by Bri Castellini
Hello, and welcome to “What Do You Do Again?” a series of posts profiling different film production roles because many in the web series community don’t come from film school and don’t really know who all makes up a bustling film set. I certainly didn’t; in fact, for the longest time I thought a producer and a director were the same. And to be honest, I still don’t really know what the heck a gaffer is. Apparently it’s not Samwise Gamgee, which comes as a bit of a disappointment.
Every week, I’ll pick one production role to profile, so without further ado:
What does a director do? Lightning round:
- Works with and is in charge of all cast and crew to tell the story.
- Is ultimately responsible for getting the different shots and scenes needed to complete the project.
- Gets to say “action” and “cut.”
The director is solely in charge of the shot list, or every angle the camera needs to film the scenes from. In fact, as with most parts of a director’s job, the shot list is a collaboration between the director and the director of photography (DP). While having an idea of what you want a scene to look like is important, the DP will be able to guide the director towards particular shots to make the best version of the project possible.
The director tells the actors how to say their lines. While some directors will have their own process, in general, it is not the director’s job to tell an actor the exact cadence and performance of the scene, or giving them a “line reading.” An actor is not a puppet, and a director is not putting an Imperius Curse on them. Actors are there to perform, to breathe life into a scene and a story, and their interpretation of a scene and a character is a vital part of the process, just as a DP is a vital part of building a shot list.
Jamie McKeller @redshirtjamie , creator of the show I Am Tim Helsing1, has a lot of feelings about this particular directing style. “From the point of view of a director, if I’m not happy with a performance from one of the cast it’s my job to collaborate and discuss until everything clicks. If a director gets to a point where they’re acting it out, they’ve failed. Also, the actor likely can’t emulate what the director so the performance is no longer their own, but a replica of somebody else’s interpretation.”
Actress Gilda Sue Rosenstern agrees, adding “Filmmaking and [theater] are collaborative, they are not dictatorships like novel-writing.”
We actually have a whole article about line readings, with alternative directing tricks to try instead, so check that out here.
The director runs the set. This is a half misconception, because they’re only really in charge once the cameras start rolling. It’s generally not the director’s job to corral actors, to make sure the lights are being set up, to keep time, or to make sure that craft services have arrived. The non-creative logistics of a set are left to a production manager and the assistant director, both roles of which we’ll cover in another article.
Having all the answers. This might seem counter-intuitive, but let me explain. As we’ve already established, while a director is absolutely the captain of the ship during filming, their job is made possible through effective communication and collaboration. One of the best ways to win the good faith of the cast and crew is to ask for input and give them the space they need to make their own choices, especially in areas where you’re less confident, and. If a choice isn’t what you’re looking for, a director can step in and make adjustments, but in general, if the director has all the answers, they aren’t leaving enough up to the rest of their cast and crew, and they’re also a liar, because no one has all the answers. “Don’t let insecurity or ego prevent you from taking good ideas and growing as an artist,” adds Andrew Williams, director of Brains and nearly a decade of other film and theater projects.
Openly getting frustrated. Alternatively: spreading gossip, complaining to cast and crew about other cast and crew, or letting on that something has gone wrong. Essentially, the director’s mood is the mood of the set, and if the mood of the set is anything other than “productive and excited,” you have trouble. There is nothing more uncomfortable than a bunch of people stuck in a small room with lots of expensive equipment and a hostile scent in the air. “People will do better work for you faster if they feel safe and energized about the project.” Andrew agrees.
Making it about you. Remember why you’re there. “I think a lot of young directors feel the need to cover every inch of a finished product with their fingerprints,” says Andrew Williams. “If the visual metaphors, artsy camera angles, and 38 minute tracking shots help tell the story to its fullest, then go for it. If you’re doing it to show off how good of a director you are, then you’re not making art, you’re making a reel.”
Showing up unprepared. Sometimes, this mistake manifests in not being involved enough in pre-production. While a lot of the logistical planning isn’t exactly a director’s purview (finding locations, for example), they should still be involved. Additionally, a director should have an idea of what they want, from a performance perspective, before arriving on set, and should be able to communicate effectively.
How can I learn to be a director?
When I was planning my directorial debut, after being just an actor, writer, and producer, Andrew Williams loaned me his copy of Notes On Directing by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich, which proved vital. Though the book is written with theater in mind, most of the concepts, all of which are numbered and concise, are applicable to film, and all of them are applicable to getting used to the idea of calling yourself a director.
You are the obstetrician.
You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons, like a doctor or a midwife. Your job most of the time is simply to do no harm. When something does go wrong, however, your awareness that something is awry —and your clinical intervention to correct it —can determine whether the child will thrive or suffer, live or die.”
-Notes on Directing
Another way to learn directing is to simply watch other directors, and watch a variety of them if possible, with a variety of different backgrounds and trainings. Some of the best tricks I learned for my own directing came from observing other directors. If you can’t find any sets to shadow, watch behind-the-scenes footage or interviews.
The director is ultimately responsible for what gets filmed and making creative decisions on set, but they are, at their core, just another member of the team. Who are some of your favorite directors? Let us know in the comments, and if you’ve been on a set with a particularly amazing (or particularly bad) director, we’d love to hear the story!