When a video project fails, there’s no one to blame but the director.
That’s the bad part.
The good part is that when it succeeds the glory is the director’s alone.
We’ve all seen poorly directed films. They wander aimlessly, camera pointed at nothing in particular, actors sleepwalking through their roles. You find yourself wondering, “Where in the heck were they trying to go?”
It’s the director’s job to know the answer to that question. If you are unclear about a project’s direction, the crew, the actors and the audience will be, too. You’ll end up with a sloppy mess no one can sit through.
In the paragraphs that follow we’ll explore some basic directing mechanics. The more you know about these, the less time you’ll spend worrying about them.
The word talent refers to your actors and spokespersons. It’s an amusing word, since these people sometimes don’t have much in common with it.
Still, they’re your responsibility as director.
Sometimes you get to audition and pick your show’s talent. Sometimes circumstances force them on you (a company president wants to be the talent in her marketing video, for example). However they get there, it’s your job to make them look and sound as good as possible.
We’ll delve into this further when we’re on the set.
The archetypal director is a guy in jodhpurs yelling “action” and “cut” through a megaphone. The costume has changed, but the director still uses these phrases. The first couple of times you yell “action” on a set you’ll feel goofy, hut it soon becomes second nature.
But the director doesn’t just walk onto a set and start barking orders. The steps before the shoot are the most important aspect of directing. Skip them at your peril.
Plan, Plan, Plan
The planning stage is where you draw the blueprint, create the battle plan, decide the direction the project will take. Without this step you may as well forget it; your ship already has sunk (mixed metaphors, anyone?).
Directors of major films often begin planning a year or more in advance of a project. You may have neither the luxury of nor the patience for this much planning time.
Start by visualizing your script-anything from a bare-bones outline to a full-blown document complete with dialogue and stage directions. Break your script into shots. Visualize them. The vision will change when it bumps up against the reality of your budget, but for now, let your imagination go.
List every shot you think you’ll need. You may want to underline and number the sentence in the script corresponding to a shot. For example, the first half of sentence one is Shot 1, the second half of sentence one is Shot 2, and so on. On a separate sheet you’ll write (for example), “#1-Wide shot of Kasbah, booms down to reveal hero. #2-CU [close-up] of hero,” and so on.
Create a storyboard. Each shot becomes a picture-fine illustration or stick figures, as long as you can tell what the pictures represent. Under each picture you write the dialogue or voiceover. These pictures show how scenes cut together. If someone else is paying for the production, the storyboard is valuable for showing a client what the video will look like. You can also use it to show crew and actors what you’re trying to achieve.
The Production Schedule
When you get to Hollywood you won’t have to take the next step on your own. An assistant director/production manager/unit manager will handle the details of production schedules. But it’s a good idea to understand how they work.
Shooting each shot in sequence, as called for in the script, is inefficient.
Say you start out with an establishing shot in the busy Kasbah, using hundreds of extras. Next, your hero enters a building for a one-on-one conversation. Then he comes out-again, into the Kasbah. Would you leave all those extras waiting around while you shoot the interior scene? Of course not. You’d shoot out of sequence, picking up both Kasbah scenes at the same time.
A production schedule groups shots with common elements. If your script calls for a kitchen scene near the beginning and another at the end, shoot them at the same time. If a particular actor appears in only two scenes, schedule them on the same day (especially if you pay union scale). If you need a beauty shot of a building, schedule it for the time of day when the sun hits perfectly.
Your production schedule could include a second shot list grouping similar shots: “Location: Kasbah, Shot 6-wide shot. Shot 12-hero runs out of shop. Shot 13-wide shot, car forces its way through the crowd to pick him up.” Later, when shooting in this location, you can check off shots as you get them. This way you’re less likely to forget a shot.
Nothing is worse for the crew’s morale (or your mental state) than hearing, “Uh, I forgot we needed another shot of the hero back in the Kasbah,” especially if the Kasbah set was struck and the hero’s already gone home.
Whenever possible, scout the location. Visit the place where you plan to shoot to anticipate problems. For an outdoor shoot where talent speaks on camera, you’ll need to know if your location is near a highway, construction site or other noisy, disruptive area.
Check interior locations for power requirements. Are there outlets for plugging in your lights? If you plug them in, will they trip a breaker, crashing all the computers in the building?
A location may sound perfect on the phone, but a scouting trip may reveal itjust won’t work. It’s better to find this out before you show up with equipment, talent and crew.
The planning stage is not everyone’s favorite part of directing. It’s meticulous, challenging work. There’s no flash, no glamour. But if you cover every detail before going into the field, you’ll have more energy for making your show its best.
Plan to the 9th degree. Then plan some more.
Who Does What?
If your production involves several crew members, meet with them before starting the shoot. Go over the script, or provide a synopsis. Discuss technical concerns and work out solutions. (Are you shooting a night scene? Your lighting director will know that blue gels on the lights suggest moonlight.)
This does two things. It involves the crew in the decision-making process, which makes them feel good. It also tells the lighting director to include blue gels in his light kit, which he might not otherwise do.
Once you’re on the set, encourage your crew to participate with suggestions, but be sure they understand that you’re the boss.
As director, you are responsible for the final product. You have the final say on all content.
If you’re working with talent and a crew member has a suggestion, he should suggest it to you, out of talent’s hearing. If you feel the suggestion has merit, you can suggest it to the talent. This keeps the talent focused on one source of direction. When suggestions fly from every crew member everyone gets confused.
Pick your crew for technical ability and for personal compatibility. They need to be good at their jobs and easy to get along with. Be aware that the first shot of the day takes the longest to set up-the equipment must be prepared, power located and sets dressed.
As a general rule, the crew’s energy (and yours) will be low in the early morning, peak at mid-morning, lag after lunch, peak again near mid-afternoon and then drop off until the end of the day. Try to schedule your shots so the most difficult ones hit at peak times.
Once the set looks right, the lighting’s in place and all the gear appears to function, it’s time to bring in the talent. How you interact with these people determines how they appear on camera, so take care what you say.
Be Nice, Be Positive
Be gentle with your talent.
Non-professional talent may have no video experience. This can be a nerve-racking experience for them (and possibly for you.)
Say Ms. Brooks barely makes it through her first rehearsal. You yell, “Cut! Ms. Brooks, you’re blinking too much. Your enunciation is sloppy. You’re slouching. And try to smile more. Ready and action“
What is Ms. Brooks likely to do?
This is her first video experience. What you’re saying sounds a lot like criticism. She may become more nervous, or become wooden as she tries to remember all the faults she needs to correct. Or she just might get angry and walk off the set.
You do not want any of these reactions.
Instead, look for positive comments to make at the end of a take. “Ms. Brooks, that was an excellent smile. Now on the next one, hit your words a little crisper. I’m hard of hearing and it will help me. Thanks.” After the next take: “Very nice enunciation Ms. Brooks. Now try one with your shoulders flat against the back of your chair. Yes, perfect.”
Tell your talent what to do, not what not to do. It’s easier to remember a positive suggestion than a negative one. Every time you offer positive feedback to the talent, you increase their confidence. By the time you correct the problems, your talent should be ready to give their best performance.
Keep It All Covered
During the shoot, it’s good to grow eyes in the back of your head and develop the ability to be in two (and possibly three) places at once.
As director, it’s your responsibility to ensure that shots will cut together; that all shots called for in the script actually are shot; that talent not only has good delivery, but that they don’t change lines and alter the meaning.
You have to keep an eye on background action for lingering curiosity seekers that can ruin your shot. And if a plate glass window reflects camera and crew, who’s to blame?
The director, of course.
Give yourself some options as you go along. You must plan out every shot and know exactly where it will go in the final program, but you should also get some extra shots during the shoot itself.
Why? Because things slip through the cracks.
Say your sequence begins with the hero getting in a car, lighting a cigarette, driving a short distance and then exiting the car.
During editing you notice the hero has the cigarette in his mouth only in the first shot. Not a huge continuity error, but the sequence looks a little awkward.
If you’ve shot some cutaways of the street during production you can put a couple in. Then when you come back to the hero, no one will notice the cigarette has gone up in smoke.
If you’re shooting a documentary and can’t know in advance what shots you’ll include in the final show, you’ll need a lot of cutaways.
Say the mayor holds up a sheet of paper with a proclamation on it. He talks. You keep the camcorder on him. When he’s finished, you have an assistant hold up the document for a close-up.
In editing, you put the close-up in as if it happened in real time. Watch for opportunities like these.
Planning The Sequel
After the shoot and before you cut the show together there’s yet another planning stage.
Look through all your footage and make notes. Know where to find all the shots you need. This means jotting down what reel the shot is on and where it is on that reel.
Consider transitions (dissolves, fades), music, sound effects, titles- every aspect of your show. Create an edit decision list, made up of all the shots in order with their start (and sometimes stop) times, for the person doing the edits. You don’t want to search for shots in an edit session.
You might even want to do an off-line edit. This is where you cut your footage together to see how it’s going to look, but without any special effects, titles or music.
Also called a rough cut, this step is especially helpful in spotting potential problems and eliminating them before taking your show into the expensive on-line suite.
The Cutting-Room Floor
The actual edit can be the most enjoyable part of a production. As you put the shots down on the master, you watch your vision come together and form a cohesive whole.
If you’re pushing the buttons, the process should be smooth. If someone else does your edits, you’ll need to communicate.
Try to meet with the editor before the session. Tell him what you want to achieve. If he’s a professional, he’ll have suggestions for improving your show.
He may encourage you to avoid effects or sequences he knows from experience have little chance of working, or that will take too much time to achieve. Listen to the advice, use your own judgment and your edit should be enjoyable.
We’ve Only Scratched the Surface
Of course, there is a lot more to directing than all this.
Background and special areas of interest also shape a director’s style. If the director is a former actor he may focus on performances, entrusting technical areas to his crew. If the director came up the ranks on the production end, he may be active in the show’s every aspect.
As long as the director has a clear idea of where he’s going and can convey this vision to cast and crew, chances of success are good. Whatever the outcome, good or bad, it reflects the director’s effort.
Directing a complex video may be the biggest challenge you ever face. It may also be the most satisfying creative project you’ll ever take part in. You won’t know until you yell, “Action!”
Videomaker contributing editor William Ronat is co-owner of a video production company.