Ron Howard is an American film director known for directing Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Frost/Nixon (2008). Thus, many of his films are based on true stories – such as the high stakes of the Apollo 13 mission, and the conflict between interviewer David Frost and president Richard Nixon.
Howard is interested in telling true stories through his films since he likes history and journalism, but he has also found that “if audiences know it’s based on truth, they’re more accepting”, meaning that he has been able to explore emotions and ideas which could seem surreal (Ron Howard – The Power of True Stories, 2019). For example, in A Beautiful Mind, Howard decided to portray the people mathematician John Nash sees due to his schizophrenia as defined characters who interact with Nash and the world around them to more effectively show the truth of Nash’s perception of the world and help the audience understand it (Duncan, 2007).
Howard also helps the audience understand the truth of the Apollo 13 mission in a similar way by showing not only the astronauts in space on the mission, but also focusing on the characters in mission control, as well as the astronaut’s families at home so that audiences are able to get a feel of “what it was like to be there” from watching the overall experience of the mission (Apollo 13: Behind The Scenes (ft, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ron Howard), 2014).
Hence, Howard focuses on characters in his films to help him portray the truth, making the themes of family and teamwork the main themes used throughout his work (Ron Howard – The Power of True Stories, 2019). However, at the centre of these films is usually a character reaching for their own, singular goal – such as Nash trying to come up with his own original idea, and Frost trying to get Nixon to confess.
This is because, to Howard, “all stories are really about coping, and what we the audience feel about how the characters are dealing with the challenges they’re facing. Why does a person cope with a situation…in a certain way? I now try to distill every story to that” (Rafferty, 2009).
This is why I decided to research Howard for this unit, as, although our film does not tell a true story, I feel like focusing on the main character is important to make how she sees the world – the fact that she envisions her character as acting out the situations she’s writing in the real world – more believable for the audience. Thus, to help them understand this, I aim to focus on the main character, and how she faces obstacles when reaching for her goal of finishing her novel, through my directing style, influenced by Howard.
Collaboration & style
Due to this, instead of giving the storyboard artist his shot list, or the script, Howard briefly discussed the tone he was aiming for, deciding to see what the artist came up with (Rafferty, 2009). From this experience, Howard found that it benefits the film to see others’ interpretations and use his own vision as a foundation – something to build on but not necessarily to stick to (Rafferty, 2009).
Due to how Howard sees collaboration in this way, he has said that “it’s still important to me not to impose a style, a personal stamp, on a film” (Rafferty, 2009). Thus, although his films have common directing trademarks – such as types of shots used – each has a slightly different visual style.
Within A Beautiful Mind, Howard took this further, collaborating with cinematographer Roger Deakins so that each act had a different style (Rafferty, 2009).
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
In contrast, Howard decided to use a more washed out, grey lighting style during act three of the film, as Nash faces his schizophrenia diagnosis and the truth about his job at The Pentagon (see fig. 4). For this reason, Howard decided to use an actual location for the small house where Nash ends up living so that the camera angles would feel boxed in, as during this act Nash is boxed in by the truth, having to face it (Rafferty, 2009). Thus, Howard mainly shot the actors at eye level during this act to help focus on their reactions and emotions (Rafferty, 2009).
This focus on Nash was from Howard’s aim to make the film personal to Nash, having “as much of it from his point of view as possible” by showing his journey to “create a sense of his psychological state, his intellectual state, and his creative process” (Duncan, 2007).
Howard does this in act one by using a time lapse as Nash works on this theory at Princeton, showing his process of working and his mindset towards his work through Nash seeming to work constantly, even as the season changes, with his initial flurry of thoughts symbolised by a flurry of snow (see fig. 5-8). Using a shot which frames Nash from outside the window reflects how he is trapped by his own goal, almost obsessive in his drive to achieve it, a shot commonly used by Howard.
Howard also frequently uses camera movement along with point of view shots to place the audience in the position of the characters, as well as shots to direct the audience’s attention to characters. For example, in the scene from the clip above when Nash first enters The Pentagon, Howard pans up from Nash’s shadow to reveal him, encouraging the audience to continue focusing on him by using a follow shot as he approaches the board. This focus on Nash is furthered by a circular shot which tracks around him as he takes in all the information, the audience even hearing his thoughts in muffled voice-over.
The audience are then put in his position of taking in all the information by a point of view shot which shows the board and the numbers from Nash’s perspective, some of these numbers being highlighted to show how Nash is seeing and understanding the information. Overall, Nash’s reaction is central in this sequence, with him often appearing in single shots which are close-up on his face or in a medium shot. This is because at this point in the film how Nash reacts to this information and decides to use it determines the direction of the story.
The change in Nash’s psychological state due to his paranoia from this information is shown later in the film when Nash locks himself in a room in his house and looks out of a window, through the blinds, convinced someone is after him (see fig. 9). However, Nash’s fractured mental state is symbolised here, as, when Nash stops looking through the blinds in his house, he turns around to see his students – shown to the audience through a POV shot – and finds he’s in his classroom, as do the audience (see fig. 10 & 11).
