7 Steps to Being a Great Director

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.

Understand Editing

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.

Closing Tips

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

The Evolution of Film Editing

Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Film editing has come a long way since the days of silent films. From the early 1900s, when movies consisted of a single, uninterrupted shot, to today’s fast-paced digital world, where films can be edited on a computer with lightning speed, the art of editing has changed dramatically.

Silent Films

The earliest films were shot with stationary cameras, which captured the action from a fixed position, like watching a play. There were no close-ups or camera movements, and the films were edited by simply splicing together individual shots in the order they were shot. The editing style used was known as “continuity editing,” which is still used today.

D.W. Griffith, the director of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, was one of the pioneers of film editing. He used the technique of “cross-cutting” to create tension in his films. For example, in one of the most famous scenes in The Birth of a Nation, he intercut between a chase scene and a family in distress, which increases the intensity of the scene.

As films became more popular, filmmakers began experimenting with different editing techniques. In the 1920s, Soviet filmmakers developed the concept of montage, which involved editing shots together to create a new, meaningful sequence. Montage was used to great effect in films like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which remains a classic example of the technique.

Classical Hollywood

During the classical Hollywood era (the 1920s to the 1960s), film editing became more refined. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock used editing techniques like the “Kuleshov effect” to create suspense and emotion in their films. The technique is where a shot of an actor’s face is intercut with various other shots to create meaning. Hitchcock used this technique in the famous shower scene in Psycho to create tension and fear in the audience.

New Hollywood

During the 1970s and 1980s, a new era of filmmaking emerged, known as New Hollywood. Filmmakers could now edit their films on a computer, which gave them more control over the editing process. The development of non-linear editing systems, which allowed editors to rearrange shots in any order they wanted, made it easier to experiment with different editing styles.

Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather was a masterpiece of film editing. The film used the “parallel editing” technique to create a sense of tension and anticipation. In one scene, we see the baptism of Michael Corleone’s son, intercut with a montage of murders that Michael has ordered, creating a powerful emotional impact on the audience.

Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull used a unique editing style known as “intensified continuity.” This technique used shorter shots and faster cuts to create a sense of energy and urgency. The film’s fight scenes were edited chaotically and viscerally, which made them feel more real and intense.

Digital Age

In the digital age, editing has become even more complex with computer software and advanced special effects. This allowed filmmakers to create complex digital effects and compositing to manipulate footage in ways that were impossible with traditional editing techniques.

Nolan’s 2010 film Inception used a unique style of editing that played with the audience’s perception of time. The film’s dream sequences were edited in a non-linear fashion, creating a sense of disorientation and confusion. In his film Dunkirk, Nolan used three different storyline time periods (one week out, one day out, one hour out) that he compressed for parallel action.

Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network used editing to tell the story in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth in time. The film’s editing helped to create a sense of tension and drama, which kept the audience engaged throughout the film.

The Future

From shaping the narrative to creating emotional impact, film editing is a vital part of the art of cinema. With the widespread use of digital technology, editing has become an even more sophisticated art form. Editing is the tool, coupled with music, that allows the director to emotionally touch the audience.

Copyright © 2023 by CJ Powers

Finding Your Visual Voice

Have you ever wanted to find your own voice and style? 

I was at a lunch meeting where a producer asked me about my directing style. He asked what I did to develop it while I was in between gigs. Today, I’ll share what I told him—the 5 strategies that will help you find and hone your visual voice.

Many of you have heard me say a motion picture is filled with visual language like a book is filled with literary language. I’ve also said that the cinematic story is an argument, like the written prose at the beginning of a larger work. For the argument to convince the audience, the author or director must find his or her voice to authentically tell their story. 

Filmmaking is a complex art form that involves various styled elements such as storytelling, cinematography, sound design, and editing. For new directors, finding their voice in making films can be a challenging but crucial step toward developing a distinct style and creating work that resonates with audiences. 

To help filmmakers find their voice, I’ll go over some of the easiest strategies to explore.

1. Watch and Analyze Films from Different Genres and Eras

One of the best ways to find your voice as a director is to study and analyze the work of other filmmakers. Watch films from different genres and eras. Pay attention to the storytelling techniques, camera angles, and editing choices. 

Take notes on what works and what doesn’t work in each film, and try to identify the elements that make each director’s work unique. You will find certain elements that ring true to who you are and develop a natural taste for certain choices and styles. 

Then pull out your phone and shoot videos reflecting the elements you gravitate toward. It doesn’t have to be high quality, as this step is simply for practice.

2. Write, Write, Write

As a director, your primary job is to tell stories. Therefore, it’s crucial to develop your storytelling skills. Write scripts, short stories, or even jot down ideas for scenes or characters. Writing can help you clarify your ideas and develop your storytelling voice. 

Don’t worry about being perfect. Keep writing and revising until you find story elements or a story that resonates with you.

3. Collaborate with Other Filmmakers

Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and working with other filmmakers can help you find your voice as a director. Collaborating with writers, cinematographers, sound designers, and editors can expose you to different styles and techniques. You’ll even pick up on elements that will help you develop your creative process. 

Be open to feedback and suggestions, and don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things. Find inspiration in your personal experiences and perspectives. They can be a valuable source of inspiration for your films. 

Also, think about the stories you want to tell and the themes you want to explore. Draw from your life experiences to create authentic and relatable characters and situations. This can help you develop a unique voice that resonates with audiences.

4. Embrace Your Weaknesses and Limitations

As a new director, you may feel limited by your lack of resources or experience. However, these limitations can be an asset in helping you find your voice. Embrace your weaknesses and limitations, and use them to your advantage. 

Instead of trying to replicate the work of other filmmakers with more resources, focus on developing a style unique to your circumstances and resources.

5. Take Risks and Experiment

Finally, finding your voice as a director requires taking risks and experimenting with different techniques and styles. Be brave and try new things, even if they don’t always work out. Failure can be a valuable learning experience and help you refine your creative process and find your voice.

Finding your voice as a new director requires studying and analyzing other filmmakers’ work, writing and developing your own stories, collaborating with other filmmakers, drawing inspiration from your personal experiences, embracing your limitations, and taking risks with experimentation. 

By following these strategies, new directors can develop a distinct style and create work that resonates with audiences.

Copyright © 2023 by CJ Powers