A Director’s Style

Everything the director puts up on the screen is revealing. Don’t you really know all about John Ford from his films? Or Hitchcock, or Steven Spielberg or even Rob Zombie? If I reveal a character on the screen, I am necessarily also revealing myself, whether its Sean Connery in “The Hill” or Tom Cruise in “The Firm.” I think I have an idea of what my work is about, but I’m not interested in articulating it in words. — Sidney Lumet, Director

A motion picture is a joint creative effort of many artists and technicians working in their specialties, all of which contribute to the finished film. However, since the director serves as the unifying force and makes the majority of the creative decisions, it is possible to equate the film’s style with a director’s unique approach.

The actual amount of control a director has over a film can vary widely. At one extreme is the director who functions primarily as an employee of the studio. The studio buys the story, hires a screenwriter, chooses the cast and then assigns the director to supervise the shooting of the film.

At the other extreme, is the concept of director as author of the film. This type of director is a complete filmmaker. He or she conceives the idea for the story, writes the screenplay or works with the writer, chooses the cast and other members of the technical crew and is closely involved in every step of production from shooting, to selection of the music, to the final editing process.

Most directors fall between the two extremes, since the degree of studio control and the director’s freedom varies depending on the director’s previous box office success and the attitude of studio executives.

However, regardless of the amount of control, the director is in position to have the greatest opportunity to stamp the project with a personal artistic vision, philosophy, technique or attitude thereby determining the style of the finished film.

To truly understand a director’s style, you should watch at least three of his or her films, concentrating on those special qualities that set them apart from all other directors.

A director’s style is the manner in which his or her personality is expressed in a film. Every single element or combination of elements may reveal the director’s creative personality that shapes and molds the film.

Almost everything directors do in making a film becomes part of their style, because in almost every decision they are in some subtle way interpreting or commenting on the action, revealing their own attitudes, and injecting their own personality into the script.

Before you look at the different elements that will help you understand the director’s style in a film, you should understand some general ideas about the film as a whole. In the first step in your analysis, you might think about which set of terms best describe what is stressed or emphasized in the film:

1. Intellectual and rational — emotional and sensual

2. Calm and quiet — fast-paced and exciting

3. Polished and smooth — rough and crude-cut

4. Cool and objective — warm and subjective

5. Ordinary and trite — fresh and original

6. Tightly structured and concise — loose structure

7. Truthful and realistic — romantic and idealized

8. Simple and straightforward — complex and indirect

and rambling

9. Grave and tragic — comical and light

10. Restrained and understated — exaggerated

11. Optimistic and hopeful — bitter and cynical

If you can at figure out which set of values best describes the movie you are trying to analyze, you will have completed the important first step in specifically identifying a director’s unique style or approach to filmmaking.

SUBJECT MATTER
No single element of a director’s style is more important than the choice of the subject for the script. If the director is truly an auteur then the subject will be an essential aspect of his or her personality and style.

In studying a director, the first step is to decide whether there are any common themes in the films under study. One director may be concerned with social problems, another with gender relationships, and yet another with the struggle between good and evil.

Alfred Hitchcock, for example, is clearly identified with the terror/suspense film, in which the mood, story-telling approach and visual style are throughout his many movies from “The 39 Steps” to “Psycho.”

The types of conflicts that directors choose also reflect their personalities. Some lean towards the serious examination of philosophical problems about human nature, the universe or God. Others may favor simple stories of ordinary people facing ordinary problems. Still other directors may prefer to treat conflict in the context of action/adventure plots.

CINEMATOGRAPHY
As far as the visual elements of style are concerned, the cinematographer, who is actually responsible for the lighting design, plays an important role. However, part of a director’s consistency has to do with choosing the same cinematographer for each film. Thus D.W. Griffith’s style was shaped by the work of photographer Billy Blitzer; Orson Welles’ creativity by Gregg Toland and the output of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman by Sven Nyquist.

In analyzing visual style, you should look first at the composition of the images. Some directors spend a lot of time framing each shot in a very formal and dramatic style while others leave the decisions to their cinematographer while they concentrate on the actor’s performances.

Important differences may also be seen in the director’s choice of objective or subjective camera POV. John Ford, for example, consistently chose to shoot most scenes from an objective POV while Orson Welles is noted for his subjective camera choices.

Other stylistic differences include the consistent use of unusual visual techniques such as unusual camera angles, slow or fast motion, colored or light-diffusing filter to give the film a unique look.

Lighting is also a part of the director’s style. Some directors prefer to work mostly with low-key lighting that creates strong contrasts between light and dark. Others favor high-key techniques which makes scenes look more evenly lit.

Directors also reveal their style through choice of camera movement. The possibilities range from favoring the static camera with as little movement as possible (John Ford) to the fluid camera that keeps the shot in constant motion (Martin Scorcese).

