Director And The TeamAs a director a fundamental question you need to answer is which of the innumerable jobs involved in film making do you need to understand?

Can it be presume that a film script is the work of another and leave it at that? You may well believe after your experiences of film studies or even if you have worked in a real film studio, that the director’s role is all encompassing. In this paradigm the director knows all techniques of all crew members whatever their individual role in the production may be. This may be applicable and indeed a pre-requisite for a small scale or film school project. In such a scenario the buck as they say most definitely stops with the student or small scale director.

Additionally, such a setting may be viable in a context which assumes that all parties decide at a later date decide how to direct their knowledge and skills and so need to be trained in all spheres simultaneously. These elements, such as soundtrack and script development and are studied at length and covered by the film school curriculum. In reality it is impossible for one individual no matter how talented to master or even attain significant knowledge of all the domains of expertise that are necessary to make a film.  The Hollywood film industry is highly organized and each specialism is represented by a particular guild or union. As such you cannot train in a particular field unless you join the appropriate union. Taken collectively all of this means that a director has to delimit those skills he or she needs to master and those that they need to appreciate

So how do you differentiate between the two? Without doubt certain skills such as script writing, photography and lighting are skills which stand alone in their own right. They are also processes that any competent director must gain an understanding of. Having said this, there are caveats contained within the frame work of knowledge that a director must attain. For instance, in working with optics and film stocks a director needs to know light is transmitted through different lenses and what type of image results from that transfer. Any high school physics text book can impart the foundations of such knowledge.

As far as equipment is concerned a director must understand which cameras (or not) are compatible with a particular motor or tripod. Can the director understand how fast a camera can turn on a specific tripod? Does the director understand what a particular piece of trade jargon might mean or what the terminology may refer too? All we are driving at is that a director must have solid foundation of the basic skills necessary to work in a particular field of expertise, the nuts and bolts if you will. The director does not need an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the camera or other device in question. In fact such knowledge should be probably be if not discouraged, certainly kept in the directors proverbial back pocket.

This distance of knowledge is important because a healthy, respectful and professional distance needs to be maintained between the director and the other workers on the film set. In other words the director must not micro-manage those that are responsible for knowing the many mechanical facts about cameras and how they handle film. It is fair to assert that a film crew will be more comfortable working with a director who at least knows what he or she is talking about regarding a particular skill.

Clearly, this is crucial to forming positive professional relationships with the film crew. However, this is not the role of the director; they must be able to impart their vision and to do this they must know how to communicate what they are looking for from a particular shot. The shot is then requested from the camera crew, the head of photography will then ascertain the viability of the director’s request. The shot may not be possible for a particular technical reason or may need tweaking in some way. In which case the head photographer will discuss with the director any issues or alternatives. Whatever the case the director is required to have a degree of knowledge so that the shot can be discussed. The point is that the director is not telling the camera crew how to actually use their equipment.

Life and its enterprises are replete with exceptions and filmmaking is no different. For example in TV advertising the director often has the additional role of director of photography. In this circumstance the director must have detailed knowledge of the machinations of the equipment he or she is using. In addition, there are some film directors who believe it is their personal responsibility to absorb totality of knowledge that goes into film making. This is not necessary and for the reasons outline above ought to be discouraged.  You will be operating within the broader world of film and TV. In this sphere the director must understand the basic language and the effects produced as the parameters of light and film or lens and filter change and then leave the rest to the experts in their field.

The correct use of light is similarly a precise technical skill and so a director must familiarize themselves with terms such as “key” and “fill” and they must know the difference between a “2K” and an “inkie”.  Any director has to appreciate what kind of light will make a particular shot work. The must understand the relationships between light and color. As a corollary the director must understand what filters or other “tricks of the trade” are necessary to make them compatible. The director does not need to know how to stop circuits overloading or how different light types can be made to complement each other. The director does not need to know the names of individual types of cables. This specialist knowledge is the domain of the gaffer and his or her associates. A director is not required to understand technical language which falls outside their domain.  As a director your role is to study the light and the mood it solicits. The director is not responsible for the practical knowledge concerning the world of circuits, lamps and amps.

As for everything else, to avoid confusion as to why certain shots take a certain amount of time you must know whether or not a dolly track is needed and what the timescale is for getting it set on its track, but knowledge of how the dolly is put on the track is not in within your remit. Similarly, you do not need to understand how your continuity team takes their notes, but you do need to know that they are being taken and why they are useful to you.

