About directing - Part 1

Wolf DeVoon

New member
Dave Pauwels was kind enough to ask about my experiences as a director. I don't see much difference between film and tape, analog or digital, drama, comedy, or documentary, so I'll talk about them generally as "filmed entertainment," a traditional term that distinguishes movies from theater. I did some theatrical coaching for a community production, because lovely Beth had the lead role as Anna in The King and I, and she needed help, but I never directed "legitimate theater" and never wanted to. It was visually boring and empty.

Screen format matters, so a film director thinks in terms of Academy 1.33, letterbox 1.85, old fashioned 4:3 broadcast TV, and modern 16x9. A very long time ago, Fred Waller talked about a "dynamic frame" for his Cinerama format, and I have pals who worked on IMAX pix. I made 3-D product, side-by-side, over-under, anaglyph (colored glasses), silvered screen (polarized glasses) and "autosteroscopic" (no glasses). I've worked in Super 8mm, 16mm, Super 16mm, 35mm, 1/2" VHS, 3/4" U-Matic, Hi-8, 1" B format, 1" C format, BetaSP, 4:2:2, DV, HD, and 4K.

Cameras are funny things. I've used tiny ones strapped to my head for "subjective camera" scenes, medium size for Steadicam and Flight Stick moving shots, heavy Eclair NPR handheld for drama, and massive Ikegami 99A camcorders for news packages, all sorts of dollies and booms, high platforms, fork lifts, cherry pickers, wheelchair, and utility crane. My first 16mm camera was a Cine Special that took 50-ft magazines that had to be loaded in total darkness. Then an Auricon with 200-ft loads, after which I stopped buying cameras. I learned to rent equipment according to what the project required and fell in love with Arriflex and Aaton. I also stopped doing camera work in 1973, hired camera operators and professional DPs who were better than I was, although I continued to express opinions about lighting.

There is a great deal of specialization in filmed entertainment, most significant of which for a director are the "department heads." I've worked with brilliant art directors, choreographers, prop masters and designers, animators, sound engineers, musicians, vocalists, film editors and modern Final Cut mavens. It's not necessary for a director to know technical trades. The job of directing is to make the movie, not to operate the equipment. There are a lot of folks who make movies without division of labor, shooting and editing all by themselves. I didn't like it. One cannot direct the cast and envision the scene while futzing with exposure and sound equipment.

The serious business of editing is not something that I entrust blindly to an editor, however talented he/she might be with keyboard commands and data files. In television production, it's a little different because the schedule is so compressed. A great editor matters. However, I always directed the edit of certain sequences, especially musical performances with a lot of coverage, usually 3 "iso" cameras x 2 takes = 6 angles, one master shot, the rest in tight close-ups and a couple moving shots. Use of screen time and montage, how pictures join and move the eye, are signature aspects of filmmaking. We're constrained by takes that are marked as "Print" and the awkward lapses of continuity in other takes. It's hell trying to piece together verite (spontaneous coverage of an event, no other footage). Editing compromises are a delicate job. Directors make silk purses from all sorts of junk.

True likewise in directing performers. Supporting cast is a recurring problem. They only have a few lines, and they're often frightened when suddenly they're facing a big crew, hot lights, and they have to do close-ups. I let them try, then we try something else, spend a little extra time with them. In all projects large and small the pressure of money is constant, so it mustn't be wasted, but a bad performance won't do. Directors balance on a high-wire with one eye on the clock and the other on quality. This is especially true of "indie" directors who work with tight budgets, but true also of A-list pix. The budget is a budget whatever size. You have a certain number of shooting days, travel days, pre-production, and post.


Sigh. Directors spend 7/8 of their time doing things other than directing. At the beginning of every project, there is a concept or property (book, screenplay, scenario, live event). Money must be discussed with producers, stars, agents, investors, and imbecilic distribution toads, all of whom have inappropriate suggestions that have to be politely turned aside. Crews do it, too. Directing is diplomacy from first day to last in pre-production, on the set, and in post. Worst of all is "talking a good show" in someone's office or a restaurant.

Whether directors should write their own material is a thrawn conundrum. I believe that the profession of original screenwriting is a high art in its own right, and I know for a fact that my much beloved writer friends have far better ideas than I do. Erik Svehaug wrote a short story that blew my mind, screaming to be filmed as written, although it needs screen adaptation. Rob Williamson, Hal Badt, Joey Neniu, Lola Teigland, Rene Barnes, Dave Pauwels, and Naomi Distill wrote original scripts that I very much admired and wished I could film.

