Learning From the Masters: Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky

In a world full of copycats and sequelitis, it isn’t always easy to be inspired. But every once in a while, mixed in among the sea of sameness, you will discover a true original. I am not the only person to be fascinated by the work of Russian Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. His brief but spectacular canon of films, including the likes of “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962), “Andrei Rublev” (1966), “Solaris” (1972), “The Mirror” (1975) and “Stalker” (1979), stands among the most innovative cinematic careers in world history.

Born in the U.S.S.R. in 1932 and with his career mostly playing out within the confines of the Cold War era Soviet Union, the former still photographer developed a visual style like no other. Believing the visual image to be the paramount means of conveying emotion to an audience, Tarkovsky always favored the viewers tactile experience with his films over narrative structure. This can often be a challenge for modern audiences expecting to have a film’s plot and meaning laid out for them on easy terms. But Tarkovsky resists these temptations, believing that art should be open to interpretation, choosing instead to deliver films dense in astounding images whose meanings are often only understood upon multiple viewings.  

He would often cut, seemingly at will, between story archs, characters, and even time periods without regard for continuity. Contrary to today’s films where directors seemingly feel the need to cut every two to three seconds, Tarkovsky’s average shot length came in at roughly one minute eight seconds. Like a slow cooker, he would allow tension to build up within the frame until the audience simply couldn’t take it anymore then, and only then, he would cut away. In short, he broke pretty much every “rule” of filmmaking you’ve probably ever learned. And it was spectacular.

So how on Earth did he do it?  What is it that makes Andrei Tarkovsky’s images so breathtaking? In his thorough primer on the YouTube channel Channel Criswell, Lewis Bond breaks down the enigmatic filmmaker in terms every photographer/filmmaker can understand. He outlines things like Tarkovsky’s use of repeating backgrounds to add texture to his scenes. His use of natural elements, such as rain, snow, water, and fog to both ground his fantasies in reality and heighten his realities to the level of fantasy.

He shows how Tarkovsky would use silence to heighten tension, then introduce solitary sounds into the foreground that would underscore the characters physical experience in the scene. Not concerned with sound effects for the purpose of creating sound effects, Tarkovsky believed that the sound should reveal the emotional experience of the protagonist.

For example, in the famous scene from “The Mirror” as the woman watches helplessly as her house burns before her eyes, we are not only met with the stunning image of the house burning, but our ears are also filled with the crackling sound of the flames. This kind of attention to detail puts the audience directly in the path of the character’s emotional experience and allows us not only to see what is happening, but to feel what it happening as well.

To be sure, Tarkovsky’s films can be a challenge for those less accustomed to artistic cinema. Tarkovsky believed that “art symbolizes the meaning of our existence.” With lofty goals like that in mind, it is no surprise that his particular level of art isn’t the type of thing that can be digested in the duration of a Michael Bay jump cut.

But, if you are looking for inspiration, and open to witnessing the endless bounds of creativity and imagination, I strongly urge you to check out the work of Andrei Tarkovsky. Then go out and push your own creative bounds and take your art to the next level.

[via Channel Criswell]

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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I still can't get Stalker out of my head weeks after seeing it. Ivan's Childhood was also very good for different reasons. I saw a lot of Bergman in Ivan's Childhood.

Bergman is a good comparison. They make films that really stay with you.

Christopher, thanks a lot for this one! I am so glad I discovered this youtube channel through your article