Stanley Kubrick – Naked Filmmaker

Published On April 17, 2011 | By Mike Carroll | Director-Cameraman, Filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick

A young Stanley Kubrick as one-man filmmaker on Killer’s Kiss (1955).

I drive a 15-year-old Toyota. Drink five dollar a bottle wine. Wear T-shirts until you can see through them and patched jeans. But when it comes to cameras, I have to have the best I can afford.

Ever since I was in my late teens and discovering photography I was always drawn to the best gear — at that time Nikon. Having been a TV news cameraman for the past 25 years I’ve been privileged (and spoiled) by having access to the best cameras, microphones and tripods available. So I have a delicate palate when it comes to gear.

The only way to be able to justify my gear is by not being married to it. That’s why I created my rule about cameras:

Make a new film — buy the best camera available.
Finish shooting the film — sell the camera.

Technology’s been advancing so rapidly that every two years it’s a new ball game. The only way to try to stay on top is to use your camera for only a year or less, then sell it while it’s still relevant.

As I’m only interested in making feature-length films and not short subjects, my time between shooting is typically 1 to 2 years — figuring it takes a year of editing and sending the film out to festivals, then another year of writing the next one. I have no interest in making the same film over and over (at least, not intentionally) and am also not interested in making each film the same way.

Having made two feature films and a couple documentaries with camcorders now (using the Sony TRV900, Sony PD-150, Panasonic DVX100A and JVC GY HD110U) and I’m ready for something different — a new camera to excite me. Call it, “A boy and his toys.” But I am in good company — Stanley Kubrick was the same way.

(Any filmmaker risks heresy by daring to draw any comparison with themselves and Stanley Kubrick, so I know I’m walking the razor’s edge with this.)

Stanley Kubrick as been called many things: perfectionist, nut, recluse, hermit, enigma. That’s largely because after his filmmaking in the 60s that produced a film almost every other year — Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). After that his films became fewer with longer and longer intervals between them — A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) — when he entered his “recluse” phase.

Vincent LoBrutto’s masterful biography Stanley Kubrick.

There have been many theories and much speculation about what motivated these lengthy periods between movies, but I think the biggest reason is that he had reinvented himself from being a traditional “film director” back closer to being the “total filmmaker” or “one-man army filmmaker” that he started out as in the 1950s.

Kubrick discovered his passion for photography as a teenager, channeling all of his energy into taking pictures, becoming the most successful teenage photographer there ever was shooting for Look magazine while he was still in high school in Brooklyn in the 1940s. By the time he was 20 that passion for photography was extending to cinematography, discovering and devouring movies. He made his first couple of films as newsreel documentary shorts, which were the TV news of his day. This was his film school, just as shooting TV news has been my film school. He evolved this into micro-budget feature filmmaking serving as his own writer-director-cameraman-editor and soundman — although, all of his sound was added in post-production.

Kubrick then had a meteoric rise from Paths Of Glory to the blockbuster epic Spartacus, moving into the studio system with its large, rigid crews. Still, his focus was always on the photographic image, insisting on hiring the best cinematographers available — Russell Metty (Spartacus), Oswald Morris (Lolita), Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove) and Geoffrey Unsworth (2001) — yet always still setting up every shot to his own precise standards.

While the 60s were a period in movies of revolutionary styles and new cinematic forms and styles, the equipment of the day was still anchored to decades past — large, cumbersome cameras, sound recording systems that required an entire truck for all the equipment. As independent as a filmmaker might try to be, they were still anchored to the bulky technology of the time.

Kubrick going independent on A Clockwork Orange. (Notice the shotgun microphone.)

Then suddenly in the very late 60s and early 70s filmmaking equipment made the radical strides. Smaller handheld Arriflex cameras that could be used inside a sound clip just as 150 or 200 pound studio camera had been used. Incredibly sensitive shotgun and radio mics came out and — perhaps the biggest breakthrough — a portable sound recorder, the Nagra, that was no larger than a gym bag. All this coincides with when to break entered is very next phase as a filmmaker — leaving behind the large confines of a studio and, in fact, started making his films out of his own house. Although, it should be pointed out that Kubrick’s house was not a three bedroom with two baths but an English manor estate. Along with this new reinvention of himself as a filmmaker, he also took much tighter reins over all of the filmmaking of his fill: from the time of A Clockwork Orange on, to break served as his own producer. He wrote his own scripts. He also became his own cameraman, although, he never took credit for it. From this. On, instead of hiring the top cinematographers of the day to shoot his films, instead he would hire his gaffer and elevate him to the title of director of photography. This way he was able to be his own camera operator and big date two years gaffer/director of photography — “lighting cameraman, was quote as they were called in the UK — exactly how he wanted the lighting could be.

