I’ve been quite interested in the field of vexillology – the study of flags – as of late. It began a couple of years ago when I heard an excellent TED Talk about flags by Roman Mars, host of the “99 Percent Invisible” podcast. I also am an avid listener of “Hello Internet”, a podcast featuring YouTube educators Brady Haran and CGP Grey during which the two often discuss flag design. Between these two sources, my fledgling love of good, solid flag design was born.
There are a surprising amount of exciting things to talk about in the world of vexillology. For instance, New Zealand recently held a nationwide referendum to consider changing their national flag. Likewise, there are the thrillingly atrocious county flags of Liberia that always cause a good laugh. There is even a proposed flag for the Planet Earth in case we one day become an interplanetary species. But there is one flag that transcends all others in its ability to divide, unite, and ignite passion in the hearts of vexillology lovers around the world: the Maryland state flag.
Let me begin by going on record and saying I love the Maryland state flag. It’s colors and designs boldly defy the norm when it comes to US State flags. It proudly declares that it doesn’t care what other people think. But more importantly, it just looks plain awesome. But what I really want to talk about is how the principles of design are applied to the flag.
Before I go any farther, check out this Guide to Good Flag Design by NAVA, the North American Vexillological Association. It’s pretty short, but to summarize, here are NAVA’s 5 Basic Principles of Flag Design:
- Keep it Simple
- Use Meaningful Symbolism
- Use 2-3 Basic Colors
- No Lettering or Seals
- Be Distinctive or Be Related
At the bottom of the guide, you might notice a brief cameo from our friend the Maryland Flag, accompanied by the following caption:
All rules have exceptions… Maryland’s complicated heraldic quarters produce a memorable and distinctive flag. But depart from these five principles only with caution and purpose.
The Maryland Flag unashamedly breaks principle 3 and debatably breaks principle 5 (it’s distinctive, but bears no relation to the other US State Flags). However, it most notably throws the most important principle, number 1, completely out the window, having come up with arguably the most complicated flag design in the world. Principle 1 is listed first for a reason, yet the Maryland flag is able to completely disregard it and still come out on top with an fantastic flag. I love this.
As a filmmaker, I’m interested in design principles. Essentially, principles are “rules” we’re supposed to follow. Filmmaking is full of them: the 180-degree rule, the 30-degree rule, the rule of thirds, etc. There are also conventions that are considered the norm. There are standard styles of editing and pacing that audiences are used to seeing. There are safe ways to light scenes that keep them looking pleasing and safe ways to lens them that minimize distortion. But there are always the daring filmmakers that break the rules. The Orson Wells’s and the Stanley Kubrick’s that throw the rules and conventions out the window and become legends: the Maryland Flags of filmmaking. I think it’s these Maryland flaggers that often transcend directing to claim the “auteur” title, becuase in shattering conventions they develop a style and a voice that is uniquely their own; no other flag looks like Maryland!
Despite this, I believe that deliberately throwing out principles and conventions in the pursuit of originality is a horrible idea. The Maryland flag is a great flag, but the flags that follow the 5 Basic Princples of Design are also great flags. A perfect example is the US State Flag of New Mexico, which was ranked by NAVA as the best state flag in the United States.
However, the principles of filmmaking stand apart from those of flag design in that film is temporal medium. Filmmakers have the ability to break rules or conventions at key moments for specific reasons as opposed to going all-in, like a flag. For example, imagine looking at 100 well designed, but nearly-identical flags, one after the other. Then, all of a sudden the Maryland flag pops up when you turn the page. Wow! It really stands out. Imagine each flag is a scene, and you essentially have a movie with one stand out scene. I think that a solid understanding of rules and conventions in any particular craft is crucial in being able to confidently and adequately disregard them when the moment is perfect.
Breaking rules at key points in time is one way you can give important scenes added weight. Christopher Nolan crosses the 180-line in The Dark Knight interrogation scene once the Joker takes control of the scene; Ex Machina literally turns the frame upside down in its final shot to exaggerate the new world Ava inhabits; the BBC television drama Sherlock cuts quickly between extensive coverage with little respect for the geography of the scene, I suspect in an effort to create an eclectic tone that compliments Sherlock’s eccentric personality. Likewise, you can break your own conventions you set for a particular film. For example, if your film is shot exclusively in wide shots, the climactic character death could be close up; if 80% of the film has music, you could pull the music out in the climax; if your film is shot on normal and long lenses, cut to a wide angle extreme close up at a key moment; etc.
Breaking the rules has a certain power to it, and I think that nothing represents this idea better than the Maryland flag.