The Elements of Directing (Directing Index)

Directing may appear easy from the outside. But a film director is a highly-skilled artist who understands in-depth every aspect of film production. It is said that a film director should be the first and last person on a set. Though an exaggeration for sure, the intent behind the saying is to communicate that a director has to be completely aware of everything that is happening on their set.

The ideal film director must be creative, resourceful, charismatic, and savvy of his craft and the business. They understand the story, the camera, and the actors. They know how to delegate. They know how to express their wishes to cast and crew without stepping on anyone’s toes and without sounding bossy or arrogant.

Below are some lessons and tips for future filmmakers:

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7 Basic Things All Future Film Directors Should be Doing Right Now

Photography by Carmelo Speltino from Torre del Greco

Photo by Carmelo Speltino from uorre del Greco

Last week, Hiba from Lebanon hit me up with the following question: “To become a director, should I read more or watch more?”

My immediate response to her was that directing is so complex and multifaceted a career that both reading and watching should be a constant for her. A more interesting question, I proposed, is this: what should you be reading and watching? But Hiba’s question hinted at a bigger curiosity. What I think she really wanted to know is this:

What Can I Do To Become a Movie Director?

Although I am not a director, I have directed both comedy and drama in college and as independent projects. This post is an attempt to answer Hiba’s question and steer anyone who wants to be a film director in the right direction. Here are 7 habits all future film directors should be doing:

1) Watch Movies (but do it the right way)

This one is a no-brainer, right? You wanna be a director, you have to watch movies. If this is you, then you can always deflect criticism from angry relatives, “You spend too much on the TV!” “Leave me alone, I’m studying!”

Yes, indeed watching movies is a great way to study this art form. But there are different ways you can watch a movie, and these that follow are all great exercises for future filmmakers:

One of my favorite ways to watch a movie is with the sound off. This is the perfect technique if you want to observe how stories are told visually, and how the camera behaves to provoke this or that. I think a natural born cinematographer or camera operator, may be able to effortlessly concentrate on picture and tune out the audio. But for the rest of us (and the vast majority of people), the audio actually distracts us from the camerawork. For one thing, the character who’s speaking always draws the viewer’s attention. But what about the other characters, or the elaborate mise-en-scène on the background? Shouldn’t we also be observing what’s happening back there? This film-viewing approach will make you aware of every camera setup, including angles, shot sizes, and movements. It’s more fun than it sounds.

Similarly, you can watch a movie with the picture off, or with your eyes closed so that you see how stories are told auditorily (I think that’s a word). You’d be surprised at how much information is on the soundtrack (in addition to dialogue). With your eyes closed, every little sound bite, from footsteps to raindrops, will be magnified and you will infer meaning from the simplest things.

What both of these approaches do to your filmmaking apprenticeship is that you deconstruct the movie by paying attention to the countless little elements that come together to make the movie what it is. Give them a try!

2) Read Screenplays

The director’s most basic task is to translate the words of the script into moving pictures. Sometimes, especially in film school, you may direct your own screenplay, your own creation. However, the reality of the business is that the division of labor tends to assign you to a specific position: the writer writes, the producer produces, and the director directs. You can always break this paradigm later, but as you start out, it’s safe to assume that more often than not you will be tasked with directing somebody else’s  script. And that means diving into a story that you are not familiar with. The good news is that usually it will be a project you believe in, in a format or genre that you are fond of.

Reading scripts is a good exercise because you have to visualize in your head how those scenes would unfold. Do you shoot Johnny strutting down the bar in a close-up or in a wide shot? This is basic camera positioning that you will have to think about regardless of the size of your production or the camera you use.

But you know what, even before you get that far,  first you have to get accustomed to the language of screenwriting. It is unlike anything most people read. Novels, plays, newspapers, instruction manuals, forget about it! I’m not talking about format (which is also in a class by itself too), I’m talking about writing style. A screenplay is a screenplay, and every writer has a different style. Plus, from assistants to producers, everyone in the biz has to read ’em. You might as well join them.

Here are a couple of websites where you can find screenplays:

I’m not affiliated to either, but I’ve used both before.

