Directors’ Trademarks: Ridley Scott

Although Ridley Scott’s career may not have as many hits as Speilberg’s or Scorsese’s despite being active for just as long, his work has influenced the art of filmmaking just as much. While Speilberg may have blazed trails with his storytelling and Scorsese with his characters, Ridley Scott made waves due to the sensory impact of his movies on their audiences. Like George Lucas, Scott understood the importance of visual and audio stimulation and how these attributes could be used as impactful film making tools. While Lucas’ work resulted in raising audience’s expectations for special effects, Ridley Scott’s work has raised audiences’ expectations of various aspects of film production including cinematography, lighting, texturing, and overlays. Along with his brother, the late Tony Scott, Ridley Scott honed his skills doing television advertisements. That experience allowed him to enhance the interactive opportunities of film and reach audiences in a way that no one else had.


Ridley Scott’s feature debut was 1977’s The Duellists, which was well received by critics but never really picked up any momentum. It did preview the high-end cinematography that would become a staple of his work later on. Star Wars had a huge impact on the industry at that time, in particular how it would approach visual effects. This gave Scott confidence that despite the failure of his first film, visuals would become a major selling point. He agreed to do Alien, which, as a critical and commercial success, was Scott’s breakthrough film. He followed with 1982’s Blade Runner, which allowed him to further showcase his talent for visuals, but that film’s slow pace didn’t resonate with audiences and critics at the time who wanted more Star Wars from their science fiction. Scott tried his hand at a fantasy movie next, but Legend (1985) fared similarly to Blade Runner. Searching for commercial stability again, Scott toned down his approach and directed Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and Black Rain (1989). His toned-down period ended with 1991’s Thelma and Louise, which was a critical and commercial success. With success on his side again, he took on the ambitious 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), which ended up in failure. Once again, Scott toned down his approach with 1996’s White Squall followed by the edgy G.I. Jane (1997). Ridley Scott’s most successful film was 2000’s Gladiator, which earned him an Oscar nod for best director. Hannibal came next followed with another success story, 2001’s Black Hawk Down, which earned him another Oscar nomination for best director.

The most recent decade of Ridley Scott’s career has found him working in a variety of genres with mixed success. His next film was the comparatively low-key Matchstick Men (2003), followed by the more ambitious Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Scott tried something different by doing a comedy next. 2006’s A Good Year, is widely considered his worst film. He redeemed himself in 2007 with the period crime drama American Gangster, which found moderate commercial success and was well received by critics. Body of Lies (2008) found Scott working in Post 9/11 cinema, followed by his version of Robin Hood in 2010. Finally, Scott returned to the genre that started his career with 2012’s prequel to Alien, Prometheus. Scott’s latest film has him teaming up with Cormac McCarthy for the crime drama The Counselor, which hit theaters last week.    

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

‘The Rembrandt of Light’

The most obvious Ridley Scott trademark is the way that he uses lighting in his films. Ridley Scott uses light to enhance the tone, add contrast to improve the cinematography, or to add texture and/or movement to an otherwise static scene. The most famous lightning technique that Ridley Scott is perhaps known for is the way he uses bright lights through steam or fog to create a certain visual atmosphere. In addition, Scott likes to use fog to project bands of light. This is especially prevalent in some of his earlier films, like Blade Runner where the advertisement blimp’s spot lights filter onto the dark streets and abandoned buildings. More recently, Scott has used dark and light colors of light in contrast to add detail or ambience. Movies like Telma and Louise use bright lighting and an almost washed out overtone to convey a warm visual feeling.


Sketch Master


Working on television and in commercials, Ridley Scott learned how to use sketches to visualize his work before he started filming. Not only do they give the rest of the cast and crew an understanding of what Ridley Scott is planning to do, but they allow him to keep track of details and understand how to set up his lighting. To this day he likes to completely plan out his films in very detailed sketches shot by shot. These sketches also allow Scott to film his movies very quickly, especially considering the complexity and length that his stories usually involve. He has everything planned out ahead of time so that shots don’t require more than three or four takes. The actors understandably appreciate this very much.


Detailed Backgrounds

In addition to the complex lightning that Ridley Scott likes to use, his films are also known for the incredible amount of detail he uses in his backgrounds and set designs. To put it bluntly, Ridley Scott doesn’t do minimalism. This is true for both internal and external shots. When filming inside, it is not common for the room to have lots of things on the wall or a lot of activity happening in a small place. When filming outdoors, the characters are typically a very small part of the shot with a lot going on around them. The forest scenes full of flowers, pollen, and reflected light in Legend is a perfect example. The ornate and glamorous indoor shots in Gladiator showcase the level of complexity and detail that Scott uses for indoor shots.


Plodding Plots

“Blade Crawler” is what a critic once famously called Blade Runner. The nickname is true, as many of Ridley Scott’s films develop their story slowly. It isn’t that Ridley Scott doesn’t have any action in his films (check out Black Hawk Down which is as action-packed as they get), it is that he spends the majority of the time available telling complicated stories that typically build to tense climaxes. In American Gangster, for example, the film’s two main characters don’t meet until the end of the film (shown). In Kingdom of Heaven, instead of filming an epic battle scene, Scott chooses to show the armies heading off to war and then cuts immediately to the aftermath. Because Scott’s films are so jammed full of story details, they often have a lot of film cut out by the production studios to make them more concise. As a result, Ridley Scott is one of the few film makers whose “Director’s Cuts” are actually worth watching because the theatrical version may be very different.


Actors’ Director


Ridley Scott has had the opportunity to work with a large number of big name actors, and there is a reason for this. He is known as a director who will listen to the opinions of his actors in regards to the characters they are playing, and use this input in his movies. As a result, actors like working for him. Furthermore, because his focus is primarily on the visual impact of his films, he likes to work with actors who are experienced. In particular he likes to work with actors who are classically trained like Russel Crowe. It wasn’t always the case that Ridley Scott was appreciated by his actors. Harrison Ford famously had a feud with the director during the filming of Blade Runner because of Scott being too demanding and stubborn. Perhaps Scott’s methods of working with his actors has changed over the years due to his experiences.

Previously: Directors’ Trademarks: Robert Rodriguez