The Duties of a Filmmaker

picThis morning I was curious about the changes in the film industry based on the generational shift in business. The shift is hard to describe, but instead of handing numerous projects over to millennial filmmakers, Hollywood is still making most of the films with more experienced directors and producers.

I googled to learn what new filmmakers think their duties are and was surprised to read about tasks and software. There were no articles about crafting great stories in regard to a filmmaker’s duties. Nor was there anything I could find about the filmmaker’s core responsibility—entertaining the audience, while exploring the human condition.

Film is an emotional medium, which suggests a plethora of articles about how filmmakers create those proverbial roller coaster rides for the audience, but again there were few articles educating millennial filmmakers on how to build the emotions of the audience.

Story is king in both the emotional arena and in the exploration of the human condition. Story is also pure entertainment that opens the eyes and hearts of the audience to consider the filmmaker’s message. But again, there was little about how a millennial filmmaker could craft a story that changes the lives of its audience.

I think Steven Spielberg summed up the core problem well:

“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”

I’m not suggesting that filmmakers take classes on film and story theory. But I do advocate that new directors have as many diverse life experiences as possible to create a cinematic “tool belt” from which to fashion dynamic stories. I also recommend directors read a minimum of 10 books a year to capture and understand the observations of writers who explore the human condition.

Unfortunately the typical Millennial only reads an average of five books a year, keeping them far from the ability to contemplate various viewpoints, let alone draw noteworthy conclusions about our culture. A director must have a life perspective that integrates with, not isolates from, the culture at large in order to meet the audience where their hearts live and guide them to a more hope filled life.

Directors must also live inside the culture at large. They don’t have to be of it, but they do have to be in it. I worked on a major animation project years ago with a professor that was my exact opposite. I was conservative and she was liberal. I believed in sustaining life at all costs and she believed in “mercy” killings. The list continued ad nauseam.

The project we worked on helped over one million kids learn the basics of chemistry in 12 weeks. Even I fully comprehended the scientific principles in that short time frame. Why? Because I lived in the professor’s culture and in my own, which allowed me to bring all kinds of innovative ideas and new perspectives to bear on the project.

Once released, the professor admitted that she had worked with several liberal directors that were unable to simplify here complex teachings into simple animations. None of the previous solutions shared truth in a logical manner. She understood that it was my diverse knowledge and experience that made me the right director for the project.

She shared how much she grew as a person from the experience and offered her future services for free. She was willing to do anything for an opportunity to collaborate again. And, she started to rethink her position on a few controversial life issues.

Directors must be able to enter the worlds of other people and capture the essence of the person’s “why.” He must also thoroughly think through how to thread his message in and out of the entertainment elements of a story. These techniques allow the director to come along side of the audience and draw them from their viewpoint to his by the end of the film—fulfilling the duties of the director.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Young Directors Focus on 3 Things

Dolly move during scene 1I had a recent conversation with a young director who was about to shoot her first film. She was eager to make sure she wasn’t missing anything in prep and asked me to explain what a director does in prep, production and post.

The first twenty items rattled out of my mouth with ease and her face drained of color. She was overwhelmed and wasn’t ready to hear the remaining 80 – 90 items. She said, “To do all that, you’d have to be a businessman, psychologist, coach, artist, life-experienced decision maker … a lot of things.”

“Yes, and then some,” I said.

She understood. She also realized why there are few good directors that actually do the work of a director.

“Now I understand why there’s so many bad shows,” she said. Her head tilted in thought and within moments she regrouped. Her eyes lost that hazy fog and she brought clarity with one question. “As an inexperienced rookie who might not be able to handle the full job, what three things must I do to succeed?”

Here are my three responses:

  1. Read the script from top to bottom and notate your emotional experience.

The first read through is the most important, as the director can never have a second, first read. During the reading, the writer’s work will point out the key elements that will make the story succeed. If the director notates it and determines how to shoot it in a way that the audience can experience the same emotional line, the film has a chance at being great.

However, if the director doesn’t capture the emotional pulse of the story, none of the scenes will play out properly during the shoot. Since the director is the only one who will be able to spot the straying storyline during the shoot, he must capture and understand the emotional pulse of the story. Without it reduced to writing in his director’s notebook, he will be directing with a proverbial blindfold on.

  1. Pencil out a blocking diagram.

Independent productions cost about $5,000 – $25,000 per hour (I’m not talking about ultra low budget films). Rehearsals during prep week cost a fraction of that budget. Therefore its mandatory that a director comes to set prepared to share blocking instructions with the cast and DP (Director of Photography). A quick rehearsal will work out the kinks and the shoot can begin.

Many young directors think they are more creative by designing the blocking on the fly during an extended rehearsal prior to rolling the cameras. These moments become very costly and rarely integrate with the previous or subsequent scenes. Only the director has a full understanding of how the picture will come together before editing, so if he doesn’t do his homework, then no one knows in advance how the picture will look.

  1. Create a shot list.

Most single camera shoots today require 2-4 cameras to keep within budget. During a typical conversation between two characters, each actor has a close-up camera and an over-the-shoulder camera. This gives the director full latitude in making decisions during post. However, it can become sloppy and extend the editor’s cutting time three fold. To counter this delay, it’s important for the director to create a shot list for the DP, which will be reflected in the editor’s log.

Single camera shoots that only use one camera also require a shot list to make sure set-ups aren’t revisited. The shot list also pinpoints the most important shots in case the day runs long and shots have to be dropped. The list is the only way to guarantee that all the important shots are captured.

These three activities will assure that a new director has a fighting chance to survive. Without any one of them, the film will surely be a disaster in quality, budget or schedule. Not to mention the whole reason for creating the story will have evaporated from the set for lack of prepared vision.

© 2016 by CJ Powers