How to Break Movie Genre Cliches with Cinematography
Every movie genre has its own clichés, shots and scenes that audiences have seen time and time again. Clichés are often the fault of a weak script, but cinematography has its own clichés. Breaking them is a great way to win over your audience and get their attention. Even better, it provides an original approach, which is important no matter what your budget.
Action films may have the most visual clichés of any movie genre. Think how many times you've seen an action hero leaping away from an explosion in slow motion. Now think of how many ways you could shoot the same scene with a different result. Maybe the expected explosion doesn't happen; maybe the action hero is leaping away from a super-expanding bag of microwave popcorn; maybe he's leaping in slow motion, but everyone else is moving at normal speed. Breaking action movie clichés can save you money, especially if your budget doesn't provide for giant explosions. Best of all, the audience will be right with you, because they've seen the same setup dozens of times before.
Breaking movie clichés will be easier if your project takes a light-hearted approach. Director Jim Abrahams broke dozens of action-movie clichés in his two "Hot Shots" films and quite a few love-scene clichés as well. If you're telling a serious love story, you can't be as wacky as Abrahams, but you can still find an original approach. For example, kissing scenes have been part of romance movies since Thomas Edison released "The Kiss" in 1896. Over a hundred years later, it might seem impossible to find an original approach to the kiss. But Abrahams did in "Hot Shots," and so did Sam Raimi in 2002's "Spider-Man." Challenge yourself to find a new way to shoot the kissing scene. Even if you don't find one, your work will benefit from the attempt.
Sometimes a way of breaking a cliché becomes a cliché itself. A classic case in thrillers involves an unseen killer stalking a character through a dark area. Suddenly a cat leaps out of nowhere, scaring the pants off the character and the audience. This even happens in "Alien," despite the unlikely presence of a cat on an interplanetary spaceship. Film critics like Roger Ebert compile lists of clichés they've encountered far too often in their careers. Find these lists and study them. If the cliché-breaker is itself a cliché, maybe it's time for the unseen killer to jump out. After all, your audience didn't come to see the cat.
Photographic clichés in movies are as common as written clichés. Every sports movie that ends with a last-minute, game-saving home run/touchdown/free throw will also include a shot where the winning team lifts the main character up on their shoulders. The only question is whether the shot then goes into slow motion, freeze-frame, monochrome or maybe all three. If you're going to make movies, it goes without saying that you should watch a lot of movies. Take notes on the shots and framing you see repeated over and again. If they're useful, of course, use them: you don't want your team losing just to break the cliché. But think about different approaches that can achieve the same result and still leave your audience cheering.