How to Direct Your First Masterpiece

Your creative muse is calling. You want to direct but you're not sure how to prepare for it. Here's some pointers to get you on the right track.

Filmmaking is a skill and like any skill, you need to practice; you can’t just read about it in a book. It truly is a learn-by-doing group of skills. But what are those skills; what does directing actually entail? It will all depend on the size of the budget and your crew. You could be directing a crew of one, which means you’re doing all the work yourself. There is much value in being a crew of one and learning all the jobs involved in making a movie. It is much easier to direct other people when you have a thorough understanding of what their job actually is.


You may be wondering what skills you should be practicing. Let’s take a look at the basics.


You’ll need a script to make any great movie, whether it’s a short scene, comedy skit or a narrative feature. Remember every story should have a basic structure with a beginning, middle and end.


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Remember every story should have a basic structure with a beginning, middle and end.

Longer films have a more advanced structure with specific story beats for the various movie genres such as horror, thriller, comedy, romance and others. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is a great book on screenwriting and structure.

Cast and crew, typically, expect to see a script in a standard format because it’s essentially an outline for making your film. Celtx offers free screenwriting software similar to industry-standard Final Draft that is easy to use. By reading screenplays, you’ll also gain familiarity with the format as well as identify the plot points in a script to determine if there is a definitive beginning, middle and end.

Breakdowns and Budget

Various people might do these jobs — assistant director, line producer, cinematographer — however, when you’re a crew of one, that would be you. Once your script is ready to go, you’ll want to determine what locations you’ll need, how many actors you’ll need, how many days it will take to shoot your project, and how much you think it will cost. One of the most important breakdowns you can do is a shot list. Using the script, try to visualize how the camera will move and tell the story throughout each scene. Storyboards can also be helpful if you’re trying to pull off a complicated scene or an action sequence.


Many directors also shoot their first projects. This can be difficult because you’re having to direct the actors while also framing shots and capturing the action in focus. It helps to be using a camera you’re very familiar with.

As a director, you’ll be able to do your job better if you understand the role filled by each of your crew members and what each needs to accomplish for a successful production.

Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen (Michael Wiese Productions) is one of my favorite books because you can practice all the individual shots in the book as well as get a good understanding of what shots you need to tell a story. Experimenting with lighting and how it affects your shots can also be beneficial.


There are so many different jobs and skills which fall under this category. Areas to explore include the difference in sound when using a shotgun mic vs. a lavalier, using ADR, and creating Foley, just to name a few.


One of the biggest values to editing your own initial projects is it can really help your storytelling and cinematography skills. I think every new filmmaker beats himself up in the editing suite saying, “if only I would have…” It’s important to realize practice is all about learning and acquiring new skills.

Good editing requires good timing and pacing. While the “fix it in post” mentality is not one I encourage because it usually ends up costing filmmakers lots of time and money, when you’re learning and making your initial projects, understanding what you can actually fix in post can be good to know.

Finding Inspiration and Motivation

Watching other people’s short films can also be helpful. In addition to seeing what worked — or didn’t — in their projects, you might meet people involved in the local film community or festivals in your area. In addition to making your own short films, you can also crew on other people’s films and see how they approach projects. Many film groups will take turns crewing on each others’ projects and helping each other get their movies made. In addition to being a great way to learn, it can be very beneficial when you need help on your project.

Online video contests can also be a good source of inspiration as well as motivation to finish your project quickly because of the built-in deadlines. 48 Hour Film Festivals are also fun challenges; however, they have the added advantage of providing networking opportunities so you can connect with cast and crew.

Final Thoughts

I hear a lot of filmmakers comparing their first film to the first pancake you throw out. It really bothers me because I do believe there is merit in everything we do. Often, we are the harshest critics of own work. The reason many of us make movies is to share our story with an audience. Even if only one person watches and likes it, you’ve accomplished your goal and successfully shared a story.

W. H. Bourne is an award winning filmmaker who has experience in making both documentary and narrative films.