The Craft of Directing

It is up to the director to decide on the visual look of the film, select the framing and deal with the actors. Now, what makes a good director? I think you have to have a good eye for composition and be able to talk and listen to your actors.


When I make a film, generally I’ve envisioned the entire movie in my head before I even step onto the set. This helps me know exactly how I want the film to look and how I want to compose the shots. If you’ve got the film shot and edited in your mind, then you’ve already done half the work. Now all you have to do is get it in the can.

When it comes to developing the shots, the only thing I can say is be imaginative. For example, let me talk about Kenneth Brannagh for a moment. He directed and acted in Henry VDead AgainMary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the entire play ofHamlet. While I would say that he’s a pretty good actor, he’s not a very imaginative director. To be fair, I’ll point to Dead Again and Frankenstein — because I couldn’t watch the entire Hamlet and he intentionally directed Henry V like a stage play, so the lack of imagination had a purpose.

Brannagh is a down to the basics director. Two shots, medium shots, standard coverage of a scene. His angles are standard and his camera movements are repetitive — in Dead Again, he spins around the characters a number of times; in Frankenstein he repeatedly moves the camera past the characters with a Steadicam, especially during the scene where the monster is brought to life. He’s what a call a “cookie cutter” director, because his selection of visuals are factory made.

When I think of interesting styles, I have to point to two directors — David Fincher (Alien3SevenThe Game and Fight Club), and Terry Gilliam (BrazilTime Bandits12 Monkeys).

Fincher — who also directed a number of music videos — has a distinctly dark, moody style. The texture of his films have a softness to them that I find beautiful. He also plays with angles a lot, often shooting from below the eyeline. If I fault him with anything, it’s that his visual style doesn’t range away from that dark, moody feel. Gilliam’s films, on the other hand, each have a different feel, while still baring his distinct style. He uses a combination of textures, angles and visual effects which make his movies a feast for the eyes.

Gilliam’s got a visual technique that is singular, adding to his often fantastical stories with intriguing framing and effects. These two are strong examples of making the story interesting both in its content and its context. While you may have a great story, you should try to match it with a great style. This is especially important when making a short or feature with little money. A good visual style will both enhance the quality of the film and make it appear as if you spent more money than you really did.

What You See vs. How You See It…

It has always been my belief that one of the great things about films is that they allow you to look at things in ways you wouldn’t normally. They challenge our perceptions of reality. Distinctive framing can heighten the movie viewing experience, because it doesn’t mirror what we see in reality.

An example of poor visual storytelling would be, in my opinion, the film The 5thElement. Filled with elaborate special effects and art direction, it completely lacked any distinctive framing or camera work — as well as interesting characters, but that’s another discussion. I think Luc Besson, who wrote and directed the film, felt that what the audience was seeing was enough, and how they saw it didn’t matter — I think the same logic was used, to an extent, on the film Dark City.

This kind of logic may have been understandable when the digital revolution began, because audiences weren’t used to the amazing effects and sights which could be created on computer, but it no longer holds true. Audiences, in general, are not as amazed with what they see in the movies anymore. They’re used to it. In order to make strong visuals as beautiful as they can be, they should be complimented with a strong style.

A similar problem could be seen in the Robin Williams film, When Dreams May Come. While the visuals are beautiful, there isn’t much style to it. It also lacked a story, but it relied so heavily on its effects that they thought the images would be enough and the audience would eat it up. They were apparently wrong.

Try to find the most interesting way to shoot a scene and find the best way to bring that vision to life. For me, I’ve never been much for story boarding. Some shots I’ll draw up on a few index cards, generally the ones I deem the most stylish, in order to get them across to the people I’m working with. But, you may find that story boarding everything helps, and that’s great (P.S. — I am going to story board my next project).

One of the toughest things to find is a way to organize your thoughts the best. There isn’t really a right way or a wrong way, it’s simply the way that works best for you. I would advise that you do at least some story boarding, if for no other reason then to understand the process. If you make it into the big time, story boarding will be important, so it never hurts to be prepared.

