Celebrating 5 Modern Directors And Their Signature Styles

If you saw Total Recall this weekend and didn't know who directed it, you might have thought you got a hint once or twice. There are a bunch of lens flares in there-- maybe it's J.J. Abrams? Or, the set design looks a whole lot like Blade Runner-- could it be Ridley Scott?

The answer is that it was directed by Len Wiseman, a director who seemed solely devoted in Total Recall to aping the signature styles of other directors, and of course making them way less effective. We're not arguing that every director has to have an immediately recognizable style-- would we love the Coen Brothers nearly as much if they weren't constantly changing things up?-- but it's great to realize when a director has established him or herself away from the pack, with the confidence to bring their own flair to everything they make. So to get the bad taste of Total Recall out of our mouths, we're celebrating 5 current directors for their signature styles, whether they're good or bad, and whether or not they drive everyone crazy. Take a look at our choices below along with some examples of their work.

J.J. Abrams and his lens flares

In the world of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek, the future is so bright the camera's gotta wear shades-- but it doesn't. To keep the world of the U.S.S. Enterprise from looking as stagey and fake as, say, the original series, Abrams crammed the set of Star Trek with enough light sources that would make the camera "flare"-- that is, explode into a bright, colorful spot or streak of light-- in almost every scene. He's explained the flares as a way of conveying that "the future was so bright it couldn't be contained in the frame," or that "just off camera, something spectacular is happening.

That worked just fine for Star Trek. But then the lens flares were back in Super 8, a movie set firmly on Earth and in the past, and then it started getting a little ridiculous. Asked to explain them Abrams basically told us he just included them anywhere they'd look cool, which means he's done explaining a technique that's clearly become his style. And if you look back, he's been doing it all along-- the Mission: Impossible 3 trailer contains quite a few, and well, have you looked at the credit sequence from his series Alias lately? Lens flares are Abrams's bright and shiny way of putting his stamp on film-- and driving the haters crazy in the process.

Zack Snyder and his speed ramping

To call slow motion Zack Snyder’s ‘signature’ is an oversimplification of the artistry in his speed ramping, zooms and movement, but then again the techniques are used to cover up razor thin plots and one-dimensional characters. Dawn of the Dead uses the trait sparingly but it’s still there in the explosions and to make the deaths more dramatic. 300 is just an experiment in style with maybe seven minutes of story in the whole 117. Don’t believe me? Watch this fight and then it again at normal speed to see the difference. Now multiply by the number of fights.

Watchmen tried to have substance as well as style, but his signature just bloated the run-time, demonstrated by comparing the Watchmen trailer and its ’regular speed’ edit. Snyder turned to an animation for complete control over the rate of motion and, well, Guardians of Ga'Hoole is an exquisite example of the technique. For Sucker Punch, his first and only original idea, the director brought his speed ramping best. No sensible story, but lots of frame rate changes. The first five minutes say it all. But, to everyone’s surprise, his Man of Steel teasers take place entirely in regular time. Perhaps he’s slowly grown.

M. Night Shyamalan and his frame shots

"That is one fine frame. One fine frame that is."-- Dr. Malcolm Crowe, The Sixth Sense.

There is evidence of M. Night Shyamalan's appreciation for creative framing in all of his films, but The Sixth Sense in particular emphasizes his love affair with doors and frames. Donnie Wahlberg's creepy cameo near the beginning of the film is one of the best examples here because the doorframe is continuously in the shot while he's on screen, but we see doors (also windows and shelves) used numerous times throughout the movie, occasionally obstructing the view slightly. In that way, it creates a sort of voyeuristic perspective to his shots, making us feel like we're peeking in on a moment.

Doors are used to frame the characters more neatly in his other films, too. Bruce Willis is framed in a doorway numerous times in Unbreakable, which almost makes the moment seem like something pulled from a comic book. And there's more than one occasion in Signs when we see the family seated together and framed by a doorway or window. Then, the framing seems to capture the characters in that moment, literally boxed in by the door or window. Shyamalan eases off the door focus a bit after The Sixth Sense, but there are examples of the technique in his later movies, along with his appreciation for reflections.

Quentin Tarantino and his trunk shots

Whether it’s Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde and Mr. White lifting the lid on the cop hidden in the car in Reservoir Dogs, The Bride getting ready to have a second, violent conversation with Sofie Fatale in Kill Bill Vol. 1, or Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield complaining about their lack of shotguns in Pulp Fiction, the trunk shot is a camera move that director Quentin Tarantino has been employing throughout his entire career. And while it may not be the only trademark of his films – he also typically includes a shot of a woman’s bare feet, likes to set up long tracking shots and regularly sets up complex Mexican Standoffs – it’s the trunk shot that best defines the director’s aesthetic. Since arriving on the scene in the early 90s, Tarantino has done his work to define the word “cool,” and the trunk shot accomplishes just that, showing off those behind the car from a low angle, making his characters seem larger than life, while also giving them a secret to hold on to, as they know what’s in the trunk before the audience does. Tarantino didn’t invent the shot, as it was seen in movies long before he came around, but there is no filmmaker in the world that uses it better.

Joe Wright and his tracking shots

Joe Wright didn’t invent the tracking shot. You can go as far back as Orson Welles’ opening sequence to Touch of Evil or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope for early examples of masterful tracking shots. Nor did Wright perfect the tracking shot. That credit probably has to go to Alexander Sokurov, who filmed his entire 96-minute picture Russian Ark in one, unbroken take.

But Wright lands on this list for his conscious effort to make the complicated tracking shot his visual trademark, employing it in multiple features. He started experimenting with longer shots in Pride and Prejudice before knocking audiences for a loop with the near-five-minute beach shot in the middle of Atonement. Grace in the midst of chaos became Wright's calling card. In Hanna, Wright once again choreographed a breathtaking tracking shot as he followed Eric Bana into a subway station … and right into a multi-person fist fight. The camera never looks away. And now we’ll never look away from a Wright film as we wait to see if and when he attempts to outdo his previous, spectacular efforts.