20 Signature Shots and Techniques of the World’s Greatest Directors

David Katz And Oliver Lunn

Every auteur needs a signature shot. But after a whole century of innovative, groundbreaking cinema, creating a new filmic language – or a radical, never-before-seen technique – to call your own, is not an easy task for a filmmaker. And still, visionary directors continue to break the status quo, scoffing at the 180-degree rule and shirking bland shot-reverse-shot techniques in favour of more original ways of telling their stories. Here, experimentation and rule-breaking take precedence. All of the filmmakers below are of this mind-set and have created techniques and shots that are unmistakably their own.

Richard Linklater
Signature shot: The walk-and-talk dolly shot

Stylistic continuity is the true mark of an auteur. In Linklater’s case, the common visual thread running through his films is the walk-and-talk long take, a dolly shot that follows the characters as they wax poetic on everything from the meaning of life to faking the moon landing. Linklater wields his Steadicam and travels alongside his actors, letting the action flow uninterrupted (you can imagine the director later confiscating the editor’s splicer to ensure there’s no montage). What’s most remarkable about the long take – in Boyhood and Before Midnight, especially – is the fact that everything we see, including the dialogue, is choreographed down to a tee, and not, as it would seem, improvised. That’s a modern master.

Paul Thomas Anderson
Signature shot: The whip-pan

Stylistically, PTA is best known for his fluid camerawork: his rapid panning into faces, into telephones, from one side of a room to another. It’s something he’s said he admires in the work of Max Ophüls (Le Plaisir, La Ronde). Recalling when he first observed Ophüls’ kinetic camerawork, he says, ”I see things that I have obviously been influenced by or tried to rip off, or tried to tell a story in such a way”. But still, the whip-pan belongs to Anderson; he’s created his own rhythm with the technique and, unlike the traditional cut between characters, it sustains a scene’s tension while maintaining pace. (For the full effect of the technique, watch the head-spinning supercut above.)

Spike Lee
Signature shot: The dolly shot

More in-your-face than most techniques, Spike Lee’s stylish dolly shot makes characters appear as if they’re effortlessly floating down the street, flying inexplicably and illogically. How does he do it? By placing his actor on a dolly along with the camera, with their legs – crucially – just out of frame so they can hover through scenes like some kind of deity. The shot is used in almost all of Lee’s films, and has become something that cinephiles keenly look out for in every new movie, much like those famous Hitchcock cameos.

Quentin Tarantino
Signature shot: The trunk shot

The first trunk shot on film? Anthony Mann's 'He Walked By Night'.

Tarantino’s celebrated trunk shot has been ripped off in many an awful British gangster flick. But Tarantino wasn’t the first to do it. Credit must go to Anthony Mann, whose He Walked By Night is the first known use of the creative camera placement (see above). The shot itself is from a low-angle viewpoint, with a camera placed in the trunk of a car, looking upwards at the characters as they peer in. Other films that have used the trunk shot include: In Cold Blood (1967), Uncle Buck (1989) and Goodfellas (1990).

Terrence Malick
Signature shot: The lens flare

The lens flare is nothing new, of course. Most people credit cinematographer Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood) as one of the first to point his camera into the light, creating an over-exposed effect. Emerging from the same New Hollywood scene was Terrence Malick, whose name has since become synonymous with lens flare, given how much he uses it in his mostly magic hour-shot movies, such as the unapologetically stunning Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life.

Alfred Hitchcock
Signature shot: “The Hitchcock Zoom” AKA “the Vertigo effect”

Hitchcock’s dizzying zoom-dolly shot was famously used by Steven Spielberg in Jaws during the scene when Roy Scheider’s character, chilling in his deck chair on the beach, suddenly realizes the shark is in the water with all the swimmers. It’s a strange, nausea-inducing technique that wrong-foots the viewer by zooming into a subject while simultaneously dollying backwards (i.e. in the exact opposite direction). The most memorable use of this technique in a Hitchcock movie is in Vertigo when Jimmy Stewart’s character, suffering from – you guessed it – vertigo, peers down the bell tower he’s just climbed. 

Gaspar Noé
Signature shot: The dizzying crane shot

Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009) both open with the ostensible intention of making their audience spew in the aisles of the cinema. Combining hypnotic drone music with a fluid crane shot that can only be described as all over the place (literally filming upside down, left to right, spinning on almost every point of its axis). For those who aren’t sick, the unconventional effect makes the whole scene oddly captivating and a joy to watch. Which I guess was not Noé’s intention. To make the audience vomit, on the other hand, is the ultimate triumph of the arch provocateur.

Danny Boyle
Signature shot: The Dutch angle

The Dutch angle was generally associated with film noir and, in particular, Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), in which a camera was tilted on its side, compositionally mirroring the angular shadows in front it and further engulfing and imprisoning Joseph Cotten’s man-on-the-run in a German Expressionist nightmare. Now favored (and overused) by Danny Boyle in films like 28 Days Later and Trance – but opposed by his cameraman Anthony Dod Mantle – the Dutch angle aims to emphasize a psychological tension present in a story and its characters. But now, whenever the shot is mentioned, all anyone can think of is Danny Boyle and his annoying insistence on using it IN EVERY FILM.

