It’s my belief that you can learn over a hundred things from watching a single Stanley Kubrick film. Kirk Douglas called him a “talented shit”, referring to Kubrick’s exasperating perfectionist streak; he was famous for doing take, after take, after take until he got exactly what he was looking for. He was a firm, sometimes obsessive, director who wouldn’t move on to the next scene until his artistic vision had been perfectly realised.
Kubrick wasn’t born a brilliant director; he started working as a photographer and after he’d eventually moved into filmmaking, with the documentary Day of the Fight, he’d still look to other people for ideas on how to improve his abilities.
He pored over books, journals and magazines to keep up to date with the latest innovations in cinematography and dedicated himself to perfecting his craft. It can be argued that his genius emerged from always pushing himself to find new ways of telling stories on the big screen.
I’ve selected fifteen examples of filmmaking techniques, which demonstrate different artistic strokes to come from Kubrick’s mixed and colourful pallet. Please feel free to talk about your own favourite filmmaking techniques that Kubrick used in the comments below.
1. Match Cuts
How do you jump forward several million years in time without confusing the audience? For 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s answer was simple. He linked the two different time periods with separate shots that looked graphically similar; the shape of the bone in the first shot resembles the shape of the satellite in the second shot (also, both the bone and the satellite are moving in the same direction).
The cut creates a link between the human race at its most primitive, when it is starting to use bones as tools, and at its most technologically advanced, when it has managed to achieve space travel. This ‘match cut’ wasn’t invented by Kubrick but, so far, no one has ever used it quite as dramatically.
2. Using Natural Lighting
Kubrick is often praised for his innovative use of ‘natural light’ in Barry Lyndon, which was (mostly) lit using sunlight and candlelight. But ‘natural light’ doesn’t necessarily mean just sunlight or candlelight; it can also mean using the light that would be available to the characters at that moment in time.
In other words the glow from a computer screen could be considered natural light, and also the light coming from a light bulb. If you consider ‘natural light’ in these terms, Kubrick often preferred to light his films in this way.
For example, he insisted that the war room bunker in Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb should really be built out of concrete to stop the film crew from being able to use artificial light (unlike in a normal studio, if the ceiling was solid concrete, it wasn’t possible to place light bulbs in it). As a result the war room was built with a large circular lighting rig that complimented the famous set’s round table.
3. Using Artificial Lighting
Artificial lighting is easier to manipulate, and can also help with ambitious artistic decisions. One example of Kubrick using artificial light is during the ‘dawn of man’ sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was shot in a studio so that the light could be made weaker to help convey an earlier point in the earth’s history.
The Shining uses both natural and artificial light to help change with the mood changes that occurs during the horror. The first part of the film uses natural light, which gives the image a warmer, more comfortable, feel. As the film progresses, and winter hits the hotel, blue filters were used on the outside windows and the lighting was switched to artificial; this change creates a cold, chilling, atmosphere.
4. Vanishing Points
According to the Collins English Dictionary a ‘vanishing point’ is “the point to which parallel lines appear to converge in the rendering of perspective, usually on the horizon”.
Ken Adam, the production designer for Doctor Strangelove, claims to have enlightened Kubrick on the value of having a ‘vanishing point’ when sketching a set or framing designing a shot. Adam perhaps didn’t appreciate the impact that their conversation would have on the legendary director.
Kubrick used ‘vanishing points’ for framing, as the technique creates a ‘one-point perspective’ where the audience can see that all shapes on the screen get smaller in all directions, drawing your eye towards the centre of the screen. It is perhaps the most easily definable element of a film that makes it recognisably ‘Kubrickian’.
5. Tracking Shots
Kubrick used his camera to create a great sense of scale and depth in his films. They feel dynamic because he let his camera flow through the narrative; firstly through tracking shots and secondly through using Steadicam shots (see below).
A tracking shot would tend to follow a film’s subject from behind, in front or along their side. Kubrick’s Paths of Glory buses tracking shots to reveal the great enormity of war in the first world war. The flowing movement reveals soldier, after soldier in the winding french trenches.
As well as showing the full scale of first world war, the tracking shots in Paths of Glory also allow for the actors’ movements to be fully captured without interruption; they can walk, run, as well as dive from enemy fire and their fearful body language from the moment is entirely readable (in a way that static shots can’t always allow for).
6. Steadicam Shots
The Shining made extensive use of the ‘Steadicam’, where the camera operator’s movement is isolated with a camera stabilizer mount, which stops the picture from shaking. The invention of the Steadicam combined the smoothness of a dolly tracking shot, with the flexibility of a handheld camera.
The Shining’s sets were designed specifically with the Steadicam in mind. It’s a great tool for directors, as it allows camera operators to follow actors around complex scenery. This means that directors can film a scene in one long continuous take, not having to disturb the actors.
It also gives the camera operators a great deal of flexibility; during the maze sequence the camera operator was able to run after the actors, giving a remarkable sense of speed and danger. Unlike a dolly, which would have appeared effortlessly smooth, the fact that a real individual is carrying the Steadicam heightens the sense of pursuit during the scene.
7. Hand-held Camerawork
Kelvin Pike, the camera operator for Doctor Strangelove and The Shining, used handheld cameras in Doctor Strangelove’s battle sequences. This gives the sequence the feel of a documentary, as if a war correspondent had captured the spectacular footage.
The shakiness, and the poor camera angles, heightens the sense of danger and authenticity (the footage doesn’t look at all fake). Continuing this theme, the film’s Director of Photography, Gilbert Taylor, used real Royal Air Force stock footage, adding to the sense of realism and immediacy.
Picking the right moment to use a hand-held camera can really add drama to a film. Almost all of Barry Lyndon is shot with a camera on a tripod, yet when Lyndon’s wife goes mad, the scene is shot hand-held and the chaos of the moment is intensified.
It’s worth mentioning that using a hand-held camera doesn’t literally mean that the camera has to be held in one of the crew’s hands. Hand-held cameras are often strapped to the operator using a harness for stability and control.