I’m assuming we all have a sense about the technical skill level of a director. I’m not really knowledgeable about technical aspects of filmmaking, but I do have a vague sense about the technical skills of a filmmaker. I also have a vague sense about which filmmakers are “better” than others in this regard. This sense is very, very general, and I’m not confident at all in my ability to judge these things. In this thread, I want to discuss how people know if a filmmaker is talented or not—especially in terms of techniques involving the visuals (use of the camera, mise-en-scene, editing, etc.). How do determine if one director is better than another in this regard? What distinguishes the technically good directors from the technically great filmmakers?
Let me throw something else out there. I generally attribute the look of a film to the director, but as I started this thread, I realized that may be erroneous. Directors utilize cinematographers, editors, and other filmmakers to create the look of the film, as well as other aspects. Yet (and perhaps this reveals the level of my ignorance), the films of some directors have a consistent look or consistent level of quality. Terrence Malick’s films look really, really good. Ditto Kubrick and many other directors. So, for now, I’m just going to stick with the premise of assessing directors by the visual quality of the films.
Before I kick this off. I wanted to write down some of my impressions of filmmakers and “rank” them. Bear in mind, that I believe my judgments carry much weight. They’re just my impressions, and they could be completely off-base. My hope is that people can correct or affirm some of these impressions.
Some random thoughts:
Kubrick and Malick are almost in a class by themselves especially in terms of grand, painterly films. Tarr and Tarkovsky seem to very similar if not the same.
Ridley Scott or Ang Lee are good, too, but I wouldn’t put them in the same class. (Why is that? Do people agree with this?)
With someone like Spielberg and Hitchcock, I think of the fludity and dynamism of the camera and editing. (I have no idea if this correct, but that’s the impression I get).
Ozu and many other Japanese directors seem very formal and meticulous. Everything shot has to be perfect. They are talented, too, but it’s different from Spielberg and Hitchcock.
Does Scorsese have a unique style? The filmmaking in Raging Bull is really noticeable and exceptional. He seems to be a very dynamic (or maybe kinetic) filmmaker—but not like Tony Scott, who seems crazy in terms of dynamism.
I think it is the ability to elevate bad material, the best way to assess talent I mean
Great thread, I’ve beent thinking a lot about this lately,
To start, I think, there are different types of directors, which you kind of state in the way you clump certain directors together. Also, I think there are different “forms” of technical know-how.
Like you say, Malick and Kubrick, are in a class by themselves in terms of grand painterly films. But, I don’t know how much “technique” there is in terms of know-how. I’m not saying that these directors don’t have great techinique, they obviously do, it’s just a different kind. Malick especially seems to get a very similar look to all his films, using different cinematographers, but his films are shot in an almost documentary fashion. When watching his films, I feel that he knows what he wants, but he is also allowing it to happen naturally, and I think a lot of credit needs to go to his camera team. They seem to be “collecting” shots for Malick to choose from later.
Hitchcock, Spielberg and Scorcese, aren’t going for GRAND shots, but rather a sort of expressionistic storytelling approach, where they inform and tell their stories through shot size and camera movement and editing. This is a form of technique as well, which may be better said as “technique” or “craft.” They are using the film language that has been honed for the past hundred years to tell a story. Where the camera is placed delivers information to the audience, and also when you cut to a single, over the shoulder two-shot, they are all thought out for what those “shots” do to an audience.
Kubrick seems to be a mix, he doesn’t cut nearly as much as the hitchocks and scorcese’s, he isn’t using that “expressionistic” camera set up and cutting to inform us of what is happening. He seems to be working in a more “classic” mode of directing, a more “objective” mode. Where the camera is there to record what is happening, rather than someone like Scorcsese, he does everything he can to allow the audience into the head of a character.
These are just some initial thoughts, they may be wrong, but I will try and elaborate and be clearer in later posts, I don’t have the time now. But I like the thread and can’t wait to hear what people think!
Jazzaloha: How do determine if one director is better than another in this regard? What distinguishes the technically good directors from the technically great filmmakers?
The ability to integrate form and content to great purpose. Lots of people can show off (like Joe Wrights’ long tracking shots in Atonement or Hanna or especially bad, Michael Bay) but they just come off as showing off. The great directors are great at photographic composition of what’s in the frame, blocking the action, taking full advantage of their actors skills, and conveying emotion and theme in creative ways more by showing than telling.
Malick especially seems to get a very similar look to all his films, using different cinematographers, but his films are shot in an almost documentary fashion. When watching his films, I feel that he knows what he wants, but he is also allowing it to happen naturally, and I think a lot of credit needs to go to his camera team. They seem to be “collecting” shots for Malick to choose from later.
Hmm, I can see this with the later films (especially the last one), but you feel this way towards Badlands and Days of Heaven, too?
The ability to integrate form and content to great purpose. Lots of people can show off (like Joe Wrights’ long tracking shots in Atonement or Hanna or especially bad, Michael Bay) but they just come off as showing off.
But what separates a great shot from one that’s merely showing off? One that comes to mind: the opening in Johnnie To’s Breaking News. It’s definitely impressive. Is it showing off or artistically meaningful? Or, maybe a more familiar one—the long take in Children of Men.
“But what separates a great shot from one that’s merely showing off?”
The film that surrounds it.
This is an interesting thread in that Jazz is automatically thinking about the director’s trademark on the image, and while there are certainly many directors that take this into consideration -those mentioned are great examples that could also include image-obsessed Polanski, De Palma, Lean, Antonioni, Allen, Fincher, Welles, Kurosawa, Soderbergh, etc…but this is only part of the filmmaking process, as I generally consider other aspects of a director’s job to work with actors, to guide the formalism to support the narrative and story, but also to help guide the crew through the physical execution of this material.
While the image is an instinctual place to start, since it’s so immediately apparent when one is controlling the image, this is usually a collaboration between the director as guidance (and perhaps the motivator of a specific cinematographic style or consistency across the work) and the director of photography (as the executor of the aesthetic plan). I would say it’s clear when Malick is capable of having a similar style across his various films and collaborators, but it’s most likely because he’s set the parameters for the cinematic ideology and aesthetic, while someone like Savides is executing and maintaining the stylistic consistency between images/shots.
When it comes to someone like Michael Bay or Gore Verbinksi, I would say these guys have a talent that is in the realm of guiding the crew through the physical process, they have an ability to think through the entire process form development through post, integrating multiple levels of tricks (often in each shot) which are not integrated until late in the game, and it’s their ability to make the right decisions that allows for these elements to come together successfully during the limited timetable they have. I would feel Malick in capable of achieving a Pirates of the Caribbean picture, since he has not developed this talent of resource and time allocation and management.
Someone like Kubrick or Fincher is masterful in terms of controlling the image just as much as they are directing the audience through thought -which comes from an talent to comprehend and manipulate levels of narrative, point of view, and guiding the performers through the appropriate process to achieve what’s best for the material. It’s clear there is a talent to guide material on a level where all formalism is linked to content.
Those whom are perhaps more focused on one are than another would most likely be less visually apparent. I would say that Mark Atkins, while not the best at working with actors, is someone whom can deliver a picture in a relatively small amount of time. While the image quality is not acceptable at all, the narrative and point of view are generally pretty clear (often including a political subtext).
When it comes to someone like John Cassavetes or Rob Nilsson it also becomes quite clear that it’s story and performance that are their ultimate talent -as all technical aesthetics are secondary as their films often reveal mistakes in these areas that are overridden by stunning performance and powerful emotional guidance.
Ultimately, I think the focus of “talent,” is something that is also clearly connected to a director’s interest. The previous example of Malick and Verbinski doesn’t make any real sense, since neither of them would approach that material, and if they did it would most likely be affected by their natural talents.
In general, I would suggest that it not be forgotten that not all directors have a talent that is completely artistic, as there are some interesting directors whom don’t care about the aesthetics and simply want to execute for product’s sake, or message’s sake, and those whom achieve quickly have a tendency to want to say something over emphasizing how’s it said. Ciro H. Santiago is quite a force with which to be reckoned, but is perhaps best known because of how prolific he is, and any aesthetic consistency is out the window if the deadline of a picture’s timeline (or budget) is closing -yet he’s still a strong and effective maker.
Talent is an interesting concept, and I’m curious if others have other interpretations of ‘talent.’
I don’t know if I buy that, Parks. So if an overall film is good, these ostentious and impressive technical feats can’t constitute showing off? I tend to think the answer involves several things: 1) whether the decision works for the specific scene; 2) whether another, more effective, approach exists. A part of me also thinks that #1 should include the extent to which the filmmaking takes a viewer out of the film.
…but this is only part of the filmmaking process, as I generally consider other aspects of a director’s job to work with actors, to guide the formalism to support the narrative and story, but also to help guide the crew through the physical execution of this material.
I’m glad you called me on this. I guess, I associate “technique” with the visual or auditory aspects of filmmaking. Is the way directors handle actors also a technique? I guess. I do think it’s an important skill or talent. I’d say the same for synchronizing the formal elements with the story. (Guiding a crew might be a talent, as well, but it seems to be more of a broader skill—one that applies in many other endeavors. How would you assess this just by watching a film?)
I thought of Cassavetes when thinking of directors who are skilled with actors. I also think of someone like Mike Leigh or Frank Capra. So let’s go back to the question: what separates them from directors who are merely good with actors? Two things come to mind with those directors: 1) they seem to have a singular, identifiable style; there is a consistency between films; 2) the performances are exceptional in some way and since it’s consistent across films, I tend to attribute this to the director. (Also, if the actors don’t act in the same way or level when working in other films—which is my impression of Cassavetes’ actors—then I tend to credit the director.)
I would say that Mark Atkins, while not the best at working with actors, is someone whom can deliver a picture in a relatively small amount of time.
I’m not sure I know Atkins’ films. But you’re suggesting that efficiency is a kind an important skill of a director. I do think it is a skill, but I’m not sure it’s a laudable one. I would say that directors have to be fairly organized individuals—just as executives have to be organized (in general). It’s a basic requirement. It’s like saying a leader or manager has to know how to work with people (that’s probably true of directors as well). OK, but I don’t think this is something we think of as a technical ability.
“So if an overall film is good, these ostentious and impressive technical feats can’t constitute showing off?”
Well . . . closer to your #1 actually.
Regarding the show off sequences, maybe using the tracking shot in Atonement shows what happens when you stage something drawing attention to it. What I hated about the shot was how objects moved in and out of the frame like models walking a catwalk. Compare that to Kubrick’s dolly shot in Paths of Glory which shows the immense scope of the battle and everyone involved (while still keeping star Kirk Douglas front and center). A showier director would have shown Douglas’ perspective by doing itfirst person camera. That however is unneccesary. Because of the way Douglas is positioned in the frame, it’s obvious that this is from his perspective.
A good director looks at everything. Actors frequently get the short stick, even though they are vital. You can spot a bad director usually when a supporting actor goes off the deep end. Or the director feels the need to edit over a performance because he’s unsure of it. Mike Leigh, for instance notices every performance and stays with it. The style of acting in his films all match together. This is a weird comparison, but the 50s film The Devil’s Disciple has Olivier, Douglas and Lancaster all acting in a completely different style emphasizing different aspects of the script. Lancaster went for dead serious, Olivier treats it as a comdey, Douglas just seems miscast.
The style must meet the material as well. Trying to impose modern sensibilities on a period film just comes off as “cute”. That’s more of a script thing though.
This is a weird comparison, but the 50s film The Devil’s Disciple has Olivier, Douglas and Lancaster all acting in a completely different style emphasizing different aspects of the script. Lancaster went for dead serious, Olivier treats it as a comdey, Douglas just seems miscast.
This makes me want to see the film!
" So if an overall film is good, these ostentious and impressive technical feats can’t constitute showing off?"
Hark! Did somebody just say DePalma?
“Guiding a crew might be a talent, as well, but it seems to be more of a broader skill—one that applies in many other endeavors. How would you assess this just by watching a film?”
By seeing some tentpole bofo budget film that just fell the fuck apart.
“The film that surrounds it.”
but if the film is full of those kind of shots, do we just have a consistent style?
Devil’s Disciple is a mess, But Burt Lancaster has 1 amazing scene.
Here’s an interesting quote from a director whose films keeps popping up in the Greatest of All Time conversions:
“Two types of films: those that employ the resources of the theater (actors, direction, etc…) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create” – R. Bresson
I believe your answer lies there somewhere. Hitchcock is arguably the undisputed master of cinema theatrics, he uses the medium to its utmost capacity of reproduction and is rightfully regarded as one of the best who ever lived (I wouldn’t put him at the top of the mountain myself). Someone like Spielberg also belongs in that first category, but his technique is quiet bland compared to most (in my opinion).
Then you have the second category where directors like Tarkovksy, Malick and Bresson himself easily fit in.
In my personal opinion, it’s when you find a balance between the two, using theatrical components to reproduce with the camera, while also creating a visual language/style with the cinematography, that you are hitting upon the masters of the art. Kubrick, Bergman, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi…