Stanley Kubrick. The name itself brings images to mind of his films, many of which are legandary.
Though the films were iconic in their own right, Kubrick was also renowned to have used unique techniques to create unparalleled stories and environments. Many of these techniques were used for the first time, and served as an inspiration even to filmmakers of his generation.
Though he could sometimes be exasperating due to his ‘perfectionist’ streak, he wouldn’t move on to the next scene until his artistic vision had been perfectly realized. He could create rich and complex stories by using techniques no one could ever dare or dream of, pushing ahead to create new forms of storytelling. We pull out some tips and tricks from the genius’ magic hat that will help you see storytelling in a new light.
1) Long Shots
Though there are many masters who have skillfully used the long shot to maximize visual impact, Kubrick has created some uniquely memorable shots. In Clockwork Orange, when George and his ‘droogs’ encounter the old drunk under the bridge, the long shot showing their approaching shadows and the dim blue light portend of impending sequence of events.
He also brilliantly used extreme long shots while establishing the premise or while introducing the film. Case in point, Barry Lyndon and The Shining:
Kubrick achieved many cinematic milestones in his career, and one of the reasons was his attention to detail. In dramatic, high tension sequences, Kubrick used lighting which mesmerized and or terrified. Kubrick was a risk taker who wasn’t afraid to pull out all the stops towards achieving his vision. Nothing was too crazy or impossible for this genius.
From using candles with lenses made for NASA to light up many scenes in Barry Lyndon to using a circular lighting rig to light up the famous War Room table in Dr. Strangelove, he innovated rather than compromise:
He was also an expert in ambient lighting. You can sense a change in narrative coming about purely on the basis of the lighting choices. E.g., in The Shining, the first half of the film has a very warm and comforting feel when everything is fine and dandy. When Jack is in the throes of his madness the lighting takes on a very reddish hue, partly echoed by the ‘bloody elevator’ scene.
One of the most visually recognizable features of Kubrick’s films is his use of one point perspective. His frames are often symmetric and precise to a fault. There seems to be a legend about how Kubrick brought about this viewpoint in his films. Ken Adam, the production designer for Doctor Strangelove, claims to have enlightened Kubrick on the value of having a ‘vanishing point’ when sketching a set or framing designing a shot. A ‘vanishing point’ is the point to which parallel lines appear to converge in the rendering of perspective, usually on the horizon. This draws the viewer’s eye to the centre of the screen, so that there are no distractions and there is an exaggerated sense of depth.
Here is a supercut of Kubrick’s films, showing the magic of one-point perspective:
4) Steadicam/Tracking shots
One of the strengths of a Kubrick film is that there is never a dull moment visually, and much of that can be credited to the brilliant camerawork seen in his films. Kubrick employed experimental techniques which were considered unconventional at the time. One can never forget the iconic steadicam shots in The Shining. Same goes for the long tracking shot in Paths of Glory, where the commanding officer walks through the trenches and all around are the horrors of war:
5) Zoom Lenses
Kubrick may be the only filmmaker to successfully use zooms without it looking tacky. Most filmmakers consider it as the ultimate taboo. Barry Lyndon was the film where we see the most effective use of it.
We also see many of these zoom shots in Full Metal Jacket within the barracks and training fields to create dramatic visuals and also to gradually build tension over the course of the film. Many say that Kubrick could perfect this technique due to his background as a photographer, but nevertheless, only a master like Kubrick could really carry it off.
6) Wide Angle Lenses
Stanley Kubrick preferred wide angle lenses. When he used them in cramped spaces, it gave an illusion of depth due to the distorted foreground and a wider feeling in the background. It also kept everything in focus.
Private Ferol’s court martial sequence is a case in point where the audience is not distracted from Ferol’s predicament for even a moment, all the while keeping him subjective to his environment and the reactions of the people seated in the background:
7) Chronology of Narrative
Kubrick was one of the directors who pioneered non-linear narratives. This is highlighted the most in one of his early films, The Killing. The structure results in a kind of convergence in the end, where cause and effect play out to bring about a marvellous finale – a big meme in many of Kubrick’s films.
He did the same with Lolita, although for a completely different reason. He brought the ending of the film to the beginning because he felt that the starting point of the story was more interesting than the ending.
Stanley Kubrick dominated his actors. Though he had cast big names like Jack Nicholson, Kirk Douglas, Tom Cruise, etc., he also chose actors who were underrated and not quite award winning material. Shelly Duvall, the heroine of The Shining, was an actress living in oblivion, but burst forth into the spotlight with the film. Duvall hated Kubrick, but in later life, appreciated the fact that he was the reason of her claim to fame.
Kubrick also cast real life drill instructor Ronald Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman who is till date the most infamous evil sergeant ever.
9) Choice of genre
Finally, Kubrick may very well be one of the only director who can claim to have made films in all genres. Although most of his films are screen adaptations of novels, he always put his own spin on it, much to the chagrin of some writers such as Stephen King who despised the film adaption of his namesake book. But Kubrick was a pathfinder, and no matter what the world thought of him, it was always his way or a retake. His genius lay in his uncompromising vision that gave birth to a masterpiece every single time. From a black humor war film like Dr. Strangelove to a dystopian romantic thriller like Eyes Wide Shut to a science fiction film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick has done them all.
Stanley Kubrick continues to inspire us and my guess is it will remain so as long as filmmaking is alive. Here is a retrospective on the master by many of his contemporaries and colleagues, if you would like to know more about the great man:
What better way to stop this article than with a quote from him :
“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
What do you think? Is Kubrick the ideal role model? Or are his methods impractical?