General Filmmaking

Understanding Style in Cinema (Part One): Defining Style

Is there any way on earth that one can develop one’s own movie style? Let’s find out.

Have you made up your mind as to what ‘Style’ is yet?

 Four Styles Cinema
What is it? Composition, color, film, camera, lens, costumes, set design, hair and makeup, filters, movement, editing, visual effects, audio, music?

In trying to get on with our lives, we sometimes forget to stop and think about iconic imagery (by which I mean both audio and video), and how a film’s elements come together to form a style so unique that it lasts in our memories long after the film has been forgotten and is selling on Blu-ray for $0.99.

We say “the movie has style”. But what is style?

We talk about it all the time. We take it for granted because there’s always a reference point. It’s easy to point to a style (Mohawk hairstyle) or recreate a style (cut me a Mohawk!) once you know what it is. What if you don’t? What if you had to create a style from scratch?

Creating is the easy part. How do you know what you’ve created is a style that others will acknowledge as such (and not just out of courtesy or kindness)?

This article isn’t a history lesson or academic paper, it is just a reminder on the meaning, purpose and practicality of style in cinema, and even video. Is there a way to find your own style? That’s what we want to find out.

What is Style?

Let’s start by seeing how the ‘experts’ define style. From Merriam-Webster:

a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed

a particular form or design of something

a way of behaving or of doing things

From Oxford Dictionary:

a particular procedure by which something is done; a manner or way

a distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed

[mass noun] elegance and sophistication

From Wikipedia:

In the visual arts, style is a “…distinctive manner which permits the grouping of works into related categories.” or “…any distinctive, and therefore recognizable, way in which an act is performed or an artifact made or ought to be performed and made.” It refers to the visual appearance of a work of art that relates it to other works by the same artist or one from the same period, training, location, “school”, art movement or archaeological culture: “The notion of style has long been the art historian’s principal mode of classifying works of art. By style he selects and shapes the history of art”.

Are there any common themes or words in all of the above definitions? Here are some words that stand out:

  • Particular, distinctive, recognizable
  • Way or manner in which it is done or created
  • Way in which it is performed
  • Appearance or design
  • Grouping, relation to other works, classification

I can distill it down to three things:

  • A distinctive vision
  • A purposeful manner of achieving this vision, and
  • A classification of the vision

Here’s what I mean by the three:

A distinctive vision

The visuals and audio (from now on, either ‘movie’ or ‘cinema’) combined must be so distinct that you can single it out from a selection. Now, in cinema, a ‘selection’ can be two things:

  • Other shots in the same movie, or
  • Shots from another movie.

A movie is made up of many shots, and they relate to each other for the purposes of storytelling. The biggest difference between photography and movies is that movies make their point linearly. I don’t mean linear storytelling. Even non-linear storytelling is viewed linearly. The succession of images is like a flood that cannot be stopped. There is no time to think – the movie must make sense in the present, or it will lose its viewer.

Therefore, every element in a movie is chosen to reinforce each other. The common goal is to propel the story forward without breaking our suspension of disbelief. E.g., look at some images from Chinatown:

Chinatown Shots

Do they look like they belong to the same movie? Having the same actor in different shots certainly helps, but it’s a whole lot more, isn’t it?

What’s unique about cinema is that you are forced to hold many elements constant over the course of a movie. E.g., Jack Nicholson dresses the same way, so his character can serve the story. The need for continuity, or linearity, is quite strong.

For this reason it is easier to call a movie stylistic, because you’ll have so many examples of repeated elements that you know it cannot be a fluke. The fact that Jack Nicholson dresses the same way isn’t happenstance. But because he dresses the same way for most of 131 minutes, the style is that much more obvious. Even if you aren’t aware of it while watching the movie, you would recognize it easily once it was pointed out. This is what makes a distinctive vision – there must be no doubt.

Just to clarify, a distinctive vision incorporates many elements, not just one thing (like how Jack dresses) – the greater the ‘combined’ continuity of all these elements, the stronger the style.

A purposeful manner of achieving the vision

The ‘vision’ is what you see and hear. Would the manner in which you got there contribute in any way to your style?

I mean, should the fact that you used a Transcend compact flash card instead of Sandisk contribute to your legacy? Who knows? But it does sometimes, like Stanley Kubrick’s choice of only using classical music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, or that Yasujiro Ozu only used a 50 mm lens, or that Hitchcock actually lost eighty pounds to fit inside the phone booth to shoot the scene in The Birds (Just seeing if you’re paying attention!).

Sometimes, the tools you use makes or breaks your style. If only an Arri Alexa can catch the colors the way you want it, then only the Alexa will do. If the only lens that delivers your vision is a $50 Russian contraption available on Ebay from a dubious seller, then so be it. Gregg Toland wanted maximum depth of field for Citizen Kane, and the only way he could do that was by stopping down the lens and flooding the set with light. That’s what he did, even for The Little Foxes (1941):

A classification of the vision

What people don’t understand, they like to talk about and discuss. E.g., if I asked you the time, and you happen to be wearing a wrist watch, you’ll automatically look at it and read the time, just like they taught you in school.

However, if you didn’t have a watch, we’d be having all sorts of conversations, none of which will involve the actual time. Art behaves similarly. If you watch a movie and are emotionally affected by it, you wouldn’t care what a critic has to say about it. You like it, and that’s all that matters.

But for some people that isn’t enough. Studios, critics, academics, distributors, even the audience browsing through thousands of movies, need a form of classification that will tell them what kind of movie yours is. One of the popular methods of classification is the genre. Is it a murder mystery, or a rom-com, or found-footage horror, and so on.

That’s all well and good, except when people start pegging movies to common genres, as if a movie cannot have its own identity. Is your movie a romantic found-footage gore fest with some slapstick black humor? Guess what? People don’t take you seriously. “Oh, it’s an art film.”

I’ll leave you to decide whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing to pigeonhole movies into categories. Just know that, as human beings, we need to classify stuff, or we can’t talk about it. The sad part is, our classifications tend to dictate our choices after a certain point, and even restricts us. E.g., if a lens maker offers a 28mm and a 35mm lens in its kit, but the filmmaker wants a 32mm, boo hoo. Look what happens when you let the ‘market’ decide for you:

From IMdB, highest rated movie in each category:

AdventureThe Good, Bad and the Ugly (Isn’t this a Spaghetti Western?)
HorrorPsycho (Isn’t Psycho just a thriller?)
Sci-FiStar Wars (Where’s the science in Star Wars?)
ThrillerThe Dark Knight (I guess if you’re thrilled to have watched it, it makes it a thriller)

The tentative definition

I’m not an expert, and I don’t think anybody will come knocking on my door (or even emailing me) with an offer to pen a dictionary. So, instead of offering you the definition, I’ll just make do with a working definition of style in cinema, only for the purposes of this article:

Style is a recurring collection of distinctively identifiable elements in a movie, brought about purposefully by a certain manner of production, to help tell a particular story by sustaining its linearity.

And because a filmmaker takes the trouble to put these pieces lovingly and painstakingly together, everyone else gets to call it ‘style’.

Look, don’t worry if this definition confuses you. I’ll give you an easier one in the next part. It doesn’t really matter what the technical definition is, because we are not linguists or philosophers. It is pointless to dwell too much on definitions. We just have to go out there and shoot.

So, our next objective is to see if there is any practical way to develop one’s own style. One of the ways we can do that is by studying the masters. That’s what we’ll do in Part Two.

But first, here’s a word from our Muse, the guy who knows it all: