Like the leader of an orchestra or the executive of a large corporation, the person in charge of a video shoot is called the director.
This is the person who makes the dream a reality, who sees the show in his head and transfers that vision onto videotape. The director decides what goes where, when, for how long, and why. He’s asked all the questions and must have all the answers.
The director is in charge.
While he’s taking care of all this business, the director also must tell a story with his video as true for covering a family Christmas party as it is for shooting a multimillion-dollar motion picture.
Without a story you’re just stringing pictures together.
This may be why many successful Hollywood directors began their careers as writers. Oliver Stone wrote Midnight Express before going on to direct Platoon; Lawrence Kasdan wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and then directed Body Heat and The Big Chill.
There are many methods of directing, perhaps as many as there are directors. Alfred Hitchcock would direct his movies from his office by imagining how the film would look and then story-boarding all the images. He considered actually shooting the script a bore!
Whatever the project, the director must have a clear idea of what he wants and what method he’ll use to achieve that goal.
In a nutshell, the director…
- decides how a show will look
- works with the scriptwriter to create a shootable script
- breaks the script into shots, and storyboards these to make sure they’ll work together when edited
- rehearses talent
- makes sure all necessary elements of the production are in place beforetape rolls
- controls the crew on the shoot to
- ensure that his is the vision that ends up on the screen
- makes fmal decisions on the set with ultimate authority
- decides how the show will be edited
- keeps his head when all about him are losing theirs
Prepare for Success
It’s been said that production is 90 percent preproduction. This is true for the director.
Know what you want before you get to the shoot. Do everything you can to anticipate problems before they hap-pen. Prepare your crew and your actors well ahead of rolling. Understand your limitations and live within them.
During the shoot, take control. Make the video you envisioned. Don’t get discouraged. Cover all the angles. Make it work.
When you edit the show together, don’t stop too soon. Keep at it until the show on the screen looks like the show you saw in your head. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
Let’s say the project is a five-minute show involving two actors in three locations. There are four scenes, the last occurring in the same place as the first. The two-man crew consists of a director/cameraman (we’ll say that’s you) and audio/grip/deck operator. (This is the usual size and description of crew at the local level for professional productions where budget is a consideration.)
The preproduction process begins well in advance of the shoot. The director meets with the scriptwriter and the client to suggest ways to bring their ideas to the screen or to steer them away from a concept that would be difficult or impossible to achieve
Client: I kind of imagined a giant cat, about the size of Godzilla, coming in and destroying New York. There would be explosions and buildings falling down in slow motion…that sort of thing.
Scriptwriter: I can work that in.
Director: We might be able to do that with a model and some post-production effects, but the cost will be high. For a segment that won’t last very long, it will probably eat up about half your budget. How strongly do you feel about it?
Client: The cat’s out.
Scriptwriter: It was never there.
Once the script has been approved, it’s time to envision what the show will look like. The script is often written with video suggestions from the writer.
Aim Before You Shoot
Prepared with a script and a vision, you must decide how to shoot. Break the scenes into shots and think about the angles from which you’ll shoot. If you’re feeling ambitious, make a storyboard by creating a drawing for each shot.
You don’t have to be an artist for this; little stick-figures do the job as well as elaborate drawings. Storyboards are helpful for seeing if the shots you have in mind will cut together in the editing process. Shots that are too similar can result in a “jump cut,” with unnatural visual flow.
With the script divided into shots, you can start thinking about extras. Do any of the scenes call for special lighting? What about locations? Will you build sets or shoot in the field? Will any scenes require a wireless microphone so the audio cable won’t show? Will the talent need special costumes or makeup? Each script is different, and you’ll have to choose and justify the expenditures.
It’s always worthwhile to rehearse the talent before the actual shoot whenever you have the luxury of extra time. Also, money spent on professional talent is never wasted. Good talent can make a fair script seem better, but poor talent makes the production look amateurish, even if the rest of the show is top-of-the-line.
Know your subject thoroughly. You needn’t be an expert on all aspects of the script, but you do need a good working knowledge of the subject.
For example, you should know how to pronounce words that might be unfamiliar to your talent. It’s also a good idea to have a “subject specialist” available at the shoot to answer technical questions that may arise.
