Understanding Style in Cinema (Part Two): Creating Style

In Part One we tried to define what style is, with respect to cinema. In this part we’ll try to learn ways in which we can create a style of our own.

But first, as promised, a simpler defintion of style.

A practical definition of style

Remember how I broke down style into three parts? Here’s a simple recap:

  • Distinctive vision – This is what helps people separate your work from the rest.
  • Your manner of doing or creating your vision – This helps you reproduce your distinctive vision at will, and also helps you organize your thoughts into practical, actionable steps.
  • Classification – This helps you to explain your art to people who haven’t the time, inclination, education or brain power to comprehend what you’re doing. Think of it as marketing.

Now, here’s a definition of style that I’ve been following ever since I got into filmmaking:

Making a movie has always been about telling a story…the way you tell that story should relate somehow to what that story is. Because that’s what style is: the way you tell a particular story.

…Critics talk about style as something apart from the movie because they need the style to be obvious. The reason they need it to be obvious is that they don’t really see. If the movie looks like a Ford or Coca-Cola commercial, they think that’s style. And it is. It’s trying to sell you something you don’t need and is stylistically geared to that goal. As soon as a “long lens” appears, that’s “style”.

…In one of the most thrilling moments of my professional life, he [Kurosawa] talked to me about the “beauty” of the camera work as well as of the picture [Prince of the City]. But he meant beauty in the sense of its organic connection to the material. And this is the connection that, for me, separates true stylists from decorators. The decorators are easy to recognize. That’s why critics love them so.

 – Sidney Lumet (Making Movies)

In short, others might need style as a crutch to explain, discuss, copy (reproduce) or judge your work, while you need it to get something done. This is why most filmmakers are embarrassed to talk about their style. While others go gaga over the fact that Quentin Tarantino writes his scripts with a set of three red and three black retro-styled Flair pens, he probably does it just to get his scripts written.

How can one go about creating style?

Which is the most important aspect of style – the manner of creating your movie, the distinctiveness of its vision, or the classification of it? If someone wants to actively pursue style by being consciously aware of it while making their movie, which of the three should he or she pay the most attention to, and why?

That ultimate decision rests with you. I’ll just try to highlight some known instances of how the masters did it. I’m going to use as examples the directors I like best:

  • Akira Kurosawa
  • Orson Welles
  • Stanley Kubrick
  • Alfred Hitchcock

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that being distinctive means your style must be unique. This means, there will also be a unique manner in which it must be carried out. Otherwise, you’ll be reduced to using styles created by others. You’ll be nodding to orders like:

  • “Hey, can you give me that 80s lighting? I think it’ll lift this whole scene up to another level.”, or
  • “Let the girls wear pink and the boys blue.”, or
  • “Your story has potential, but what we’re really looking for is an erotic thriller. Can you rewrite your screenplay with a bit more…I don’t know…oomph?”
  • “You can’t have a western with Jamie Foxx as Django.”

 

Finding the right manner in which to achieve a distinctive vision

I only know the styles of the following masters from watching their movies and interviews, reading a few articles or books, etc. Only a few of them have bothered to discuss their ideas of style at any length. Therefore, don’t take my interpretations of their style seriously. Watch the movies that matter to you, and form your own opinions. The following are just brief overviews, nothing more.

And, be wary of spoilers.

Akira Kurosawa

It is said that Kurosawa was inspired by Japanese paintings:

Ran Storyboards Comparison

Composition: He was a skilled painter himself, and many of his visuals seem to attempt to replicate the ‘flat” composition of a painting. His black and white samurai films are probably the finest frames you’ll ever see. The legend goes that you could pause any frame in Seven Samurai and it would be a well-composed photograph. I don’t think the legend lies.

Lenses and Camera – A lot of people say Kurosawa only used long lenses, but that’s crap. Judging by his black and white masterpieces, he seems to have mainly used lenses from 25mm to 100mm. If I had to guess, I’d say he used a Mitchell camera with Bausch and Lomb Baltar lenses for his black and white work. His color work forced him to shift from the Academy ratio, and this had repercussions on this entire visual style. Kurosawa also used multiple cameras sometimes, but never without purpose.

Film and Lighting – Now, long lenses with lots of depth of field presents a problem. You have to stop down the lens to f/5.6 or higher. This is fine if you’re shooting outdoors (Kurosawa shot a lot of exterior work), but indoors, you’ll need tons of light to get it to work. It didn’t help that black and white film stock of the 50s got you only about 200 ASA.

