Work practices and philosophical ideas based on available information from Kubrick's life.

By Rob Ager 2014 ©


Update 14th July 2014:

A 3hr 48 min audio version of Lessons From Stanley is now available for purchase. It can be purchased on eBay or via my Store Page. A sample of the audio version can be listened to below.


(free PDF sample chapter below)


“He was always busy studying photography or studying something.”
Donald Silverman speaking to biographer Vincent Lobrutto about SK in his teens.

Something that is remarked on time and time again by collaborators is that Stanley had familiarized himself with disciplines and areas of study that fell outside of the standard boundaries of the film director. Usually the director is dependent on the knowledge and experience of hundreds of specialists such as cinematographers, lighting technicians, production designers, distributors and marketing teams to ensure that his artistic vision makes it onto the big screen and gets watched by enough people to turn a profit. Many directors, particularly those who don’t get involved with writing the scripts of films they direct, are effectively reduced to the status of internal decorators who simply add aesthetic appeal to the more important core foundations already set in stone by a script writer. And even in that capacity their role is often reduced by the aesthetic tastes of cinematographers, set designers, costume designers and lighting technicians to name a few. In some instances a great editor can step in during post production and add a variety of intricate choices that give the film excellent pacing or a great composer can infuse emotion that the director failed to add originally.

For me, one of the most revealing examples of a reduced director is Sam Mendez. His first feature American Beauty is a marvellous film, but considering his inferior follow up works, especially the dull as nails Road To Perdition, are a complete mismatch and reveal that his directorial style consists largely of a small bag of tricks such as slow tracking shots. With American Beauty Mendez was carried by a talented script writer, Alan Ball, an excellent cast, a great score by Thomas Newman, amongst other contributions. The result was Mendes being honoured with a best director Academy Award.

In a personal example, I worked as cinematographer on a short film by a local director here in England (I’ll not mention his name for not wanting to outright embarrass the guy). He wrote and produced a short comedy film. The script was extremely basic, though this is to be expected in a film of such short length, but it was also very easy to relate to. The director was a member of a film making club which I was involved in and which I occasionally ran film making workshops. On his film shoot other members of the club provided locations and lighting equipment and I brought my own filming equipment. Once on set, this director’s involvement amounted to little more than shouting “action” and “cut”. He gave me completely free reign in terms of cinematography, so I made all of the decisions about where the camera should be and how it should move. But I also ended up doing something that is definitely the job of a director – I gave lots of instruction, feedback and encouragement to the actors, in particular drawing a good performance out of a 12 year old girl who was the main character. And after the wrap an excellent editor pieced the film together on her own. When the film was shown to our group there was quiet amusement all around when the director’s name scrolled across the screen in the first few seconds in a font so large the letters were almost the full height of the screen. The movie was technically good for its tiny budget and moderately entertaining – thanks to the team who carried the director.

By comparison, consider Stanley Kubrick’s directorial practices. When a special Nasa lens was needed to be fitted to a 35mm camera, a feat that hadn’t been done before, for the filming of candle-lit scenes in his film Barry Lyndon Kubrick did his own research, made the necessary calculations and provided the exact technical specifications to his cinematographer. When filming A Clockwork Orange, he used his own design of a camera rigged to a wheelchair to get tracking shots in the writer’s apartment, thus saving money on track and dolly equipment. He also developed a lighting system (then used on most of his films) which consisted of polaroids being taken on set, from which he would apply a calculus formula that would tell him how much light wattage would be needed to light a given scene.

The only other film director, that I’m aware of, whose involvement in technicality extends this far is James Cameron (Terminator, Aliens The Abyss, Avatar). Cameron, when filming the underwater adventure The Abyss, designed underwater headgear that would show the actors’ full faces. And when directing Aliens, he personally designed the majority of futuristic guns and other hardware that made for quite a convincing vision of the future.

But Kubrick’s involvement in film making tasks that most directors would pass on to film crew specialists went far beyond mere technicality. He would research extensively for the filming of a given subject matter, be it the depiction of artificial food eaten by astronauts (2001: A Space Odyssey) or the encoding of psychological archetypes in an orgy scene (Eyes Wide Shut). He even handled the complex issue of marketing his own films, from conceiving poster designs to keeping tabs on individual film theatres to make sure their visual and audio display systems presented his films in their fullest glory.

