Developing a Signature Style – Part 1: The Components

The look of Zack Snyder's "300" has become a calling card for him.

As a filmmaker or photographer looking to make a living in your craft, one of the most important things you can do is develop a signature style. That is to say, an aspect of your work that helps you stand out from the pack. Something unique that you will be able to charge a premium for. But even beyond the business aspects of creating a signature style, there’s a certain sense of personal fulfillment that comes with creating something that says “You.” Today and tomorrow I want to offer some tips on things you can do to create a signature look to your work. The examples of artists I use will be filmmakers, but pretty much everything I’m suggesting is applicable to photographers as well (except for the audio suggestions of course). Today I’ll talk about the components that go into a signature look. Tomorrow I’ll address good practices.

The Components

As visual artists, a signature style is largely based in how your art looks. Of course, with filmmaking audio plays a part too, and I’ll cover that. So here are some things to keep in mind when creating that unique look.

DISCLAIMER: first, I’m not saying these are the be-all, end-all. I’m no expert at this. These are just based on my personal experiences in the craft. Second, many of my suggestions may require “breaking the rules.” I think a huge part of creating a signature look does involve breaking certain visual or storytelling “rules.” However, I do strongly suggest that you learn the rules before you break them. That way, at least you have a reason for breaking them that serves the end result. Lastly, I get that many of these suggestions can and will change from project to project. However, if as an artist you tend to one set more than another, you can start to create your signature style.

  • Camera settings: it goes without saying that if you want to change how your visuals look, change how the camera takes them. Do you want a staccato look from a high shutterspeed? Do you want a softer, filmic or even dreamy look from a lower shutterspeed? When I focused on weddings I routinely shot at 1/30 vs. the traditional 1/60 just for that reason. It was all part of creating the signature look I wanted my wedding films to have. Other settings like aperture, ISO and frame rate all can play a role in creating your look.
  • Color grading: I’m a fan of shooting with a flat picture profile to give me more options when I go to color grade a film I shoot. How a viewer responds to your film can be significantly affected by how you grade it. Do you go for bright and warm tones (happy) or harder blue tones (sad)? Do you want a more retro feel to your work, or more contemporary? (Obviously, on the photography side, this would fall under use of Photoshop filters and the like).
  • Composition: I assume you’re familiar with “the rule of thirds.” There are plenty of times when you may want to break that to contribute to your style. But even within the context of sticking to that rule, you can develop a style based on whether you tend to do more long shots or close ups; two shots (where if you have two people talking, you always show both of them) or one shots (you cut back and forth); do you go for low angles or high angles. My work tends to be very emotional, so I favor lots of close up shots.
  • Movement: how do you move the camera? Do you prefer to keep everything on “sticks” (i.e. tripods) or do you like to use steadicams or other similar devices; do you use slider shots a lot?
  • Lighting: how do you light your projects? Do you primarily use natural light, or will you always bring in lights? How do you use shadows? How do you light objects in the background? Master the light, and you can master your craft.
  • Music: how important a role does music play in your work? If so, what kind of music do you go for? Or is your work primarily music free? Some filmmakers are largely regarded for the music they use in their work (Quentin Tarantino and Cameron Crowe come to mind).
  • Pacing: how do you like to edit. Fast and furious? Or slow and steady? Are you more MTV or AMC?
  • Telling Stories: how do you go about telling your stories? Are you a more traditional, linear storyteller? Or do you like to mix it up for a more non-linear style? How do you juxtapose audio and visuals to emphasize your message. (Michael Moore is a master at this, albeit in a way that I find tends to mislead a lot of the times to support his agenda).
  • Type of Stories: what type of stories are you prone to tell? Will you be known for light and romantic fare? Heavy-handed? Melodrama?

A lot of these things may seem obvious. However, how often do you actually make a conscious effort to be intentional in how you implement all these things specifically towards the end result of creating a signature look for yourself? That’s the key.

Do you feel like you have a signature look? Can someone look at your work and say “That’s a [insert your name here] film/photo?” I know I’m not quite there yet. But I’m trying.

Zack Snyder has master the graphic novel “look” to the point where he is the go-to guy for any such fare. Check out these two trailers. Where do you see the similaries in all the points I mentioned above.

“300”

His latest movie, “Sucker Punch”

14 thoughts on “Developing a Signature Style – Part 1: The Components

  1. Definitely all good ways that you can be different from everybody else. As an artist, you may have a style that other people recognize even if you’ve never sat down to come up with a style. Even early on in our photography business, we thought our work wasn’t really all that different from other photographers, buy we frequently heard stories of people in our area making the comment – “oh, I could tell that’s one of Larissa’s images”.

    Funny that you wrote a blog post about different styles today. We’ve been thinking about that recently too. I’m not sure if any of your readers would be interested, but we’ve actually made a tool for determining what style of images a person prefers. We call it the photography personality profile. It’s still a work in progress, but I’d love to know what everyone thinks if they’ve got a few minutes to run through the test: http://www.larissaphotography.com/PhotographyPersonalityProfile/PhotographyPersonalityProfile.aspx

  2. I commend you for posting on the topic of developing a signature style as a filmmaker. But I take exception to the idea that a signature style can be taught or learned by breaking down the visual components of filmmaking.

    “Signature” implies personal originality, and if that is something you believe others can teach you, please proceed to sell your gear and become an accountant. Of course it can be developed, but only by looking within. I believe a truly original signature style is found in far more esoteric and internal ways than the areas you are suggesting filmmakers analyze here. Every artist has an inner voice – developing a signature style means turning up the volume.

    Becoming an original begins with no longer asking “how” something looks but “why” it looks the way it does. “Why” goes beyond the result and hints at motivation. It’s a question that empowers inquirers to come up with their own answers. But if you’re going to ask “what” in developing a style, ask yourself:

    “What things inspire me?”

    “What things inform my aesthetic sensibility? My taste in music, fashion, art?”

    “What do I have to say as an artist?”

    “What is the most effective way to convey this visually?”

    1. Hey Kev, Thanks for the comment. Love to have you as part of this conversation. The questions you pose are great. But at the end of the day, once you’ve answered those questions, it will still come down to how one implements the components I mentioned. I mean, take even your last question – “What is the most effective way to convey this visually?” Doesn’t that lead directly to what I’m talking about here? You can’t get around that. The things that inform your aesthetic sensibilities WILL affect how you light, how you compose or how you move a camera. My sensitivity as a human being affects how I direct an actor (or my clients if it’s a documentary). It affects which questions I ask, how close I set my camera to the subject, etc. Someone’s else’s sensibilities will inform which music they pick, etc. Whether or not the person is conscious of it. What I’m attempting to do is alert people to those facts and armed with that knowledge, people can have the freedom to explore these different aspects of filmmaking to discover, or evolve their style.

      The post isn’t about teaching personal originality. It’s about objectively recognizing what sets one style different from another, then recognizing within yourself how you implement those things to create your own style. As I’ll get into with part 2, the practice of developing your style absolutely involves listening to your gut and supports your comment about looking within. Would love to read what you think about the follow up.

      1. Thanks for the reply, Ron. It sounds like we’re on the same page. I agree that learning the language of film is a must to understanding the basic storytelling conventions of the medium. But one can only be taught proper grammar – the poetry comes from within and is up to each poet. So I guess my issue with your post is really that it reads more like a part 2 or 3 in a series that should have started with your advice on how to hear your inner voice as an artist and how to translate personal sensibilities into filmmaking style. For those starting out, perhaps by asking more “why” questions of filmmakers like Snyder (and others whose visual polish can give far more context). Breaking down ways to execute a unique vision would’ve been a great follow up. As unintentional as it may be, starting the process here suggests a visual template mentality. I just glanced at your part 2 (just posted at the time of this reply) and we do agree, it just looks like that would have made a more effective part 1.

        1. I agree that we agree. I like your point about reversing parts 1 and 2. And your idea about staring with that question. Maybe you know a well informed, esoteric, artistically inclined SC film grad who could write a guest blog post about that?🙂

      2. I would love to learn/read more from Kevin regarding this topic since his NY workshop is sold out. I’ve probably watched his 4 part series on EventDV-TV 10 times, and I am desperate for some more education based on film theory since I regrettably slept through most in college. I didn’t know better back then!
        Thanks Ron & Kevin for sharing your time and talents.

  3. Great post Ron and great comments from Kevin too.

    I always wondered what exactly Picasso meant when he said “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.” But I’m starting to get an idea.

    It would be truly unoriginal to see something I liked and go recreate what I saw.
    But to see something, and think “I like that”. And then take it and run with it to someplace else. That’s different.

    I think that’s what he meant by “stealing”. When you steal something, you grab hold of it and run.
    Run like Indiana Jones with a big ass boulder rolling after him.
    Run and run with it until you’ve made it YOURS.

    I’m happy to say I’ve been inspired by Kevin and Ron and many others but I’m taking what I like from them and I’m trying to make it all my own.

    Feel free to look at what others have done to define their own style.
    See what they do that you like. But don’t copy them. Steal!
    Take what you like and run with it to where your own heart and desires take you.

    1. Great points Shane. I absolutely agree. And I am 100% sincere when I say that I am truly humbled to be mentioned in the same sentence with my friend Kevin. In my part 2, I will address some of the points you made. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  4. Just when I’m starting to doubt my work, or get down on the industry, this is just what I needed to read this morning. Kevin’s quote: “Every artist has an inner voice – developing a signature style means turning up the volume.” Shane’s quote: “Take what you like and run with it to where your own heart and desires take you.”

    Thank you Ron for breaking this topic down in easy to digest bites. Your posts always seem to pop up just at the right moments. I’m on to read part two!

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