As regular readers of this site probably know, I recently finished writing a series of reviews of films from the 1990s. This was partially something that I just did for fun, but it was also something of an informal research project too – since I wanted to learn even more about this fascinating decade.
So, here are a few of the things that I learnt about art and storytelling from watching about 15-16 films from the 1990s within a relatively short space of time:
1) Low technology (is better): Although some of the 1990s films that I watched really didn’t age that well, I was surprised at how many of them did age well. Although a lot of 1990s films contain old technology, virtually no mobile phones etc… they’re still surprisingly compelling. In fact, these “old” elements are what make them so much more interesting.
The almost total lack of mobile phones in 1990s thriller and horror films means that there’s often a lot more suspense, since the main characters actually have to find a radio, a landline or a payphone if they need to communicate over any distance.
This leads to situations where characters have to rely on their own judgement/intuition, where characters don’t know what other characters are doing etc… which adds a significant level of suspense to the events of the story. Likewise, actually finding a radio or a phone can often be a source of suspense in it’s own right too.
Likewise, the fact that the internet was less widespread back then also had a surprisingly positive effect on storytelling too. Searching for knowledge was more of a dramatic event in these films (since the main characters can’t just Google it). Plus, when characters had some level of specialist knowledge, it was more of a dramatic thing because it meant that they had put the effort into learning about something the old-fashioned way. Likewise, the fact that popular culture and film criticism was a little bit less “international” than it is these days meant that films often had a bit more room to do their own thing too.
The lower level of technology also leads to more small-scale stories too (often just involving events within a single town, city and/or US state). As counterintuitive as it might sound, smaller-scale stories can often be a lot more compelling for the simple reason that they immerse the audience in the setting slightly more, as well as adding an extra degree of realism to the story too. After all, not every problem in the world that has to be solved is a gigantic worldwide calamity.
2) The mid-list matters!: One of the great things about the 1990s was that the mid-list was more important than it is now.
There are so many great mid-budget films from the 1990s, which manage to tell compelling, unique and high-quality stories with relatively limited resources. Compare this to modern cinema, where virtually all of the films offered by major studios are huge, mega-budget CGI-filled affairs that have to be a bit more bland and generic because they need to sell hundreds of millions of tickets across the world.
The mid-list is a place where there’s a really good balance between cold uncreative commerce and artistic freedom. Things on the mid-list still need to be interesting enough for a decent number of people to actually want to pay for them, but they also don’t just have to be about money, money, money either.
Plus, since films on the mid-list have financial limitations, this forces directors to be more creative when it comes to things like aesthetics, characters, lighting, storytelling etc.. too. Because there’s less risk of a major loss if a mid-budget film doesn’t do well, then studios were more willing to take risks and try new things too.
So, I guess that the main lesson that artists and writers can learn from this is that it’s ok not to aim for worldwide fame. Making interesting and unique things with more personality that appeal to a reasonably-sized audience will often result in better creative works than trying to follow mainstream trends or aim for a mass audience. On the other hand, mid-budget films from the 1990s also teach us that creativity and uniqueness still means that you have to make your works understandable, enjoyable and “accessible” to new audience members too.
3) Lighting: I mentioned this in almost all of my 1990s film reviews, but people knew how to use lighting back then! In other words, films from the 1990s often tend to make use of things like gloomy lighting, high-contrast lighting and chiaroscuro lighting a lot more frequently than more modern films do. And, they look amazing!
Although this style of lighting is hardly exclusive to things from the 1990s (and it was something I’ve known about for a while), it’s very easy to replicate in paintings and drawings. All you have to do is to make sure that at least 30-50% of the total surface area of your painting or drawing is covered with black paint. As long as you know a bit about realistic lighting/shadows and have practiced a bit, then it can result in artwork that looks like this:
4) Fun!: Finally, films from the 1990s are often fun! Since the 1990s was a more innocent time (the cold war had ended and 9/11 hadn’t happened yet), films from the 90s often tend to be a bit more light-hearted, playful and/or enjoyable.
Even in the thriller and horror genres, films from the 1990s will often contain a certain level of silly light-hearted fun that is a world apart from the more “gritty”, “grim”, “realistic” and/or “serious” tone of many more modern works.
Most of the time, this sense of fun is achieved in more subtle ways too- which makes it more effective. For example, comedic dialogue in 1990s films often just emerges organically from the characters and settings rather than being something “hip” or “ironic” that has been bolted onto the film in order to appeal to an online “nerd” audience.
Likewise, the premises of many films from the 1990s are designed with fun in mind. They aren’t trying to make a serious political point, or fit into a “cinematic universe” or anything like that. A lot of films from the 1990s seem to come from people daydreaming about silly “what if…” scenarios or wondering how to add some thrilling fun to more “realistic” scenarios.
Plus, even though these films often have a more light-hearted tone or slightly more “silly” premises, they often still make sure that there’s some underlying drama or conflict beneath it. This helps to avoid these stories from becoming empty or “all style and no substance” too. So, there’s still a good balance to be struck between drama and fun.
So, the main lesson here is that fun is an important quality. Stories don’t always have to be gritty, grim, bleak, dour and serious things!
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