You are the director of a film. What does that mean? What does a director do? How do you do it?
There are so many misconceptions about film directors, many of them perpetuated by they themselves, and such a heavy mythology attached to the position, that the romanticized version is almost always both overstated and underestimated.
Yes, of course, we all want to think of the director as the artist, and in the best of circumstances, they are. But the very first thing that all directors engage in is management. Their job is basically to answer about 1,000 questions a day, give another 1,000 orders, and wrestle with 1,000 problems, all of it geared to making a vision come to life. Sometimes this serves an artistic impulse from deep within the soul. Sometimes the director is little more than employee fulfilling the wishes of client’s messaging strategy. But always, the job is about putting together a jigsaw puzzle with an inexact picture to work off of, and sometimes, no picture at all, other than what lies in the mind’s eye.
In short, a director conducts cast and crew to perform each of their many specialized functions to realize a symphony of sound and vision which materializes into a final work. It’s like what happens in classical music, where the conductor brings together various instruments to perform the greater piece. Only in film, the director actually combines a great many artistic disciplines rather than just one (music). A confounding hodgepodge of craftsmanship – writing, acting, photography, sound recording, illustration, painting, carpentry, electrical engineering, styling, tailoring, and so much more – must be herded into place with exactitude in order for the final vision to be successful.
And it’s the director upon whose shoulders the weight of all the cogs fall. They are the champions if it all works; they are the fall guys when it all fails. Intimidated yet? Only a fool would not be…
There’s no real one way to approach directing. Methods vary from meticulous preparation to instinctive improvisation. Often, a grand mix of several approaches will serve best. It’s a Quixotic quest which requires finely honed wits, massive confidence, and sharp instincts. Different folks will lean more strongly on different qualities to get through the process, and books have been filled discussing the styles and methods of history’s great film directors. There are, however, the fundamentals of the job – the basic stuff that needs to be done and which requires the director’s full attention. This is equally true in feature films, commercials, and even 30-second YouTube videos. However you want to go about it, be prepared to face these big central tasks and understand that however you choose to handle them, they are the parts of the machine which will drive your entire vehicle forward.
In the beginning, comes the word. Screenplays are the first step in fleshing out a vision for filmmaking. Once the work has been initially read, a few things have to happen. Seeing the film in the mind happens naturally for any reader, but the director has to envision things both in front of and behind the camera. Stories flower organically within the psyche, and that’s enough for an initial reading. But subsequent review must have the director thinking in terms of scenes, moments, and beats. When is a close-up important? Should the camera be panning or remain static? Dynamics such as this puts the director’s signature on the piece and they need to start outlining those ideas in the first few readings. This can be as loose as writing notes in the margins of the script or as disciplined as full shot lists and script breakdowns. To get a better understanding of storyboarding, read our article on storyboarding screenplays. But there can be no passivity in the reading. The director must treat the written work as a critic would, as an engineer or architect would, as a detective would. The discovery and construction of the film all starts here. It’s almost like a master thesis. Get the gears going – you’re making a movie!
Next up, the director needs to start to really see what the final film will look like. Cameras are far from rolling at this point, but the eyes and mind need the visual stimulation which can help solidify the vision forming within the filmmaker’s brain. The storyboard isn’t just a visual tool for the director – it’s also a crucial means of communication to be shared with the cast and crew of the production. Every single department will need to refer to the tool as it is the only frame of reference for what the final cut of the film will actually look like. Whether directors draw the storyboard themselves, hire someone to do it, or use software to get it made, this process is the keystone in the filmmaking process which bridges imagination to craft by way of the eye. And it also serves as a carrot for the filmmaker: a tangible artifact that makes the whole project come to life in a way screenplays alone can never achieve. If you want, you can read more about the technical side of storyboard creation.
Let’s get the idea of auteurship right out of the conversation from the get-go – filmmaking is a collaborative process. With the exception of a very small handful of bold and brilliant experimental artists most people have never heard of, it really does take a village to make a movie. And it’s not all craftsmen and artisans. If the director is the vision’s CEO, the production staff is the rest of the managerial structure. Production personnel will take care of a million thankless tasks from handling financials to logistics and endless paperwork. They make schedules, arrange for food and facilities and make sure everything and everybody gets where they need to be when they need to be there. As much as any artistic employee of the project, they need to understand the needs of the film. Developing a good rapport with these good people is crucial to the director, not only to keep the machine running smoothly, but to foster goodwill which will trickle down to all involved. Communicate clearly with these folks. Help them help you solve your problems. Recognize when they have reached their own limitations and find ways to work around them. Trust them with carrying the film’s water and make sure they get a good drink themselves. The production staff is the glue that keeps it all together. Spend time with them and give them the time and space to familiarize themselves with the requirements of the film.