3) Learn Acting and the Actor’s Language

Le_tombeau_de_Maître_André2One of the most daunting parts of film directing is directing actors. I know of a handful of people among my circle of friends who thought they really wanted be film directors, until they had their chance at directing… and they hated it. There are different reasons for this reaction, but a common one is having to “deal with actors” as they would put it.  The problem sometimes is not the actors themselves, but the fact that some directors just love creating the image more than they like “dealing with actors.” And that’s totally fine. There’s a position called Director of Photography that is often where those troubled souls find solace.

But if actors don’t intimidate you… or if you are curious enough to give it a try and tread the directing waters, then you are gonna have to be able to communicate with actors. And trust me, they operate in a different wavelength. If you have ever directed anything and being disappointed at the interaction you had with your actors, you may be inclined to call them “finicky” or “snobbish.” I hate to break it to you, but the problem in that equation was probably you, the director. Sure there are actors who you may not get a long with, but in my experience these are the exceptions, not the rule.

So in order to avoid bad experience with your talent, I would suggest you learn acting and the vernacular used by actors. For one thing, did you know that there are different acting methods? Can you name at least two of them and list their key differences? You see, you may think that these different techniques don’t pertain to you, the director, but it totally does. Though some actors can just “push their own buttons” most of the time, occasionally you may have to do if for them. And a Method Actor may respond differently from some who uses the Practical Aesthetics.

Here’s a list of different acting techniques as listed on Wikipedia:

  • Classical acting is a type of acting that is based on the theories and systems of Constantin Stanislavski and Michel Saint-Denis.
  • In Stanislavski’s system, also known as Stanislavski’s method, actors draw upon their own feelings and experiences to connect with the character they are portraying. The actor puts himself or herself in the mindset of the character finding things in common in order to give a more genuine portrayal of the character.
  • The Chekhov Technique is a psycho-physical approach in which transformation, working with impulse, imagination and inner and outer gesture are central. Michael Chekhov was a student of Stanislavski.
  • Method acting is usually attributed to Lee Strasberg or members of his Theatre Group, for example Sanford MeisnerRobert Lewis and Stella Adler. It deals with any of the family of techniques used by actors to create in themselves the thoughts and emotions of their characters, so as to develop lifelike performances.
  • Meisner technique is closely related to the Method. It requires the actor to focus totally on the other actor as though he or she is real and they only exist in that moment. This is a method that makes the actors in the scene seem more authentic to the audience. It is based on the principle that acting finds its expression in people’s response to other people and circumstances.
  • Practical Aesthetics is a technique devised by playwright David Mamet as a counterpoint to the dominance of the Method in the American theatre, film and TV industry.

If these techniques overwhelm you, you need not worry. You don’t have to know all of them in-depth. You just need to know that each actor has their own method, which is why it may be hard for a first-time director to communicate with them.

One common mistake I’ve seen new directors do is telling what actors should be feeling in a scene: “You are sad.” Actors hate that. Instead, tell them why they are sad and their emotions become more real: “Remember, you just found out your mother passed way.” In both of these instructions the director is asking for the same emotion, but only one will be effective.

And here’s one mistake I once made that I hope you won’t. I started giving notes to an actor saying, “Now pretend that…” He cut me off and rebutted, “It’s never pretend!” He was right, it’s never pretend. Saying that was a mistake I made probably because I never took an acting class, which is why I recommend you do it if you have a chance, even if it’s just for one semester. You will learn one or more of the techniques mentioned above, and your actors will love you if you can speak their language from your own experience.

One book that will definitely help you on this portion of directing is Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film & Television by Judith Weston. Weston’s book is about how directors should talk to actors in order to get the desired emotion without hurting them. One highlight of the book, in my opinion, is the Character Chart, which is a worksheet for directors that helps them explore the characters in-depth from a directing perspective so that you will know as much as there’s to know about your characters. Actors do something like this, so should you.

4) Learn How to Interact with People

You may think this one is a no-brainer, but because it feels so obvious many people neglect this notion. I hope you will take this item in the agenda seriously and give it as much thought as it deserves.

