I was recently asked by a newbie filmmaker how he could become a great director. The answer I shared was a quote.
“Contrary to popular belief, filmmaking is not a job. It’s not really even a career. It’s an Artistic Lifestyle! And that means in order to work at your art, you will need to live and breathe filmmaking every day.”Director Peter D. Marshall
Having communicated with Peter several times, I came to understand and agree with his perspective on this answer. Below is my understanding of his answer in seven easy steps that will turn any filmmaker into a great director.
Study the Human Condition
Directors are observers. They watch others attentively and learn why they do the things they do. Directors also compare people’s actions to help them understand how we are the same, and different.
Marshall defines the act of directing as “the art of visually telling a compelling story with believable characters who make us feel something.”
To entertain a person, a director must reveal something that the audience has never experienced before. To make them feel something, the director must navigate or direct the audience through new experiences. And, to empower the audience with the theme, the director must inspire them to rise from the human condition with hope for their tomorrow.
Studying the human condition is the most important task of a director. He must understand, not judge, everyone around him. This is something that needs to be practiced daily.
One approach is observing normal people living through normal conditions. By witnessing their behaviors and choices, you can learn what motivates people to do the things they do. Understanding motivations give the director a great tool for working with actors to achieve realistic performances.
Study the Storyline
Directors must know the story better than anyone else on set. Instead of focusing on cool effects or cinematic compositions, the director must ask himself how each tool, crew, and cast member adds to the story. This is where the details count.
The director must do a deep dive into each scene, character, and setting. He must know the why behind every action, comment, and motivation. He must know the backstory prior to the script’s first page, and he must know the proverbial pages that follow the final “The End.”
All productions are forced to make changes during the shoot and post-production, which can turn a good story into a disaster. However, changes at the hand of a director who has studied the story to great depth can ensure a successful outcome. There is no shortcut to studying the storyline. The director must own the story.
Direct the Performance
Every actor I’ve worked with needs a director that fits their style. This is only possible if the director learns various acting techniques and develops listening skills. Directors also must learn the best ways to approach various actors and communicate what they need to hear in order to alter their performance for the positive.
This actor/director relationship is critical to the show’s success. The most important element of the relationship is trust. Actors must be able to trust that the director is not going to have them looking bad on screen. This trust is also a form of protection for the actor, who must make themselves vulnerable in being someone they are not.
Good actors surrender to the in-the-moment feelings and impulses of their character. The director must make the set a safe place to keep the actor’s emotions intact. To do so, they must praise great performance often and workshop the differences when the story needs the character to address the scene from another perspective.
When reviewing a script, a director can make better on-set choices if he takes the time to read the script from an editor’s perspective. This empowers him to make more visual decisions from the standpoint of cutting between shots and camera placement—not to mention camera movement.
By learning how editors think, a director can better block scenes, create montages, and capture natural movement with the characters. This skill will also help the director to get to the point of a scene when in a time crunch. This also improves the director’s use of dolly, trucking, and crane shots.
Learn the Psychology of the Camera/Lens
Directors who have worked on the legitimate stage seem to have a better understanding of the camera and lens as compared to the theater.
For instance, when a director moves a character downstage toward the audience, it’s like using a telephoto lens to capture an intimate close-up. The opposite is also true. When a director diminishes the character by moving them upstage, away from the audience, he can accomplish a similar effect by using a wide-angle lens that reduces the character on screen.
The composition also plays an important role in the psychology of the image. The on-screen character can be dramatically and emotionally impacted in the audience’s mind based on their angle and placement. This is more than memorizing the name of shots, as the composition can convey a wide variety of emotions.
The director must learn where to place the camera in order to make the audience feel in a specific way. A poorly placed camera can take the audience out of the story and force them to realize they are no longer involved in a story but rather watching a movie—killing the hard work of the cast and crew.
Explore Blocking Techniques
Not only do various lenses play a big role in the look of a film, but the position of the actors to the camera also plays a significant role. The director’s blocking techniques impact the relationship of the actors to the camera. This “choreography” of actors, bits, and extras creates a harmony of movement that is believable or not.
The director that decides to be artistically random doesn’t understand what the audience requires for believability and to understand the story. Blocking should never be done without the audience in mind. Plus, the direction shouldn’t be so things look good on set but instead look good through the camera lens.
Blocking is often deciding what to exclude from a shot or how to focus the audience on a specific thing/moment. It’s the technique that allows the director to limit the audience’s gaze to what they need to see and understand to advance the story. If the blocking takes away from the audience’s emotional experience or understanding of the story, it must be re-blocked.
Focus on Production Value
All too often, directors pay little attention to production value. They forget the importance of Sound, Cinematography, Set Dressing, Props, Editing, Visual FX, Costumes, Stunts, etc. All these elements play a huge role in the audience’s believability in the story. When any of them are missing, audiences can sense the film is a “B” level film.
When I shot Mystery at the Johnson Farm, I met with several other independent filmmakers. We all got together for a weekend and took turns showing and critiquing our films. It became obvious who had a solid budget and who had to cheat, except for my film. Everyone thought I spent a couple of weeks shooting on a real farm, but the truth is that not one single shot was taken on a farm.
I shot a few blocks away from a downtown suburban area just outside Chicago. The choice of camera angles, sound effects, foley work, and ambiance made the audience feel like they were on a farm. To sell the feeling, instead of using the standard four soundtracks typical of an indie pic at the time, I used 16 tracks. The layering made a subtle difference that few could speak to, but they were all convinced the film was shot on a farm.
The biggest difference comes not from the director’s skills but his self-confidence. He must have a positive mindset, a relentless creative style, a passion for expression, and make choices based on his genre-based taste. Also, maintaining a high level of passion for the craft will always add the right amount of polish to any project.
Now find a way to practice these 7 steps daily.
Copyright © 2023 by CJ Powers
Love it! Hope we’ll see many aspiring directors digest these and apply them.