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DIRECTING FOR FILM & TV - Notes by Nigel Barton


1. THE DIRECTOR

The Director is the key creative person on a film or television project. The so-called ‘Director’s Vision’ shapes the whole movie and all of the other determents involved in the making of the film – sound, lighting, production design and so on work in collaboration with this vision. In a sense the Director makes the film in his or her head before any shooting has begun. It is often the case that people do not understand the difference between the Director and the Producer. The Producer is an organiser, in charge of the budget, hirer and firer of the crew, the implementer of the project. The Director designs the film, orchestrates its emotional content and is the head of the creative side of the filmmaking process.

 



2. THE SCRIPT

The first step in the making of a film is creating the script. The script is the blueprint for the whole movie. Of course there are films which are made without a script such as improvised projects, but generally the script is the starting point for most movies.

Whether the Director has written the script or is interpreting an already created one, the key when directing the film is to attempt to predict the audience’s reaction to the material.

A good script will be formatted correctly and include all of the action, scene descriptions and dialogue that will be featured in the finished film. It will not include any descriptions of shots or how the film will be realised – this is the job of the Director.

Writing the script is a very difficult and often undervalued aspect of the filmmaking process. An idea may start with a single moment or action, a line of dialogue, a character and so on.

 

There are many books available which explore the various methods of script writing.



3. CASTING

Casting is one of the most important aspects of the Director’s role. He or she may have a fixed idea of what qualities the actors will have based on the script. Alternatively, the casting process may be a voyage of discovery where the Director is not sure what he or she wants until they have auditioned a number of actors for the various roles.

The first step in the Casting process is to contact actors. There are a number of ways of doing this: firstly the filmmakers can approach various Drama groups, for instance they can visit a stage performance of a given play in order to look at the actors appearing in that play to see if they are suitable. The filmmakers can also ask a contact from the drama group to give casting suggestions based on the members of that group.

The filmmakers can also advertise in various Magazines such as the Stage and PCR. These are looked at by actor’s looking for work and so an advert in one of these magazines requesting CVs can be very successful. Similarly there are many sites on the Internet which both promote actors and are looked at by actors. The filmmakers can advertise on the Internet for the various roles required. Finally the Filmmakers can get in touch with various local Actors’ Agents asking for suggestions to fill the various texts needed. Appealing for actors in these ways is known as a casting call.

It should be mentioned that often with very established actors the filmmakers can do what is called making an offer. This means the actor can be offered a role based on their previous work history without being auditioned. High profile actors can regard being asked to audition as an insult.

In response to the Casting Call the filmmakers receive CVs from all those actors who have either seen the advertisements or who have been contacted. The filmmakers peruse the CVs looking at details of previous texts, skills, photos age etc trying to find appropriate faces for the various roles required. In some cases if the filmmakers are interested in a given actor they can request a showreel from that actor to see their previous work.

Having selected potential cast members from their CVs and showreels the filmmakers now audition these various Actors for the required roles. An actor may read text of the script for the project or something else that they have prepared themselves. When reading the project’s script the actor can bring it to life allowing the filmmakers the opportunity to see how it is working. The audition is usually videotaped so that later the filmmakers can review the auditions when they are making their choices. This also helps the filmmakers’ to gauge the actors ‘screen presence’.



4. THE LOOK

The Director of Photography on a project is ultimately responsible for the film’s visual imagery. He or she controls the lighting and composition of the various shots which will be featured in the finished movie.

The Production Designer’s role is also associated with the visuals on a film. He or she designs any sets required, is involved in the selection of locations and is in charge of dressing the sets and locations with various props.

During Pre-production, the movie’s Director will meet with both the Production Designer and the Director of Photography to discuss the ‘Look’ of the film. The “Look’ refers to the overall visual aesthetic of the movie.

Further discussions take place in Pre-production related to things such as costume, sound, make-up and so on and how they will all affect the final ‘Look’ and feel of the movie.



5. LOCATION SCOUTING & SET DISCUSSION

During pre-production, various members of the crew will visit possible locations to find settings that the action can take place in. When visiting locations it is a good idea to take photographs or shoot some videotape of the possible places. An overhead drawing can also help in terms of planning camera angles and lighting.

Filmmakers should listen intently to make sure there are no sound problems such as air conditioners etc. There are other things to be considered such as power points and a room for the actors to wait in and for makeup to be applied etc. Sets will be built if a suitable location cannot be found or if shooting in a studio is a preferred option. Sets allow the filmmakers’ to create anything the imagination can conjure up.

ACTOR PREPARATION

In terms of preparing the actors for their roles it is often the case for the Director to meet with the actors during Pre-production and read through the script with them before any shooting takes place. Improvisation can also be attempted at this stage in order for the actors to explore their roles. Improvisation is basically acting without a script. The actors make up their actions and dialogue according to a brief set out by the Director. Some films are actually made entirely with improvisation and no script. Whatever the case, it is a powerful tool for Director’s to use when working with actors.

