We are not all film visionary geniuses, but when directing films we don’t have to be; we can just copy! Great directors have been paying homages to their childhood favourite directors since the beginning of cinema. So in 2020 with such an eclectic library of cinema why shouldn’t we take inspiration from the greats and in the process look a lot smarter than we actually are. Here are five filmmaking techniques used by iconic directors which you can use to impress clients and friends and paint your way to the red carpet.
Always remember, techniques shouldn’t be overused. There is nothing cornier than when the shots chosen by the DP don’t match the tone of the piece. Knowing when to use restraint is characteristic of a great filmmaker. That said one of these techniques below might be a novel way to spice up your showreel and really help you stand out.
David Fincher has directed several critically acclaimed thrillers in recent years: Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network and my personal favourite Gone Girl. Fincher has made a name for himself as an autocratic director who is obsessed with detail. It is not uncommon for him to require more than 50 takes for a single shot! Chances are your actors or subjects will not be as tolerant with you (trust me you won’t be paying them enough). One of Fincher’s more dynamic techniques; which is fairly easy to pull off with the right equipment, is to rotate the camera around two subjects about 90 degrees flipping the perspective of conversation. This is a good way to liven up the boring shot reverse shot you may have planned for a conversation scene. Using a shoulder rig or track to truck the camera around the back of subject 2 so that the opposite side of subject 1s face can be seen. Then this can be repeated in another over the shoulder shot rotating in the opposite direction. This can be a creative cinematic way to show a shift in power in the scene. You can try combining this with your choice of high and low angles on the face. Beware of shot continuity when doing this; avoid all interactive props where possible like food and drinks. You might have a sandwich miraculously completing itself between takes.
Filming an action or chase sequence? JJ Abrams has you covered! The serial science fiction director has multiple blockbusters on his resume including Mission Impossible III, Star Trek (2009) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Just because you don’t have a million dollar CGI budget doesn’t mean you can’t direct a mind blowing action scene. JJ Abrams incorporates the pan and zoom shot time and time again and it looks great. The shot starts by picking a moving focus, for JJ this could be the Millennium Falcon or Captain Kirk for you it will likely be a car, bike or sweaty underpaid actor. As the focus approaches the camera and moves from right to left (or left to right) the camera pans with them. After the pan the focus moves off quickly away from the camera and zooms to catch up with them at the last minute. This dynamic shot really grasps the audience’s attention. Top tip is you can apply it into lots of different scenarios for example picking a target out of a crowd. The world is your oyster when diversifying your shots in your action scenes.
Next on the list is the “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock. One of the most influential directors to transform modern cinema; his thrillers from the 1930s- 1970’s challenged audiences. Being such a pioneer, you will undoubtedly study his work if you go to film school. Perhaps his most famous film, listed by the British Film Institute as the greatest film of all time is Vertigo. The story of a retired detective who suffers from vertigo and is investigating a mysterious young woman. In a key moment of realization the camera performs a dolly towards the protagonist whilst also zooming away from him shrinking the frame around him. This shot is known as the vertigo effect after the film is also called a Zolly (zoom and a dolly). The key bit of information to understand is that the camera operator is zooming in the opposite direction to the dolly. This gives the shot the effect of shrinking or extending distances. Some applications for this shot could be for moments of horror or moments of dysphoria in music videos. As a beginner using a DSLR camera with a zoom lens this trick can be a little tricky to pull off as you want to keep the subject in focus whilst you dolly and zoom. It’s a really cool way to show off once you’ve nailed it, just be careful you don’t make your audience sick.
All the Edgar Wright fan boys put your hands up. One of the most acclaimed British directors working at the moment. Every film he has directed receiving critical and cult acclaim. Most famous for the Cornetto Trilogy which includes the brutal police mystery satire Hot Fuzz. Wright has a distinctive style of filmmaking which normally includes meticulously detailed long takes and well synchronised music and visuals. Today we are going talk about the iconic jump cuts. Montage sequences that consist of tens of whip pans and wide angle lens close ups. These moments really can contribute to moments of visual comedy. Just by focusing the camera on an unexpected object in time with the music can be enough to land a visual gag that gets more laughs than most of the dialogue. So be meticulous, It may take precious time to gather such an army of short 1 second close ups for a transition sequence but you will thank yourself when you leave your viewers minds blown with your attention to detail.
How could we leave out the iconic cinematography present in Wes Anderson’s films full of on the nose symmetry and centred framing. These shots are quirky and can be raw and personal when centred on a protagonist. Paying some time to make clear decisions about what’s in frame: costume, props and set as well as what colour palette you’re using goes a long way in making your work look professional and sleek. Every frame in a Wes Anderson film has been carefully storyboarded that’s why every frame looks like a painting. To carry this meticulous focus on frame composition into your own work by creating storyboards of your key shots could vastly improve the quality of your film. And don’t worry you don’t need to be an artist just look at some of Martin Scorsese’s story boards, it’s the thought that counts.
That concludes this list. Hopefully you’ve learnt some new ways to show off if you didn’t know them already. Remember to always pay homage to your heroes and help people up the ladder once you make it to stardom.