I often say that a film director has to be a tyrant and a diplomat. What I mean is this: at times, the director has to be an arrogant boss demanding the world in a silver platter from his crew, but at other times he has to be friendly and courteous and take his time to talk, joke, and mingle. Nonetheless stress levels invariably fluctuate, and directors can’t always play the nice guy, which is why it’s important to show your smiley face and connect to the crew early on any production before stress levels skyrocket.

In this sense, a director has the role of a manager (forget art for a tiny second). You’re the captain of the ship, the leader of the crew. You oversee many departments made up of many professionals. Some have egos, some are outspoken, some are clumsy, some are simply a pain in the butt. It’s part of your job to bring everyone together with the same purpose. If you notice that your cameraman has a problem with your DP, then you may have to pull them both a side and have a heart-to-heart with them, find out what’s wrong and if you can help them or fire them. (I kid you not, it happens.) And if you don’t have the time to talk to them individually, but you’re the one to notice the conflict, you have to let your producer or assistant director know so they can try to resolve it for you.

One book I recommend to develop these interpersonal skills is the famous How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This book has been in print for over 70 years! It was first recommended to me by Tom Blomquist, a producer/director/writer triple-threat who was my professor at California State University, Long Beach. I bought the book and devoured it. It’s remarkable.

In my opinion, the book has a Machiavellian title that makes it sound like you’re gonna learn the art of manipulation, but in fact, the lessons are not as dark. The book is a collection of essays brimming with techniques and tips that will help you improve communication, avoid conflict, and become a great leader. If everyone in Hollywood read this book and implemented its suggestions, the industry would be a much much better place.

Note: you can go to Wikipedia for a summary of the techniques the book talks about. The techniques are not a secret. Anyone can tell them to you because they are common sense. But it’s the book’s analysis and examples that make it a masterpiece. Read. The. Book.

5) Become A Master Storyteller and Write Screenplays

Odds are that straight out of film school or your 9-to-5, no one is going to give you a change at directing right away, you have to earn it. One way to prove yourself and build the confidence of investors is to write screenplays. Film directing is storytelling, and you have to prove that you have the principles of storytelling down so that producers can bet on you. So my suggestion is write screenplay as often as you can and make sure they’re good. You will struggle, but you will improve! Although the industry tends to stereotype professionals firmly in a category, it is much easier for a screenwriter to become a director than for a nobody to become a director. My point here is this: if you have the opportunity to direct, direct! But in the nights and weekends that you find yourself without much to do, one way to further your career without leaving your house is by writing screenplays.

6) Keep Up With the Trades

This one is more important than most would think. I hate to admit, but directing is becoming increasingly more business-centric. Nowadays, talent alone is not enough. You have to know how Hollywood functions from a business stance so you can improve your chances of success. Reading trade publications is the best way to accomplish this.

Plus, as someone hoping to have their big break soon, you can find out about enticing opportunities or competitions that will give you a head start if you are good enough to win. For example, The Black List (not to be confused with the TV show by NBC) is a great service that has gained prominence recently. The Black List offers script evaluations for a fee. If you earn a good score, then your logline will be shared with Hollywood honchos in a newsletter. For Directors, ABC offers a directing program every two years, where you will be mentored to direct TV shows for a year. These are just two opportunities that can advance your career that I learned about from reading the trades. Like every thing else in the business, they are a competition. You have to be good for a decent chance.

Famous trade publications include Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline.

7) Start Building Your Portfolio Today

A portfolio is different from a resume. A portfolio is a collection of your artistic works (short films, photographs, music, short stories), so you can showcase your skills to prospective collaborators, producers, financiers.

Similarly to Become A Master Storyteller and Write Screenplays above, you have to find ways to convince others that you are good at what you do. Having screenplays to show is one way, but directors really have to focus on showing their films. You have to preserve everything you shoot, and you should shoot as often as you can.

Don’t be embarrassed by the movies you did as a kid or a teen. Even if they are laughable, some of them can be useful to showcase a specific skill like editing, camerawork, or special effects. Be judicious and use common sense.

