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.
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.
His latest movie, “Sucker Punch”