I’ve always assumed films by Terrence Malick or Kubrick (for example) look different because of “art”. The shots appear cleaner. The subjects are better framed. The lighting is more natural. Whatever it is, there’s an undeniable difference in the craft that appears at first glance to be subjective. But maybe there’s a reason?

My direct question for those that want it: do some directors (or cinematographers like Deakins or Kaminsky) use quantifiable, repeatable methods to give their films something different in order to be so distinguishable?

Edit: clarity: is there academic research or documentation that attempts to answer this or a similar question?

  • Kubrick's techniques vary from movie to movie. Read for instance en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barry_Lyndon#Cinematography : <While 2001: A Space Odyssey had featured "revolutionary effects," and The Shining would later feature heavy use of the Steadicam, Barry Lyndon saw a considerable number of sequences shot "without recourse to electric light.">
    – BCdotWEB
    Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 10:24
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    While the essence of your question in very interesting, I vote to close it for being too broad. If the question were "What did Kubrick do to make Barry Lyndon look so different on film?" then you could talk about the special lenses, the natural light etc. With the question as it is now you could give countless examples of movies that fit your description with completely different styles but there is no single conclusion to give what makes them different.
    – Ian
    Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 13:00
  • Yes, I want this to be a good question, but as I think about it, there are just too many factors involved, that the question is (unintentionally) too broad. I'm also reminded of a director who has a very distinct look (again, for so many reasons): Wes Anderson. There could be 20+ good questions about how Wes Anderson makes his movies look the way they do, and they involve pretty much every single part of the movie making process, just like these other iconic directors. One way to answer this is, everything contributes to why these movies are so clearly different. Everything. Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 18:22
  • Upon reflection I am inclined to agree. Unless there’s some case to be made that exhaustive analysis has been done and found no commonality that can be documented in a way to answer in the affirmative, the question maybe unanswerable and chalked up to “artistic merit” or such. I’ll close.
    – dvaeg
    Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 18:31

1 Answer 1


This is an interesting, but also very broad, question. For academic research, a textbook or book of essays on film history or film aesthetics (such as any of the ones here: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199791286/obo-9780199791286-0212.xml) might be a good starting place.

Overall, the most quantifiable metric is the amount of time and effort that goes into planning and executing the movie. This includes the number of takes (Kubrick infamously demanded dozens of takes for some shots). But it also includes the complexity of the shot -- longer takes, shots where the camera moves, shots where the lighting changes, and so forth all provide aesthetic effects that you wouldn't get from a static, 10-second shot, but they all require a lot more time and effort. Similarly, if you need the weather and lighting to be just right for a shot, you might have to re-attempt it over the course of several days. The limiting case of this is probably Malick's Days of Heaven, which was filmed almost entirely outdoors during the "magic hour" around sunset.

Another quantifiable metric would be the depth of field -- Malick and Kubrick are both known for composing shots with extremely deep focus. Getting deep focus usually implies extra expense: the camera needs to have a small lens aperture. One way to achieve that is to use a really wide-angle lens, which "stretches" the image in ways that might not work for the story -- though it works well for the types of stories Terry Gilliam likes to tell. If you don't want that distortion, the other way to get deep focus is to throw a lot of light onto the stage, which means more equipment, more rigging time, and generally more time and expense to get the effect.

The balance of the colors used in the palette; use of the full wide-screen image; proportion of shots which use a "flat" angle vs. a low, high, or tilted...these are also quantifiable, to some extent. But what it really boils down to is how artfully the director and cinematographer combine all these elements to support the story they're telling.

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    Another thing to consider in the case of Kubrick - some of his most famous films were shot by the same directory of photography (John Alcott) who would also have influenced the look of the film
    – HorusKol
    Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 5:16
  • I think there are two other important ingredients you might add to this answer: technology/equipment choices, and processing decisions. You touch on the latter in your last paragraph. Regarding the former, one example is that Kubrick took advantage of brand-new lenses for Barry Lyndon that made it possible to get decent exposures with low level ambient lighting, like candlelight. Color processing decisions have a major affect on the final look of film - both in the digital and analog realms. Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 18:19

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