 

A character biography can also be a useful tool for helping the actors prepare for their roles. This is basically a document detailing aspects of the characters life such as family background, social status, history, personality etc. Actors tend to like a character biography, and it should help them to prepare for their texts.



6. SHOT PREPARATION

There are a number of ways that Directors can plan what they are going to shoot. This can be as basic as a simple shot list or as elaborate as a storyboard.

A shot list is basically just a list of all of the shots that are going to be filmed on each location. A Director will go through the script and write down each shot they imagine to cover the action.

In my opinion a shot list is the very least a Director can do in their preparation. It acts a reminder to ensure that during the shoot they don’t forget to get any of the necessary images that they feel they need to tell the story.

Further preparation, to work with the shot list, is an overhead drawing of the set. This enables the Director to plot out camera positions and angles from above. This can help with things such as ‘crossing the line’, which will be discussed later. Overhead drawings are a good communication tool for the Director to explain to the rest of the crew what shots are required.

Finally, a Director can create a storyboard. These are texticularly useful for action sequences and for calculating screen direction, which we will talk about later. Storyboards are an excellent communication tool whereby the Director can discuss with the Director of Photography and other members of the crew exactly what images are required for the movie. Storyboards can be drafted roughly by the Director, some times even with stick drawings, and then passed on to a Storyboard Artist who will give them a better artistic quality.

THE DIRECTOR / PRODUCER RELATIONSHIP

Often during Pre-production a healthy battle ensues between the Director and the Producer whereby the Director makes demands for what they want to put in the film and the Producer decides which of these demands can be implemented based on the budget. There is a sort of pushing and pulling between them deciding what can be afforded and what cannot. This can create restrictions for the Director, which can actually aid the creative process forcing approaches that need not necessarily be expensive but which can often be better than the expensive option.



7. THE SHOOT 1

The shoot is the text of the process where all the ideas and discussions of the pre-production stage come together and the main work of realising the film is undertaken. The Director works with the rest of the crew to try and put his or her vision on the screen. Often ideas that were planned in Pre production must be adapted, after all the filmmaking process is organic and the movie usually continues to change its shape right through to the editing stage. Whilst shooting, the Director has a series of stages to work through:

 

ACTORS

The Director will usually discuss with the actors what they are going to be doing, their motivation and so on during the shoot. In most cases films are not shot in chronological order because this would not be cost effective and so an actor may find themselves shooting the end of the film before they shoot the beginning. Obviously it is important for the Director to make sure that the Actors knows what they were doing in the previous scene In order for them to understand their character’s journey throughout the story.

The actor, texticularly working in film, needs to psychologically work through the action so that there is an emotional truth to the performance. In terms of directing the actors, a simple example would be that the Director, rather than saying ‘act frightened’ would do better to explain to the actor why they are frightened so that they can create the experience of fear internally. This is the basis of all film and Television acting – the actor needs to psychologically work through the emotional content of the story. Once the Director understands this they can help the actor to go on this journey, which hopefully will create memorable and realistic performances.

Generally, with film and TV acting, a naturalistic performance is required. The Director can work with the actors to make sure that they are not ‘over’ acting. Often a simple direction is to ask the actor to tone down the performance. One approach to doing this is to use a scale. For instance, the director can say to the actor, your currently performing at level ten, take it down to level six.



8. THE SHOOT 2

BLOCKING

Usually one of the first stages in the filming process is blocking. The Director discusses with the actors the positions they will be standing in and moving to and from throughout the scene. Often marks are placed on the ground to signal these positions. It is a good idea to allow the Director of Photography and Sound Recordist to view the blocking so that they can determine where to put the lights and the sound equipment.

SHOOTING – MASTER SCENE LANGUAGE

During the shooting it is often the case that the Director will use ‘Master Scene Language’ to capture the scene.

The Master Scene language approach begins by shooting a wide shot of the whole scene. This is called, ’The Master Shot’. This Wide Master shot establishes the geography of the action in order for the audience to understand how all the elements of the scene relate to each other. It also allows the Director to work out how the action of the scene will transpire and what other shots are required to tell the story.

And so, having shot the ’Master Shot’ the process is then to film the same action in a series of closer angles. The action is shot time and time again from different perspectives and this is known as ‘Coverage’. A good idea when shooting these tighter shots is to shoot as much of the action as possible from each angle rather than just filming the bit that is thought to be needed. For instance the actors should enter and exit the shots. Retakes are done until the action is perfect. The benefits of ‘Master Scene Language’ are that there is a lot of ‘Coverage’ so that the Editor has many options to work from when cutting the scene.



9. THE SHOOT 3

SHOOTING – THE TRACKING SHOT & OTHER SHOTS

A Tracking Shot is basically a shot where the camera moves in order to capture the action. Usually with a tracking shot, the camera is on some sort of dolly. This is basically a platform with wheels on it which allows the camera to move throughout the action.

Unlike ‘Master Scene Language’ a Tracking Shot is usually designed to be used in its entirety without being edited into. This is a riskier way of capturing a scene because it means that if there are any mistakes either in the performances or the technicalities of a shot, these cannot be cut out in editing – where as ‘Master Scene Language’ clearly allows this. Generally a film will include a variety of shooting styles such as Master Scene language and Tracking Shots.

