Filmmaking is a type of art and, like any other art forms, the end result reflects the skills of the director. But there’s nothing worse than having a brilliant idea in your head and then failing to materialize it.
Internationally recognized filmmakers such as James Cameron and Spike Lee have distinctive styles of directing. And finding your own style or ‘creative voice’ is how you can become a great filmmaker too (while also setting yourself apart from other directors).
Your voice is your unique manner of making a film – your signature. But every artist has a different journey towards discovering it, and ultimately it’s your own experiences and choices that will lead you there. So don’t worry if you’re still struggling to establish yours. As you read on, you will figure out which directing styles you gravitate towards, and how you can break into the film industry.
When we take a look at the big shots, like Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, their sense of direction is very clear across all their films. In fact, a good place to start finding your voice as a filmmaker is by watching and analyzing films, particularly those made by legendary directors.
Although each of their films have different stories, actors, and settings, there are typical patterns to be found in every one – a pattern that makes you go, “Of course, this is by THAT director.” For example, Tarantino’s style involves wide shots and extreme closeups, while Nolan’s style includes aesthetic, cinematic scenes and themes.
Likewise, all filmmakers have their own directing style; and learning more about each style can help you get closer to developing yours.
Choosing a film style means purposefully using recognizable techniques that filmmakers add for visual appeal, meaning, or depth to their work. Some of the most common filmmaking styles, with accompanying references, are listed below.
While science fiction (sci-fi) is a genre of film, it is also classified as a style of filmmaking. It defines movies that focus on ideas beyond human perception and make use of speculative concepts, like extraterrestrial lifeforms and time travel.
This style of film is widely found in Nolan’s movies. It’s a very specific method that draws inspiration from the 1940s and 50s ‘classic’ style of crime drama, associated with low-key lighting and black-and-white visuals.
A documentary-style film will have a narrator, narrating the sequence of events for the audience as well as interviewing relevant people. Bill Nichols, a film critic, is known for proposing six different types of documentaries – each with its own characteristics.
This style of filmmaking is a part of the modernist movement that initially started with poetry and painting in Germany. It isn’t an easy style to define, but the movement expressed people’s depressive state of mind after the war. It has a few common elements such as long shadow effects, unexpected camera angles, slower pace, and a heavy atmosphere.
Typical art house cinema is perceived as intimidating and difficult to grasp. Not many are willing to invest resources into such niche productions, so they are usually independent films. Art house is less entertaining than mainstream films, but the meaning has a lot to do with how open a person is to new ideas and methods of filming.
With an emphasis on holding a mirror up to society, this movement is about portraying real-world struggles. It’s generally characterized by stories based on the working class, and filmed with minimal equipment, using non-professional actors to create the perfect shot.
All of these styles carry traditional choices and techniques that will guide the look, feel, and emotion behind your movie. In turn, that will determine the audience’s response to the events that are unfolding on-screen.
However, when investigating and researching all of the different directing styles, keep in mind that it isn’t necessary for your film to perfectly fall into one of these categories. You could always go for a completely new style that will be unique to your productions, or draw inspiration from a certain film and only use a few elements from it.
Just take note that whatever you choose to do will determine all the other aspects of your production – such as hiring actors, scouting locations, and selecting your gear.
With ease of access to digital cameras, stock footage, and computer editing programs, many of the barriers to making a film have fallen away.
If you’re motivated to go out and make a movie, simply embrace the fact that you don’t yet know it all or have everything you ideally need. After all, your biggest failures are only experiences to learn from.
So, you have to be patient; it takes time to find your stride. There’s more than one road to filmmaking success, but there are some ways to fast-track your journey.
Practice might not always make perfect (especially for a creative), but it can certainly help you improve in a lot of different ways. The only way to make a great film is to first make a couple of not-so-great ones. In a way, it’s a futile attempt to try to find your voice as a filmmaker without actively rolling the camera.
Having a creative voice as a director is about making certain choices, and creating a pattern in your body of art. This oftentimes develops naturally until it eventually becomes instinctive – but only once you’ve spent a significant amount of time digging into the creative process over and over again.
Here are examples of daily practices to try out:
Take one good picture a day: While you can’t create a film every day, you can easily take a photograph – even if it’s with your smartphone (but preferably with a camera). Get into the filmmaker headspace and find a moment to capture throughout your day.
Write one scene every day: Great filmmakers are great storytellers. You can use your random daily photo as inspiration, or work on material for a future film. The idea is to simply get your imagination flowing by developing a daily writing habit.
Observe and make notes about lighting: Lighting creates a visual mood and guides the eyes of the audience in every frame. So, you have to train yourself to quickly recognize and anticipate lighting in various settings. A good place to start is by observing the light (and shadows) in any room, and note how it changes at different times.
Find patterns in chaos: Gather a handful of small, random objects (coins, stones, paperclips, etc.). Scoop them up in your hand and throw them all down in front of you. Take a minute to see how the objects land. Start moving them around until you see some kind of pattern emerge. This simple activity will help keep your mind open to possibilities when problem solving.
Filmmakers are becoming more innovative with the ease of access to new technologies, and making bolder choices to have more artistic freedom. Steven Soderbergh’s ‘High Flying Bird’ is the perfect example of this. Launched on Netflix in 2019, the film was shot entirely on an iPhone 8. While some shots display elements that would not be found in a full-featured production, the average viewer would have no idea.
The fastest way to grow and learn new skills is by trying new things. You can try experimenting with different subject matter or different aspects of filming and editing. Being an artist means taking risks, even if it doesn’t always pay off.
When trying to become a successful filmmaker, constantly remind yourself that it’s about the process, not the result.
It can become easy to stick with what you know while trying to recreate or perfect a particular style. Don’t get stuck in your comfort zone at the first sign of success. Always be on the lookout for new equipment or techniques that you can try out on your next project.
It seems like an obvious fact but producing a film is not a one-person job. The awe-inspiring beauty of filmmaking is how a group of people work together to make all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Each person on a film set has specific skills and expertise, as they work towards completing the final masterpiece.
As a director, you have the huge task of communicating with your team and providing clear direction on how to achieve the artistic vision. But it’s equally important to take a step back from all the talking – and listen to others. By collaborating with your crew and trusting their advice, you can bring your story to its fullest potential while simultaneously adding even more dimension to your style.
A good way to start building rapport with your crew is to arrive a few minutes early. Being punctual may sound simple, but it’s usually overlooked. Not only is it professional to show up at the correct call time, but it also gives crew members the opportunity to talk with you when you aren’t always in a rush.
And, of course, be approachable. As the captain of the ship, a director sets the tone and creates the atmosphere on set. A nod of acknowledgment, eye contact, or a quick smile will go a long way.
The motion-picture industry is one of the most influential sectors in modern culture and society. Movies have the ability to transform public opinion.
On-screen diversity is of paramount importance, but the same is also true for all the roles behind the camera. Professional diversity in an organization is a competitive advantage – especially for those who want to attract and retain global talent.
Companies with inclusive teams have been proven to make better commercial decisions 87% of the time, with 60% better results than non-diverse teams. And creating diversity in the workplace means proactively hiring a crew from various backgrounds including gender, age, nationality, religious beliefs, ethnicity, special needs, sexual orientation, education, etc.
So, don’t just sit around and wait for people to join your team, go find them. Whether it’s spotting creators on social media or finding talent on LinkedIn, bringing in new people is a guaranteed way to become a better director and make better films – while also doing your part in raising the standards of the industry.
Perfecting your style as a filmmaker goes beyond the technical aspects of shooting. There are countless styles, genres, and techniques that have a long history in a well-established industry.
However, knowing the rules gives you the freedom to break them. Every filmmaker is a unique individual, and their voice is simply an extension of that uniqueness. It’s up to you to find yours!
But you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, cinematographer, director, or YouTuber who wants to learn more about making great movies, check out the Dan Mace Academy.
Dan, aka ‘Dan the Director,’ is an award-winning filmmaker who will walk you through his entire workflow and process, while breaking down each step in his “How to Become a Great F*cking Filmmaker” course.