General Filmmaking

Understanding Style in Cinema (Part Three): Recreating Style

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

In Part One we tried to define style, and in Part Two we looked at four masters and how their manner of working was dictated by their styles. Or was it the other way around?

In this final part we’ll try to understand the importance of classification, probably the only aspect of style that most artists hate.

Why do we need to classify anything?

Think movie seats. You have fixed rows (usually alphabetical) and seats (numerical). Without a system of classification you wouldn’t be able to find your seat easily. Here are some other ‘advantages’:

  • A vendor can deliver your meal to your seat faster.
  • The movie chain can study data on which rows or seats are the most popular.
  • Nobody fights over a seat.

Basically, humans name things (including themselves) for easier identification. It’s how we use language, how we think and how we organize our lives. Like we use folders on hard drives, we need ‘higher levels’ of classification – like ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, or ‘sneakers’, ‘loafers’,  and ‘boots’, etc. ‘Children’ and ‘Shoes’ are even higher levels of classification.

Compare good classification to movie seats:

  • People can find things easily.
  • You can remember things and gain insights about them.
  • People speak the same language. Once they learn the classification through years of use, they can take in more complex data. Like acquiring a taste.


How movies are classified, and why

Movies can be classified in many ways:

  • Language
  • Duration
  • Budget
  • Revenue
  • Censor rating
  • Leading stars
  • Director
  • Genre
  • Story
  • Plot elements
  • And many others

Now, if you are a director with his or her unique style, then you would consciously or otherwise be slotting your movie into one of these classifications. Movie-making isn’t a cheap form of art, so if you’re making something you have an audience in mind – even if that audience is just you.

It might be worth the trouble to understand what makes you, you. Such soul searching is part of the writing and directing process anyway, so you already have the information at hand. You have already made several classifications, assumptions and decisions based on it, so why not use it to your advantage?

Are there any practical benefits as to why you should take the trouble to classify your own styles and/or movies? Sure. Here are a few (for the sake of simplicity I’m only going to focus on how the following affects your style):


Language is an integral part of moviemaking, and serious writers don’t use it frivolously. People don’t speak perfectly in real life, so when you craft your dialogues you’ll ensure the language can be understood in a certain manner, without any element of doubt.

But what if your movie is to be see by those who don’t speak your language, or by those for whom your language isn’t their native tongue? If you do not think about how your work is going to be comprehended by your audience, you will be left at the mercy of those who do. Here’s an example of a famous commercial, by Old Spice. First, the American English version:

Now, the Indian-English version:

Is language important to you? Only you can answer that.

Duration and Budget

Ever wondered why if a Kickstarter project raises $100,000 everyone’s excited, but if the next Shemorphers 4 costs $650 million nobody cares? For years Hollywood has reported inflated budgets, and every year it goes higher. So much so that the average person (even the average rich person!) can no longer comprehend its magnitude (Just like if I say Alpha Centauri is four light years away – does that mean anything to you?).

One place budget definitely impacts your style is in the duration of your movie. The more you have to shoot, the larger your budget needs to be, even if it’s a zero budget movie. What this does is, it compels you to make revisions in your duration, usually by reducing it. Now, we all know that if you compress your story, radical changes must be made in the writing, shooting or editing. If you’re in the writing stage you can rewrite sections. If it’s in the editing stage you’ll throw away whole scenes. If it’s in the production phase the last scenes to be shot are usually the ones thrown out.

I think it’s pretty clear how your style is a slave to your budget, and the duration of your project. If you don’t get the ‘money’ part right in filmmaking, you rarely get a second chance.

Revenue and Popularity

This is not entirely in your control, but people like lists. Most video searches have filters for ratings and views. To save time we all search for the most popular videos. It’s not uncommon to find lists like:

  • The greatest movies of all time.
  • The top 100 action movies of the decade.
  • YouTube filters by view count.
  • The top Hollywood grossers ever

How would this impact style? It would, if your aim is to be on one of these lists. Most filmmakers aspire to make great movies and win awards. How does that impact your choice of subject, or the way you say it (style)?

If your aim is get the highest viewership rating on YouTube, then you will create content that caters to that goal. E.g, check out two channels that are hugely popular on YouTube (addiction guaranteed):

Screen Junkies:

Cinema Sins:

Do you think their style is by accident? Don’t be naive.

What about ‘top grossers’? How was the style of Avatar shaped by the enormous pressure on James Cameron to earn a billion dollars? Only he can answer that, but you get the idea.

Censor rating

If you’re tackling a subject that is better left for adults, would you want children seeing it? Even if you’re selling to an adult audience, you wouldn’t want to thrust something that they are not prepared to see. Not all adults are the same.

There is one kind of movie that none of us are prepared to see. And that’s a boring movie with a ‘General’ rating.

Leading stars and popular Directors

People watch movies for its leading stars, otherwise high-budget-low-budget Hollywood movies ($20-30 million) wouldn’t get made. If you put ten Blu-ray discs in front of me, and said I could pick any one for free, I would pick the one which shows a face I like (assuming all other things are equal). For many people, the faces are all that matter.

Popular people don’t behave like you and me (unless you’re popular). They lead busy lives, have many commitments, and are under pressure to hold their positions. If you’re a popular director you’ll have a first hand experience of the market, and your choices will be governed by it. Some will play safe always, like Steven Spielberg, for example. Others, like Alejandro Jodorowsky or Welles or Chaplin, wouldn’t let that worry them too much.

