Contemporary American and British cinema is forever evolving, but some filmmakers still manage to make themselves stand out, becoming pillars of the industry whilst simultaneously moving it forward.
We look at five such directors, and the unique visual and thematic trademarks that turn their cinematographic works of art into classic movies, watched for years to come.
A lad from Leytonstone born in 1899, Alfred had a pretty lonesome boyhood as an obese kid with two very strict parents - when he was naughty, his dad would supposedly send him to the local cop shop with a note asking the officer to lock him away for 10 minutes, and Alfred's mum would force him to just stand at the end of her bed for hours on end if he ever acted up. There is even a scene in his film, 'Psycho', which alludes to that particular punishment. His childhood mistreatment generally became a recurring theme in his movies.
Having evolved from silent films and early talkies, his directorial style made him instantly iconic in Hollywood, and he was coined the 'Master of Suspense'. He had an innate ability to create psychological tension, framing shots to maximise anxiety and fear, whilst using eerie plot devices such as the oft featured fugitives on the run, with their token icy blonde in tow. In 1963, he admitted he even scared himself; “I’m frightened of my own movies. I never go to see them. I don’t know how people can bear to watch my movies.”
He was particularly brilliant at the technique of assigning practical motions to states of emotion. In 'Lamb to the Slaughter' he utilises the dramatic space proffered by long shots to distance the audience from and increase their sense of worry for the character, giving them an outsider's perspective of the events that are unravelling. He uses the whirring motion of a spinning camera to express the feeling of being trapped and helpless in 'The Wrong Man', where the protagonist has been wrongly accused of a crime but can see no way out of his imprisonment.
There is also the dolly zoom in 'Vertigo' where the camera moves in the opposite direction to the subject it is recording, in this instance a tall downward shaft, giving the perspective of a dizzying fall. The most famous is of course the jarring edit of the 'Psycho' shower scene where Marion Crane is stabbed - each thrust of the knife is represented by a disorientating camera movement and cut of a shot.
Hitchcock loved to taunt people on screen and off screen - he bought back the rights to five of his films (like 'Rear Window' - trailer included above) after their first run, which meant new audiences could not watch them until he passed and his daughter released them. The genius behind the lens was also a very mean prankster when he came out from behind it - he once bet a member of his crew a week's salary to spend the night chained to a camera on a dark and creepy film set. The man accepted and to help him sleep, Hitchcock gave him a brandy in good faith - except it was actually laced with a laxative. The next morning, when everyone came in to find him, was not a pretty sight.
Quentin Jerome Tarantino is a director with a real knack for creating cult movies - from 'Reservoir Dogs' to 'Pulp Fiction'. That's not a surprise when he masterfully blends structural elements like nonlinear storylines, lesser known casts, and soundtracks belonging anywhere between the 60s and 80s, with his idiosyncratic style made up of aestheticised violence, pop cultural references, satirical scripts, and extended, engrossing dialogue scenes.
He does neo-noir like no other, with his antiheroes and their sulking forms contorting as he plays with shadow and light, throwing us back to the look and feel of the 40s, 50s and 60s one minute and then reminding how far gone we are the next. How did he get to be this talented person?
He was a high school dropout who worked as an usher in a porn theatre, having faked his age. The teenager then enrolled with a theatre company to get some acting classes, which notoriously have not helped him with that particular skill set. In the 80s, Tarantino played an Elvis impersonator in an episode of 'The Golden Girls', worked as a recruiter for the aerospace industry, and famously held down a job at a Californian video store for a good five years.
Many of the folk who later starred in his films, had featured in his earlier life. Buffy actor, Danny Strong came into the VHS rental shop, Video Archives, and described him as a "fantastic video store clerk", explaining that he was "such a movie buff. He had so much knowledge of films that he would try to get people to watch really cool movies."
And there is the key - Tarantino was an absolute lover of film. As a kid, all three of his mother’s husbands took him to watch films. He is now so good at making films that actors, the likes of Leonard DiCaprio, contact him for parts - Calvin Candie in 'Django Unchained' was originally meant to be older, not a "boy emperor," as Quentin later saw him.
Steven Spielberg wears the crown when it comes to blockbusters and smashing box office records. He's considered the pioneer of the New Hollywood era, and will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the greatest and most popular directors of time.
At the age of 12 he became a boy scout and as part of his assignment, made a nine minute 8mm film; "I got an idea to do a Western. I made it and got my merit badge. That was how it all started." The following year, at 13, he won a prize for a 40-minute war film using a cast of his schoolmates and set his destiny in motion, beginning as he meant to go on. He made 15 more amateur films and then did his first full length indie, making back the $500 his father gave him for it back in a one evening showing at a local cinema. Remarkably, he did all of this, and most of his career spanning over 40 years, with an undiagnosed learning disability.
He's now a co-founder of DreamWorks Studios, an Academy Award winner, a KBE, and finally understands his difficulties with reading, having found out at the age of 60 that he lives with dyslexia. He's also, in a bit of extra trivia, never had a drop of coffee - nevertheless he has powered through a plethora of themes and genres.