This is the one person the director will spend the most time with on set. By definition, everything being filmed literally revolves around the camera. And the camera department is led by the cinematographer (or, director of photography, aka DP). It’s very important for a director to command the language of visual realization. You have to be able to accurately communicate things like lighting, angles, and color temperatures to the DP. They should be able to make anything look however you want things to look, but they need to be able to understand this from the very beginning – there is little time on set for going over old tracks. It’s best to start talking to a DP during pre-production so as to be sure they are properly prepared. To learn more, you can read our article about what cinematographers do. But when words and descriptions fail, a director must prepare to discuss feeling, action, emotion, and mood, not only from the actors, but from every element of the environment. In a way, the DP is the director’s first audience. If you can successfully transmit your desired effect to them, they can make that effect materialize for everyone else. They are the bridge from your brain to the audience’s eyeballs.
When the cameras get rolling, whether you are outside or filming interiors, every physical object being recorded must look right. That sounds silly and obvious, right? But think about what this really means: every structure, every object, every setting must be what the vision needs it to be. This means sets need to be constructed, painted, and placed. It means props must be catalogued, accessible, and match the script’s instructions. It means anything that isn’t attached to an actor (i.e., clothes and makeup). In the best of circumstances, the director will have an army of fellow artists from a variety of fields working with them. In pre-production, production designers flesh out the look of the film. Set designers take that work and create the blueprints for final sets. Set dressers take the reins to make sure everything looks right and is in the right place. Every step of the way, the director must be sure he explains what this picture must look like. Should dishware in the dinner scene have floral patterns? Does the car chase require a ’57 Chevy to look authentic? Will a spiral staircase add symbolism to a scene that a straight one will not convey? The director has to get that detailed and make sure the art department understands and deliver all of these items. And the art department can also add their own suggestions once they get to know the vision being filmed (maybe a ’62 Buick fits better?). Forming good working relationships with these craftsmen and women is essential for any filmmaker looking to capture the images in their heads.
They say in baseball, if you don’t have good pitching, you’ll never win games. In filmmaking, it is the actors who play that role. Productions can suffer from poor screenplays or boast literary masterpieces. In both cases, only good actors can make things work. If the audience cannot relate to the characters, everything else becomes empty and meaningless. The closest personal relationship the directors must have with set crew by necessity must be with the actors. Once casting has been decided upon, a smart filmmaker will spend a lot of time with their actors. Yes, there is rehearsal, but there needs to be more. Go out to dinner with the cast, go to a ballgame, take long walks. Get to know them, their personal lives, their triumphs and tragedies. The director’s job is to evoke the right emotion at the right time for every moment of film. The actor will need to tap into sense memory – recalling real experiences to translate those emotions into performance – and the director will need to know how to evoke those mechanisms. Did the lead actor just get some bad news? You can use that for the scene where the protagonist just lost her job. Perhaps the actor playing the antagonist recently won a marathon they trained for. That can be employed for the scene where he laughs as he escaped danger in the nick of time. At its height, the actor-director relationship game is a delicate dance. Real-life feelings must be exploited; buttons must be pushed. Directors have to do their own acting, bouncing raw emotional stimuli to provoke the actors into their craft. But if the parties involved are not prepared to venture into the secret places of the mind, mediocrity will be the result. By the end of the shoot, a final burst of strength is required: the maturity to let it all go. It’s a thrilling process when done right and the best movies often have paid for the experience with a lot of powerful emotions.
OK, now that we’re done torturing the cast, let’s make sure they look right. As much as any other craft on a production, the folks dressing up the characters are artisans in their own right. You’re not going to need a barber here; you’re employing a professional stylist who needs to be able do anything from Marie Antoinette to a punk rock mohawk. And not only that – since a production can go on for months, those haircuts need to look the same day after day. That’s not an easy trick. As for makeup, there are quite a few facets to consider. First of all, the harsh lights that films require to illuminate a scene can make human skin translucent. Without a sufficient base, you’ll actually see an actor’s veins – which maybe works in a horror movie. Speaking of which, makeup can also mean blood, guts, and gore. Or a model walking the runway. Or a black eye – or anything, really. It has to be as right as anything else to pull off believability. Finally, we have the wardrobe department. While most folks think of the people who dress actors up for period pieces, even a white T-shirt and jeans needs to be “just so.” Are you dressing a soccer mom or a factory worker? Will there be sweat stains or will things be immaculate? It’s the director’s job to make these decisions and consulting the pros who shape your characters’ looks is as important as anything else. These aren’t just fashionistas, these are the folks who will mold your cast’s look and transmit the inner selves of the fictional ensemble to the audience. Be patient with them. Go through pages of patterns, color swaths, and style books. They are true pros who have to have an enormous amount of face time with the same actors who make everyone on set crazy. Give them their due and then some.
Once the director has gotten the film in the can, a whole other set of things has to happen to get to the finished product. The fundamental process here will be the editing of the film. Now, that storyboard that got things started can be pulled out again. Raw footage can be cut and assembled to construct scenes, and then the scenes put together to make the movie. At this stage, many opportunities will arise that the storyboard could not anticipate. Mishaps, extra shots, performance issues, lost footage, and many more happy and unhappy accidents will conspire to further alter the original vision and remold the film. A good editor will listen to a director’s needs and find ways to augment the original ideas creatively. A good director will give them some room to do this. Editors are masters of pacing, montage, and timing. They can feel a sequence before a director can. They can see flaws in a director’s plan and anticipate opportunities a director will be grateful for. If a filmmaker can properly communicate the tone of the film, what it should and should not feel like, a smart and empathetic editor can pull many marvelous tricks out of their sleeves. In almost every case, I would urge a director to let someone else do the editing. Real magic can come from this. Other key jobs in post include special visual effects, CGI, and maybe animation. You can read more about special effects and animation for more information. The director’s approach to these jobs is similar to the art department positions discussed earlier.
But movies also have sound. The biggest jobs in this respect include sound design, sound mixing and of course, the soundtrack. As with any other aspect of filmmaking, the director must again be able to convey to these artists what the sound will add to the story. For sound design, this means everything from environmental noise – highways, birds chirping, waves crashing on the beach – to sounds external to the action which can add atmosphere to scenes. Science fiction movies, for example, will often use weird, otherworldly sounds with no discernible source to make the feel of the fantastic more pronounced. When it comes to sound mixing, the question of how loud or quiet these things are can make a big difference. Do those chirping birds sooth the characters in the background, or interrupt a conversation with great annoyance? You have to get that all in the mix. And then there is the mighty soundtrack. Everybody loves a good soundtrack. But imagine if you tried plugging the music from Star Wars into the film Straight Outta Compton? Or vice-versa? Both have awesome music, but obviously, neither could work for the other (although it would be totally funny). So again, the director must be very sure to communicate to the composer EXACTLY what ideas and feelings the soundtrack must convey to the audience. That means hanging out listening to music together. Will you go rock or classical or maybe merengue? Every film has its feel and the score can transmit a wealth of psychic information to viewers – I mean to listeners! Just like David Bowie said, film is the gift of sound AND vision!
When all is said and done, a director is a person who lives in service to a vision. Ideally, that will be the director’s own, but clients can often dictate this as explained earlier. You saw the term “communication” over and over again, and this is the key: the director is the chief empath on the project. You must soak in information with depth and telegraph intent with great accuracy. Talking and listening must be afforded in equal measure. Be bold, but be kind. Be hard but prepare to bend. There’s always going to be people who have a better idea than you. And there’s always going to be people you will have to convince about your own convictions. Welcome to the razor’s edge. Tread carefully and with confidence and you may just come up with something special.
Argentinean-born New Yorker Miguel Cima is a veteran of the film, television, and music industries. An accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comic book creator, Miguel's movie, Dig Comics, won Best Documentary at the San Diego Comic Con and was selected for Cannes. He has worked for Warner Bros. Records, Dreamworks, MTV, and more. Currently, Miguel creates content for multiple platforms and media. His formal education came from New York University, where he earned a BFA in film. World traveler, culture junkie and major foodie, he is happily unmarried to the same gal since the mid 2000s, devoted to his family & friends, and slavishly serves his true masters - two dogs and a cat.