Popular actors are yet another problem. Not only do they have all the quirks of actors per se, they have established ‘brands’ that need to be maintained even if they are playing characters in toons. Then, you are saddled with the job of rewriting your masterpiece to suit their idiosyncrasies. Does that bother you? Only you can know.


Even your crew will want to know what genre the film is. This is how we are educated about movies. Even Shakespeare wrote comedies and tragedies, and the Illiad and the Mahabharatha are epics. Can anybody make you change the way you use words? Then don’t insult your audience’s intelligence by assuming you can change theirs.

The major problem with genre is that your movie is then expected to follow certain ‘inviolable’ paradigms. You might hate these, and want to take your movie into another direction, but that would change the genre! E.g., if your genre is action, then you must have:

  • Fast-paced, quickly edited action scenes (duh!).
  • Periods of lull so the action sequences seem even more impactful.
  • Characters who can physically pull off the action. If you have an unlimited budget, you can replace your leads with CGI or stand-ins, but then you must change your shot to hide their faces!
  • Fast-paced music – unless you want to hear Fur Elise during the climactic sequence in the Avengers.
  • Louder sound effects to go with the action.
  • Characters screaming so their voices are heard over the sound effects and music.

Take any genre, you will find such rules. Some rules are silly, until you begin to see how they might impact your style. You can’t have everything.

Story and Plot elements

What’s it about? Today, writers are encouraged to write log-lines so their entire works can be judged in less than thirty seconds. But let’s forget that. Your movie must excite you. If you’re just creating a genre piece for the money, then that’s your style.

Plot elements are stuff that affects the plot and enters our lexicon due to popular demand. One such plot device is the ‘twist at the end’ – a la The Sixth Sense. M. Night got so caught up in adding a twist in every movie, his entire career got twisted. Do you think the twists at the end of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village didn’t have an effect on how his characters and cameras behaved?

Another famous plot element is the song, where characters, who were behaving perfectly natural until then, suddenly start performing and singing, but not in their voices.

One more plot element: the gorgeous person coming out of the water in their scanty swimming gear. If every Bond movie has to have one, then how does that help a director stamp his or her personal vision on the movie? This is one reason why many major Hollywood movies all look the same – anybody could have directed them.

Another word for the overly used plot element is ‘cliche’. First they create rules for genres and stories, and when everyone follows these rules, they become cliches, and no longer work!


Here are some other styles that are imposed on the filmmaker due to ‘force majeure’:

  • Orange and teal color grading
  • Long, drawn out but exciting title sequences to hide a boring opening scene
  • The intermission
  • Inside jokes and homages to other movies or scenes that call attention to themselves
  • Product placements
  • Love-making scenes
  • A climactic chase
  • Forced humor
  • The appropriate percentage of racial ‘in’-discrimination
  • Older males, younger females (or at least younger looking females)
  • Females must always be pretty, even if their characters are ugly (Ugly Betty, Shrek)
  • Shaky-cam, super slow-mo
  • Flare

I think this simple overview is enough to help you understand that every single choice you make, no matter what kind of project you’re doing, impacts your style. If you’re looking to find your unique vision, then be prepared to fight your battles on many fronts.

Can styles be copied?

This is interesting. Many famous movies are often remade. Some examples that have been made three times are The Jazz Singer, King Kong, 12 Angry Men, Stagecoach, etc. In fact, two movies that are exact shot-by-shot copies (as much as it will ever be) are Psycho (1998, original 1960) and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957, original 1934).

The latter is of particular interest because it was remade by the same director, Sidney Franklin. Regarding Psycho, this is from Wikipedia:

A number of critics and writers viewed Van Sant’s version more as an actual experiment in shot-for-shot remakes. Many people refer to this film as a duplicate of the 1960 film rather than a remake. Film critic Roger Ebert, who gave the film one-and-a-half stars, wrote that the film “demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.” Screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who wrote the original script, thought that although she spoke the same lines, Anne Heche portrays Marion Crane as an entirely different character. Even Van Sant admitted that it was an experiment that proved that no one can really copy a film exactly the same way as the original.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter which one’s your favorite. The question is, can a frame-by-frame remake replace it? The very nature of filmmaking guarantees that copies don’t produce the same results as the originals. Actors become old or die, directors forget how to direct, locations change, film stock or camera sensors change, the audience changes, and so on.

Maybe they should remake bad movies that had potential, instead of screwing up perfectly good ones.


How to create your own unique style

Well, there are positives and negatives here.  The negatives are that your style, no matter how you define it, is inextricably entwined with the manner you produce it, and also the audience’s expectations and classifications of your movie. This means, even if you envision the greatest movie in your head, by the time it arrives on screen, it will have changed. There’s nothing you can do about it.

All you can do is decide which aspects of it are worth focusing on and fighting over. Think of art and commerce as two sides of the same coin. You need both sides to have a coin, and you can only see one side at a time!

What about the positives? If you manage to pull off your unique style, by being master of the medium of cinema (or video), and by being a ‘non-confusing’ storyteller (in other words: Deliver your promise) to your audiences, then you have just struck a pot of gold. Look at some of the modern names whose styles are unmistakable:

  • Quentin Tarantino
  • Ridley Scott
  • Terrence Malick
  • Steven Spielberg
  • Christopher Nolan

You can’t copy them, even if you tried. This applies to music videos, documentaries, commercials, corporate videos, movies, YouTube webcasts, everything. When you have delivered your own unique style, the world will stop and take notice. A new classification will be created, one in your name.

Then it will be for the ages to protect it.