The ladder to directing glory is about you proving to someone else that you are good enough for a better chance. If you use that chance to do something great, you will be worthy of a bigger chance, and so on. As you build your portfolio, your chances and budget will become greater.

Some Final Tips

Don’t overlook TV. Television is becoming a powerhouse of excellent content.  TV shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards look as good as the motion pictures you see in the theaters. Many professionals get their start on TV. Because of its often fast-paced and extensive nature (a season can be 10 hours long!), TV is the perfect training ground for many careers.

Continuously look for opportunities. This is a part of the Keep Up With the Trades above. Many opportunities spring up when you least expect, and there are so many out there that it’s hard to keep track of them.  So peel your eyes for them, they’re out there. Want an example of an opportunity? How about this one:

Consider the DGA Training Program (offered by the Director’s Guild of America). The application process is rigorous, but if accepted, you will be groomed to become an Assistant Director, and you will get paid in the process! It’s a great way to get your foot on the door, learn the business, and make money doing something you (hopefully) love. This is one opportunity, but there are others.

Read comic books. Comic books are great for future directors and cinematographers because they are profoundly visual. And since they don’t require a camera crew, comic book illustrators can draw awe-striking  angles that can serve as inspirations to you.

Consider going to film school. A college degree is NOT necessary for success as a film director, but it’s a way to get started and test the waters. Of course, the quality of film schools vary, so do your research before committing to one or the other.

Blocking

Blocking was originally a theater term that refers to the positioning and movement of the actors in the stage. In cinema, camera and lights are added to the equation.

Blocking is an essential part of rehearsal because doing it in advance will speed up principal photography as the actors and camera operators will know how they will move on the set.

From Wikipedia

“The term derives from the practice of 19th century theatre directors such as Sir W. S. Gilbert who worked out the staging of a scene on a miniature stage using blocks to represent each of the actors.”

Blocking a motion picture involves deciding where and how actors will move and which line of dialogue they will deliver where. Some of these may be suggested in the script, but the director has freedom to alter and augment the original text. The more “trained” actors are during blocking, the faster principal photography will be.

Sketch the Scene

One way to block actors and camera is to use drawings and diagrams to quickly show what you have in mind. Hand-drawn pictures are fine, although many computer programs make the job easier. Floor plans and storyboards are often combined because together they help the crew visualize everything needed.

Floor plans are a good way to see the overhead layout of a scene with actors and camera positions. Floor plans are quite convenient when shooting a scene with an elaborate setup with many actors and movements.

Storyboards are also common. They are a collection of frames that tells the story visually. The frames illustrate the more important shots in the movie. Storyboards are quite convenient when the directors is explaining exactly what type of composition he desires.

Attention to Body Language

Deciding where the actors and camera should go is only the first step of blocking. It is also a good idea to talk about body language – posture. A director must pay close attention to how actors use their bodies and what is signified by their postures and gestures. Though characterization should define posture (see picture below), the director has to approve what actors come up with and change accordingly.

The Tourist Angelina Jolie Johnny Depp

In the frame above, you can see two actors with contrasting postures. Angelina Jolie, impeccable, holds herself straight, with air of nobility. Her back does not touch the chair. Her hands are held in front of her bosom – we can tell this is not comfortable.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Johnny Depp, slouched in his chair, legs crossed, supporting his arms. He looks tired and uncouth. But not Angelina. She’s refined, elegant, sophisticated… A lot information is conveyed by posture. Keep that in mind.

Mise-en-scène

The arrangement of everything that appears in the framing – actors, lighting, décor, props, costume – is called mise-en-scène, a French term that means “placing on stage.” The frame and camerawork are also considered part of the mise-en-scène of a movie. In cinema, placing on the stage really means placing on the screen, and the director is in charge of deciding what goes where, when, and how.David  A. Cook, in his book A History of Narrative Film, points out how a mise-en-scène is formed by all the elements that appear “within the shot itself, as opposed to the effects created by cutting.” In other words, if it’s on the screen and if it’s a physical object recorded by the camera, then it’s part of the mise-en-scène.

Academically Speaking

Don’t be confused. Mise-en-scène isn’t a production term. Directors don’t walk around saying “Let’s change the mise-en-scène today.” Not at all.

From the craftsmen who build bookcases to the cinematographer who chooses where the lights will go, the mise-en-scène is the result of the collaboration of many professionals. Thus in the production environment, the director is more specific with his requests and orders. Is he talking to the prop master, the set designer, the actors, the make-up artists? All of them are part of different departments. But all of them, in the end, have influence in the mise-en-scène.

In the academic realm, the term mise-en-scène is often used when the overall look and feel of a movie is under discussion. Students taking Film Analysis courses should be quite familiar with the term.

Even though many professionals are involved in its creation, the director is the one who oversees the entire mise-en-scène and all of its elements. Not just that, but during the early stages of pre-production, the director or his AD sits down with set designers, prop masters, location managers, costume designers, and scenic artists to determine the look and feel intended.

CABINET_DES_DR_CALIGARI_01In some instances, the mise-en- scène is designed to evoke emotions that permeate the whole movie. For example in the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), distorted shapes and claustrophobic scenery are implemented to disturb the audience and enhance the horror.

Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) has been praised by its amazing, colorful, and multi-layered visual design. For this reason, the following segments will shed light on many scenes from The Graduate but also from other pictures.

Set Design

The set design refers to the decor of the the set, or how it’s dressed, comprising mainly of the furniture, props, and the set itself. Instead of just placing objects here and there, the director must be savvy to fathom how these elements may bear significance in a deeper level, while also emphasizing themes, creating meanings, and provoking thoughts.

To illustrate: an early scene from The Graduate (1967) opens with a close-up of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) alone on his bed. Behind him is a fish tank, which symbolically represents Ben’s entrapment in a life that he doesn’t want. Later in the movie, Ben finds himself at the bottom of a swimming pool, thus further elaborating on that concept.

The Production Designer is the professional responsible for building and dressing the set. She works with the Art Director, the Set Designer, and the Prop Master to create and add these physical elements to the filmic space. The Production Designer reports to the Director, and together they conceptualize the look of the film well before cameras start rolling.

 In Rear Window (1954), an enlarged photograph placed in the living room offers exposition on the accident that made L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) handicap:

rear window photograph exposition racing accident

 

Lighting

Unarguably one of the film elements that has the greatest power to evoke emotions, lighting must be manipulated by the director to accommodate his or her desires for the movie. In broad terms, the two types of lighting approaches are: low-key lighting and high-key lighting.

High-key lighting is often seen in romantic comedies and musicals, encompassing an even lighting pattern and avoiding dark areas in the frame. Everything looks bright with little to no shadow at all. High-key lighting has little dramatic effect itself.

high-key lighting on Hero

Low-key lighting is often seen in horror movies and thrillers, comprising of a lighting pattern that has both bright and dark areas in the frame. The chiaroscuro (Italian: bright-dark) technique, long used by painters, is characterized by strong contrast, often employed to unnerve the audience.

low-key lighting on casablanca

Note that this terminology is counter-intuitive as low-key lighting is high contrast and high-key lighting is low contrast.

Costume

The obvious purpose of costuming is to dress an actor according to his character. Lawyers wear suits, nurses wear scrubs, and a drifter could wear worn out shoes, ragged shirt, and baggy pants.

But, more than that, costuming can also be used to establish someone’s hierarchic level. Regimentals, for instance, bear the status of the person who wears it. And even the color may distinguish an enemy from a friend. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), a comic situation arises when Blondie (Clint Eastwood) heads toward the enemy cavalry that was covered in dust. When the enemy general dusts off his sleeve, his apparently gray uniform turns blue, making it obvious that our beloved protagonist was going into the shark’s mouth.

Costuming may also be used to emphasize a theme. In the first scene at the Taft Hotel in The Graduate, Mrs. Robinson wears a fur coat that makes her look like a predator hunting for her prey. Her coat bears a pattern that resembles the fur of a cheetah. Or could it be a cougar?

