Techniques from 10 Famous Filmmakers

The same story given to these master directors would be filmed in a different and quite distinctive way by each.

“Little Red Riding Hood” directed by Alfred Hitchcock would be very different from the same story directed by John Ford. (Just imagine what Steven Spielberg would do with it!)

If you’re looking for some techniques to give your video productions more style, who better to learn from than these directors? Although one can learn much from studying the work of any great director, we’ll examine 10 whose signature techniques are most accessible to the home videomaker.

D.W. Griffith: The Closeup

Before D. W. Griffith, filmmakers still filmed as though they were presenting a stage play, using a single long shot. Griffith found this convention restricting and began to experiment with closeups and cross-cutting.

In his classic melodrama Intolerance (1916), Griffith cross-cut four parallel storylines using closeups of objects, faces, and hands to intensify audience involvement.

Intolerance (1916)

These techniques are so integral to contemporary filmmaking it’s hard to believe that in Griffith’s day they were considered dangerously experimental. (Studio bosses actually thought audiences would walk out of the theaters if they were exposed to closeups!)

The closeup allows the audience to identify with a character. To simulate a character’s point of view, tape a closeup of him or her looking off-frame. The shot that follows becomes the object of their gaze, and a closeup of the object indicates its importance as a symbol, or vital part of the plot.

John Ford: The Quiet Panorama Shot

The 125 films John Ford directed in his 50-year career spanned all genres, but his favorite was the western.

Now considered the classic western, Stagecoach (1939) established Ford as a first-rate director and legitimized the western as a movie form (as well as providing the first major role for the quintessential western hero, John Wayne).

Ford’s hallmark was the dynamic counterpoint he established between the characters’ story and an environment conveyed in quiet (nonmoving camera) long panorama shots.

In Stagecoach Ford counterpointed the interaction of characters within the confines of the coach with the awesome scenery of Utah’s Monument Valley (the first time he used this favorite western setting).

The coach crossing the valley was filmed in long shot with virtually no camera movement.

Stagecoach (1939)

Movement is created by the action within the frame-the moving coach or the band of Indians galloping in pursuit. Ford’s characters are “real” in the context of their dramatic interaction within the coach, but become archetypal against the grandeur of the magnificent setting.

You don’t need to go to Utah to use Ford’s technique to advantage. Tape at a park, beach or in any setting where a long shot can be used as a counterpoint to closeups of your “players.” (To assume mythic proportions, though, it should be a very long shot.)

To be Fordian, set up your shot and let the action occur within the frame- no zooming or panning.

Howard Hawks: Conveying Character Through Action

Howard Hawks, a contemporary of John Ford, was in many ways similar to him as a director. Both had long successful careers.

Like Ford, Hawks was a classical director, using the camera unobtrusively and letting the story dominate. Also like Ford, Hawks directed westerns; but his approach was different.

Whereas Ford glorified and romanticized the West, Hawks concentrated on the interaction of characters, who were always understood through actions rather than words.

To show someone trying to overcome fear, Hawks might have him flip a coin or whistle. Anger might be implied by a character’s snubbing out a cigarette or throwing down a hat. The heroine trying to walk with a broken heel creates a comic effect.

In The Big Sleep (1946), Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) has a habit of pulling on his earlobe whenever he’s puzzled. The character played by Lauren Bacall conveys sexual invitation by the way she lights a cigarette.

The Big Sleep (1946)

When taping family members, the videomaker can concentrate on recording an action that’s typical of each person. For example, if someone is a constant snacker, be sure to record him or her in the act of reaching into the cookie jar or examining the contents of the refrigerator.

Michael Curtiz: The Establishing Shot

Michael Curtiz, a highly regarded director of action films, had much in common with Ford and Hawks in terms of technique. His, like theirs, is the classical style: The camera records the action of the story without drawing attention to itself. The pace is quick. Every shot is necessary to the story.

Curtiz directed one of the world’s favorite movies, Casablanca (1942). Every scene in this film is important; not a shot could be omitted.

The setting, time, political and moral atmosphere, and Rick’s character are established in the first few minutes of the movie. Curtiz does this via establishing shots, beginning with a turning globe and ending with a closeup of Humphrey Bogart as Rick, the central character.

The series of shots beginning with the exterior of Rick’s Cafe and ending with a tilt from Rick’s hand to his face is a classic example of economy of expression. In short vignettes-some only a few seconds long-we learn a great deal about the atmosphere of Casablanca, in Rick’s, and about Rick himself.

Although it consists of several sequences, this introduction serves the same purpose as an establishing shot, letting the audience know the setting of the action. Good directors try to do more than just show the setting; they also try to establish the mood, the theme, and/or the plot in the opening shots.

Casablanca (1942)

Television shows usually start with the basic establishing shots-an aerial shot of a skyline, a cut to a building, a closer shot of a window or door-then the interior shot (in the studio) where the action begins.

Your establishing shots can follow the same logic: from the general to the particular, a view of the general environment followed by views that gradually become more specific.