Color – Kurosawa used color expressively, it had to mean something. He loved van Gogh (which is why there is a van Gogh sequence in Dreams, played by Martin Scorsese) and you can sense that Kurosawa liked to create his world in images (he storyboarded everything himself) and then willed everything in it into existence.

Hair, Wardrobe and Production design – The costume and production design work in his movies is also outstanding and painstakingly researched. His stories were adaptations of short stories, novels or plays (lots of Shakespeare). He drew a lot of knowledge and inspiration from reading western literature, watching Hollywood movies and from his own culture. He wrote books, including an autobiography. Nothing in his movies is just ‘thrown’ in there. He used the elements as characters – heat, dust, fog, rain, snow, wind, fire – all with massive intent.

Editing –  He edited in the Hollywood style, with invisible cuts. However, when he wanted it, he used jump cuts as well. His stories are almost always linear. He loved to move the camera and cut on action. More cuts means you need more shots, because he hardly repeated shots. E.g., the average shot length in Seven Samurai is about 8 seconds. Compare that to Jurassic Park or Saving Private Ryan, which is about 7 seconds. Of course, Kurosawa didn’t have the same budgets!

Music – He used music forcefully, romantically, drawing attention to itself. You could say he used it expressively, like everything else in his work.

The Kurosawa style – Kurosawa’s career had three phases – Before Rashomon, the ‘samurai’ era, and the color era. You can see the master’s hand in all three, yet there are enough stylistic differences to separate the three major phases of his career. Let me put it this way:

I have been a huge fan of his work ever since I started. But I had always neglected to see his color work, assuming they wouldn’t be so good. I remember watching a few scenes from Dreams, on television, while switching channels. As soon as the image appeared on screen, I stopped, and I just knew it was Kurosawa. Everything about it – the composition, the mood, the cuts, everything – goes into making the signature Kurosawa style.

Orson Welles

How do you know a great Orson Welles film? When he stars in it! Even if he’s not in the frame, he makes sure his presence is felt:

Orson Welles Movies

Composition: He was a master in composition, yet you wouldn’t say that every frame of his is a photograph. Why not? I think because he didn’t deal with heroism or inspirational characters. He exclusively dealt with flawed characters, whom society loves to hate.

Lenses and Camera – I think he was very much influenced by Gregg Toland, and stuck to wide angles most of the time.

Film and Lighting – Thousands of pages have been devoted on the subject of deep focus and how much light it needs. That was the sacrifice that needed to be made to get rich visual frames. This had one major advantage, which Welles exploited – he is probably the undisputed master of the long take, like the one at the beginning of Touch of Evil (incredible or what?).

Color – Color, what’s that?

Hair, Wardrobe and Production design – He worked within the Hollywood system, and judging by his subject matter I’d say he had strong ideas about the world. He was good at making people appear as he wanted them to be, strictly serving the purposes of the story. As far as sets were concerned, he built them to look realistic. It had to be functional, and come apart so a dolly could move through them!

Editing –  Citizen Kane is studied so much for the many editing styles it contains, all in one film – and none of them looking out of place. However, I have a feeling if he could have pulled off the entire movie in one take he might have preferred that!

Music – I have come under the impression that his use of music was purely functional.

The Welles style – Welles didn’t make too many great films, but those that are great are tough to single out as the work of one person. Most of his filmmaking career he was under severe pressure to secure financing. The studios didn’t care about him. They were probably afraid if they gave him Ben Hur he’d make it Orson Welles.

The manner in which he got about achieving his style came as direct consequence of the manner in which he lived his life. There are no period dramas or action packed chases. Did he choose long takes because he had to work fast and cheaply? Who knows? But, he made long takes, deep focus and wide angles his own. To put it mildly, he wiped the floor with them, and showed the world how it’s done.

Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick was a perfectionist, and would painstakingly put the pieces of his film together (he collected boxes of photographs) before committing to it. He would also make his actors repeat takes until they gave him what he wanted.

But if there’s something you can’t take away from him, it’s his ability to pull off one iconic image in every movie:

2001 Space Odyssey

By the way, all of the above are from the same movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick never shied away from socially unacceptable subjects – just watch A Clockwork Orange or Eyes Wide Shut or Full Metal Jacket.

Composition: He had his unique style of composing his subjects bang in the center of the frame, both horizontally and vertically.