Stanley’s mastery of so many arts and disciplines stems directly from his willingness and determination to learn whatever it takes for any given task. Most of us do not master so many disciplines because we have been inadvertently raised to accept perceived limitations on how much we can learn. We are encouraged to choose a single profession to specialize and become qualified in and earn a living from, and to accept that our learning pursuits beyond that profession will be largely limited to a handful of hobbies, which are for own personal entertainment and little more.

Somehow Kubrick came to an early realization in life that his own intellect did not need to be confined to a single profession; that he was able to quickly learn the basic requirements of almost any given subject and then apply what he had learned in his professional work … his can learn attitude.

“I started out by just getting a camera and learning how to take pictures and learning how to print pictures, then 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, y’know, would it be possible to be a professional photographer? And it was a case of, say, over a period of, say, 13 to 17 you might say, going through step by step by myself – without anybody really helping me – the problem-solving [aspects] of being a photographer.”
Transcripted section of dialogue from a rare audio recorded interview with SK by Jeremy Bernstein 1966.

While working at Look magazine, Kubrick poured through technical director Arthur Rothstein’s collection of books on the subject of cinema, soaking information up like a sponge and creating a sort of internal library of knowledge and theory – the kind that is essential for anyone wishing master a given profession.

One requirement of the can learn attitude is the discarding of perceived limitations about information storage capacity in the human brain. Our conscious attention certainly seems to have capacity limitations, but our scope for storing and then acting upon information is vastly superior. The specialist in any given discipline is simply a person who has, piece by piece, familiarized themselves with the various individual components of that discipline, thus eliminating the requirement of conscious effort. They’re then able to subconsciously perform complex tasks that cannot be done consciously by those who are unfamiliar. Another facet of this is that the brain is mistakenly assumed to operate in a similar manner to a computer. Computers have hard drive storage (their equivalent of the human subconscious) which are absolutely limited, in terms of storage, by numerical values of quantity. However, the human brain does not seem to operate like this at all. If it did then we would likely reach full capacity of memory at a given age, beyond which we would no longer be able to remember any new experiences. But this doesn’t happen. It could be argued that the brain records over past experiences, as can be done with information on a hard drive, but again the evidence for this is weak. Such memory loss tends to be associated with brain injury or diseases like Altzheimers, but a ninety-year old with a still healthy brain does not show signs of having reached full memory capacity.

A much more useful assumption about human memory capacity is that as we store more and more information, we also become much more efficient at compressing our experiences into their most useful and important base elements. In computing the range of file sizes associated with video and audio recordings, based on different types of data compression, can result in the same information being stored in forms that are dozens of times greater or smaller depending on the effectiveness of the compression algorithms. This is a sort of inverse way of expanding the memory capacity of a hard drive; instead of increasing the storage space we decrease the size of the information that goes into it. The basis of computer data compression is the elimination of duplicate chunks of information. For example, in the Microsoft Word file in which I wrote this text it would take a much larger amount of storage space if every single letter in every word was recorded as a unique event as opposed to the repeated referencing of twenty-six pre-defined alphabet characters. By compressing such information into a small number of chunks, each of which can be referenced multiple times, the word file is far more space efficient. But the human brain goes much further in its compression routines. For example, we store words in linear sound sequences, thus removing entirely the need for processing of visual alphabet characters during conversation. By this mechanism we learn to talk before we learn to write. Our brains also have an advantage over computers in that we are able to discard or store information based on our judgment of the information’s value and relevance to our overall lives. In a nutshell, our learning capacity is not limited to storage space. It is limited to how motivated we are to learn new things.

“We used to go to the movies all the time because Stanley wanted to see every movie. … He was only interested in the way the film was made visually.”
SK’s second wife, Ruth Sobotka speaking to biographer Vincent Lobrutto.

Another requirement for the can learn attitude is a rejection of socially imposed knowledge hierarchies, also known as “academia”. Many people in our society assess the quality of communicated information based upon whether the communicator is a qualified expert certified by a university. While there is no doubt that academia brings great rewards to society by encouraging and facilitating advanced learning, it is definitely not the only means to advanced learning, and often it isn’t even the most efficient. Before universities existed humans had, for centuries, innovated endlessly and created many knowledge-based disciplines that did not require a paper certificate for someone to practice. Knowledge came first then universities were created and their proponents sought to attribute academia as the basis of human knowledge, which it isn’t.

