Kuleshov on finding your style

I read an amazing passage from this book I’m currently reading, written by Lev Kuleshov. It’s in Russian but I felt the urge to translate it and share it with everyone. It’s very helpful in that he gives very good advice to young filmmakers about how to approach filmmaking and style. As it should be obvious by now, he makes a case that the content and story of whatever it is you are to turn into a filmic form dictates largely every element of a film. But, I’ll let the man tell this to you.

Frame as an element of visual style

kuleshovThe nature of a frame, the style of images in a film depends largely on the choice of angles. Light and tone of an image is of great importance also.

A correctly found iconic nature of the frame helps the director to properly convey to the audience the content.

At the same time, every director and cameraman, in selecting the shots, has a “signature” – a favorite style in finding and establishing shots and angles.

degaspushkinIf you’re familiar with the works of art (and you should know painters, otherwise you won’t be very good filmmakers), then you have no difficulty in distinguishing paintings of Isaac Levitan from Vasily Surikov, Degas from Vrubel and so on. Just as a well-read man immediately distinguishes the works of Pushkin from Nekrasov, Gogol from Gorky, Leo Tolstoy from Chekhov and so on. Works of artists and writers are distinguished from each other by content, themes, images, language, compositions and so on.

A true artist, his “handwriting (style)”, his artistic personality, is pronounced on the screen. Nobody confuses films of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Chaplin. No one confuses cinematographers like Moskvin, Kosmatov, Urusevsky.

The style of a painting, the director’s or cinematographer’s “handwriting” are determined by a number of components, from the choice of the topic, its resolution – the approach to working with an actor, the approach to musical formation of a film, the characteristic combinations of sound – all ending with the construction and assembly of the frame.

tolstoyGraphic (visual) interpretation of the film depends on the style of frames; for example, a film shot primarily in a medium shot, close-up, extreme close-up, with frequent or rare use of low or high angles shooting, bright colors, dark colors, in certain color combinations (color contrast), with movement, etc. .

Finding the frame is the result of understanding the important task of interpretation, themes, plot, and through a whole chain of tasks that define the film to be shot. Therefore, a certain nature of frames is mainly dependent on idea of the story, the director’s and cinematographer’s interpretation of the story.

eisensteinThat is why a bad director or cinematographer is the one who chooses in advance a particular style of approaching the work (in this case we are talking about the nature of the images, their style) A painter’s style is formed as a result of his deep work over the painting (Director-cameraman’s interpretation of the film’s tasks creates needed pictures), and the more correct the interpretation, the more truthful will be images and the more determined their nature.

Candid CameraWe say this to warn you – the young cameraman, director, film enthusiast – from seeking to, in advance (prematurely) work out for yourselves the manner of shooting, notionally to find your own style of shooting films. Such an attempt will not be successful. Think about the story, by all means, try to bring your ideas to the audience. Always think about the main thing required first – only that way you will gain your “signature” and your creative individuality. It will come gradually, as a result of great experience and hard work.

Thoughts on the style of a film’s images, isolated from the specific tasks for which it is necessary to select and define frames – are barren thoughts of an empty artist. Do not spend the gift of time on the development of a creative style for yourself – As a result you will get nothing but affectation.

Sea-WolfOld sailors walk with their feet wide apart, because they are used to walking on a constantly moving deck, golf shoes are worn as to not get wet in the damp grass. But a man dancing in sneakers and on this basis considers himself “elegant” is a deplorable spectacle. And it’s just as funny to look at a youngster who has never been at sea, who has read a lot of sea stories after which he begins to walk like a “Sea Wolf.” (If it doesn’t make sense, a sea wolf is essentially an old sailor (think of classic, Moby Dick like sailors)

Do not think about your style ahead of time, work hard, and your individual directorial style will come by itself.


8 thoughts on “Kuleshov on finding your style

  1. What is the book called? BTW I love your blog. It’s great to see other people having extraordinary interest in film and learning about film through audio commentaries. I’m also a big fan of Cronenberg and highly recommend some interviews on youtube. One of them is “Long live the new flesh” and the other is “I have the make the word be flesh.” Not sure why but part 1 of I have to make the word be flesh was deleted. Great stuff, definitely check it out.

