Tom Jolliffe looks at the art of making visually beautiful films…
Cinema is a visual medium. A way to tell stories through a combination of visuals and sound, through script and direction, and the manipulation of the editing. Some films are emotionally crushing, involving, gripping. Some are audio-visual sensory overloads. Directors can opt for a simple naturalistic approach and focus on a sense of involving and gritty realism. Others can create fantasy worlds or heightened realities. You could look at certain directors, say Terrence Malick for example, who often opted to shoot with a sense of reality, but also with a love of things like magic hour shooting.
Still, sometimes it could be at the expense of substance, but some films are visually resplendent. I’d honestly struggle to narrow things down to a condensed list, but regardless, this is a celebration of cinema’s ability to take a camera and create images that, even capturing something natural, seem somehow otherworldly. Or in capturing grim, grimy reality, create beautiful images.
There are a variety of tools at the disposal of the auteur/artist. They can all combine to create wondrous images. Not limited to sets, locations, set design, lighting, shadow, props, miniatures, visual effects, costume, cast, controlled elements, natural elements. Some times the visual aesthetic has the tools of post production to add to the glorious visual look on screen, whether that’s CGI or grading.
Looking particularly at the fantasy and science fiction genres for example, and creating unfamiliar worlds, there are amazing examples of stunning visual cinema. Follow an iconic sci-fi chain starting with Metropolis. A beautiful film loaded with German expressionist lighting, state of the art miniature work (for 1927) and generally evocative visual ideas (think the robot transformation sequence, or the factory workers). See that through to the next big iconic stamp in the genre, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick took us to the dawn of humanity. He then took us to the future and into space. Then he took us through a stargate to the next stage of existence. We went to the beyond. Whether it was the beautiful miniature effects for the space sequence, or the wonderfully designed and choreographed movements of the spaceship interiors, or the visually dazzling depiction of travelling through the stargate a journey into spirit and subconscious, it all made for a visually arresting piece of cinema, and truly evocative experience.
The next key moment in sci-fi cinema was Blade Runner, a film which combined influences stretching back to the likes of Metropolis, through to Heavy Metal comics, to the city architecture and atmosphere of growing Asian cities like Tokyo, Shanghai or increasingly ghetto-ised areas of L.A., loaded with culturally eclectic mixtures and overpopulation. This ground level societal look took the seedlings of suggestion from reality, and almost provided a look ahead into where we actually are now in 2019. Blade Runner showed a decaying world of pollution with murky skies, dirt and detritus and a planet on the cusp of dying. In Ridley Scott’s world, loosely relating to the original source material from Philip K. Dick, our protagonist Rick Deckard exists in a world where extinction has wiped out almost every species of animal, with the few remaining a luxury of the rich (or replaced with replicas, be it Owl or Snake as the film’s examples). Promises of Off World Utopias in the giant floating advertisement blimps are all part of a world that is grim and unattractive, but similarly beautiful to be hold from our position as voyeuristic observer. The film is one of the most engrossing and consuming visual worlds ever created. For another example of a great Dystopian future, see also Terry Gilliam’s witty, barmy, but creatively brilliant (and unrestrained) Brazil.
The striking use of colour has been another tool used to help create beautiful films. The beauty of colour is, it can be used in a variety of ways and always remain effective. That can be built entirely into your frame, with the costumes or set decor. Films like Kurosawa’s Ran make particularly bold use of primary colours with carefully separated and coded factions. Army’s in Red, blue or yellow all battling over fields of Green just to further dash an extra secondary element of colour. Zhang Yimou’s gorgeous ode to golden age Wuxia cinema and Kurosawa classics (particularly Rashomon), Hero, has a beautiful colour palette with scene to scene shifts between an overriding (sometimes all consuming) colour scheme.
The beauty of cinema is the ability to capture not only reality (and still often retain a sense of hyper-reality) but also to create and capture living metaphor and dazzling on screen palettes. It doesn’t even have to make logical sense (but rather sometimes create a logic within the world of the film). Suspiria (the original) is a glorious homage to (among other things) technicolor’s golden age. Bold sequences combining strikingly bold, bleeding colours of set, with garish (but evocative) lighting. Some sequences have that skittle bag razzle dazzle that something like The Wizard of Oz had in abundance at the dawn of technicolor. Those striking colours in Suspiria are used to create contrasting moods and visually induced feelings of sickness and repulsion in the viewer. It creates a physiological response almost, and an overriding unease which only makes the horror more effective.
By the same token, black and white, whether it was a restriction by necessity back in that era, or in the colour age, a stylistic choice, has a yin-yang simplicity, and a further reliance on shadows and greys, that still create exceptionally beautiful films. Even as recently as last year, one of the big Oscar sweepers, Roma, showed that shooting in black and white is still a popular cinematic tool. I think back through a time line from the great old 30’s Gangster films, to old Russian and German horror that flitted between silent and talkies, through to Orson Welle’s tearing up the rule book (Citizen Kane is gorgeous), to Woody Allen’s beautiful and loving tribute to Manhattan in his film of the same title. See also Rumble Fish as a post colour, brilliant use of Black and White cinematography (with occasional and deliberate dashes of bold colour).
