Directors’ Trademarks: Danny Boyle

After almost deciding to become a priest early in his teens, Boyle instead found something else that sparked his interest; drama. He studied English and drama in college, and upon graduating worked for several theatre companies. Eventually, he began to direct productions, something he still does to this day between film projects. In 1987 he left theater to work for BBC in Ireland and became a producer and director of television shows. He directed several TV movies before making his first feature film in 1994, Shallow Grave. That film found widespread appeal in audiences and critics alike, and became the highest grossing British film in 1995. The success of that film allowed him the opportunity to make 1996’s Trainspotting, which became even more of an international hit. These two films collectively jump started Boyle’s career and allowed him many opportunities moving forward.

His next film was 1997’s A Life Less Ordinary which many theatergoers and critics thought was a major let down compared to his previous two films. That film lost money at the box office. Next, he adapted Alex Garland’s novel to the big screen, releasing The Beach in 2000. Like his previous film, this one was not well regarded, yet it managed to make a considerable amount of money. Boyle returned to critical acclaim and had more box office success with his next film, 2003’s 28 Days Later. His next film was 2004’s Millions, adapted from the Carnegie Medal-winning novel of the same name. Millions was well received and had modest success in theaters despite having a limited release. Boyle’s next film was the science fiction film Sunshine, released in 2007. It received mixed to good reviews, but didn’t have much luck at the box office.

In 2008, Boyle released Slumdog Millionaire, which became the biggest hit of his career. Not only did the film find significant success at the box office, but it went on to win 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Doyle’s follow up was the successful 127 Hours (2010), which told the real-life story of Aron Ralston’s harrowing canyoneering experience. That film found success at the box office and was praised by critics. For the 2012 London Olypics, Danny Boyle had the honor of creating the opening ceremony. In 2013, Boyle released Trance, which didn’t gain much traction at the box office despite positive reviews. His next film was a biographical film of Steve Jobs. That film was entitled simply Steve Jobs and had similar success at the box office as Trance despite better reviews. Boyle’s latest film releases in theaters on March 31st. That film is T2 Trainspotting, the sequel to his 1996 film (see our review here).

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Danny Boyle film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Boyle’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:

A Kinetic Director

Those who hate slow, plodding pictures will find much to love with Danny Boyle’s style of direction. His films are all quick paced, fast edited, and rarely stationary. This helps to make his films exciting and adventurous, despite tones that may be depressing or pessimistic. One way he effectively changes the audience’s outlook on the film’s topic is by literally forcing them into an atypical perspective. He does this through tilted shots, close ups, and use of handi-cam. He likes to position the camera looking up or down at his characters, rarely at eye level. Sometimes, he puts cameras in impossible places, like in the toilet in Trainspotting or in the Camelback tube in 127 Hours. He also opens shots in mid-action, rather than building up to that movement. These type of shots are often assembled into a montage, used to convey the passage of time or to cover a lot of ground in narration quickly. The opening of Trainspotting is a great example of all of these type of shots together. Trainspotting also uses lots of close ups of hard drug use to demonstrate how an addiction can take over one’s life. The camera becomes like the characters themselves, only able to focus on one thing.

Bright Color Palette

Another aspect of Boyle’s directorial style that helps to capture the attention of his audiences is his use of bright colors. Combined with this hectic camera work, this use of color helps to distance Boyle’s filmmaking from the style of British filmmaking of the 80’s and 90’s, which tended to focus more on creating realistic environments for drama to occur in. Boyle’s colors seemed almost avant-garde in comparison, bringing a sense of imagination and magic to even the most dreary settings. Interior rooms are the most common location for Boyle to splurge on color. In real life, places like run down flats or hotel rooms tend to be the most boring and monotonous, but Boyle really amps them up. He also highlights particular props and characters by utilizing color. In Shallow Grave, for example, there is a bright red telephone. The red is used as almost a warning, precluding the danger that occurs when the phone rings. In Millions, Boyle wanted to create a film that was optimistic towards the future of Britain, and so he chose bright colors including dressing the children up in a contrasting blue and yellow.

Seamless Blend of Reality and Imagination

Another way that Boyle breaks from traditional British cinema is that he adds surreal elements to his films. These often come in elaborate dream-like sequences, where Boyle transfers the films’ perspectives to one of his characters. In their drug-induced, stressed, or otherwise delirious states we see their imaginations come alive. These moments not only allow Boyle to further distance himself from traditional dramas, but allow him to add another eye-catching element with artistic visuals to capture the audience’s attention. In The Beach, there’s the moment that the very delirious Richard pretends that he’s in a videogame. In Trainspotting there’s the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene, or the infamous baby on the ceiling bit. 127 Hours shows how Aron’s stressful situation and rapidly declining health lead to hallucinations. And in Trance, hypnotism is the tool used to coerce characters into doing things they normally wouldn’t and Boyle isn’t afraid of fully exploring that experience. Damien, from Millions, is just like any other 9-year old boy. He makes full use of his imagination, and Boyle is happy to explore that creativity. There are many sequences and shots in the film that show a playful and imaginative perspective. 

Focuses on the Passage of Time

As a storyteller, Boyle like to control the passage of time in his films. He can speed things up or slow things down, depending on what the scene and plot require. To speed things up, his most common technique is the montage, which fits in well with his kinetic directing habits. In Slumdog Millionaire Boyle uses the montage to show Salim and Jamal’s exploits to take advantage of tourists at the Taj Majal. Another method that he uses is to physically speed up the film, as if pressing the fast forward button. We see this in Trainspotting after Renton is released from the custody of the Police. His friends and family are celebrating his freedom at the pub, but he just sits there contemplating. The activity around him speeds up to a blur and Renton just sits there.  To slow down time, Boyle often uses flashbacks. In Slumdog Millionaire, the final sequence showing Jamal and Latika’s reunion uses flashbacks from previously in the film to show how much they have been through. 


Boyle’s films commonly use the voiceover as a form of exposition. By having a character explain their situation at the beginning of a film, Boyle is free to follow what happens. In many ways, this is a continuation of Boyle’s kinetic filmmaking methods. His films start in the middle of the action. In The Beach, the film opens with Richard’s annotation of his journey to Bangkok amid thumping techno music. In Sunshine, it is physicist Robert Capa’s voice who explains the purpose of the Icarus and its mission, already in progress during the opening scene. In Trance, Auctioneer Simon explains to the audience through voice over how they handle valuable paintings during an emergency situation. All three of these narrations give audiences the backstory or important details that will be built upon without actually having scenes depicting these events. Furthermore, having the character directly address the audience is a way that Boyle breaks down the 4th wall. Along with his surreal imagery, fancy colors, and impossible/akward camera work, he is captivating the audience by doing something unexpected in his films.


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Check out the last installment here.