Howard further shows how Nash’s mental state affects his life through closed over the shoulder shots when his wife, Alicia, comes to visit him at the hospital (see fig. 12 & 13). Nash is trapped by his thoughts, and Alicia is trapped by his belief in them.
This causes Nash’s life to start to fall apart, leading to Alicia breaking the bathroom mirror in anger. Howard uses this broken mirror in a shot where Nash is reflected in the shattered pieces as he takes it out as rubbish, reflecting his mental state, and current situation (see fig. 14).
Overall, the style and shots used by Howard throughout the film aim to convey Nash’s journey – and how he changes during this – to the audience.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Scenes like this were important to Howard as he thought that if the audience could “feel they are sharing the experience with these characters…the more they forget that they know the outcome. It makes it feel suspenseful” (Horn, 2008) – thus, even though some of the audience may know the ending from watching the interviews they can still become invested in the story through this focus on the characters.
Howard also focuses on the characters through shots which then pan or tilt to reveal them, such as the close-up of the piano keys which tilts to show Nixon (see fig. 20 & 21). Doing this allows Howard to show the audience important details of the scene whilst still retaining a focus on the characters.
Howard furthers this by using shots which show the characters from behind, and then pan around to reveal their emotions. For example, when Frost receives a phone call, he believes it’s his girlfriend, who he is expecting a call from. Howard at first shows him from behind, as he begins to hear Nixon talking, panning to Frost’s face to reveal how he reacts to hearing Nixon, focusing on his surprise in close-up (see fig. 22-24).
Therefore, it can be seen that Howard’s aim for Frost/Nixon was to focus on the characters, allowing the audience to experience the journey with them – as with A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13.
- Putting the audience in the character’s positions – through camera movement, such as follow shots, and point of view shots, sometimes containing whip pans to simulate the character turning to look at something
- Shots outside windows – characters are trapped by their own mentalities/goals
- Close ups which pull out to reveal the characters/the scene – Howard’s focus is on the characters
- Close ups of equipment/elements of people i.e. glasses, hands
- Transitions – time lapse, dissolve, two similar shots acting as transitions – i.e. the two close-ups of piano keys in Frost/Nixon acting as a transition between Frost’s location and Nixon’s
- Shots from behind the characters – these pan around to focus on the characters/reveal their reactions
- Closed over the shoulder shots – the characters are trapped either by each other (as in Frost/Nixon), or by their beliefs and thoughts (as in A Beautiful Mind)
- Reflection shots
List of Illustrations
Figure 3. A Beautiful Mind act two (2001) [Film still, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 4. A Beautiful Mind act three (2001) [Film still, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 5-8. A Beautiful Mind time lapse (2001) [Film stills, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 9-11. A Beautiful Mind transition (2001) [Film stills, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 12 & 13. A Beautiful Mind closed over the shoulder shots (2001) [Film stills, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 14. A Beautiful Mind shattered reflection shot (2001) [Film still, DVD] In: A Beautiful Mind. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 15 & 16. Frost/Nixon close-up (2008) [Film stills, DVD] In: Frost/Nixon. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 17. Frost/Nixon reactions of the secondary characters (2008) [Film still, DVD] In: Frost/Nixon. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 18-21. Frost/Nixon piano transition (2008) [Film stills, DVD] In: Frost/Nixon. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 22-24. Frost/Nixon pan to reveal emotion (2008) [Film stills, DVD] In: Frost/Nixon. California: Imagination Entertainment.
Figure 25. Claustrophobia of the capsule in First Man (2018) [Film still, DVD] In: First Man. California: Universal Pictures.
Figure 26. Claustrophobia of the capsule in Apollo 13 (2017) [YouTube, screenshot] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=59&v=lMtWWls4oas&feature=emb_title (Accessed on 24 May 2020).
Applebaum, S. (2014) Ron Howard interview. At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2002/02/15/ron_howard_beautiful_mind_interview.shtml (Accessed on 3 March 2020).
Director Ron Howard talks with Jimmy Carter about Apollo 13. (2015) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBKwgZij2NQ (Accessed on 4 March 2020).
Duncan, P. (2007) Ron Howard – Director of A Beautiful Mind. At: https://www.dvdtalk.com/interviews/ron_howard_dire.html (Accessed on 3 March 2020).
Gold, S. (2008) ‘The Interview That Was a Play Becomes a Film.’ In: The New York Times 31/10/08. At: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/movies/moviesspecial/02gold.html (Accessed on 6 March 2020).
Horn, J. (2008) ‘Ron Howard on ‘Frost/Nixon.’ In: Los Angeles Times 10/12/08. At: https://www.latimes.com/la-en-howard10-2008dec10-story.html (Accessed on 6 March 2020).
Rafferty, T. (2009) ‘The Professional’ In: DGA Quarterly. At: https://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/0903-Fall-2009/DGA-Interview-Ron-Howard.aspx (Accessed on 3 March 2020).