In addition, you need to understand that props can take time to acquire and that special effects must be discussed in intimate detail, long before actual filming begins. However, you do not need to understand how the prop person makes a dead animal look like a live one.  I would argue that in fact it is better to be ignorant of such matters, then you can derive pleasure and satisfaction from the transformations and in in the magic of the filming process.

If you are working with videotape it is essential that you understand the term “white balanced” (how a video camera is electronically calibrated with the actual color of light falling on the subject). You need to know that video needs more even lighting than film does; to grasp this fact it is necessary for you to comprehend and apply technical terms such as “contrast ratio”. However, detailed knowledge of how a particular piece of equipment works and how to repair it, if it breaks down is not required on the part of the director.

In essence, there is a happy medium or balance between knowledge that facilitates your role and knowledge that disrupts the expertise of others. The goal is that you can say “I understand the issue; let’s cooperate and find a solution”. Such an attitude will endear you to the crew, with whom you will foster productive and positive working relationships. You will learn flexibility as the crew gently steer you away from the strict or inflexible artistic route to success that you had previously set for yourself. Conversely, helpful knowledge is that which enables you to state “I see a method whereby you can hit your objectives with no need to damage your equipment or break your spirit”.

Appropriate knowledge expedites the achievement of your artistic goals. This can mean several things; a director may need to know something in enough detail so that a shot or scene can be devised well ahead of time, making it easier to film. It can mean acquiring enough technical knowledge, which helps the crew circumvent a particular problem, again doing you no harm in the popularity stakes. In essence understanding how much knowledge of a particular skill you must acquire to achieve your objectives is a question of balance and learning by experience.

The self-teaching approach has profound and intrinsic limitations. You may cut out a particular kind of shot or scene because you may be thinking “this shot will cost too much or is beyond the limit of my expertise“”. A preferred scenario is obviously where you as a director can approach the appropriate film crew member and say “Here’s what I want, can it be done?” The answer can of course vary, it could be “Yes we have just bought a new- whatever it is – that can do that job”. Or, the response could be “Have you heard of – whatever it is? Its purpose built to solve that issue”. If you set out to keep on top of every technical development, you will almost certainly sabotage both the artistic and technical aspects of your career.

A final note on your role as director

On reading this you could be forgiven for thinking that the director is merely a facilitator a highly skilled assistant or an added extra to the serious expertise of the members of film and television crews

The director doesn’t write the script, hire the actors or take charge of editing. Even on the set the director’s role is only possible due to the cooperation, dedication and skill of large numbers of highly professional people. This reality is a polar opposite to the image conveyed by print media and is certainly a different universe as compared to the early stages of the film industry. These points all need to be considered, but the truths contained in this perception are not absolute.

There are exceptions consider feature films where the director is not only in complete control of all aspects, but he or she is the super king. What they want most definitely supersedes everything else.  For example Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese are (or were) directors who took full command of everything from the script to the design.

On occasion these directors will take on the role of producer. John Sturges both produced and directed “The Great Escape” and “Gunfight at the O.K Corral”. This seems a leap to far for most directors who prefer to keep the two roles mutually exclusive. As a further example Woody Allen, prefers to keep questions of logistics, finance and other essential jobs within the remit of his long term producers.

A director who takes on the role of producer-director is known in the industry as a “hyphenate”. It is important to state that there are writer-producers and director cameramen, in other words a dual role is not uncommon. In such a scenario even if the director is not the source of the original idea and does not take the credit of “producer”, they will have the absolute power to decide everything from casting and rewrites.

The whole purpose of this chapter is to prepare you for working as a director in most common context, whether in a TV mini-series, or in advertising. In truth it refers to any directing scenario where the producers have taken a more active role in (if not control of), certain functions. I do not mean to suggest that your artistic authority has been commandeered. I do however suggest that you will need to alter your own image and perception of what the role of the director actually is.

Relax into your role and you will enjoy it more. I further argue that it is better for you if do not need to be concerned with the day to day operations or details, they are someone else’s responsibility. When at daybreak your assistant knocks on the door and says “Ready in 5”, you may find it a bonus that you do not need to worry about some minor point that seemed so important in your last year of film school.

The opposite also holds true, you may be one of those individuals who finds every detail important and you have to attend to them all yourself. If this is the case, you may need to consider working somewhere else other than the real world of film making outlined above. You need to realize that the framework is set up and has evolved such that the producer, executive producer and all the other team members involved in the enterprise are going to perform their roles even if you think that is your personal responsibility.