4 Basic Elements of Paul Thomas Anderson's Cinematic Style

Every filmmaker has a style. Some are derivative while others are so unique their work seems to punch you in the face.

However, Paul Thomas Anderson walks the line between the two with a subtly wild sensibility -- inspired by artists he respects, fortified by his vision. This is something Lenny Boyer of the Fairview Film Club explores in his video essay, sharing four elements of P.T. Anderson's cinematic style.

So, let's take a look at PTA's approach to these four cinematic elements:

Camera Movement

Anderson is known for his affinity for kinetic camera work, namely his long tracking shots. However, he uses plenty of discombobulating camera moves, like in the opening to Boogie Nights. He frequently collaborates with DP Robert Elswit to capture these difficult, well-choreographed shots in virtually all of his films, including MagnoliaPunch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and most recently Inherent Vice. He lets the scene unfold as it would if it were a stage play, with characters coming in and out, allowing the camera to "look around" with pans and tilts, which creates a voyeuristic feel to his films.

Use of Light and Color

The way PTA uses light and color in his films is strangely subtle and garish at the same time. He'll use a rather subdued palette for most of the objects in the frame, but he'll use a bright color to bring out key elements -- think Barry's suit in Punch Drunk Love or the column of flames in There Will Be Blood.

Barry's blue suit stands out in the otherwise fairly neutral world around him in 'Punch Drunk Love' (2002).
The fire catches our eye in 'There Will Be Blood' (2007) against the harsh black/neutral/earthy tones in this scene.

He likes to use a lot of backlighting to create silhouettes and halos, but does so in his own unique way.

Anderson casts a lot of light on Daniel while putting H.W. in shadow in 'There Will Be Blood'.

Creating Characters

Paul Thomas Anderson has a knack for writing complicated, peculiar, multidimensional characters that actors love to sink their teeth into. His ensemble casts often contain some of the most highly regarded actors in the business, like Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore. In fact, he has directed seven actors in Oscar nominated performances, and one in which Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for his role in There Will Be Blood.


Anderson once said that the first time he noticed music in a film was when he watched the scene in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange where Alex sings "Singin' in the Rain" during a particularly gruesome and violent scene. It's clear that Anderson is a student of Kubrick (aren't we all?), because he tends to use similar oppositional musical juxtapositions between mood and reality.

Furthermore, Anderson has worked with composers (Jon Brion and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood) that have written scores that perfectly capture the atmospheres he wants to create. And being thoroughly immersed in music culture himself, it's no wonder why he puts so much emphasis and importance on the music he uses in his work.

What are some of your favorite Paul Thomas Anderson cinematic trademarks? Let us know in the comments below!     

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Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have a fondness for whip pans. But then again also Wes Anderson does. Yet as far as I can remember most whip pans in Paul Thomas Anderson's films are followed by a push-in, and that's not the case with Wes. On the other hand Roy Anderson shoots every scene in long wide shots with no camera movement, so there is no connection between whip pans and the Anderson last name. ;-)

October 20, 2015 at 2:39PM

Santi Spadaro

Roy Andersson is amazing, the way he uses a super deep depth of field along with excessive lighting and has action taking place on multiple planes is so cool. The army/bar scene from Pigeon on a Branch is one of my favorite pieces of cinema.

October 21, 2015 at 8:37AM, Edited October 21, 8:38AM


Boogie Nights will be regarded as one of cinemas greatest film someday

October 20, 2015 at 10:50PM


I always think of sequences where he isolates a character at the expense of everyone else in the room. The obvious one is the baptism in there "There will be Blood". I'm sure that Paul Dano is giving a great performance, but the camera is pretty much locked on Daniel Day Lewis. That makes the scene 100 percent about how Plainview is going to BS his way through it, in my opinion.

October 21, 2015 at 9:49AM

Sean Voysey
Creative Director

There's an error in this caption: "Anderson casts a lot of light on Daniel while putting H.W. in shadow in 'There Will Be Blood'."

That's not H.W. in this scene. That's Henry, the man who.... not putting spoilers here... .

October 23, 2015 at 12:11PM


JPA is a filmmaker I want to like but his style is so unengaging I always come out wondering why I dont care.
I like his themes, stories, actors and performances but some combination of the cinematography and cutting leaves me in 3rd person no matter how powerful the acting and dramatic the scene.
Want to feel but just don't get any help from his visual style.

January 11, 2016 at 4:43PM


I think the only video essays I've ever watched are about PTA.

January 3, 2018 at 5:32AM

Liam Martin
DP, editor, part time director