10 Directing Techniques that Raise a Film’s Quality (Part 1)

There are over 100 documented techniques that directors develop to master their craft. Independent filmmakers have little patience to develop the skills that delay gratification. This lack of preparation causes poorly managed shoots, fewer artistic choices, bad acting and less coverage.

To avoid the nightmare that generates lower quality films, every filmmaker can improve his preparation by practicing ten directing techniques.

1. Search for Great Stories

There are seven steps to determine if a script is worth shooting. All seven are a part of analyzing the story. By reading a lot of scripts and working through the process of determining which ones are great stories, the director will be able to quickly spot flaws in the next script handed to him for consideration. He will also be able to determine if the flaw can be fixed or if the story should be pitched.

I read and conduct a partial to full analysis on 2-3 stories a month to keep my chops up. This means I read 2-3 stories a week to find the ones worth analyzing. It doesn’t take more than 3-10 pages of reading to know if the story is worth finishing. Those that are worth a full read are considered for analysis.

2. Breakdown Set Pieces

FlashdanceSet pieces are scenes that are designed to have an obvious imposing effect on the audience. They are iconic to the story and many times become culturally iconic. The mere mention of fire trails or light sabers reminds us of Back to the Future and Star Wars. Or, for those who don’t like sci-fi, think about the horse head in bed and a dancer being doused with water, which reminds us of The Godfather and Flashdance.

By finding the 3-8 set pieces in the story, a director can use those scenes to practice the remaining skills. When I first started breaking down set pieces, it took me 45-60 minutes per scene to understand what made those scenes pop. Now, I can find the iconic building blocks within a few minutes per scene.

3. Mark Story Beats

Every script has story beats. Some beats are obvious and some are clouded by subplots or old beats that were never taken out of a previous draft. Some systems recommend 7 beats, others 8, 12, 14, 16, 17, 23, 28, and 32. Each genre tends to have its own rules of beat placement and writing systems. For instance, both the myth and hero processes place varying emotional levels of beats into the story structure.

Marking all the story structure beats within the script gives the director a clear understanding of the story structure, pace, and distortions. Every year I download all Oscar nominated screenplays and search for the beat structure within each story. Patterns within genres and between screenwriters become evident and increase my speed and ability to spot key story elements that must be treated with high importance during a shoot.

4. Mark Entrances, Exits and Power Changes

Well-written screenplays have a shift in power between characters several times within any given scene. Marking each character’s entrances/exits and power shifts, breaks the scene into manageable parts. It also gives the director insight into segmenting the shoot for the greatest on screen emotional impact.

I’ve found that by marking scenes according to the exchange of power, I can instantly tell if the scene will entertain or fall flat. I’ve also found that most scenes that belong in a story, yet are flat, typically have a central element that will play better if the scene is rewritten using subtext. And, those flat scenes that are empty I cut from the story.

5. Notate Verbs for Motivation

With every power shift within a scene the talent needs a new motivation for her character. The best way to inspire the talent is to have a verb ready to suggest the motivation. The verb can be written on the script page with a stronger and weaker verb for back up.

When I’ve suggested to the talent that her character needs to “influence,” I can turn to my back up verbs if she plays it too big or small. For instance, if she plays “influence” too big I can suggest her character needs to “urge,” or if she plays it too small I can suggest she needs to “incite.” By listing all three words on the page, I have immediate tools available for altering a performance should I need it.

To be continued in (Part 2)

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers
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2 thoughts on “10 Directing Techniques that Raise a Film’s Quality (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: 10 Directing Techniques that Raise a Film’s Quality (Part 2) | CJ's Corner

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