Friday, November 21, 2014

Top 10 Films Shot by Their Directors

There’s something I inherently respect about a director who elects to shoot their own films. While some might argue that it’s too much work for a director to also act as a cinematographer, I appreciate that it literally gets the filmmaker closer to the performers. Though, admittedly, while the concept of directors as DPs doesn’t always work out well, below are a handful of examples of filmmakers proving their proficiency of manning the camera.

10. Inland Empire (2006)
David Lynch
Many will disagree with me, but Lynch’s use of consumer-grade digital photography perfectly highlights the fever dream aspect of Inland Empire. Lynch shot the film with the Sony DSR-PD150 (which only costs $500 today), giving Inland Empire a grainy rawness that is absolutely appropriate for the material. After shooting Inland Empire, Lynch said he’d never shoot another movie using actual film. Wonder if that’ll be the case for the upcoming season of Twin Peaks?

9. Go (1999)
Doug Liman
For the Vegas car chase scene alone. Set to a remixed version of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride,” the thrilling chase set in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip is one of my all-time favorite car chases. Liman wisely lets the town act as its own character, routinely cutting to the glitz and glamor of the Strip as the cars whiz by. There’s a visual fluidity to this sequence that makes it feel alive.

8. Sin City (2005)
Robert Rodriguez
Like Sin City or not, Robert Rodriguez did visual wonders with this film. And sure, special effects deserve much of the credit, but there is plenty of basic, old school camera trickery in Sin City that is worthy of praise. For further reading, check out the Making-Of special features for this film. They prove how much of a technical master Rodriguez really is.

7. 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
Peter Hyams
Peter Hyams has shot many of his own films, but his best accomplishment as a cinematographer was the follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. And sure, Hyams obviously had a flawless template to work off of, given that 2001 is one of the most impressive looking films ever shot. But 2010 manages to technically stand on its own, while paying homage to the classic it’s representing.

6. Death Proof (2006)
Quentin Tarantino
Again, Tarantino’s work as the DP on Death Proof deserves praise for its astonishing car chase alone. I love a lot about the look of this film (the long diner take is a lot of fun), but that car chase is a showstopper. No visual effects, no stunt doubles – only badass babes, a psycho killer, and two very bitchin’ muscle cars. Hold tight.

5. American History X (1998)
Tony Kaye
Most notably, there’s the gorgeous juxtaposition between the rich black and white flashbacks, and the vibrant color sequences. But moreover, Kaye’s photography in American History X is a great lesson in framing and proper use of slow motion. You can just tell Kaye spent a lot of time making sure this film looked great. (Note: an honorable mention needs to be given to Kaye’s photography of his abortion documentary, Lake of Fire. There are things in that film that you can never unsee, and Kaye was there to capture every moment of it.)

4. Walkabout (1971)
Nicolas Roeg
The barren landscapes, the harsh sun against the bright blue sky, the bodies in silhouette amidst the setting sun – Roeg captured the Australian Outback with such isolated beauty in Walkabout. Perhaps Roger Ebert summed up Roeg’s Walkabout photography best. “His cinematography makes the desert seem a mystical place, a place for visions,” Ebert said. “So that the whole film becomes mystical, a dream, and the suicides which frame it set the boundaries of reality.”

3. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Stanley Kubrick
The early boxing scene in Killer’s Kiss is visually remarkable. Kubrick chose to shoot the entire fight from low angles, with the camera placed outside of the ring, as if the audience is a cornerman watching the fight. Then, without warning, Kubrick cuts into the ring and takes the POV of the main protagonist right as he’s knocked down. The camera falls to the ground and pans up at the bright lights above the ring, just as the ref comes into frame and begins counting down. The whole thing is gorgeous. And that’s just one scene in the film. Kubrick does many interesting things with full focus framing, shadows, contrast, reflections and, of course, centered compositions. To watch Killer’s Kiss is to witness a master flex his unique talent for the very first time.

2. Upstream Color (2013)
Shane Carruth
Every aspect of Shane Carruth’s work in Upstream Color is worth celebrating, including its skillful cinematography. The graceful movement of the camera, the mirrored compositions, the use of vivid colors, the hot white exposure – it all expertly services the unique material. It’s as if the camera is indeed its own character in the film; that’s how in sync it is with the story. Upstream Color is an endless source of inspiration for me. The cinematography is so confident and beautiful, I can watch this movie on mute and still be moved.

1. Traffic (2000)
Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh has lensed all of his films since 2000 under the pseudonym Peter Andrews. (Note: I only wanted to include one Peter Andrews film on this list, as a way to make room for other films.) And while I adore the aesthetic of all his work, Traffic will always be my favorite. There’s the shifting color scheme, for one, but beyond that, Traffic feels like a documentary. It’s raw, handheld photography is part of why the film works so well. It makes you feel like you’re right there – on the impoverished streets of Detroit, or in a torture chamber in Mexico, or on a sun-bleached playground in San Diego – witnessing the worst of the human condition. Traffic is one of the films that made me realize, for certain, that I wanted to be a filmmaker. The cinematography is much to thank for that.

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36 comments:

  1. That is a great list. I agree with you on all of these films. I want to mention Lars von Trier's The Idiots which he shot himself in a low-grade digital camera which was new at the time but he made effective use of it. I think there is a great sense of freedom whenever the director is taking control of his own lighting as it is clear that he has an idea of what he wants and how he'll set it up rather than let someone else do it for him. After all, if the film is going to look bad. It's better for them to fail on their own than let someone else fail for them.

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    1. Thanks man. The Idiots is a solid choice. I'm not sure that film would work if it was shot any other way. And I fully agree with your last sentence. When you're in full control like that, it is always the director's fault. For better or worse.

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  2. Love this list. Inland Empire is one of my favorite uses of digital.

    So glad you mentioned American History X and Lake of Fire. The use of black and white photography in those two movies is incredible.

    An update for ya: Lynch confirmed that the new season of Twin Peaks will be shot on film just as the original series was. I cannot wait!

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    1. Thanks for that update! I figured that'd be the case, and I'm thrilled to hear that it's going to be on film. Great to hear your praise for the photography in Kaye's films. That man knows how to shoot a film.

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  3. Great list, man. I, too, admire directors who act as their own cinematographers. It really gives the impression that the movie is theirs, you know what I mean? Same with editing. That's what I plan on doing. Directing, cinematography, editing, writing, producing, maybe even distributing and a little acting here and there (that may sound pretentious coming from some 17-year-old with only three semi-okay videos on YouTube, but that's always been how I envision things).

    After reading this list, I decided to take a look at the credits of your poster for Wait and am super excited to see that you're doing that, photographing and editing in addition to writing, directing, and producing. I'm looking forward to it.

    I couldn't agree more with your first sentence of the Sin City entry. I wasn't too crazy about that movie, but I do admit that it's a visual marvel. Same with Death Proof and 2010. I'm about to see Inland Empire, but from the trailers and stills I've seen, that looks like one heck of mindtrip. Sadly, Killer's Kiss is one of the few Kubrick films I haven't seen yet, but it's definitely something I want to check out (I mean, he's my hero, I gotta see it). His experience in photography has always been highly present in his work, so I can imagine a film where he's actually the cinematographer should be pretty impressive. And Traffic, man, just that still you got there blew me away.

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    1. Thanks so much for this comment, Nickolas. You don't sound pretentious at all. In fact, you sound like me when I was your age. And believe me, as you get older, you will see how valuable it is to be knowledgeable about so many different aspects of filmmaking. Knowing how to shoot an edit are just more weapons for your filmmaking arsenal. Which is never a bad thing.

      I really wanted to hire a DP for Wait. I met with five different people, who were all very talented, but I ultimately failed to find the words that best explained how I wanted the film to look. Also, DP is a very, very tough job, and the demands for Wait were very extreme in terms of hours and locations, and for very little pay. So it just worked better to shoot it myself and not have to pay anyone else to do it. But I would love to work with a DP in the future, for sure.

      Editing is a different beast. At this point in my career, it doesn't make sense for me to literally hand over my movie to someone and have them interpret the footage for what they think makes a best movie. The script for Wait is so wildly different from what the final version of the film is. If an editor made cuts based solely on the script, Wait would be an entirely different (and inferior) film. Plus, I love editing. Easily my favorite part of the filmmaking process.

      So glad you dug this list, and so happy to hear that you're in full pursuit of filmmaking. Gotta keep chasing that dream, man.

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    2. Thank you for your reply and kind words of encouragement, Alex! It's interesting. Your thoughts on being a DP are very similar to my thoughts on screenwriting. If I can find someone to convey the themes I want to convey in the way I want to convey them, I would hire them in a heartbeat. But alas, I have very little confidence I can find someone to do that, and therefore I must write my own script. Interestingly enough, your thoughts on editing reflect my own on cinematography. I don't even write shots in my scripts, I'd rather just shoot it as I feel on the day of filming. It's the same way with editing. Once again, thank you for your kind words of encouragement!

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    3. Good stuff man. And it was my pleasure. I don't storyboard my films, but I do shot list complicated scenes. I may not exactly follow that list on the day, but it helps me to at least write it out beforehand. But every scene is different, you know? Photographically, I always remember what and who the scene is about. And I always, always, always ask myself if the scene can be done in one shot.

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  4. What a great list! Shane Carruth with his Upstream Color is, obviously, the best pick there. I love how Carruth writes, directs, scores, and even shoots his own film while he has strong performance there. Robert Rodriguez is also talented in this kind of one-man film, but he misses it by not playing a role in his movie (not like Tarantino who likes to direct himself).

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    1. Always love finding a fan of Upstream Color. That was my favorite movie from last year. Such a uniquely powerful film. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  5. Awesome list as always. Sin City was a beautiful film, I hate that the whole two directors thing caused so much backlash from the academy, because it deserved some technical Oscar noms.