The frame itself allows for an arrow of options too. Again, these options increased over time with the redevelopment of cameras and lenses. If you think of epic scoped Westerns and like, shot in wide, particularly in the golden age of Panavision, there were stunning looking films. At that stage even with a naturalistic, basic lighting set up, that wide open frame created an opening and engaging world. Possibly the finest example of exceptionally frame wide-screen cinema would be Once Upon A Time In The West. In more recent times, Roger Deakins, though not limited to shooting in widescreen, is a beautiful exponent of widescreen cinematography. See No Country For Old Men, or in relation to sci-fi worlds, Blade Runner 2049. When you look for example at indie cinema, or micro budget films, who aspire to look cinematic and big, even when there’s no money to spend, one of the most simple answers off the bat, is to shoot in 235:1 (the polar opposite being 133:1 which was more box shaped in frame, and latter confined to TV. In the wide-screen TV age, that latter is a rarity, oft replaced with 178:1).
Different aspect ratios can represent different generic moods or focuses in the direction of a film. Perhaps the expanse and openness of a world isn’t required, more a centralised focus on a character (and perhaps more-so the psyche of a character). Narrowing the frame for example can place your actors more centrally focused, almost taking the world behind away. Or in the case of something like The Shining, as Jack Nicholson slowly descends into madness, that use of full frame over wide, makes the high looming ceilings seem to hang and dominate over Nicholson (and his family). It makes those labyrinthine corridors that Danny peddles down on his trike, seem all the more claustrophobic. Then as per standard in Kubrick’s cinema, the very meticulous nature of his framing, and the beautifully lit and dressed sets make for a film that is beautiful and frightening all in one. There’s a certain intimacy in shooting on a narrow frame that is difficult to get when you’ve widened your frame a lot. Intimacy in film can create an empathetic response from the audience to feel every emotion that little bit more. This was very evident in Wong-Kar Wai’s absolutely beautiful tale of wistful, conservative desire in middle class China with In The Mood For Love. By essentially chipping away those horizontal edges in favour of the vertical top and bottoms you sense that confined nature in condensed Asian City living and feel not only the physical closeness that forms between the achingly beautiful Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, but the emotional closeness. Then you throw in the absolutely stunning synergy of lighting, and set and costume design. It’s a work of art.
The natural world creates its own beautiful tools for visionary visuals. Be it the way Malick shot the wondrously brush-stroked and haunting visuals of Days of Heaven (in particular with one scene culminating in a field fire). Kurosawa had a deep seeded love of nature in film too making great use of elements like Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. All to magnificent effect whether it’s a hail of flaming arrows in Ran, or a rain drenched battle in Seven Samurai.
Another master craftsman whose films often made nature key elements in the cinematography of the picture, was Andrei Tarkovsky. Every film is a work of exquisite visual beauty. The simplicity of his fable tale, Stalker lies in creating a hostile ‘alien’ environment which has consumed many who travelled within, with on the surface very basic settings. Yes, in ‘the zone’ there are discarded tanks, and around the confides of ‘the room’ you have the eerie beauty of the building housing it and the tunnel leading inside (known as ‘the meat grinder.). Whereas most post apocalyptic science fiction would opt for elaborate sets, post-future design and an abundance of visual effects, Tarkovsky’s science fiction world of threats and traps is an overgrown, weed infested land of marsh, swamp, and unkempt foliage. In addition, rather than filming wide, Tarkovsky opted for full-screen and centralises the view, creating a point of view that feels voyeuristic. In essence, our frame into the film becomes a viewing point through the eye of ‘the zone’ itself. A friend of mine who watched after I recommended it described it as feeling like coming back from a deep dream or a meditation. In a film fairly sparse of dialogue, aside from off hand philosophical musings and wry witticisms, the visual grip is important, and this was a gift that Tarkovsky could always pull off in a way very few contemporaries could (Kubrick being one).
It is possible too, in cinematic terms to allow your viewer to gorge on the visual splendour. To load the frame in a way which dazzles and do things with the camera additionally which create that visceral sense of awe. You might look at Alfonso Cuaron and masterful use of long takes which grab you and do not release you from a shot. Children of Men as an example, with de-saturated, grimy visuals but involving and gripping sequences where no cut arrives to allow you permission to blink. Alternatively, you may look at the dazzling sensory overload of many period pieces. The Favourite last year was fantastic (and the odd fish eye lense further added to this gripping sense of involvement). I look back to Amadeus, the masterpiece from Milos Forman. Filled to the brim with wonderful set design, locations and costumes in the opulence of upper class and royal surroundings. Further aided by the darker subplots and some wonderfully gothic visuals. It’s an assault on the senses.
The action genre and the requisite set pieces required have provide plenty of visually glorious films, and few more than John Woo’s great ode to gangster films of the golden era, Hard Boiled. It’s all beautifully shot and lit, wonderfully edited with strong performances, but also, the choreographed action is absolutely relentless at times. The film bursts alive with colours, from the sets and lighting, which are then erupted into masses of flame and sparks and smoke. Hard Boiled is bonkers with unsurpassed set pieces, but you have an epiphany between these epically insane action sequences, that this ballet of destruction is beautiful. More recently, Keanu Reeves’ Judo and Gun-Fu trilogy as John Wick, has seen three films get progressively more stunning to look at and in the last two particularly owing much to cinematographer Dan Laustsen.
Content will always be the difference between a visual treat washing over you, or truly affecting. Films like The Fall or Legend (Ridley Scott) which were stunning to look at but un-involving and flawed will always offer the option to watch akin and appreciate the aesthetics, but when combined with engaging plot and characters, visually dazzling films just seem to live very long in the memory.
What is the best looking film ever made? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/