Mrs. Robison as a cougar in The Graduate

Location

In Witness (1985), on the day after rejecting Rachel’s (Kelly McGillis) seduction, John Book (Harrison Ford) explains to her why nothing could have happened between them the night before. Quite conveniently, the confrontation takes place in a barn, while Rachel is collecting eggs. The location emphasizes Rachel’s responsibilities as a woman. If they had made love and Rachel gotten pregnant, she would have to carry the baby and eventually give birth. Also, during the conversation, John stands outside the barn, thus being physically separated from Rachel by the barn’s door. In this case, the door functions as a metaphor of the social and cultural barriers that keeps them a part.

The final confrontation in The Graduate takes place in a church. Ben tries to prevent Elaine (Katherine Ross) from getting married, but he arrives too late. Nonetheless, when Elaine sees him, she sprints to him, and they run away. When the couple is cornered by infuriated parents and relatives, Ben starts swinging a cross to avoid them. As they exit, Ben uses the cross to hold the church’s doors shut.

The prop (cross) and location (church) offer a comment on religious institutions, perhaps implying that Elaine’s parents are trapped by traditional believes and practices.

For the Future Directors, With Love

As you know, the director on a set has final word on all the creative elements, which means many of your crew members will stop you and ask for approval on this or that: Is the blond wig okay? Can we shoot on top of the building? Can we place the sofa under the window? Where’s is the restroom?

Some of these questions may or may not be the questions you are willing to answer at the time, but remember: everyone is just doing their job. The important thing is to not get overwhelmed and snap at your crew. They are all there for you, working on your film.

If you are on an well-oiled set, your Assistant Director (AD) will be the last barrier before people get to you. He or she will try to answer as many questions for you as they can. And if your AD doesn’t know the answer, at least he or she will be able to prioritize and let you know what needs immediate attention.

Coverage

In case you don’t know, most shots in most movies are filmed with one camera and one camera only. Sure there are times (like during expensive action sequences) when the cinematographer may choose to have half a dozen cameras rolling simultaneously, but the norm is only one camera at a time.

Why? you ask. Because every single shot or angle is so important that the director and cinematographer have to make sure that everything is perfect in that frame. And if getting one camera setup ready for action takes time, having two simultaneous camera setups (both of which can interfere with each other) would make this too time consuming. Plus, the director can only watch one screen or actor at a time.

So how then do filmmakers capture all those different shot sizes like close-ups and wide shots? The answer is, you guessed it, coverage.

DEFINITION: Coverage is the collection of different camera setups used to capture the action of a scene from different angles.

The initial recording of a scene is usually done with a master shot — a shot wide enough to capture the action of a scene in its entirety. But screening the whole scene from a single wide shot could be boring, not to mention all the detail that would be missed. So after the master shot is successfully recorded, the camera operator will “punch in” to tighter shots like medium shots and close-ups.

Advice for the Set

Lighting wide shots are usually more complex than lighting close-ups. The reason being: if you have many actors and objects to light (as is often the case in wide shots), you will have to bring more light fixtures in and struggle to hide more shadows here and there.
Therefore, because wide shots are so time consuming, it is advised that you shoot them first to get them out of the way. In addition, wide shots allow the actors time to get acclimated to a scene. Which is good because the tight shots are the more emotional ones. So when the time comes for their big close-ups, the actors should be ready.

 It is important to remember that crafting a film involves recording a scene from different camera angles using different shot sizes to emphasize important elements of the film, such as a gun in someone’s hand or a tear in someone’s eye. This use of subsequent camera setups is known as the coverage. Coverage is important not only to keep things dynamic and exciting within the scene, but also to ease the editing process of the movie.

Observe the example of coverage below from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). All the shots combined together make the scene very interesting, especially as it contains very elaborate compositions and as it focuses on character’s facial expressions.

Among the several types of shots, we find in the example above long shots, medium shots, close-ups, ECUs, high-angles, inserts, and reactions. In the movie, the scene is practically silent. Yet the amazing coverage is able to convey emotion and tension.

It is one of the director’s tasks to create a shot list, and thus define how the coverage will be. Before principal photography starts, the director should know where the camera will be and what or who it will shoot. A movie with poor coverage always feels awkward, for it usually impedes the editor from accomplishing the much praised invisible editing.