For his sound, instead of hiring the time top studio soundman, he found a documentary soundman and trained him to record the sound exactly the way he wanted it. He hired the best assistant editors and elevated then to be his film editors — so he control the editing. By hiring lower level crew and raising them up to the top ranks he could completely control every aspect of his films.

Filming the fight scene in Barry Lyndon. (Notice: the same microphone.)

He also completely restructured the way he used his crews. On 2001: A Space Odyssey and the crew was anywhere from a hundred to 200 people at a time. From A Clockwork Orange and on to his final film Eyes Wide Shut the crew size ranged from 20 to 40 on any given day, or as few as five. By keeping crews to a minimum he was able to keep costs so low that rather than have to rush to shoot a movie on an eight or ten week schedule, he could take nine months or a year or more to shoot his movie his own way at his own pace, under his complete authority.

Once Kubrick had taken over the reins of so many aspects of filmmaking process, the films took longer and longer to make and his film output became fewer and fewer. He was always looking for new stories to tell, but at the core of his soul Stanley Kubrick was first, last, and always a photographer. If anyone knows anything about photographers, they are always excited about the latest new toy — and Stanley Kubrick loved his toys.

Stanley Kubrick’s favorite camera: Arriflex. It could have been Panavision, but you can’t buy a Panavision camera, it can only be rented. Kubrick went with Arriflex because he didn’t rent equipment — he owned it. All of his microphones, dollies, tripods, geared pan heads — he owned.

Which brings down to what finally motivated him to make a new movie: because he’d found a new toy he wanted to play with.

My favorite photo of Stanley Kubrick editing Barry Lyndon in his garage.

For A Clockwork Orange it was the excitement to be able to make an entire film with the Arriflex 2C, portable Nagra sound recorders, Sennheiser wireless microphones and super-high quality shotgun microphones. If you look at any of the behind-the-scenes photographs of Kubrick films from A Clockwork Orange through to Eyes Wide Shut you’ll see an extremely long shotgun microphone being used. On close scrutiny you’ll see that it is exactly the same Sennheiser 816 hyper-cardiod shotgun mic he used on all the movies.

For Barry Lyndon the new toy was the newly introduced Arriflex BL camera and the Zeiss f-0.95 lens that allowed into film with candlelight to.

For The Shining the new toy was the Steadicam.

For Eyes Wide Shut it was new 500 ASA film stock allowing him to shoot at night using very little lighting equipment.

I discovered much of this information in Vincent LoBrutto’s fabulous biography Stanley Kubrick and kept finding patterns of similarity between his working process and mine and our mutual lifelong passions for photography and cameras. He always had to have the best new camera to make a movie with. He was obsesses with computers and the latest technology.

Digital technology allows me to make films. Kubrick could afford to buy new equipment and keep it — I can’t. So I buy a new camera for a film and sell it once the film is finished while the camera still has value.

Which brings me around to the latest new toy: DSLR HD cameras

In the last part of 2008 when Canon introduced the EOS 5D Mark II digital still camera — DSLR. A high-end 21 megapixel still camera designed for photojournalists that can also record video for uploading to newspaper and magazine websites because of the increasing demand for video clips of news events. What Canon had not anticipated with the 5D Mark II was that the video would be of such a spectacular quality that filmmakers wanted the camera as much, if not more, then still photographers.

The Canon 7D camera body is only $1,700 and you can find used lenses on eBay starting at just $100. This new generation of DSLR cameras capable of shooting high-definition footage with the world’s best lenses is changing the whole filmmaking ball game.

I have no doubt that if Stanley Kubrick were still with us today he would have a RED Epic and probably a Canon 5D Mark II and the new Canon 7D.

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About The Author

Mike Carroll joined the digital revolution in 1999 with a Sony TRV900 camcorder and Final Cut Pro, when it was only Final Cut Pro and not version 2, 4 or a Suite.

5 Responses to Stanley Kubrick – Naked Filmmaker

  1. elmo35mm says:

    Being that he was a stills photographer his entirely life, I think Kubrick would of looked into digital cameras, but to abandon film cameras entirely as of 2011? I don’t think so as digital still a way to go till it can both completely emulate and surpass the best qualities of motion picture film. That day will come but its not there yet, and sadly, when it dose, most of the shot on digital moves will look like crap the same way old 50’s TV shows like the Honeymooners look because they were shot on primitive videocameras like the Electronicam.

  2. Mike says:

    I wouldn’t say that. The RED, Arri Alexa, and others are fabulous cameras. Zodiac, The Social Network were both digital films and looked fabulous. I don’t think Kubrick could resist getting his hands on a new camera. Which would have been great because it would have meant more Kubrick films.

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