June 14, 2012

Kubrick Speaks: His Evolution into a Filmmaker and the Importance of Problem-solving

Following in the footsteps of our recent post on advice for recent grads pursuing creative careers, I found this rare audio interview with Stanley Kubrick complementary.  Kubrick, as you may or may not know, did not go to college, and was largely self-taught when it came to filmmaking.  Over the course of several conversations with writer Jeremy Bernstein of the New Yorker, Kubrick outlines his own beginnings, and how certain experiences, such as teaching himself photography and honing general problem-solving skills, proved crucial to his development as a filmmaker:

You can listen to the full audio below.  It's a bit of a franken-interview since it's raw audio from several conversations, but fascinating all the same (if you're interested in some of the background behind this audio, check out OpenCulture's post about it here):

Amongst other things, the interview illustrates how even a genius like Kubrick went through a haphazard and zigzaggy early career path: at various points making a living from photography, or playing chess for quarters, all while undertaking his first film projects.  What emerges, as he describes his evolution into a filmmaker, is how organic the growth was, and how each project was the right project for his circumstances: taking on a short documentary as an outgrowth of his work doing photo-essays, which lead to more ambitious documentaries, which then lead to taking on a low budget feature narrative, etc. etc.  Both through setbacks and successes, by figuring out one thing at a time, and setting up one challenge after another, trusting that he could figure it out, Kubrick was slowly building a career.  Which brings us to his discussion of problem-solving:

"I think that if you get involved in any kind of problem-solving in depth, on almost anything, it's surprisingly similar to problem-solving on anything.  I started out by getting a camera and learning how to take pictures, and learning how to print pictures, and learning how to build a dark room, and learning how to do all the technical things, and so on and so on.  And then finally trying to find out how you could sell pictures and - would it be possible to be a professional photographer.  And it was a case of over a period of say, from the age of 13 to 17, you might say going through, step by step by myself, without anybody really helping me, the problem-solving of becoming a photographer. And i found that, i think looking back, that this particular thing about problem solving is something that schools generally don't teach, and that if you can develop a generalized approach to problem solving that it's surprising how it helps you in anything [...] I think that photography, though it seemed like a hobby, and ultimately lead to a professional job, might have been more valuable than doing the proper things in school."

This is crucial advice, especially for DIY filmmakers such as ourselves.  Taking on a challenge that really pushes you to dig deep, researching, analyzing, comparing and contrasting on your own, with little guidance, can be invaluable for your problem-solving growth.  The more real-world the challenge, the better.  Schools can simulate many of these kinds of problems, but rarely do you get the richnesss of complexity and ambiguity that you get when taking on something in the real-world.  What you find, hopefully, is that once you master that big problem, you feel more confident to take on bigger problems, and you start trusting your ability to handle them.  The problem-solving strategies that you develop on those first big challenges are, more often than not, incredibly scalable.  So if all you've known so far is how to deal with school challenges, don't be afraid to take on that big first real-world challenge, even if it doesn't work out the way you want it to, you'll learn an incredible amount!

What'd you think of the interview?  Did anything else strike you?

[via OpenCulture]

Your Comment


Thank you...

June 14, 2012 at 3:27PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


He worked in the real world as a photographer. That's about all the training you need.

June 14, 2012 at 4:05PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


If that were all the training you need I would be curious to know where all of the rest of the Kubricks are.

June 14, 2012 at 10:22PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Not that I'm particularly agreeing with moebius22 (I think there's a lot more to it than that!), even if it is true that photography is all the training you need you'd still see very few Kubricks. Unfortunately the number one factor is right place, right time. Or in other words, luck. Doesn't matter how good you are if you never get a break.

June 15, 2012 at 5:38AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Good question.

My guess is that in Kubrick there was a rare combination of basic talent -- he was clearly extremely intelligent -- with years spent developing his eye for composition, and he was also an extreme perfectionist. He also clearly understood every aspect of film making in detail from shooting through post production, and got involved in every aspect of it. He knew what he was good at, and what he wasn't good at -- for example, he worked with writers rather than writing his own scripts because he didn't see himself as a good writer. There is a very interesting memoir by the writer on Eyes Wide Shut that is also very revealing of Kubrick -- particularly Kubrick's darker side.

This reminds me of a TV interview I saw years ago, must have been in the 1970s or early 80s, in the UK. A professional snooker player was recounting an experience of having played a good amateur club player. The pro had won the match, but the amateur put up a good show. The amateur basically asked if the pro thought that if he had had the same kind of opportunity as the pro to practice 8 hours a day, every day, then would he have a crack at the big time? The pro said, well, yes, but you *don't*.

I suspect that someone who is a very capable stills photographer has a chance at becoming a very capable DP. But, there are very few truly world class stills photographers. There are plenty of good stills photographers -- this is an achievable goal for many people -- but the truly great are rare. I suspect that this is another instance of the thing that the snooker pro was talking about -- how many good stills photographers *really* study and practice their art? I don't just mean knowing how to operate their cameras, I mean, how many hours have they put into poring over art books of photos by the true masters? Can they guess at a glance whether a print was due to Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston or someone else? Can they look at a print and really know what makes it great, or not? Without that, it's not really possible to create great work except by accident. I suspect that most stills photographers have the capability to produce one or two truly great photos in their lifetime. Ansel Adams maybe made a hundred or so, though some would argue the list is only maybe 20 or so, but he was certainly the greatest wet darkroom printer who ever lived.