Your establishing shot might simply convey a theme. A birthday party video can begin with a closeup of cake decorations, a bunch of balloons, or a champagne glass.

Whatever your opening shot, it should establish for the viewers the main idea of the subsequent action. If you can do it as well as Curtiz did in Casablanca– well, here’s looking at you, kid.

Alfred Hitchcock: Montage

Hitchcock’s goal in making a film was not merely to tell a story. He wanted above all to give his audience “a roller coaster ride,” to disturb their physical and emotional equilibrium. The thriller does this best, and Hitchcock’s name has become synonymous with this genre.

Because of his identification with this genre and the fact that his films were so entertaining, Hitchcock wasn’t taken seriously as a director in this country during his lifetime. Now, however, he’s considered one of the world’s great film directors, the supreme technician.

Hitchcock went to tremendous lengths to get the shot he wanted, sometimes building special equipment for a single shot. For example, he had a tracking device built for the shot in Psycho (1960) when Martin Balsam falls backwards down the stairs.

A technique characteristic of Hitchcock is the use of montage-a series of shots that derive their effect or meaning from their juxtaposition.

The most famous Hitchcock montage, the shower scene from Psycho, took seven days to shoot, lasts 45 seconds, and contains 78 cuts. Some shots are no longer than two or three frames.

In rapid succession we see a slashing knife and portions of the terrified woman’s body; then come slightly longer shots-her lifeless, staring eye, blood and water swirling down the shower drain.

Psycho (1960)

The scene was carefully calculated to upset us, and it does. In the same way that Jaws made us nervous about swimming in the ocean, Psycho made it impossible for us to feel altogether comfortable in the shower.

A montage can be created by editing in-camera, although this is a more difficult process than post-production editing. It helps to have a flying erase head in your recorder, and you must be careful about back-spacing. Test carefully beforehand so youll know how far back your recorder goes when you start a new shot. You don’t want to lose an important part of a shot every time you cut.

Montages can be used to compress time; a series of short shots from an event may be enough to convey its flavor. Create a montage to effect humor, suspense, or to create a symbolic motif-and you’ll be using one of Hitchcock’s trademarks.

Orson Welles: Sound

In 1941 two history-making directorial debuts occurred: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Joim Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Each man created a movie masterpiece with his first film. Some film critics, in fact, believe that Citizen Kane is the best American movie ever made.

Nearly every aspect of Citizen Kane was innovative. Its lighting, sound, camera work, and structure each constituted a radical departure from conventional directing.

Because of his origins in radio, Welles was extremely conscious of the importance of sound and used it very inventively in this film-the silence at the beginning, the newsreel-style voiceover of the “March of Time” sequence, echoes in the library and at Xanadu.

His sound cuts could be startling, as in the scream in the picnic scene that occurs just after Kane slaps Susan, and the screech of the tropical bird after Susan leaves Kane.

Videomakers can learn something from Welles by paying closer attention to sound. Get a couple of auxiliary microphones-such as a lavalier (clip-on) and a shotgun (unidirectional) to supplement your camcorder’s built-in mike.

When you shoot, try for naturalistic sound. Voices should be louder when subjects are close to the camera and fainter when they’re at a distance.

Use sound effects. If you can enhance an outdoor scene with sounds of birds or crickets, put some in. Or use sounds for dramatic effect, as Welles did. A clap of thunder or a train whistle, for example, can be very effective at the right moment. Use sounds from effects recordings or record your own.

Creating a sound track can be a lot of fun and will add yet another dimension to your video action shots.

John Huston: Location Shooting

While Welles defied every film convention, John Huston took the opposite tack in his directorial debut (The Maltese Falcon, 1941). Huston stuck to the conventional.

His approach was in the Ford/Hawks tradition: Don’t distract from the story with obtrusive camera moves. Don’t waste time with unnecessary dialogue or action. His script adhered very closely to the book; casting was excellent, with actors perfect for their parts. The result is a good story, well-acted and well-directed-a classic of its genre.

Like Welles, Huston was an actor, appearing in (or narrating) many of his own movies as well as films directed by others. Both men were flamboyant and individualistic, as celebrated for their personalities as for their art.

Huston’s stint as a documentary film maker during World War II, away from the Hollywood sound stages, influenced him to make Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947) on location in Mexico. At that time shooting away from the watchful eyes of studio bosses was a radical idea. Location shots were generally used as projections behind studio scenes. But after his experience with this film, Huston rarely shot in studios.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The African Queen (1951), which he shot in the Belgian Congo, didn’t benefit all that much from being made on location, since the plot revolved around the relationship between a man and a woman, with most of the action taking place on a boat. But Huston liked the adventure inherent in shooting on location, and the relative freedom of working so far away from the money men.

(One story goes that when producer Sam Spiegel went to Africa to see how things were going, Huston hired hundreds of chanting natives to impede his movements; Spiegel became so frustrated he went back home.)

Hobbyist videomakers usually tape “on location,” but we can learn something from Huston in seeking out the most appropriate place, whether for its beauty, starkness, hectic atmosphere, or serenity.