Lenses and Camera – He loved wide angles. He loved to have lenses made specifically for his movies. He always looked for new rigs to get his shot. He selected his lenses and cameras like how a doctor asks for a scalpel. On the whole, though, he preferred wide angles, which worked really well with his compositional sense. It also allowed him to use zoom lenses, and he zoomed like they were going to take his zoom lens away from him at any moment! But he used the zoom so purposefully, that it made sense. I can’t imagine Barry Lyndon without the zooms. On the other hand, I can’t imagine A Clockwork Orange without the tracking shots. He took all the stuff everyone tells you never to do, and made it work.

Film and Lighting – He used what he could. A lot of people think Barry Lyndon has no artificial lighting, but many shots are lit. Many think he pushed the candle-scenes by one stop, but he pushed the entire film by one stop. In fact, his fixation on really wide angles probably meant the DP had to just light the set and sit back and watch. I wonder what would have happened if they put Gordon Willis and Kubrick into the same room?

Color – This is interesting, because Kubrick started filmmaking in the black and white era, and like all those in the same boat, had trouble finding his own ‘color’ voice. He chose to subjugate it as a functional tool, because he was a slave to his own box of photographs. They had to match!

Hair, Wardrobe and Production design – Kubrick was involved in every detail of his set, and probably took great delight in production design. His sets had to follow his compositions and angles, so they were an integral part of his vision. But on the whole, I’m not sure he really cared about wardrobe or hair and makeup.

Editing –  2001: A Space Odyssey has one of the greatest cuts in filmmaking history, when the bone turns into a space ship. He lets his frames linger a bit longer than most would dare.

Music – Kubrick had his own collection, and made sure they were used in the movie. He always chose his music first – to leave nothing to chance. One oddity has to be the orgy sequence in Eyes Wide Shut, which used a chant played back in reverse. Whatever works!

The Kubrick style – Clinical, that’s what. Even when he studied human beings and their base natures, he was always at a distance, observing. His framing put his actors bang in the center, with nowhere to escape. Whatever subject he tackled, he made sure he laid it bare. They are there to be studied, and possibly judged.

Alfred Hitchcock

One of the most beautiful things about Hitchcock was color:

Hitchcock frames

Everything else was suspenseful, and he was the master of getting our asses to the edge of our seats. Through his interviews he has shown how he likes to give the audience information so they become invested in the story.

Composition: He composed Hollywood style, where the cuts are hidden and the image does not draw attention to itself. In fact, if someone didn’t know Hitchcock at all, they would be hard-pressed to distinguish his work from other movies during the same period.

Lenses and Camera – He stuck to classical medium lenses, notably the 50 mm. But he also used wide angles when he was allowed the set and space.

Film and Lighting – His lighting is classic Hollywood. In fact, if there’s one thing I don’t like about Hitchcock, it’s the fact that he played safe with his lighting. Don’t get me wrong, the lighting works brilliantly to set the mood. But, it hasn’t aged well. Today, the scenes look over lit.

Color – Color, his colors are always with some intent, as in Vertigo (Vittorio Storaro would have loved that!). You know he was aware of his colors because he took it all away for Psycho.

Hair, Wardrobe and Production design – He worked with studios, and had his sets built. He loved to create one-location scenarios (Rear Window, Psycho to a certain extent, Rope, Dial M for Murder, ad infinitum), but they only reflected what everyone else was doing at the same time. One gets the distinct impression that you could replace all the sets and costumes, and still get the same story.

Editing –  This is where Hitchcock showed his mastery. He was brilliant at placing imagery where it would create the greatest suspense. He gave the audience so much information that they cringed. They didn’t want to know too much about the person who they know will be murdered any instant. He taught us how to create suspense – pure, unadulterated suspense. He called it ‘pure cinema’.

Music – The only time I have seen (or heard) music stand out in a Hitchcock movie is with Psycho. The music in Psycho is so in-your-face, and it works big time. Can’t imagine Psycho with another score. However, my favorite musical piece is in The Birds, where the children sing inside the school, unaware of what is gathering outside. That scene also shows Hitchcock at his subliminal best at editing.

The Hitchock style – Did Hitchcock make the same movie over and over again in his prolific career? If yes, nobody noticed. That’s saying something.

He had the tough task of entertaining us, sometimes in a gruesome way, always involving macabre. I bet he loved it.

I hope this brief but stormy look into how style is created, and how the manner in which one shoots is dictated by it, is sufficiently enlightening to get your creative juices flowing. If you love to read more about directors, you’ll find this fascinating: Movie Directors and the Number 8.

In Part Three we’ll conclude our study on style by seeing how classification should be handled by the filmmaker. But before you do that, a word from the wise: