On Style

For me one of the happiest tasks of making a film is deciding on the style. There are so many options and choices available for it, including even the thought of whether the style should be consistent throughout the movie. Will the style change? Will it differ throughout scenes? Will it change within scenes? How quickly do we want to set a noticeable style for the audience? Will there be an intention to break that style later in the picture? These things are rather fun for me, for whatever reason.

Those things termed ‘style’ are so varied across the composition of a picture that its impossible to truly come up with comprehensive categories. Framing. Movement. Blocking. Lighting. There are more and then when they begin to feed into each other there’s no telling where one ends and the other begins. The only way to really utilize screen style is to be so fluidly confident in each that there’s no thought really about categories. It should be nearly subconscious. A skilled musical performer will move in and out of different scales, and into preferred licks and chords and rhythms without bothering to define each as they go.

Definitely it is fun to then have a strong grasp on a number of filmmaker’s styles. Then you are able to drop in and out of those as well, while customizing each. I’ll ramble at short length about this now in relation to my films.

In making Faraway I was determined to create an exciting adventure film. I think of Ford’s The Searchers as possibly my favorite film, which I have studied at length. I wanted to bring some of that to the film, especially the use of location. Ford has said interestingly that you know how to direct when you know if the horizon should go in the center of the frame, the lower half, or the upper half, in any given landscape. I don’t think he really meant it as a test if you can director or not. It simply points at the importance of such a consideration.

I also looked at Spielberg, who is the master of framing and blocking. I think he is the only person in the league of Welles at this. He is so seamless at it that we hardly notice. In a typical dialogue scene he will express who people are and what they want through their positioning and movement, then bake in a subtle camera move, all while keeping the audience in suspense about some unseen danger. He fills the foreground and background, neglecting nothing. The camera only cuts when it is time to cut. Bogdanovich does this as well, in films like The Last Picture Show and Daisy Miller, but he cannot help but be obvious about it, hoping we will see his lineage with Welles. That’s not a bad thing, but Spielberg makes framing and blocking look fun.

In Faraway, we shot for the first time at 2.35:1. In order to not feel like a put-on, low budget films like ours must try to completely fill that wide frame. It is obvious when a filmmaker simply centers up the subject in the shot and lets the rest be empty real estate. There ought to be multiple subjects going on in there. Otherwise, a more conventional 16:9 or even 4:3 is preferable. I tried to keep the camera mostly on a dolly with a short jib arm for very controlled and deliberate moves. Any time that we could do the Spielberg thing and have a fully composed shot, then move into another composed shot and possibly into another, we would. But that only came up so often, and in general we leaned on Ford’s style of figures against a landscape.

This being modern times though, and with only so much budget, I knew we would sometimes need to switch into total handheld. This is what I mean about consistency of style. During handheld sequences, we never wanted excess shake. Often it would go, like the controlled Spielberg shots, from one composed image into another, which is unusual for modern handheld. I didn’t want any feel of ‘finding’ the scene. Wes Anderson’s rare handheld shots are like this as well. Shakey, but so obviously intentional and controlled.

Finally, a large influence on Faraway was Kurosawa. His mature style is discussed too rarely. The telephoto lenses compressing space, coupled with intensely controlled blocking of actors. What more stunning example of filmmaking is there than High and Low? Can it be believed that he shot this with multiple cameras, keeping in mind exactly where the cuts would be? I think that modern filmmakers who attempt ‘oner’ shots with blocking and camera movement often don’t realize what a friend the long lens can be in this situation. Kurosawa can fill the frame efficiently this way. When a television show or movie decides its time to show that they saw Touch of Evil in film school we are subjected to a lot of empty space as their Steadicam operator whirls about trying to center their subject without the least interest in anything else happing around. This is all a way of saying that sometimes I used long lenses, and you should too.

The Monsters Without contains basically an evolved version of the Faraway style. While I acted myself as cinematographer on Faraway, this time we had Freddy Duarte on the camera. With very few exceptions, I required the same stranglehold on exact framings and movements, which for the most part I left lighting entirely to him. When I had absolutely no shot in mind (a shamefully neglect position for any director but there we are) I turned to him and he would deliver something very good. There is a shot where Setsuko and Rommel make love under the covers, and the camera is under with them which is all Freddy and totally outside of what I would have thought of. Very good.

This time I really wanted to emphasize Orson Welles style blocking. This is an ensemble film, with many main characters in every scene. I did not want to resort to massive amounts of coverage of these people standing rooted to wherever we set the lights. Every full dialogue scene is done as a complex single take with as much lively blocking as I could figure out. Camera on a dolly, with a tighter lens then most could stomach. Freddy was incredible at this, because there are many focus changes needed for something like this, and he handed all of them without any sort of assist.

Absurdly, I also wanted to bake in a tribute to the big three classic Japanese filmmakers Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu. There is a scene where three characters run down a hill, shot as wide singles on each with the camera far on tripod with long lens, cutting from one to the next, matching a sequence from Seven Samurai (and revealing what I hope viewers by the end view this rag tag team as).

In a harrowing scene where a village is destroyed and burned by uniformed men, we have a sort of Mizoguchi tribute. He would often stage scenes of anguish and suffering which would play long and compound their horrors as the camera calmly moves from one tableau of suffering to the next, and though our only goes for a minute we tried to replicate that effect. We used a camera on a dolly and jib and rehearsed infinitely as there was only once chance to burn down our sets on camera. It came out well however. The master wouldn’t be proud I’m sure, feeling that he could do better. But he is dead, so I can stake my little cool scene on his name.

Finally the Ozu tribute is as blunt as he is. A dialogue scene, actors unmoving, all on the floor. Where typically I hate when actors do not move as it reveals a lazy hand behind the camera, I love when we go so far with anything that it becomes a virtue. Ozu’s actors will stay rooted to one spot indefinitely, with a camera that definitely isn’t going anywhere, centering them in the frame and looking them right in the eye. We do that for an extended dialogue as characters gossip about another who is not there.

I felt that each of these tributes were organic and that if I did not indicate their formalist nature nobody would be the wiser. This is another fun thing to do within the constraints of style. There is an infinite argument between style and content and sadly I seem to be on the losing side. Del Toro says there is such a thing as Eye-Proteins as opposed to Eye-Candy, and I agree. Many films feature people on an adventure. I hope that in photographing these adventurers in a chosen and intent way that I have said something about them previously unsaid.

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