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    1. Thanks Brittani! Sin City is an example of those petty Oscar politics that just piss me off. When you bring that shit into play, it really isn't about the quality of the filmmaking, it's about the pissing contest between who followed the "rules" and who didn't.

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  6. Great list! My favourite film on it is definitely Traffic, it's such an incredibly vivid and beautiful film. Sin City is great, too, and it's a film that has really grown on me. I had no idea that a sequel to 2001 was made! Apart from the cinematography, is it any good?

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    1. Thanks! A a few years ago, I forced myself to watch 2010, fearing the worst. And actually... not that bad at all. Really. I'm not sure it needs to exist, but since it does, I can't imagine it being any better or worse. I'd probably give it a solid B.

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  7. I am a bad movie buff. :-P I have only seen 2 films on this list. But they were great ones, Traffic (which I watched on your recommendation) and American History X. Great post! Your rich knowledge of various aspects of film-making is one of the things that make your posts fascinating to me.

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    1. Aww thanks so much! That was very kind of you to say :)

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  8. Fantastic post! For me, Death proof is the best of the best. This is what great cinematography looks like! And Sin City is pretty close.

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    1. QT did great work on Death Proof, didn't he? Love the visual design of that film. Thanks Stergios!

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    2. Oh yeah man, the visual design on Death Proof was amazing. Plus, I love that photo you chose of the car chase! I mean, that car chase scene seemed like it was never going to end and I fuckin' loved it! I wish it had lasted even more, haha! And you just see how a great cinematography can capture such a priceless cinematic moment. The colors and everything, I mean yeah, that cinematography was so fuckin' cool. Love the Hold Tight reference to the incredible song of by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Awesome end for the Death Proof paragraph. The only film I haven't seen is Liman's Go. But I'm planning watching it soon.

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    3. Ha, thanks man - OF COURSE you'd get the "Hold Tight" reference :)

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  9. Great list! I remember hearing about all the drama with Sin City, and it's really too bad.

    I think it definitely ups the pressure on the filmmaker to be the one directly behind the camera, but I imagine it gives them more control, which could be a bad or good thing. And in these 10 cases you listed, it seems to be a good thing. It's one thing to have a vision, and it's another to be able to actually create it with the camera. I think that's why I've always had a huge respect for writer-directors. They know what they want their film to say, and they know how to get it said in the film. I think playing cinematographer plays to the more technical side of things, but what a huge talent to be able to both direct and film successfully. Great post, Alex.

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    1. Thanks Kristin! Couldn't agree more with you. And honestly, there have been a number of films that were shot by their directors that really don't look that good. It's a very tricky thing, because yeah, being a DP is damn hard. But I'm glad I could bring some attention to those 10 films above - they all look ace to me.

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  10. Super SOLID list here! Especially love the addition of Death Proof and American History X.

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    1. Thanks Courtney! So happy you like the list.

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  11. Awesome list that includes a few interesting films I have yet to see.
    Love to see American History X included here as I always thought it was a beautifully crafted piece in every sense of the word. Same goes for Traffic. I am actually not one of Soderbergh's biggest fans, but I do respect and appreciate Traffic like none of his other films.
    I was lucky enough to get to see Sin City in the theater. It was a visual treat that surpassed most of what I had seen in the big screen at the moment. I was a bit underwhelmed by the plot, but the special effects together with the quality of the cinematography more than made up for it.

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    1. Thanks man, so glad you dig the list. I love to hear your praise for Sin City. I remember seeing that one in the theater too, and it really was quite the experience. That technology has kind of been bastardized by now, but in 2005, it was so new and alive.

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  12. Fantastic list. I haven't seen Go or 2010, but I love these picks, especially your top 5. I knew Traffic and Upstream Color would make an appearance, so I'm glad you didn't disappoint. :)

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    1. Thanks! Ha, glad you called that Traffic and Upstream would be here. I love the look of both of those films.

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  13. Great list! I've got some ideas, maybe there one you like.
    Top 10 Music Videos made by great (or something) Directors (I'm thinking Save Me and Vogue)
    Top 10 Good Films made by Bad Directors

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    1. Thanks! Top 10 Good Films Made by Bad Directors is an interesting challenging. Hmmm, what could there be...

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    2. M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable is an example. A Time to a Kill, another one.

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    3. The tricky part is defining a "bad" director. Like, what percentage of a director's films have to such in order for the director to be labeled as bad? Because I really love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and kind of like Signs and The Village. So that's 4 out of 8.

      Same goes for for Shumacher... I do think he's made some awful films, but he's made some damn fine ones too: The Lost Boys, Falling Down, A Time to Kill, 8MM (I dig it), Flawless, Phone Booth, Veronica Guerin - all solid. And Tigerland is near masterful.

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    4. Maybe based of what they done in the last couple of years or how many bad films they done.

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    5. Yeah, it's a tough call. Very interesting idea though.

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    6. New York, New York

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    7. Definitely my least favorite Scorsese.

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