    • Hey man, the book is called “The ABCs of Film Directing” it’s in Russian though, I’m about 70% done reading it, and taking notes and translating them. I’m at a very dense, technical part right now so I’m taking a longer time to read it – because I want to fully grasp everything. I intend on posting those notes, and the book itself – since it has animated pictures there as examples.

      Thanks for digging the space! commentaries are AMAZING sources of filmmaking information. Coupled with watching and analyzing films, reading technicals books – it’s everything you need to prepare yourself the basics of film – from then on you can use all these tools when you make films, and they all truly work.

      Thank you for the Cronenberg recommendations. I watched one with him, Carpenter and John Landis a few months ago. Cronenberg has always struck me as a very, deeply thought out man. His voice especially is so soothing to listen to, makes you learn it all better, lol.

      • I know I’ve read a quote from P.T. Anderson saying he learned how to direct by film analysis and reading tech magazines, books, things of that nature. Del Toro is by far my favorite commentator. He just goes on and on and you think “Man, this guy really knows what he’s talking about.” Such a wonderful and insightful director. The way he’s so passionate about everything he does is so genuine. I completely agree on Cronenberg’s voice. I love his films but sometimes I feel more interested in hearing what he has to say about them. Glad he does commentary for pretty much every movie he’s made. Have you directed any shorts? Criterion Fan?

      • Del Toro is one guy I also love, his passion seeps through everything he does – he’s a massive fanboy, he answered some of my questions on his fan site. He regularly posts on that forum. Deltorofans. He’s also someone who’s commentaries I intend on listening to and condensing. PTA was driven, that’s all. However, as much as PTA likes to milk the fact he’s all self taught – he had a leg up in the industry because of his dad. People he could get hooked up with, such as Philip Baker Hall… so he’s not all that “one of us” – but he is inspiring because of the mindset of an autodidact.

        I haven’t shot any short films. I’ve mostly been fucking around when I got my DSLR in 2010 – here’s my favorite video I shot – https://vimeo.com/28212524 – I’m more of a DP, I don’t much intend to be a director, I just love shooting. However I want to learn everything about cinema. I’ll be shooting some stuff this year that’s finally narrative and less experimental. Fingers crossed this newfound knowledge pays off. I think it will 😉 I learned a TON!

        I’ve been watching Criterion films since about 2006. I think if you want to be a serious filmmaker you owe it to yourself to watch the films Criterion releases. A lot of great films.

      • I’m loving your videos man! Awesome stuff! I’m a Malick man myself and like someone mentioned in the comments, the train shot is phenomenal! I feel you on the whole P.T. Anderson thing. Any interest in film noir? What are some of your favorite Criterions? Personally I love Woo, Kurosawa, Wenders, Linklater, Soderbergh, Kieślowski, Cronenberg amongst others.

      • Thanks man, I try – though all the stuff I shot that’s on my page is BEFORE I even truly delved deep into studying film seriously on my own. I was just aware of compositional rules, but not a lot of DEEP concepts. So I can’t wait to shoot the stuff NOW because of the knowledge I’ve learned.

        Hmm, I’m gonna name some quick films that Criterion has released, but they are in no way JUST the films I like, kind of a taste.

        High and Low
        Last Year at Marienbad
        Bigger Than Life
        Fish Tank
        Paris, Texas
        Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell
        Robinson Crusoe on Mars
        Battle of Algiers
        Blow Out
        La Haine
        Letter Never Sent
        The Thin Red Line

        there’s a lot more but I’ll have to really sit down and make a list.

    • You can just browse through my vimeo page, most of the stuff out there is experimental in nature and lacks narrative severely, but I wasn’t concerned with narrative much when I shot and edited the stuff I’ve got on there. I’m a big fan of music and film so my whole goal with those vids is to fuse the two and create sort of visual mood pieces – like the Harmony vid. The closest there is to a narrative is this short documentary I edited of my friend getting locked out of his car = https://vimeo.com/18978373 – cinema verite style, and not at all “planned” i totally just had the cam on me when he asked me to drive over and help. I’m going to be shooting some narrative stuff and music vids this year though – I hope to put all this knowledge to use!

      The lens was just the standard kit lens for the t2i/550d – I might have used the 50mm 1.8 on one or two shots, but mostly I just remember carrying the standard one on. A Tokina or a Sigma is something I plan on getting! Great lenses

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