Gus Van Sant
Signature shot: The Steadicam shot from behind

The first thing that struck me when watching Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Gerry was the use of the Steadicam, typically stalking a character from behind, their facial expression – and therefore their emotions – completely out of view. It’s something we’ve seen before in Kubrick’s The Shining, and Alan Clarke’s brilliant Elephant (a clear influence on Van Sant’s film, as well as the films of arthouse heavyweight Béla Tarr). Looking back further, Antonioni was another director filming characters' backs, criticized by Pauline Kael at the time for ogling Jean Moreau’s backside in La Notte. A true modernist seeking a new cinematic grammar, perhaps?

Orson Welles / Gregg Toland
Signature shot: The low-angle shot

Whether you credit Welles or his cameraman Gregg Toland, tilting the camera up in this way – from below the eyeline as they did in 1941's Citizen Kane – was groundbreaking. For the first time in American cinema we can see the ceiling! It also lends the characters a magisterial quality, their figures towering over us, while forcing the filmmakers to use alternatives to overhead lighting. Kubrick capitalized on this authoratitive aspect of the technique when filming the drill sergeant screaming in the boot camp, in Full Metal Jacket.

Martin Scorsese
Signature shot: Slow-moving dolly shots set to classic rock music

Scorsese, in his camera-jockeying brio, is one of the most dedicated students of Hitchcock and the French New Wave, in his assertion that movement is paramount. He uses flurries of wandering long takes to provide a visceral identification with his characters, who are often tortured, brooding men. The combination of music and movement, in Scorsese’s hands, has a frightening power – the feeling from the audience is mutual, when Harvey Keitel clears his throat upon seeing his friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) swagger into a pool hall.

Brian De Palma
Signature shot: The split-screen

De Palma’s credo in his shooting is a formalist sensory overload. The barrages of violence, slow-motion and split-screen aim to dazzle us, while still encouraging us to scrutinise what we’re seeing. He wants to reward our curiosity, our desire to watch and listen closely to this mayhem, while simultaneously making us aware that we’re watching from a very safe distance.

Wong Kar-wai
Signature shot: The motion-blur (typically neon lights captured with slow frame rates)

Ex-pat British cinematographer Christopher Doyle is the visual architect behind Wong’s kinetic Hong-Kong cinema. When Chungking Express and Happy Together first came out in the late ‘90s, they were seen as part of the then-achingly au courant ‘millenial’ zeitgeist – movies that captured, like lightning in a bottle, our increasingly futuristic and fast-paced way of life. With the slow frame rates and perspective tricks, seen in the early part of this trailer, Doyle plunges us headfirst into the neon-splayed, heavily pedestrianized Hong-Kong – and man, is it beautiful.  

Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Dogme 95
Signature shot: Cutting between different actors in a dialogue scene with disorientating sharp pans.

Dogme 95 was a way of finding beauty through ugliness. Von Trier and Vinterberg’s gift for visual storytelling, for bringing us awkwardly close to their detestable characters, bely the movement’s modest, unadorned filmmaking methods. What the Dogme decree’s lo-fi digital cameras and raw lighting lose in visual fidelity, it makes up for in searing emotional intimacy. It was also a clarion-call for digital cinema – they were the first group of narrative filmmakers to make working with digital seem like a legitimate artistic choice. Soon, American indies, and then the blockbusters, would belatedly follow suit.

The Dardenne brothers
Signature shot: The long-take with Steadicam, focusing on the back of an actor’s head

Like Gus Van Sant, the Dardennes’ use of long takes, often tightly focused on the back of their actors’ heads, is key to their sensibility of realism. It allows for the audience to concentrate on the subtleties of the performers’ body movement, while defamiliarising the natural bond we tend to have when viewing an actor head-on. Their lack of artificial accouterments like over-emphasised sound, or more impressionistic camera movements, have had a very visible influence on realist-oriented filmmaking over the past decade

Stanley Kubrick 
Signature shot: The one-point perspective

This is perhaps the most recognizable Kubrickian image: symmetrical shots with a single horizon point, with sightlines parallel to the viewer’s own line of sight. Often coupled with eerily stalking tracking shots, you can find them in almost all of Kubrick’s films. With their steely, all-encompassing gaze, they give off a sense of inhuman clarity – a pointed symbol of Kubrick’s perfectionism, and his dedication to creating fully convincing environments that we can get lost in on screen.  

Robert Bresson
Signature shot: Fast-tempo shots focusing on process/action

In Bresson, things are pared down to their essence: actors were asked to perform a take many more times than normal, to register the purest possible expression. There’s an intense focus on materiality: the presence of hands, bodies and how they move in the frame. Like his followers the Dardennes, Bresson’s disavowal of the conventional rules of filmmaking, for a style that creates tension just by following an actor’s physicality, is essential to his scintillating visual storytelling.

Sam Peckinpah
Signature shot: Slo-mo shootouts

AKA what Quentin Tarantino dreams of at night. Along with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Peckinpah’s gunfights brought horrifying violence into mainstream Hollywood cinema, challenging the extremity of what could be seen on screen, at a time when America was embarking on questionable war games of its own. Particularly in The Wild Bunch, they seem surreally extended and balletic: the bullets hitting the surface of torsos with time-shuddering impact, with cameras luridly fixating on the grisly detail from multiple angles.

Follow David Katz and Oliver Lunn on Twitter: @david_katz  @OliverLunn

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