Directing Basics

I will start this article with an anecdote told by Bob Fischer, screenwriter of such comedies as Wedding Crashers and We Are The Millers. I will paraphrase in my own words the story narrated by Mr. Fischer:

“Mother Teresa, after years of charity work with the sick and poor in India, was invited to visit the Pope in the Vatican. When they finally met, the Holy Father asked her: ‘Mother, what would you like to have? Name it, and it shall be yours.’ Mother Teresa replied: ‘Thank you, Father, but I don’t want anything.’ The Father persisted, ‘Please, Mother, ask something, anything.’ Mother Teresa finally said: ‘Well, Father, if you insist, I would like to direct a Hollywood movie.'”

Bob Fischer told us this story to answer a student’s question: “Do you think you would like to direct?” The point of the joke (and it is a joke) is that everybody wants to direct movies, even Mother Teresa. Although some people are born for it, the reason why established actors and writers might choose to direct is creative control.

What Do Film Directors Do?

The film director’s primary task is to interpret the screenplay and translate it visually. He is the creative mind behind the aesthetic and technical choices that drive the film. To succeed in this mission, the director is involved from the early stages of pre-production all the way to the final phase of post.

As Seen at the Movies

François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) is perhaps the movie that best romanticizes the job and life of a director on and outside of the set during a film production. Their amazement and frustrations are subject matters featured in Truffaut’s Academy Award-winning film.

Even though directors must oversee the several stages of production, during principal photography everything could get exponentially hectic. Their personal lives are put aside so he can focus on the production. Weekends and holidays too. Everything revolves around the production schedule. At daytime, they shoot. At night, they rewrite the script. During breaks, they rehearse. Lights, costumes, décor, props, camera, actors are all supervised by the director, who’s often multitasking and micromanaging everything. Directing movies requires extensive command of the craft, and a complete understanding over every facet of filmmaking.

Traits of a Director

The director must be a tyrant and a democrat, a dreamer and a realist, a rebel and a loyalist. He has to give orders and follow them. He has to demand and obey. He has to be the most snobbish and most sociable person on set. He is the manager, the judge, the president. A friend. He is all of those and much more.

During a film production, the director assumes very many roles. Besides mastering the production process and storytelling techniques, he has to be aware of cultural and political issues that surround his movie. He has to be sensible of possible implications that any elements in his picture may cause.

Well-rounded, the director must know, for instance, that the color red means danger and emergency in America, whereas in China it connotes courage, loyalty, honor, success, fortune, fertility, and happiness.

In the exceptional example of Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock foresaw the encroaching revolution of the 1960s and took advantage of it. Being entrepreneurial, he purchased the rights to the novel of same title and even bought copies to obscure the ending. Hitchcock was so sure that the picture would be a hit that he even deferred his director’s salary in order to get some support by the studios. By noticing the approaching revolution, he knew he could have Janet Leigh in her underwear in the bedroom and naked in the shower. The picture became the highest grossing film of Hitchcock’s career, a box office triumph, earning $11,200,000.

Training

The essential training to be a film director usually begins at a very early age, watching movies. Aside from the very first ones, all great filmmakers were once kids enamored with moving pictures. Not just a hobby but a full-time love affair. As the kids grew up, they refined their critical skills to be able to scrutinize the components inherent to the movies they watched like camerawork, editing, performance, score… everything.

The next step would be actual hands on a film camera and shooting. Decades ago, making short movies with friends and learning the necessary skills by trial and error were considered a valuable method to become a filmmaker. But times have changed. The competition is much bigger now, and digital has ruined many youngsters.

With a generation that grows up watching YouTube, the discernment between good and awful is shattered by a criterion that values number of hits over technical excellence. Shaky cameras, trite stories, squeaky voices, and porch lighting are among the many problems caused by the preponderance of digital cameras and the lack of technical skills.

Nowadays, attending a film school is a wise option to become a filmmaker. There, students will have keen insight on all the levels of production and the many professionals involved to make a movie, plus the chance to make friends that share the same passion. Networking.