In my opinion, cinematography ups the ante in comparison with stills photography. In a sense, you need to create 24 great images a second, and keep that up for an hour and a half to two hours. The best stills photographers will typically shoot between 10 and 100 (even 10000 in some specialised areas like bird photography) frames for every 'keeper'. Cinematographers don't get even the 10:1 best case.

June 15, 2012 at 4:13PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I'm sorry but I find very little of value in your points about still photography. There is almost no sense in comparing the presentation of a standalone still photograph to that of cinematography, especially in a discussion of Kubrick where the type of cinematography in question is invariably based on supporting a narrative whole, and where isolating any given shot would be missing the point completely. And judging by your generalizations about the profession of the still photographer it is obvious that "good", for you, is measurable in terms of technical complexity and blind adherence to the work of "the masters". While these are important qualities of craft, they have little to do with originality, which is, in my opinion now, far more valuable than any other aspect of the creative process and undoubtedly what made all those masters you mentioned, including Kubrick, into recognizable figures.

June 15, 2012 at 8:51PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


That's missing my point. Possibly I was a bit less clear than I intended.

Being a great stills photographer does indeed mean more than being able to emulate a master, and I would never suggest otherwise. It can be a very useful learning excercise, of course, which is why a large proportion of fine artists were taught that way. Flawless technical ability just confers the ability to not screw up -- it might get someone to the point of being good, but being great takes more than that. And, oddly enough, the difference is often (though not always) in the ability to suggest narrative content in a still frame. Henri Cartier Bresson, Man Ray and Helmut Newton come to mind particularly here.

Kubrick's attention to composition was extreme -- I think this is irrefutable, and having seen some of his old stills work it would be ridiculous to claim that this did not inform his cinematography.

Pleaae dont misunderstand me -- I am not claiming to be either a master stills photographer or a master cinematographer, or implying that anyone in this thread has more or less talent than anyone else.

June 16, 2012 at 1:05AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Artemis Jaen

I've always said that filmmaking is really a ton of problem-solving, and I've always been a good problem solver: probably because of my programming experience (which is actually very little coding, and a lot more problem solving).

June 15, 2012 at 1:53AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I recently listened to Garrett Brown's commentary track on The Shining special edition DVD. It is a surprisingly deep discussion of his interaction with Kubrick during the shoot -- I hadn't previously realised just how much of that movie was shot with the Steadicam. Apparently a surprising number of locked off shots were actually poor Garrett having to stay absolutely still for minutes at a time at the end of a move -- coupled with Kubrick's insistence of doing dozens of takes for every shot, it must have been incredibly hard.

I've watched that movie so many times, studying the way Kubrick worked. It has a far slower pace of cutting than just about anything released in the last decade, but it never really feels slow, at least to me. Kubrick's use of perspective and centred composition is also unusual, as is his liking of 180 degree reversals. He moves the camera less than most directors I've studied, going for well composed locked off shots rather than moving the camera for the sake of it. But then, when he moves the camera, it's done deliberately and for a specific reason. I have often wondered if this was because of his stills photography background -- I'm given to wonder what percentage of the frames from a Kubrick movie would actually look good as a print hanging on a wall. Then again, I've noticed a few of his contemporaries mention that if he wasn't the world's greatest director, he'd have been the world's greatest DP, so perhaps the real secret, if there was one, was his mastery of both coupled with his extreme perfectionism.

Oh, and the other thing I like about The Shining -- extremely deep depth of field. Everything is sharp, so every image is composed mindful of the interaction between the foreground and the background, as it has to be if you're going that route. But then, he used a megawatt of lighting on some of the scenes...

June 15, 2012 at 3:51PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Garrett Brown talked about working with Kubrick in the steadicam workshop which I attended...the look on his face when he recounted the stairway scene (or scenes...I think there were two, I can't remember now)...you know how Kubrick likes to do take after take...imagine being the guy carrying 70 lbs of camera gear up and down stairs...you could tell how excruciating the memory (at least physically) was...

And he pointed out how on top of it Nickolson didn't like to be constrained by marks, so he would intentionally not hit them... Between Kubrick and Nicksolson...that's a lot of footage. It does make you better as an operator. You get the time to dial in your muscle memory and timing to the individual shot, and Brown's precision really shows up in that movie. Brown definitely suffered for his art!

June 21, 2012 at 2:42PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Daniel Mimura

When he says 'tremendous alot" and then says "man am I getting fucked up on this, a tremendous alot" (47:50), is he smoking? Just thought it was funny.

June 16, 2012 at 8:15PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Yes, but what does kubrick have to say about his last film being raped by censors after his death? A truly great filmmaker should be able to protect his films post mortem.

June 21, 2012 at 12:16PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Stanley Kubrick is infinitely more interesting than Immigration. Or Canada. You ever have to talk to a Canadian? It's a real fucking bore.

June 21, 2012 at 2:58PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Captain Essbag

When I heard a sculptor was wanted, I happened to be 15 minutes from MGM in Boreham Wood. I turned up with no work examples, and within 10 minutes Stanley and Trumbell chuckled and gave me the job After a week our basic group was whittled down to a third and we were all planning, crafting, eating and dreaming the Jupiter module, the space station, the Clavius Base and all those other world things. Whatever we needed, Stanley got it fast (One night we got dental tools within an hour of a casual remark). A whole year of my life being allowed to do whatever it takes for perfection! Hey, by the way, I'd been on my way to my first day as an art-school teacher. Ain't fate a wonderful thing? This interview confirms my theory that, like Stanley, whatever you want to do, just START and then keep going. Don't wait till you know everything.

June 22, 2012 at 3:25PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


That has nothing to do with greatness. That's a legal issue.

November 8, 2013 at 1:36PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM