Directing your first project is like getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time. You read through the manual, attended the driving courses in a classroom, and absorbed all of the advice and instructions from licensed and seasoned drivers, but when it comes time to sitting behind that wheel yourself for the first time, the butterflies in your stomach take flight.
Here’s the good news. You can maneuver your way through the process once you realize that that’s all it is: a process. Like driving, directing is a step-by-step process that, when properly followed, will help you get from point A to point B without crashing along the way.
Shadow an Experienced Director
One of the best methods to learn about directing is from a seasoned director himself. Film students from USC and UCLA are known for shadowing Hollywood directors on actual movie productions. Shadowing just means observing a professional director in action. It’s not the same as an internship, where you have to run errands. By shadowing a director, you will gain an extensive understanding of the entire filmmaking process, from both technical and creative points of view.
That said, beyond tracking down opportunities for hands-on experience, there are a few other ways you can prepare for you first directing gig.
Have a Plan
Directing involves having a realistic and a methodical game plan. The same way you have to know what to do next after you start the engine of a car, you have to know what to do when the cameras start rolling. Never go in cold, even if you’re working with a seasoned or experienced crew. Some projects can afford professional directors of photography and assistant directors, but the crew will still need to turn to the director for—well—for direction.
The script is the blueprint to your entire production, and without it, your chances of directing a successful first-time project are zero. A good script, at this point, is a director’s best friend. But a good script breakdown is your ally. Once you have the script, your next step is the pre-production phase. You have to know the plan from the pre-development stage to the post-production stage. There’s no winging it in directing. As soon as you know you have the job, read through the script. And if there isn’t a script, write your own. You’ll have to do this anyway — before production begins, you’ll need to write your own shooting script and script breakdown, detailing shots, camera movements and blocking.
Don’t leave anything to chance. When I was a film student in college, our professor had the students storyboard each project before we shot it. A storyboard helps you to visualize not just the scene, but each individual shot. Each panel in a storyboard should communicate where the actors are going to be placed, what shots work best for the scene, and if those shots are going to be expensive or cost-effective. For example, if you know in advance that a shot should be mounted on a tripod rather than handheld, you can save time and money by having that tripod ready to go when it’s time to shoot. A storyboard helps you to quickly visualize what you need during each day of the shoot.
On top of your own preparations, you’ll also need to schedule time for rehearsals with both cast and crew to make sure production flows as smoothly as possible.
Make no mistakes about it–the director is the head honcho on the set of any filming project. They not only helm the shoot, but have to be responsible for everything on the set from the crew to lighting and sound, to keeping on schedule and managing the actors — and, yes, the director is even responsible for handling emergencies.
There are no technical qualifications to become a director. You need the confidence and the know-how. You need to communicate well with the financiers, the actors and the crew. You also need to keep everyone motivated. By planning your shoot early in the development stages, your chances of experiencing obstacles during the production narrow down. Even though every project varies based on the budget, shooting schedule and resources, the rule of thumb always remains the same for every director: have everything in order before the cameras start rolling.
Study the Craft of Directing
There are tons of books, videos, blogs and courses on the topics of directing and filmmaking. Directors love sharing their experiences on their first directing gigs. They love passing on the knowledge they have learned from trial and error on micro-budget projects as well as Hollywood productions. Gather as much information as you can from these sources, but in the end, when you’re behind that wheel, you have to make your own decisions and your own judgments.
It’s imperative to understand every aspect of the production long before the production actually commences.
But you also have to know everything about driving before you get behind the wheel. Where the brake is, how to steer, how to parallel park. The same concentration and know-how goes into directing. It’s imperative to understand every aspect of the production long before the production actually commences. As long as you stay positive, keep notes, prepare for the unexpected and take deep breaths, you will be well on your way of becoming just as skilled as the best in the business.
Stephen Mandel Joseph is a writer and journalist from NYC. He also pens screenplays and comic book scripts when he’s not freelancing. He has a passion for filmmaking and directing.