Sometimes the “real” setting doesn’t best enhance the action. Would your video be more interesting taped in a different, more exotic location than, say, the living room or backyard?

You don’t have to go to Africa or Mexico to scout locations. Your hometown will have its own share of interesting settings.

Akira Kurosawa: The Telephoto Action Shot

The U.S. doesn’t have all the great film directors. Ingmar Bergman (Sweden); Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard (France); Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy); Tony Richardson (England); and Akira Kurosawa (Japan) are just some of the world’s master directors.

Seven Samurai (1954) is Kurosawa’ s masterpiece. In this film more than any other he demonstrated his theory that a motion picture should consist entirely of motion, whether the subject’s or the camera’s. For the sake of economy Kurosawa often used short cuts, and telescoped scenes to quicken the pace.

The final battle scene in Seven Samurai confirms Kurosawa’s genius as a director. Hundreds of shots are skillfully edited together to capture the tension and excitement.

One of Kurosawa’s signature techniques is the use of the telephoto lens to bring the action close to the viewer. In Seven Samurai we’re right there in the middle of the besieged village. A telephoto shot of a falling horse nearly causes us to jump out of the way.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Action shot this way can be a lively component of a video program. Using a lens extender can increase your telephoto power significantly, helping you create some Kurosawan shots. Remember to use a tripod when shooting in telephoto, though; without one even the slightest camera movement will be exaggerated.

Sports events are perfect for experimenting with telephoto action shots. To put the shot in context, tape the scene in long shot first. Then do one or more medium and medium-close shots before coming to the closeup.

Like any other unusual technique, the telephoto action shot will lose its impact if overused. Save it for something special, like your child’s complicated gymnastics sequence or a spectacular catch at Little League.

Stanley Kubrick: Music

2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) evinces Stanley Kubrick’s reliance on the visual and his theory that a film is not a storytelling vehicle, but more “like music-a series of moods and feelings.”

While he used only 40 minutes of dialogue in this 140-minute film, Kubrick did use music. His choice of themes, like his images, was innovative.

Instead of original music, Kubrick used familiar classical pieces, chosen with the same care and precision used to create the visuals. (The “World Riddle” theme from Richard Strauss'”Thus Spake Zarathustra” became very popular after 2001, and was much used by young filmmakers to accompany their own epiphanic episodes.)

A shuttle glides through space to the accompaniment of, not synthesized “space” music, but Johann Strauss'”Blue Danube” waltz. Kubrick felt that the simple three-quarter time aptly expressed the order and harmony of the universe.

Appropriate music can color your own video action shots. Give careful thought to the pieces you select for your images. The music should reflect mood and feeling. Give major elements (people, objects, or places) their own theme music to accompany them whenever they’re on-camera.

Do not, however, use copyrighted music for any video production that may be used commercially, without written permission from the copyright holder.

Music in the public domain or original material are alternatives to copyrighted music. There are also hundreds of recordings of music written especially for use in film and video productions. For a minimal fee (which includes the rights), you can use “cuts” from these collections, known in the trade as “needle drops.”

Steven Spielberg: The Dolly-Zoom Shot

Steven Spielberg is probably the best known of the “new wave” of directors, which also includes Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian de Palma, and Martin Scorsese, among others.

Spielberg started as a director of television films, where he learned to maintain a fast pace to hold an audience’s attention.

Like Hitchcock, Spielberg relies on suspense and well-crafted cinematic action to create the horror in his films. Also like Hitchcock, his main characters are ordinary people who must cope with overwhelming danger.

A shot Spielberg uses to great effect is the dolly-zoom. Combining the zoom-out with a dolly-in keeps the subject in the same position and size while the background explodes outward behind him or her, creating a feeling of anxiety in the viewer.

In Jaws (1975) the dolly-zoom shot communicates anxiety-the police chief sits helplessly on the beach watching the shark attack a swimmer. The shot is used to similar effect in Duel and during the chase sequences in Sugarland Express.

Used at just the right point in the film, such shots can be unnerving. But the dolly-zoom is only effective when used appropriately and with discretion. Although not impossible to create, this shot will take some doing for the home videomaker.

To dolly, you’ll need a tripod on wheels to roll over a very smooth surface, or any dolly that can hold the tripod and camera operator. Elaborate dollies can be rented from professional video equipment suppliers. A wheelchair (or a shopping cart, for diminutive camera operators) will work as well.

The important thing is a smooth ride on a smooth surface.

Mastering the Masters

In experimenting with just one technique from each of these great directors, you’ll develop a repertoire that includes the closeup (D. W. Griffith); the quiet panorama shot (John Ford); conveying character by action (Howard Hawks); the establishing shot (Michael Curtiz); montage (Alfred Hitchcock); sound (Orson Welles); location shooting (John Huston); the telephoto action shot (Akira Kurosawa); music (Stanley Kubrick); and the dolly-zoom shot (Steven Spielberg).

What better professors can the home videomaker have than the great motion picture directors themselves?

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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