Kubrick’s interest in visual arts began with photography before he became interested in filmmaking. He enjoyed making short films and became very proficient at doing so. Eventually he made his first feature film The Killing Fields (1953) as an exercise in low-budget filmmaking. That film was not a commercial success, and he had to work hard to get funding to keep working as a filmmaker. His next film, Killer’s Kiss (1955) involved a lot of experimentation, so much that it ended up eating into the budget and costing Kubrick a profit. As a result, he decided to work with a professional crew on his next film, The Killing (1956), which also did not become commercially successful, yet it received good reviews and caught the eye of major production studios. 1957’s Paths of Glory was his first commercially and critically successful film, which established Kubrick as an up-and-coming director.
His next opportunity was the big-budget Spartacus (1960), which was a critical and commercial success and showcased the bigger things that were to come in Kubrick’s future. Now that he had proven himself, Kubrick chose Lolita (1962) as his next film, a controversial black comedy that showed Kubrick’s ambition, but didn’t end up as a commercial success and received mixed reviews. His next film was 1964’s Dr. Strangelove which has since become a classic satire film, but upon its release, it received mixed reviews. Kubrick then worked with Arthur C. Clarke to develop the script of his next film, 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which became a benchmark film in terms of production and direction even though it did not initially receive good reviews from critics. After 2001, Kubrick started working on two films that never made it to production as intended, Napoleon and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. His next film was the low-budget A Clockwork Orange (1971), which despite its controversy, has become well loved by critics and audiences alike. In 1975 Kubrick completed Barry Lyndon which was not a commercial hit but was appreciated for its technical achievements. His next film was 1980’s The Shining, which became a rare commercial success for Kubrick. It was 7 years before he released his next film, Full Metal Jacket, which critics enjoyed. His last film was 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, which Kubrick finished editing only days before his death. That film remained true to his legacy of highly technical production revolving around controversial subject matter.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Stanley Kubrick film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Kubrick’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
Kubrick’s most famous trademark is his use of symmetry in many of the most important shots of his films. He places the camera so that there is a “horizon” that spans the middle of the screen. He uses the very center of the picture as a point of perspective, with everything else in the shot leading to that singular point. This is not unlike the technique of creating perspective in a painting, where an artist creates a horizon and several lines to draw the viewer’s eyes to the center. Often Kubrick’s one-point perspective shots are looking down a hallway or corridor, but they can also be outdoors where the scenery aligns to create the illusion. Paths of Glory was the first film where he relied on this technique heavily, with the climactic firing squad sequence shown in focused perspective. In A Clockwork Orange, the opening shot of the film is a long tracking shot pulling away from Alex at the milk bar in one-point perspective. 2001 features the technique heavily, including the space travelling scene towards the end. Barry Lyndon uses the shot for the final climactic duel scene, and The Shining is famous for the shot of the boy riding around the hotel hallways on his big wheels, which is shot in one-point perspective.
Beginning, Middle, End
Kubrick likes to structure his films so that they have three acts. These acts are almost always separated by a major event that influences the main character heavily. Each “act” of the film typically has its own tone, and because of this, Kubrick’s films are more engaging despite the often slow pace. Each part of the film feels new and unique, even if the characters or setting are familiar. Kubrick uses this technique in almost all of his films. In Dr Strangelove, the film doesn’t have “beginning, middle, end” acts as much as it is telling three stories at the same time. 2001 also has three stories to tell (evolution, discovery, exploration) but these stories are told chronologically. In A Clockwork Orange the situation of the main character is broken up into three acts. FIrst, he is the leader of a gang, second he is imprisoned, third he is freed and everything has changed. Full Metal Jacket has a similar structure; first training, then graduation, and then war. Even in Paths of Glory, this technique is used. First, we are introduced to the generals as they discuss army politics and inspect the troops, then we meet the commander and follow him as he leads his men to battle, and then finally we have a more intimate encounter with the troops as they face execution for cowardice.
Movies = Music
Kubrick understood that a film could be much more than just a live action version of a story. He recognized that film had many benefits over radio and play in order to captivate and entertain audiences. As such, he was one of the first directors to put a lot of effort into making the sensory impact of his films as great as possible. Music, in particular, could be just as effective at creating a tone and influencing the viewer as a wonderfully narrated story. This meant that he put a lot of work into visuals and sound, including forming one of the very first “special effects” departments in film production for Dr Strangelove. 2001 is the best example of his skills at blending sound and vision. The film featured cutting-edge hyper-realistic special effects, so real that they still look good today. On top of the visuals, the film boasts one of the most influential soundtracks of all time. The visuals and Beethoven-fueled music of 2001: A Space Odyssey are so monumental and impressive that the story is somewhat pushed aside in retrospect, yet the film is still a masterpiece. A Clockwork Orange has a more typical plot, but the emphasis on music is still strong (again, the great Beethoven) and ultimately very important to the film. Barry Lyndon also uses its music and visuals to create a unique experience that is just as important as the story.
Kubrick is an auteur of film, meaning that he does more than just direct his films. He has a say in almost every aspect of the production, including writing the script. Many of his films are adaptations of books, and Kubrick has a special ability to translate them to the big screen. Because he understands all aspects of filmmaking so well, his films don’t rely on non-stop action, suspense, or tension to be entertaining. Instead, Kubrick is a master of the slow scenes. With or without dialogue, many of the most important scenes in his films are all about slowing it down. In Spartacus, the climactic moment when Spartacus is identified features a slow paced dialogue where the titular character just stares at his accuser without saying a word, which causes the man to strike him. In Lolita, the opening dialogue scene between Humbert and Quilty is purposefully drawn out and indirect in order to heighten the audience’s curiosity. In Barry Lyndon, the famous seduction sequence features the main character and his future wife flashing looks at each other over a game of cards. Finally, there’s the memorable sequence in The Shining of the crazed Jack Torrence walking through the empty hotel halls before arriving at the ballroom for an extended dialogue sequence with the bartender.
Complicated Tracking Shots
Kubrick followed in the footsteps of Orson Welles a generation earlier by making heavy use of the tracking shot, but he took that general idea to another level. Like Welles, Kubrick’s tracking shots at times lasted entire minutes, often to introduce a scene or a character, travelling through walls, and were completed with cranes or cameras on rollers for smooth effect. Unlike Welles, Kubrick devoted a lot of time to determine where the camera would be located and how it would move, even constructing sets to allow for these interesting and complicated shots. One of his most famous techniques is the “reverse” tracking shot where the camera travels backwards for an extended period of time. If anything, Kubrick’s tracking shots impart a somewhat forced perspective on his films. The Shining is probably the best example of this. Kubrick uses tracking shots to create an unsettling mood in the film. The perspectives that he uses feel slightly unnatural, such as the quintessential shot of the boy riding his big wheels through the empty hallways. In 2001 Kubrick uses a tracking shot inside the rotating wheel of the Discovery, following behind his actor to demonstrate a scientific principle as well as amaze his audience. An important sequence in Paths of Glory features a “reverse tracking shot” as the camera snakes through the trenches in one continuous shot in order to introduce the audience to the conditions of war.
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The last installment: Directors’ Trademarks: Tim Burton