'Jaws' (1975), 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (1977), and 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial' (1982) marked his days in early science-fiction, adventure and escapist cinema - which he sporadically returned to with the likes of 'Jurassic Park' (1993). Then he shifted his focus to humanistic issues - 'The Color Purple' (1985), 'Schindler's List' (1993), and 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998) amongst many others - all dealt with social catastrophes such as the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, civil rights, war, and terrorism.
His signature move is manipulating audience empathy, getting straight to the heart of it and telegraphing character emotions by design: from bright and intense streams of light from outside or above that leave the protagonists in silhouette, to tracking camera movements - closing in either sideways or from the front - that end in a zoomed-in shot of the face, with eyes and mouths open in wonderment or fear.
The perfect anecdote of Spielberg's rise to the top is his dealings with the 'James Bond' franchise. Early on in his career, Steven approached the producer to make one of the films and was told to he needed more experience. After 'Schindler's List', he tried again and this time was turned away with “Now I can’t afford you.”
Once a part-time cinema projectionist, Wes Anderson is now the man behind the film in a completely different way. Of Swedish and Norwegian descent, the director is a Texan through and through. He was born in Houston, Texas in 1969. He went to St. John's School in Texas in the 80s - a location he later used quite a lot in 'Rushmore'. He then graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in philosophy in 1990. That's where he met, became roomies with and even wrote a term paper for his pal, Owen Wilson, who has now starred in all but a couple of his films - in fact, Anderson often casts the same people repeatedly.
Today Wes Anderson's brand of work is so immediately recognisable, he's known as a modern-day auteur. He takes complete creative control over all aspects of his films. He is also known for plots that almost always revolve around some kind of family strife, depressing narratives counterpoised with characters driven by a disaffected whimsy, as well stories that give off feelings of nostalgia.
His longing for the past often leads to the use of period sets that are strangely beautiful, because they are made bright and new, rather than old and weary, with the use of glorious colour. Rich palettes and patterns under charming lighting means Anderson's scenes are collectible-poster-perfect, with 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' really taking the cake on that one.
Other mechanisms include symmetry (look at 'Bottle Rocket' and everything from 'The Royal Tenenbaums' onward), and the use of peculiar movement to create aspect (again, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' is fantastic for this).
Anderson implements a sense of momentum, giving life and energy to the film, through panning shots (where the camera sweeps around, away from, above or below the scene) and tracking shots (where the camera is put on rails and allowed to glide along with the action of the script). He also allows his actors to interact with - e.g directly look at - the camera during these moments, making the audience feel seen, almost as if they are behind the lens.
Wes Anderson is praised with having triggered mainstream cinema's occasional inclination to go off-formula, with his signature indie style being the first to have been so widely acclaimed. 'The Royal Tenenbaums', 'Moonrise Kingdom', and 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' all appeared in BBC's 2016 poll of the greatest films since 2000.
Okay so technically this would make six game changing filmmakers, but as much as this statement might annoy them as siblings; the Coen Brothers have amalgamated into one amazing creative force. They both write, direct, and produce their movies, though until 2004, Joel would be credited for directing and Ethan for producing, and they occasionally share film credits for editor under the alias Roderick Jaynes. Credit where credit is due though. They've been nominated for 13 Academy Awards together plus one individual nomination each for playing different parts in the making of 'Fargo', and have deservedly won four.
Their films blur the lines of genre and style, subverting and parodying in a bizarre and beautiful way - they've done deadpan thrillers, eccentric comedies, oddball dramas, kind-of musicals and even mainstream romantic comedies (plus 'Bad Santa' in which they are uncredited, though it has fast gained a cult following.)
Their trick is to put zany characters in offbeat situations, something they've done right from the beginning, when they saved up to buy a camera and made a movie about a mediator who travels and negotiates between parties that are reluctant to hold direct discussions. Joel recalled; “In the late 60s, when Ethan was 11 or 12, he got a suit and a briefcase and we went to the Minneapolis International Airport with a Super 8 camera and made a movie about shuttle diplomacy called 'Henry Kissinger, Man on the Go'. And, honestly, what we do now doesn’t feel much different from what we were doing then.”
Now they are renowned for their ability to implement rhythm into a film using the repetition of colour tones and imagery to allow the audience to quickly follow plot lines. There's an interesting beauty that really captures the audience, and it's all down to the lenses they use. Though the old industry saying goes 'tragedy is a close-up and comedy is a long shot', the Coen brothers have a flagrant and proven disregard for this.
To great effect, they will often film close up dialogue with wide angles such as a 27mms or 32mms to capture a slightly weird and warped - and sometimes even grotesque - perspective, adding comedic value and giving the audience a sense of presence within the locational context thanks to being able to get more background detail on the screen (see 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'). They also tend to set the camera angle up so that they are between the characters that are talking - using single shots, cutting sharply back and forth, to psychologically make you feel like you're actually in the conversation and violating the characters' space.
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