EDITING
The most obvious element is the length of the average shot in the film. The longer the time between cuts, the slower the film’s pace. Transitions between time or place also reveal a director’s style. Some favor direct cuts while others prefer soft dissolves.

Other editing techniques such as parallel cutting, fragmented jump cuts, flashbacks, and dialogue overlaps are also signs of a director’s style. Editing may also be characterized by whether it calls attention to itself or not. One director may lean towards editing that is clever and tricky, while another may choose editing that is smooth, natural and almost invisible.

CHOICE OF SETTING AND SET DESIGN
Closely related to the choice of subject in indicating a director’s style is the emphasis placed on the setting or set design of the story. One director may favor stark, empty, drab settings; another may choose backgrounds of natural beauty (John Ford used Utah’s Monument Valley for all of his westerns). Some may use setting to help us understand the characters or to build mood or atmosphere; others may look at the setting as only a backdrop for the action, giving it no particular emphasis.

By shooting certain details in the setting, a director can stress either the sordid and brutal or the ideal and romantic such as Woody Allen’s visual love affair with New York City in “Manhattan” where his images were accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Other important factors in setting may also tell us something about at director’s style. For example, which social and economic classes are central to the story; are the settings rural or urban; is the time contemporary, the future, or the past?

SOUND AND SCORE
Directors make use of the soundtrack and the musical score in unique ways. Whereas one may do nothing more than use natural sound EFX, another may use sound as an important tool to create an audio experience as important as the image. Other directors may use sound in an expressionistic or symbolic manner, while some directors choose not to use music at all and instead emphasize natural sound.

Directors also vary greatly in the amount of attention they pay to the musical score. Some directors (John Carpenter, Charlie Chaplin) actually write their own music; others use the same composer in film after film; a few directors take full responsibility for choosing the music to be used (Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, John Carpenter, Martin Scorcese), while others could care less.

The way the musical score is used in the film also defines a director’s style. One director may be completely dependent on music to create and sustain mood; another may use it only at appropriate times. One may choose music that communicates on several levels of meaning, while another may select music that does little more than echo the editing rhythm of the film.

Where one director may have the music so understated that we aren’t consciously aware of the score, another may use strong, powerful music that overwhelms the visual elements.

NARRATIVE STRUCTURE
The way a director chooses to tell a story is an important element of style. A director may use a simple, chronological sequence of events (“The Mummy,” “Charlie’s Angels”) or a complex approach (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Memento”).

A director may tell a story objectively, putting the camera and the viewer on the sidelines (as George Lucas did in “Star Wars”), bringing the action just close enough so we get all the details without identifying with any single character.

On the other hand, a director may tell the story from the viewpoint of a single character (Martin Scorcese in “Goodfellas”) and make us experience the action as the character does.

Beginnings may be slow and leisurely if the director prefers to develop characters and the story before the conflict develops. Or a director may choose to start the film in the middle of an action sequence where conflict is already developing.

Some directors like endings where all the loose ends are resolved. Others prefer endings that are left open, without clear-cut resolution — endings that leave questions in our minds to think about long after the film is over.

Directors also differ in the way they handle films with multiple storylines. Complex plots, with several lines of action happening at the same time at different locations, can be broken into fragments jumping quickly from one to another. Or each stream of action can be developed completely before switching to another storyline.

The sense of what makes a story and how to tell it, of course, is often determined by the screenwriter, but many directors work with the same writer in film after film or, more importantly, view the screenplay as nothing more than outline and impose their own ideas about narrative structure and visual images on it.

EVOLVING STYLES AND FLEXIBILITY
Several directors are cinematic artists who have spent their careers in constant experimentation and growth. Robert Altman, for example, has never made the same film twice. Each movie is a chance for him to try something new, to explore a different theme, story idea, or visual style: “M*A*5*H,” “Nashville,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Popeye,” and “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” represent an incredible wide range of approaches.

Woody Allen has also experimented with a diversity of styles. Although his most financially successful films have focused on familiar Allen themes (“Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas,” “Sleeper,” and “Annie Hall”), he has struggled to break free of what audiences expect with such experimental movies as “Interiors,” “Stardust Memories, “Zelig,” and “Purple Rose of Cairo.”

Innovators such as Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, Stanley Kubrick and others are often forced to work outside the Hollywood system to maintain a high degree of independence and control over their projects. The only way such non-conformists can survive is to write, produce and direct their own films using their own money to cover production costs.

The problem is that directors are typecast just like actors. And this typecasting depends on two factors: 1) the expectations of the audience who feels cheated if the director doesn’t continue to deliver the same kind of popular film they did in the past, and 2) conservative studio executives, investors and distributors are reluctant to allow proven directors the freedom to try something new instead of delivering a guaranteed product.

In a coming post, we will look closer at one director in particular, Frank Capra. Capra was considered by many as the All American director, and in the next post you will come to understand why.

Until next time, ENJOY THE MOVIES!

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