A production schedule will help you coordinate the various elements. For the aforementioned example, since your first and last scenes are in the same place, they should be shot at the same time. Shoot your video in the order that makes the most sense.
Now comes the “lights, camera, action” stage that most people think about when they hear the word “director.” (Feel free to wear jodhpurs and a beret and hold a megaphone while you direct, although it’s not necessary.)
Have a production meeting with your crew (in this case, yourself and the grip) to confirm expectations. Assign duties so that essentials don’t fall through the cracks.
For example, the grip will check mikes and audio levels, get signed talent release forms from anyone who appears on camera, and set up and strike lights. The camera operator will set the tripod so the horizon is level in the viewfinder and see that the camera is white-and black-balanced and that lighting looks good, technically and aesthetically. You get the idea.
When the scene is set and the talent is in place, try to put them at ease. Few things in life are as stressful as having to perform with a camera pointed at you. Let the talent know you have plenty of tape and it’s okay if it takes a few attempts to get it right.
Be friendly. Stay relaxed. If, after a few takes, the talent only gets more nervous, stop tape and turn off the lights until the talent calms down.
The shot is set, the talent knows what to do, and the tape is cued. Now you can give the command to roll and record. Once the tape operator says “Speed!” (meaning the tape has rolled for five seconds to give you solid control track) you can respond smartly, “Action!” to cue the talent. Didn’t that feel good? When the shot’s over be sure to yell “Cut!” The director runs the show, but that doesn’t mean he or she should not listen to suggestions. It’s easy to overlook good shots or small problems when your mind is preoccupied with details.
The people around you should feel welcomed to help you out. If someone notices that the plant behind your talent appears to be growing out the top of the talent’s head, they should make it known!
On the other side of the coin, there can be only one director, one decision-maker. Directions bombarding the talent from all sides can be confusing. Suggestions must be channeled through the director.
Time, Tape, and Takes
Inexperienced directors are often tempted to overshoot. Although it’s not a bad idea to get an extra good take of a shot as a “protect” (in case there’s a tape wrinkle or some other unforeseen disaster), some directors shoot take after take looking for perfection.
That’s fine if you can afford it. But perfection wears down both your talent and your crew and eats up the clock. Look ahead. Make sure there’s enough time to get everything done before the end of the session.
A director should bear the editing process in mind as he shoots, especially with out-of-sequence recording. How will this shot fit with the one that goes just before it in the script?
Suppose you’ve shot the scientists in their lab and the next scene in the script will be shot outside as they exit the building. Think about continuity.
This means that your talent must be wearing the same clothes, their badges must be in the same place on their lab coats, and their hair must be combed the same way, even if the outside scene is taped days after the lab shot.
As you juggle these details, keep track of where your shots are on the tapes. If you have a set total time (30-second commercial, for example), you should time each shot to make sure it will fit.
Shoots being what they are, yours will probably run long. As the six-hour shoot approaches its tenth hour you may become a red eyed monster breathing fire and screaming orders.
This is natural, but avoid it at all costs. Often your crew and talent aren’t getting paid for their skills. If they’re not treated with respect, you could end up with no one and nothing to direct.
After shooting is completed you may be able to hand the mess over to an editor, heave a sigh of relief, and move on to your next project.
Alfred Hitchcock shot his movies so there was only one way to edit the footage. This made him unpopular with editors, who like their artistic freedom. It’s more likely that you’ll oversee the edit process from beginning to end.
Before cutting, the director should sit through his footage and make notes. After viewing the material he may discover that the shot he selected in the field may not be the best one after all. This is also a good time to check the shots against your storyboard to see if they cut together naturally.
If you’re working with an editor, tell him what you want and then make sure you get it. If you’re your own editor, thank yourself at this point for being so careful in the shooting process. Your cutting will be easy.
Obviously, directing is a more complicated process than this article might imply. When you direct a project you’re responsible for everything that hits the screen-a big responsibility requiring a huge amount of effort.
But the satisfaction of knowing that your vision has been realized makes it all worthwhile.
Bill Ronat’s directing experience has taken him from shooting F-14 launches off aircraft carriers on the high seas to the pilot of a network television soap opera, “Gold Coast.”