There are other shots in the Director’s palette such as the ‘Point of View Shot’. This is a shot representing what the character in the scene can see - basically their ‘point of view’. A film will be constructed from a variety of different shots such as ‘Wide Shots’, ‘Medium Shots’, ‘Close Ups’, ‘Point of View’ Shots and so on. The director chooses from these various shots in order to tell the film’s story.



10. THE SHOOT 4

CROSSING THE LINE

When shooting a scene the Director should be aware of something called ‘Crossing the Line’. If this rule is not obeyed the audience will become disorientated with regards to the geography of the action.

A simple example of the ‘Crossing the Line’ rule would be to shoot a scene consisting of two actors sat opposite each other having a conversation.

To help with planning the camera angles the Director can create an overhead drawing of the scene. The action will be shot with three camera angles. A ‘Wide’ Master shot which covers the whole scene and then two Close-Ups – one of each character.

In the overhead drawing an imaginary line can be placed between the two actors. As long as all the camera angles are shot from one side of this line the geography of the scene will be communicated to the audience effectively.

 

However, if one of the close-Ups is shot from the other side of the line it no longer looks as though the actors are looking at each other.

 

With this example it is quite straight forward to calculate the line that should not be crossed but with some scenes, texticularly featuring more actors, it can become a good deal more complicated.

Crossing the Line is fundamentally about something called ‘Screen Direction’. This is basically about the movement of the subject through the various shots. As mentioned earlier, storyboards can help the Director with screen direction whereby the movement through the shots is worked out before anything is filmed.



11. POST PRODUCTION 1

EDITING

The editing of the film is where the whole project takes shape. The Director works with the Editor to choose the best takes of the action in an attempt to achieve what was hoped for in the pre-production and shooting stages.

At a simple level editing is just assembling the shots in order and cutting out the poor material. At a more complex level, the movie can be manipulated in a very dramatic way – chopping out lines of dialogue, re-ordering the action and creating shape and pace to the film.

Often, texticularly with longer films, the Director and Editor talk about ‘Finding the Film’ in the editing stage. As we have discussed, the filmmaking process is an organic one and the project continues to change its shape right through the whole process. Editing can be very rewarding for the filmmakers as they can finally see the movie being created before their eyes.

Sometimes a director may find that he or she needs some extra material, but time and or budget constraints prohibit further shooting. In these instances the director will often turn to the stock footage industry, which is now readily available on-line. The quickest, and most convenient, sources are from the libraries which provide royalty free stock footage which is immediately downloadable (as in the case of StockMovies.co.uk).



12. POST PRODUCTION 2

MUSIC

Music is a very important text in the making of a film. Most commonly, in feature films, the music is written especially for the film. Of course, sometimes previously recorded tracks are used including classical and popular music.

The Director will discuss with the music composer at what points of the movie music will be used and at what points it will not. Discussions will also take place regarding the type of music that will be used to create the desired audience response.

Movies are an emotional experience for the viewer and the music is an important tool in adding to, and creating, an emotional effect in the audience. For smaller budget films it may be worthwhile to contract a specialist music-for-film composer. He or she will study the film and write music which will enhance, emphasize or pre-empt a particular incident. (In my film Mummys Boys, I employed the talents of Greg Patmore at www.gregpatmore.com to great effect - adding an extra dynamic to the film, where I felt it was needed.)



13. POST PRODUCTION 3

THE SOUND MIX

The sound mix is where all of the dialogue, sound effects and music are balanced together to create the final soundtrack. The director will work with the sound mixer to decide how loud and quiet the various elements of the soundtrack will be.

During the shoot the sound recordist will have attempted to get the best sound possible. This normally means recording the various sounds separately, for instance ‘dialogue’ and the ‘room ambience’ sound (atmos) will be recorded in isolation of each other. The sound mixer will then mix all of these various sounds together to create the soundtrack. Because the live location sounds are separate from each other the sound mixer has a lot of control manipulating the levels of each sound to create the best possible mix.

 

 

 

Apart from live sound, such as dialogue, special audio effects can be used to heighten the action. Putting these various sound effects to the film is called ‘Sound Design’.

‘Sound Design’ can be a very creative pursuit, manipulating the emotive feel of the film through the design of the soundtrack. For instance, one possible example would be the addition of reverb or echo to part of the soundtrack to create the feeling that we have entered a character’s thoughts.

STAGE 3: POST PRODUCTION

GRADING

One of the final stages of the filmmaking process is grading. This is where the colour balance and brightness of all of the shots in the film are manipulated to match each other. There is also an opportunity at this stage to further enhance the ’Look’ of the movie. Certain moods can be created with the use of colour balance and contrast.

THE SCREENING

Now the movie is finished and the Director has seen the project take shape through Pre-production, The Shoot and finally Post Production. It’s now time to show the movie to an audience and hope they respond favourably.