However (big sigh) there is no screenplay that should be shot as written, in my experience. A director is a villain to many talented artists. We change things they crafted with love and care and skillfulness. True also of directing cast and crew, especially stars. Directors direct them, treat them as living clay to be lifted, smashed as gently and firmly as possible, always in their corner, always grateful for their willingness to listen. Same thing with screenwriters. Love 'em to bits, appreciative of genius, delighted by surprising material I could not have created. Sorry, I want to change this this this this this this and this. Very possibly need a second draft and script doctors, scene cards, and my hand on the final script. This is not good news. A director will put his signature style on the script, which producers and stars dislike. Money talks, and directors do not have the same weight as a bankable A-list movie star. That's why I liked working with small stars and semi-pro talent. One less obstacle to fight. Producers are bad enough, and agents of all stripes are demons from hell, determined to destroy whoever they touch or refuse to touch with a twelve-foot Polecat (an expandable ceiling speader used in lighting an interior).


Whatever the project may be, long or short, big budget or nearly none, one begins with the leitmotif, an era in time, a look, a feeling that will inhabit the project and determine how it's played, photographed, designed and costumed, edited and mixed -- always with an audience and release format in mind. The director is a Temporary Audience more than a chief artist, although he has to be chief artist as well, plus crew chief, front office knight errant, and on occasion Liar-In-Chief when someone throws a hissy fit about a saxophone being damaged by a gaffer pulling power cables across the set. Yes, absolutely, we'll pay for it (I lied) to get the damn 15-piece Afro Cuban Jazz horn section miked up for a quick rehearsal and complicated camera coverage on a disco dance floor with dancers in costume.

I always went for elegant and intelligent as a signature style. Some projects were modern, others in a futuristic fantasy setting, or timeless, or a historical period. How well this can be executed depends heavily on the skill and energy of a production designer, working to an artistic vision that the director has to communicate in detail to everyone in front of and behind the camera. Production sound aims at clarity, although it's understood we will "loop" most of the dialogue in post on a big show. Little shows live or die on sound quality recorded on set and sometimes in adverse exterior set-ups with traffic noise.

Set-ups are a specific camera position, shooting film style. When I was a youngster, I tried to work 2-camera and gave it up pretty quickly. So, each set-up implies a lighting set-up that has to make sense when we do a reverse angle later. Backgrounds are a bitch to control, if you're working in a "practical" interior like a hotel room, conference room, storefront, etc. Windows have to be scrimmed with black nets to cut intense sunlight, key light balanced for daylight color temperature. Big pain in the ass for 20 seconds of screen time. That's why I care very deeply about hardworking gaffers and grips. I ask for the moon and hurry up, please -- but I also make compromises they know nothing about, because my directions are mindful of crew capabilities, available stands, soft goods, expendables, and how long I dare to delay start of shooting that set-up. A big crew and vast resources are a different kind of problem. Set-ups still matter, and they have to be communicated through chains of command, unit manager, DP, art director, prop master, etc.

Funny way to talk about directing, that it amounts to a military command. Sorry. That's largely true. When to start and stop, what to do next, sudden improvisation, unscheduled retakes, and a million decisions affecting every department are the business of directing. It's tiring to direct 12 hours a day, and it is emphatically lonely work. As you can imagine, I made a lot of mistakes as a young director, and none was as bad as sitting down at a crew lunch table. All conversation stopped. You can't chum around and smile if you're the director. Everyone on the set, both cast and crew, are attentive to and endlessly puzzled by the director's big, enigmatic personality. He must NOT need approval. It's fatal to morale, snaps the spell of confidence in his leadership, and the director MUST lead at all times.

Cast and crew come and go, some only working for a few days, others a few weeks, but the director starts and finishes the entire project. He must be at home in recording studios, edit suites, legal conferences, casting, food fights with the screenwriter, etc. I was always very appreciative of well-organized producers, production managers, and assistant directors -- all of whom are functionaries who control resources without touching the creative work, except in limiting what's possible by budget contraints that translate into shooting days.

(continued in Part 2) http://www.studentfilmmakers.com/for...recting-part-2
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