work, there is this omnipresent feeling of a storyteller’s hand behind the camera, and that’s the lure that makes his films so compelling that you can’t look away.

Even though his body of work is generationally removed many decades, his films are still easily digested by modern audiences because they rely on such basic, universal plot questions to propel the tension forward. He got his start in the silent film era, so that solidified his core beliefs in visual storytelling – telling the story without words. Over the years he developed and refined his skills in using subjective camera and editing tricks to bring audiences closer into the story world. In his television episodes he relied on this skill even more than he did in film, because of the small screen format.

Even though today’s films have immersive surround sound, accurate colors, and less reliance on nonverbal cues, they can still benefit from Hitchcock’s attention-grabbing visual language. This is simply because today’s films have to stand out among so many others desperately trying to grab our attention. In just the last ten years there has been an exponential increase in the number of filmmakers out there, and they’re finding challenges in reaching audiences. And, I think that’s why so many filmmakers are eager to learn Hitchcock’s techniques. If they can find that magical connection with the audience, they’ll have a leg-up on everyone else.

Part of having “a leg-up” involves getting your film out there. Indie film distribution in the digital age is a topic we discuss frequently here at Lights, so we’re curious – why did you choose to release “Hitch20” online for free?

We want to make sure it reaches as many independent directors, editors, and screenwriters as possible. Right now YouTube has shown that it’s a great way to reach them, and is easily shareable on social media. It’s still early, and we are open to other avenues of distribution that reach more viewers. I believe strongly in getting the word out about Hitchcock’s techniques because it’s a part of history that shouldn’t be lost.

We admire your mission, Jeffrey! Can you walk us through the process of putting together a “Hitch20” episode, from writing through delivery? What steps are involved?

I sit down with a notepad and watch an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (AHP) that he directed, taking notes on what I see. Then on 3×5” notecards I write a rough narration of all the points that are compelling about the episode. Each card is one idea, so I can arrange them in a logical way and start to develop a structure. I’ve found that notecards help the ideas flow easier than typing on a flat, linear computer page.

Sounds like how some people approach structuring a narrative screenplay!

After that, some time goes by and I do research, reading what others have written about the AHP episode – from academic journals to blogs – to reshape my initial perspective on it. Once I get it to a certain level, a feeling of boyish excitement comes over me because I know I’ve got something fresh and interesting to get out to the public.

Meanwhile all of our “expert” contributors record their commentaries independently and send them in. Most of them set up a camera in their house with their own equipment and record their reactions after watching an AHP episode. I give them a long leash in terms of content, so I never know what they’re going to say. This is important to the process because it prevents the series from simply being a mouthpiece for my own ideas at the exclusion of everyone else. Usually I’m pleasantly surprised when they find things about the episode that never came up in my research.

Our commentators are a good mix of authors, film professors, bloggers, and just everyday filmmakers. This gives us a well-rounded perspective on how Hitchcock’s work can influence us today. The filmmakers usually see things differently than the academics, so it’s important to have both. Their commentary is edited into sound bites, and then I organize them in the same logical sequence as my notecards.

Hitch20Editing

Once all of this material is ready to go, it’s a matter of writing a script, recording the narration, and then assembling all the pieces together in Adobe Premiere Pro. This usually takes about three days.

When editing, I allow the content to inform the shape sometimes I entirely change the order of topics for a better flow. I remove redundancies. For instance, when a commentator and my narration both make the exact same point, I’ll omit mine. Sometimes two commentators will say the same thing, so I have to pick and choose which to keep, or try to crosscut them in a way that resembles a discourse. During this assembly process it sometimes feels like the whole thing is falling apart, and I often redo the narration to bring back coherency.

At the end of the process, the hope is that it still captures that boyish excitement I had in the beginning. If the viewer feels the same way, then we’ve succeeded.

The series’ aesthetic is unapologetically nostalgic – the old-time music, the narration, the simple animations and title cards. How and why did you decide on this direction?

Documentaries are usually a delicate balance between journalistic facts and impressionistic observations. In our series we are interpreting works of art, a topic which is often subjective and thus debatable. We rely on direct quotes from Hitchcock to keep things grounded to his intentions. It’s common in the “Hitchcock world” to assign intentions onto him that he never spoke about. He has become almost a mythical character in that way, so I strive to distance the series from those myths. In other words, we’re not here to talk about stairways and mothers.

The documentary aesthetic in “Hitch20” is influenced by three shows: Alastaire Sooke’s “Modern Masters” series, PBS’ “Nova” series, and anything by Ken Burns – I’ve grown up being a fan of his work, and am inspired by his sense of the personal approach to history.

The old-time music was chosen purely to fit the time period of Hitchcock’s work, which spans from the 1920s into the 70s. It generates a vibe and attitude that goes well with the topic at hand. Anytime I experiment with more modern music, it seems to have a jarring effect on the material and I have to throw it out. The guitar version of Hitchcock’s theme was a lucky find, performed by Radoslav Zdravkovic in Serbia. It gives the series that laid-back and comfortable feel.

The animations are simple because: I’m the one creating them. We can’t afford anything fancier at the moment! We’re hoping to get more advanced as time goes on.

Also interesting is your decision to cut commercials into each episode’s running time, something we encounter in television and radio but less frequently online. What prompted you to structure the series this way?

This was out of necessity to allow time for the sponsors to promote themselves.

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Fair enough! More generally, can you talk a bit about how you approached and secured funding? Many of our readers are in the trenches with their own productions, and money can be hard to find. How did you land the support of Glidecam, Production Minds, and Paralinx?

This is purely due to the generosity of the sponsors. You’d have to ask them why they signed on, but I imagine they believe in our goals for the series, and support the education and betterment of the filmmaking community. We approached about 30 companies and these are the ones who were in a position to jump aboard first. We love them, but I’m sure Hitchcock would have plenty of witticisms to say about them.

For those thinking of this approach, my advice is to first create a PDF file which briefly describes your project and your audience, as well as any statistical data to prove you have a following. Keep it focused on their products and how you can get them more exposure to new customers. Then it’s just a matter of being politely perseverant, contacting as many companies as you can that relate to your target audience.

For instance, our show is geared toward filmmakers, so we approached camera accessory companies, film festivals, film schools, etc. Our pitch was that we can spread their brand awareness to even more filmmakers, and we had the numbers to prove it.

Great thoughts, Jeffrey. Here at Lights, we’ve discussed the challenges of winning corporate support before, and we’re always eager to hear what strategies filmmakers follow to succeed!

Don’t be discouraged. We only got a 5% response rate to our attempts. Often it’s just the luck of finding a company that just happens to have a marketing budget ready to go. In today’s busy world, it’s a matter of having a clear message, being persistent, and a lot of luck to get through the noise.

Well said! Okay, so imagine you’re in an elevator and a beginning filmmaker asks you what she can learn from Hitchcock. What do you say before you part ways?

That’s easy. You’re a magician and you have to make a rabbit disappear. Showmanship, theatrics, and sleight-of-hand are everything. Your camera isn’t there to capture the reality, it must shape feelings and manipulate the expectations of the spectator. Everything in your film is for the purpose of building them up for a surprise, and giving them the satisfaction of having been tricked.

Interesting perspective! Now let’s say you’re in an elevator and an established filmmaker asks you what she can learn from Hitchcock. What do you say before you part ways?

He taught us how to keep it simple. Always focus on the trivial, and build your plots around basic concerns that even a child would have – keeping secrets, eavesdropping, not getting caught. These are the things that make for prime suspense.

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What’s the future for “Hitch20”, Jeffrey?

We have fifteen more episodes to cover, so we’re only beginning this journey. I’m always fascinated by the things we find in each episode. Just when I think there’s nothing new to learn, the next episode gives us a delicious surprise. By the end of this, we’re all going to know so much more about Hitchcock than we ever thought possible. My hope is that this series will inspire us all to go out there and make better films.

Thanks, Jeffrey – it’s certainly inspired us!

To keep up with “Hitch20”, head on over to Borgus Films’ YouTube channel.

 Michael Koehler, with


Want to learn more filmmaking lessons from The Master of Suspense?

Then check out our in-depth online filmmaking course here at Lights Film School, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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