Above all, Zack Snyder is best known as director for the unique visual style of his films. In particular, he is known for a very dynamic and stylized approach to action sequences that makes his films feel like live-action comic books. Only once so far has he directed an original film, everything else has been based on some prior material. That adapted material is frequently visual in nature and used as an influence to enhance the tone and format. Snyder’s films have been adapted from comic books, graphic novels, a fantasy novel, and a remake of a cult film. Even his only original film, Suckerpunch, feels as if it could have been some sort of graphic media.
Snyder developed his panache for visuals as a director of TV commercials. He eventually made his feature film debut with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 cult classic. Next, he directed his first commercial hit, 300 (2007), which was based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. In many ways, 300 was a groundbreaking film because of its unique visuals and the uniqueness of using a graphic novel as its source material. The film made a name for Snyder and showcased his abilities and innovative contributions as a visual director. His follow up was the eagerly anticipated Watchmen (2009) which had a fair amount of commercial success and was generally well received by critics. Snyder decided to make a family film next, and directed the completely CGI Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010) to mixed reviews. Next, he made his first original film, writing and directing Sucker Punch (2011). This film flopped at the box office and was widely panned by critics because of its focus on visuals over a coherent story and characters. This sentiment wasn’t necessarily new, but has been voiced throughout Snyder’s career only to become most apparent with his last film. Snyder’s latest film Man of Steel finds the stylistic director teaming up with modern good-movie guru Christopher Nolan as producer to try and find the right amount of visual flash and emotional substance.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Snyder film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Snyder’s trademarks as director, in no particular order.
Snyder like to speed up and slow down his films, especially during tense action-packed moments. This helps to give the audience a perspective that they might not have otherwise had. Slow-motion action has become an action-cliché in the last ten or so years, but Snyder’s technique is an evolution. The result are films that often seem to showcase violence as a form of art. Snyder also uses these moments of reduced speed to move or reposition the camera’s perspective (see Action Zoom). Typically when moving the camera during an action scene, it can be a little overwhelming to follow because of all that is happening. By slowing things down, Snyder can simplify the mayhem and make sure that he didn’t lose his audience.
Film makers have traditionally used close ups and quick cuts during action sequences. Snyder’s approach is to show as much detail as possible, but to reduce the number of cuts during an action sequence. The camera will zoom in on important events and then quickly zoom out to show the outcome of that event. Snyder combines this technique with his timeline ramping in order to make the action as clear as possible. The idea is that it makes the film feel more fluid, less choppy, and the audience can more easily comprehend the mayhem. Furthermore, with 300 and Watchmen it gives you the feeling that you are watching a live-action graphic novel as each “zoom” feels like its own frame.
Slow-Mo Face Punch
This is related to the above two topics and is more of an Easter egg than a style element. The slo-mo face punch is both a way to show off the above two techniques and play homage to the comic-book-like feel of Snyder’s work. The victim of this face punch can be either a protagonist or antagonist, and often both can get punched in the same film. It is a reminder that Snyder isn’t afraid of brutal violence but embraces it as a form of entertainment (also shown by the twisted and somewhat comical facial expression caught in slow motion of the recipient).
Snyder likes to fill the screen with movement. Even when the action stops, there are frequent overlays with moving particles filling up empty space. These particles include weather elements (rain, snow), ash, fire, even blood. These particles add hyper-realism to Snyder’s films and help to convey a certain tone. They are also fitting as artistic elements showcasing Snyder’s comic-book-like visual style. Plus, because these films are green-screen heavy, they provide a certain depth to the screen and help to immerse the audience in the movie environment. Snyder’s films often contrast fire and ice to show the difference between good and bad or logic versus emotion. Snow or rain typically represent one extreme and fire or ash represent the other. Most of his films also include rain as imagery to convey sadness or loss (I.e. scenes with rain in them are sad ones).
The Montage Intro
Finally, Snyder often uses a montage as the exposition of his films. This montage doesn’t always occur right at the beginning, but happens within the first couple scenes to fill the audience in and explain some background information that is necessary to understand the following scenes. At times Snyder likes to use the opening credits as a place for this to take place. The montage itself is usually a barrage of clips without any true dialogue. They can be related or strung together to show a passage of time. This is yet another element that Snyder can use to make his films feel more like live-action comic books.
Previously: Directors’ Trademarks: M. Night Shyamalan