back to top

The Signature Trademarks Of 14 Famous Directors

Discussing more than just Tarantino's obsession with feet...

Posted on

1. Quentin Tarantino:

If there is a shot inside the trunk of a car, you're probably watching a Tarantino flick. Along with a foot fetish, Tarantino also repeatedly emphasizes food, using it to symbolize power (or lack thereof).

With his visual cues and title cards, it's pretty easy to spot Tarantino's work, especially since he often casts himself in a minor role. And if you're not really paying attention, his stylized dialogue and upbeat music during death/torture scenes should give it away.

3. Stanley Kubrick:

Like Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick films also have a fairly specific look. The two dead giveaways are his incessant use of the one-point perspective and a shot of a character with his head down and eyes up, often referred to as "The Kubrick Stare."

Kubrick also likes to have long tracking shots down hallways with parallel walls, and often has pivotal scenes take place in the bathroom (Eyes Wide Shut, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining). And as a final touch, every Kubrick film concludes with: “The End.”


4. Martin Scorsese:

Speaking of long tracking shots, let's talk about Martin Scorsese. His tracking shot in Goodfellas is widely considered one of the best in cinema, as Scorsese has the camera follow his characters from the street, down into the basement of The Copacabana, through the kitchen, and into the main room. All in one continuous shot.

Other Scorsese techniques include: slow-motion, freeze-frame, and breaking the fourth wall. He also likes to utilize the sound of silence and many times has characters talking and looking into the mirror.

If you're still not sure if it's a Scorsese film, listen for The Rolling Stones, a New York accent, and look out for Leonardo DiCaprio, who Scorsese frequently casts in his films, or a quick cameo by the director himself.

(As noted by a reader, Scorsese's Copacabana shot is an homage to Orson Welles' famous tracking shot in Touch of Evil.)

5. Steven Spielberg:

Spielberg likes to tell his story through emotion. One of the techniques used to accomplish this is an extreme close-up of a character's face, known simply as “The Spielberg Face.”

Like Scorsese, Spielberg also employs a handful of other techniques, such as: reflections, shadows, and using circles to go against the natural square/rectangle frame of movies.

Along with his tendency to focus on inanimate objects (the ration tin filled with dirt in Saving Private Ryan, the necklace in Catch Me If You Can, the rolling ball in Minority Report), Spielberg also frequently collaborates with composer John Williams and tends to use a 90-degree character shot: positioning the two cameras parallel to each other, putting both characters in profile.

6. Akira Kurosawa:

You might not know Kurosawa's work, but his films have influenced some of the biggest blockbusters ever. Kurosawa pioneered the "wipe effect" transition and changed the way large scenes were shot by using a telephoto lens (effectively creating a flat image that is two-dimensional, instead of having objects in the foreground appear much larger than objects in the background).

Using weather (typically heavy rain), majestic pageantry, and savage violence, Kurosawa popularized visual storytelling, along with a heroic champion and a master-student relationship, which was later modified in one of the most celebrated films of all time...

7. George Lucas:

George Lucas has credited Kurosawa as one of his influencers and it's easy to see why. Like Kurosawa, Lucas also uses the "wipe effect" along with a master-student storyline involving a heroic champion.

Lucas, however, took visual storytelling to another level by inserting science fiction and fantasy. These themes, along with groundbreaking techniques (such as the opening scene which features his infamous scroll and a pan of the starry sky, which had never been done before) coupled with stunning visual effects, make Lucas' films one-of-a-kind. Especially with his frequent use of The Wilhelm Scream.


8. Edgar Wright:

Quick-cut action sequences, whip-pan camera movement, quick zoom close-ups, and objects suddenly entering the frame: These are the cornerstones of an Edgar Wright film. Also, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

In addition to all of that, though, Wright also enjoys placing a pivotal scene in a bar/pub, and instead of using the "wipe effect," he will sometimes match the scene during transitions.

9. Michael Bay:

Explosions. Explosions! EXPLOSIONS!!! It might be a punchline now, but Michael Bay seriously loves explosions. He also likes to do a few other things as well — one of which is moving the camera in a circular motion with the character rising up ("The Bay Shot"), and another is filming a helicopter against a sunset.

Bay films also have a few more things in common: fast movement, busy/complex frames, and he often uses filters to give the background color a blue tint and the characters a red look.

10. James Cameron:

Grand digital effects are to James Cameron what explosions are to Michael Bay. The man simply loves stunning, over-the-top visuals. Although he, too, enjoys explosions (and crashes) as many of his films involve fighting and war.

Cameron frequently colors his films with a blue overlay, featuring a strong female character, while the men struggle (and often fight) with technology. Another Cameron trademark is a close-up of feet/wheels (typically executed when trampling occurs), and using a video monitor as the perspective of the camera (surveillance cameras in True Lies, video log in Avatar, beginning of Titanic).

11. David Fincher:

David Fincher revolutionized filmmaking with his fluid tracking, which he has famously used to go through walls and objects. His films often have unique opening title sequences, a shot inside a fridge, and include single frame insertions, most recognized in Fight Club.

Fincher also likes to play with darkness, using silhouettes and shadows to hide identity, and most of his films have a color theme (black and blue for Fight Club, black and yellow for Zodiac). So it shouldn't be too surprising to note that Fincher prefers to avoid Hollywood happy endings, concluding most of his films on a downbeat.


12. Alfred Hitchcock:

In terms of cameos, Alfred Hitchcock is king, appearing in 39 of his 52 films, holding such high honors as "Man Walking Dogs," "Guy on the Bus," and "That Dude Over There." However, despite serious commitment, he was not credited in those roles.

Regarded as "The Master of Suspense," Hitchcock toyed with his audience, often inserting viewers into the film using the camera as the eyes of a character to give the effect of voyeurism. With twist endings, a knack for using shadows and mistaken identities, and decoy plot points (a "MacGuffin"), Hitchcock's films are often categorized as psychological thrillers.

Aside from his signature profile shot, Alfred Hitchcock is also known for casting blondes in leading roles and filming on the studio lot where he could control the lighting and pretty much everything else.

13. Tim Burton:

Tim Burton has the distinguished honor of being the "dark" director of Hollywood, frequently using a black-and-white color scheme along with sharp contrasts (often red) to give his films a gothic look.

Most people can identify a Burton film based on his signature creatures, ominous characters, and their battle between the light and dark world, but another distinct Burton move is to alter the studio logo during the opening titles.

In addition to these, Tim Burton also regularly casts Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in his films, and for whatever reason, the man loves putting his characters in snow.

14. John Woo:

To make a John Woo film, one should have white doves fly behind a character wearing sunglasses and a trench coat as he pulls out double guns for a Mexican standoff, which will inevitably lead to an intense shoot-out. By the way, all of that basically happens within 30 seconds in Face/Off, further proving that it is an epically awesome cinematic adventure.

Anyway, that, plus slow-motion and reflection shots, is Woo's recipe for success.

Honorary Mentions:

Christopher Nolan: Nonlinear storytelling. Often places the camera behind a character to show their perspective. Syncopy logo.

Spike Lee: The double dolly shot.

J.J. Abrams: Lens flare.

M. Night Shyamalan: Twist endings.

Zack Synder: Sped up and slowed down action sequences.