Kubrick’s own achievements make the case for effective non-academic learning. He disliked school and later scorned the entire education system.

“I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.”
SK quote, source Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by John Baxter

According to biographer Vincent Lobrutto Kubrick was rejected by New York colleges because of his low grades. The academic route to learning was largely closed, yet Stanley went on to become a reputational force in the film industry that most academics could barely dream of achieving. When shooting The Shining his expert knowledge of lighting was sought by the makers of the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me (his daughter Katharina was involved in the production and was most likely their source of contact with Kubrick). Specialist lighting technicians had been unable to effectively light the huge metallic submarine interior used for a battle scene near the end of the film. On condition of absolute secrecy of his involvement, and presumably a sufficient fee, Kubrick was brought on set when the main crew were absent and took his time arranging the complex lighting for their shoot. Stanley was not an academically qualified lighting technician. It was just one of the many film crew roles that he had learned about of his own volition to the point that he knew the job better than even most professional lighting technicians in the business did. Think about that for a moment. This would have involved being familiar with the extensive variations of equipment available to lighting technicians and knowing how to combine them effectively in a very large and unusually designed set. Added to this is Kubrick’s consistent use of source lighting in most of his films (only using light sources that are part of the set rather than being strictly off-screen equipment), which can be a very difficult task. Somehow Kubrick came to master a discipline that career lighting technicians spent years learning. And therein lies another limitation of academia – time. A typical degree in a given subject might take three to four years to complete, yet the information actually used by the graduate out in the real world might only have taken weeks to learn from a handful of books and some personal experimentation with equipment.

When I started out making fiction films I had no university degree (I still don’t); in fact no formal training whatsoever. Yet in a six month period I learned enough about the craft to write, produce, direct, edit and score a thirty-five minute short film (The Victim). My quickly accumulated knowledge, confidence and the quality of the script was sufficient to convince dozens of people with formal training in film and media to volunteer as cast and crew for a one week shoot. One of the initial sources of my learning approach was to read biographies of famous film makers to quickly acquire the necessary attitude common to successful film makers. I read biographies on the likes of Hitchcock, Lynch, Spielberg, Scorsese and of course Stanley Kubrick. It quickly struck me that the best film makers often were not formally trained. This has since become more evident to me in the eight or ten film shoots I’ve taken part in. Broadly, the more formal training in film a person has the less flexible they seem to be in how they solve practical problems associated to getting their film made and making them well. They are taught to have silly assumptions such as “never cross the line” while shooting a dialogue scene, which basically means that there is an imaginary line that runs through the centre of the speaking characters who are virtually always facing each other during dialogue. On one side of the line you will have character A’s left shoulder and character B’s right shoulder and, according to the rule, all camera angles of the conversation should be on one side of the two characters and never cross the line. This usually results in shot arrangements that have each character maintaining a position on either the left or right of the screen, even as the camera flips back and forth between over the shoulder shots. It works well as a general guideline, but there are circumstances where it’s perfectly acceptable to break it. An example of deliberately crossing the line in Stanley’s work, which Martin Scorsese has spoken of as being an interesting and effective directorial choice, is the bathroom discussion in The Shining between Delbert Grady and Jack Torrance. Kubrick has the camera flip back and forth so that, in wide shots, Jack and Delbert flip to opposite sides of the screen during their discussion. Rather than being a silly mistake, the shot choices emphasize the subtext of the scene that Jack is talking to himself in a mirror. Formal training discourages film makers from even considering such options.

And so the university approved expert in a given discipline has often been dehumanized, so to speak. They have been trained only to repeat what the institution has instructed are the correct ways of doing things, which is ok if what they’re being taught cannot be bettered. However, very few disciplines are beyond improvement. For fear of losing their academic reputation, the expert will often tread fearfully into new territory – not the best mindset for innovation. And for this reason, innovation is often brought about by non-academic sources such as business entrepreneurs; those who are more interested in tangible results than their perceived status within a particular social circle (yes, I consider academia to be a social circle – a highly financed one just as large religious institutions are).

So, having a can learn attitude is, in my opinion, the first lesson to be taken from Stanley. But of course that’s not enough in itself. If you want to learn more and still have the time to apply what you learn then you have to learn quickly. This leads us into several more principles …

(The above text is copyright of the author Rob Ager)


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