Tricks and Techniques Used by the Best Directors
Here is brief list exposing the culprits responsible for everything I hate about the movies: Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow), Michael Bay (Transformers, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys), Uwe Boll (House of the Dead, Bloodrayne), Robert Luketic (21, The Ugly Truth, Monster in Law) and the list goes on. If you are a fan of any of those movies, then stop reading now. This post will not interest you. For everyone else, as I’m sure you’re well aware, that was a list of some unfortunately financially successful directors in Hollywood. None of these gentlemen possess an iota of filmmaking talent, but are savvy in their ability to hide their flaws behind expensive special effects (that’s you, Michael Bay). All have chosen to appeal to the land of the tasteless, utilizing cookie-cutter cinematography and bland story-telling techniques to produce their movies. I wish we lived in a world where movies such as these were not made, but alas, this will never happen.
Thankfully there are many directors out there who still practice their profession as an art form, rather than just a money-making ploy. In fact, independent film is enjoying more success now than ever before. This is due in large part to several notable directors making their films more appealing to mainstream audiences, while still holding true to their independent roots. A good film, by a good director, often has some element that makes the film unique, or special. It’s not the acting, it’s not the story…it’s just damn cool. We find ourselves sucked into the film, even if there is little to no action taking place. We all know a Wes Anderson movie when we see one, but why is that? Each successful director hones in on his talent, and applies his own brand of filmmaking to each film he or she directs. There is a wealth of directors we could discuss, but let’s take a deeper look into just a few of them.
50% of film reviews today will remark on how the director was clearly influenced by Kubrick. While this may be repetitive, it’s essentially accurate every time. You cannot be a modern director without having some level of Kubrick’s influence. The guy is the landmark of American film history, and for good reason. What is important to remember is that a director’s style is not just in the cinematography, but the movies he chooses, the way he tells the story, the innovation, the controversy and etc.
Kubrick was very selective in the films he chose to direct. He would only direct ones that were provocative and often controversial. He filmed Lolita in England to take advantage of the less strict censorship laws; moreover, he continued to push the envelope with A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. He was a perfectionist, and is famous for how long he took to direct his films. This played into the beautiful shots he put on the screen, which was most likely related to his years as a photographer.
He was not just careful in his selection of films, but also in the manner he directed them. He was not interested in you seeing the film once, and then forgetting about it. You have to watch his films several times in order to grasp the meaning. To give an example of his genius, take a look at the intros to his two films, The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Notice how each long introduction is accompanied with a specific score.
The first three minutes of The Shining show a car driving through open, lush scenery to a secluded, isolated hotel. This sets the tone for the entire movie. Just imagine a jolly tune set to the same scene…it could be the beginning of a comedy.
2001: A Space Odyssey is Kubrick’s most influential film, and the introduction is the most famous scene. It is a surreal, and strange take on the dawning of man. Its brilliance is in its success of providing the atmosphere for the rest of the movie. This opening delicately graces the viewer’s palate, preparing him for the rest of the movie. Without it, the bizarre nature of the rest of the film would be overwhelming.
Since it is impossible to find this video without violating copyright restrictions, here is a link.
It is difficult, if not impossible to isolate a single directorial style of Kubrick. This is largely because he was the pioneer of so many techniques and tricks all directors use today. The easiest way to explain is to say that each Kubrick movie has some recognizable element that exposes his involvement in the film. This is noticeable in the writing, editing, and filming (as he was involved in each). I’ll try and provide you with a few more examples of his influential stamp on his films.
If you have the time, watch this video above all others in this article. It is fascinating. Anyone who has seen The Shining knows that a stay in the Overlook Hotel would not be at the top of their list. It is a downright terrifying place. But it’s more than the ghosts and an axe-wielding psychopath that make it so frightening. Kubrick designed the Overlook Hotel set to be impossible; in other words, he constructed the hotel to have hallways leading to rooms that could not be there, or windows looking outside that should be facing the ballroom. He used spacial awareness and intentional set design errors to disorientate the viewers, making the hotel seem that much more claustrophobic. While not made aware to the viewer upon watching, it instead attacks the subconscious.
And how about this famous scene from A Clockwork Orange. Notice how he juxtaposes the classical music with the man’s break-in and assault. So many directors have copied this technique to enhance the disturbing nature of violence, while adding an artistic flare that masks the graphic content.
See it here.
Many consider Wes Anderson responsible for first presenting mainstream audiences with independent films they could appreciate. I would have to agree. Anderson is brilliant at portraying family dynamics (especially paternal relationships) through surreal, outrageous set pieces and plots. All of his stories border on the ridiculous, but the emotion and tension are real. I love to joke how Anderson is the most pretentious director out there, and he probably is, but that does not mean he lacks talent. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s just that his movies are filmed, written, edited and acted so differently than other films, that they become an abundant source for parodies. We all know his obvious techniques: staple actors (Bill Murray, Owen and Luke Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman), long moments of uncomfortable silence, indie soundtracks and careful attention to costumes and accessories.
Anderson achieves his films’ bizarre atmospheres through more than just wacky characters, costumes, and locales. To enhance the effect of these tricks, he utilizes extensive use of wide-angle shots. He does this in mainly two manners: first, he will introduce the setting with a long, slow pan, and second, he will shoot character interaction with a steady wide angle. Take a look at the intro to The Royal Tenenbaums. It is full of examples of both.
It is his choice of angles when portraying characters interacting and engaging in dialogue that really gives his films their distinct feel. Most directors in Hollywood opt for the by the book rule of thirds approach, with many cuts, and the occasional wide shot to show action. This is what we’re most used to. Turn on a show like CSI, and you’ll see what I mean. Take a look.
Now compare that clip with this final scene from The Life Aquatic. Notice how there are few sudden close-ups. Anderson prefers to use a simpler shot, using a wide angle lens placed in the front of the submarine, to show each character and their respective emotions during this touching moment. The distinctive shot matches the quirkiness of the dialogue, and ultimately packages Anderson’s unique touch. For the most part, however, instead of cuts, Anderson delicately pans the camera to the character who is speaking. His shots are in general much longer than most directors in Hollywood.
This is not to say Anderson never uses close-ups. He does. In the above scene, there are moments where he isolates a single character. Notice, however, that the person is always in the direct center. He never strays from this. When Anderson does a close-up, the character is always the focal point of attention. Instead of relying on cookie-cutter shots like CSI, he maintains his surreal tone by carefully designing each of his close-ups to match the same quality of wide angles. Below is one of my favorite scenes in all of film. It begins with the usual wide angle shots to introduce the scenery and tone. Luke Wilson sits and waits for his sister, who he is in love with, to arrive by bus. Her bus pulls up, and she steps off and walks to Wilson in slow motion. She walks toward the camera, and is directly centered. It then cuts to an extreme close-up of Wilson; look at the attention to detail (that blink is intentional). It cuts back to her, then back to a shot of the camera approaching Wilson (from the point of view of Gwyneth Paltrow). Watch the pilots stroll by in the background, and compare that with the the attention Wilson is giving his sister. He is in awe of her. He cannot take his eyes off her. Despite everything that is happening in the background. All of this detail in less than two minutes exemplifies the emotion of the scene, Paltrow’s beauty, and Wilson’s passion. It is perfect.
Nicolas Winding Refn
Frankly, Refn has now exploded onto the independent and mainstream markets with his recent film, Drive. Just so you all know, he and Gosling are already teaming up for another film, Only God Forgives, to hit theaters in 2012. I have had the fortune of following Refn for some time now. Perhaps some of you have seen one of his other reasonably well-known films, Bronson. Before Drive, Refn was the epitome of a director labeled as a Kubrick protégé, without actually having studied under him. Like I said earlier in the article, it is almost impossible for a director to not be influenced by the master.
Here is a scene from Bronson. Of all the scenes in the film, this one is the most Kubrick-esque. The thing I want you to look for above all else is the patience of the scene. If you have ever seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, then you know that Kubrick was never in a rush. Our lead character (he’s the bald guy with the mustache) begins behind a group of dancing men and women. Watch how he takes his time approaching the forefront of the group. He’s looking at something…what is it? Ah yes, it’s the door. Notice the camera taking his point of view as he clumsily steps toward it. The attention to the shot, the lighting, the music and everything else…this is Kubrick’s style.
Enter Refn’s most recent work, Drive. This film is an example of a director growing into his own. If you want to talk about a stylized film, let alone a stylized action film, then talk about Drive. This movie appeals to so many different types of viewers, and is so well done it would be a travesty were it not at least nominated for best cinematography. The movie is based off a book, and tells the story of a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for local crooks. He happens to fall in love with a woman, and things quickly spiral out of control. Refn made the decision to take the script adapted from the book, and strip away almost all of the driver’s dialogue. He then decided to add some slick 80′s infused tunes to give the film a feel that is half music video, half art house flick.
What would this scene be without the music? If you answered a whole lot worse, then you are correct. This is one of the most well-edited scenes I have seen in a while. Let’s pay attention to the music, and see how it lines up with certain moments throughout the two minutes. Here is a quick background: the girl’s husband has been in jail, but now he’s home. While he was in jail, Gosling and Carey Mulligan (the girl) fell in love, but Gosling has decided to respect the fact that their brief moment together is up. The scene opens with Gosling toying around with some car machinery; the song’s lyrics at this moment are “I don’t sleep, I don’t eat…” It works perfectly. Oh yeah, check out the halo…I mean light around his head. Then while the husband addresses the party, the music plays along without lyrics. Next, we zoom in on Mulligan, and the lyrics pick back up: “I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I do nothing but think of you…” Look! The second the word “you” is sung, Refn cuts back to Gosling. What happens the next time “I do nothing but think of you” is sung? On the word “you,” Refn cuts back to Mulligan. As viewers, we may not notice these things right away, but do not be fooled–it hits our subconscious.
Had to throw this scene in there because it demonstrates the contrast of beauty and utter violence so well.
Now, after seeing Drive, I had to add another director who has clearly had an influence on Refn. Before I go any further, let me say that this is not a slight on Refn. He had succeeded in making his own style, and there is no issue with using inspiration of other directors. Michael Mann has made a name for himself as a successful director of stylized action movies. Think Collateral or Heat. One thing Refn paid serious attention to in Drive was his use of lighting and color. Mann does the same, but with a more specific use of one color: blue. This is particularly noticeable in his film, Collateral.
If you’ve seen Drive, then you probably remember one of the final scenes. Gosling and the antagonist meet at a restaurant to settle their score. It is tense, swift, and professional. This scene set off the spark that connected Refn to Mann, for me. Take a look at this scene from Mann’s film, Heat. Once again, we have the antagonist and protagonist meeting face to face (finally), in a restaurant setting. I’ll let you make the connections.
This article is already ridiculously long, so we’ll cut it here for now. For those of you who made it through, congratulations. Next time, we’ll take a look at these three directors:
Darren Aronofsky, Danny Boyle, and Alfonso Cuaron.