Rules Of Engagement…

Lastly, I must stress that if you are going to direct a film, you MUST understand the basics of framing. Some time ago, I had an encounter that I will never forget.

The Proper MethodI met this guy — I will not name names here — who was making a feature length film. He’d gotten a lot of people to help him, most of which had handed over money to help pay for the film, as well as time and equipment. This was his first feature film, which he wrote, and was playing the main character. I learned that many of the people on the set believed in his talents. They seemed to be a rather capable bunch — I was just there for one day, but that was my impression after talking with them and watching them work. A few months later, I re-encountered this man, talked with him a little more and found that I liked him. He then gave me a copy of his film, which had been shot in black and white, and I took it home to watch. When I slid it into the VCR, I watched in silence. Actually, I found myself wide-eyed and amazed at what I saw. Even though it had a great story, it was a terrible piece of work. The dialogue rambled on with little point, the acting was bad and the framing was completely off. Also, most of the scenes simply consisted of one shot, making them rather dull to watch. There was one scene which looked pretty good — it was the only scene where the actors appeared to be looking at one another. Still, it was clear the film was constructed by a man who had no idea what he was doing. It was this incident that inspired me to make this web site.

The Wrong WayVery simply, I will state one rule of filmmaking that everyone MUST understand: “The 180 Degree Rule.” Throughout the movie, every time there was a cut from one person to another in a conversation, it never looked as if anyone was looking at one another, an effect caused when a scene is shot incorrectly. While most rules in filmmaking can be broken, including this one, there are times when it must be followed to the letter. Either way, in order to break a rule in filmmaking, you must first understand it, as a former professor at Watkins Film School used to say.

When shooting a scene with more than one character or object, or featuring a character and object, there is always a 180 degree line that exists between them. When that happens, you must chose which side of that line you want to shoot on, then remain on that side in order for the final edited scene to appear properly (please refer to Figure 1.A & B). If you decide to jump from one side of the line to the other, you will have two people who don’t appear to be looking at one another when the scene is edited together (refer to Figure 2.A & B).

Guerilla Filmmaking…

The director of the film also chose to shoot many of the scenes with long takes. This is a belief held by a few other filmmakers that I’ve met. According to them, doing so is the best way to shoot a scene when you want to save money on film. I’ve never understood that logic. What happens when you get half way through the shot and someone messes up? You’re forced to shoot the scene over again from the beginning, wasting precious film.

This is why it’s so important to know how you’re going to edit the film before you shoot your first roll. Know when you’re going to want a close up and or a medium shot or a wide shot, and film it. If you shoot one or two takes that way, the scene will look much better than if you have a static shot.

Still, you can use the “one shot” method if you wish. But if you do, I recommend you also film some cutaways. That way, you break up the shot a little. Plus, if something goes wrong, you don’t need to start from the beginning of the scene every time. You can simply start from where you left off, then when editing the scene, just insert a cut away and the two takes will blend together better.

Either way, having a clear idea of how the final edited version will look is important. This will allow you to stay somewhat focused on exactly what you need and also allow you the ability to shoot just what you want, instead of spending time, money and film on coverage.

While big budget films may have lots of equipment, they don’t have anything that can’t be copied with regular items. A dolly can easily be replaced with a shopping cart, a crane can be supplemented with a ladder. You are only limited by your imagination in achieving the shots which you deem most appropriate for your film. If you don’t believe me, I’d recommend that you read Robert Rodriguez’s book, “Rebel Without A Crew”. He takes you through the process he took when making El Mariachi, the film that broke him into the Hollywood scene. Then watch the film. I’m not saying it’s the greatest piece of work ever made, but it’s pretty good for $7,000.

In the end, making a film on your own is a lot of hard work, but it’s one of the greatest experiences anyone can have. I wish you all luck in your endeavors.

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