Part collaborator, part General, the director is instrumental in bringing a project to fruition.
Filmmaking is a collaborative experience with the director at the centre, orchestrating the combined creative skills and talents of the cast and crew like a conductor performing at the Proms. Directing can mean working in consultation with the HoDs; it can also mean being single minded and brutal if the production is not going in the direction they envisage. Ultimately the buck will always stop with the director, which can make your working life unimaginably pressured at times, especially if working with ‘difficult’ personalities. While being a creative role, directors need to be acutely aware of the practicalities of filmmaking and display the leadership skills necessary to lead an army.
Directors are attached to projects in the following ways:
They wrote the script. Famously James Cameron kept hold of the script for Aliens until the studio agreed he could direct the film.
They are approached by the producer who feels they are the best person to bring the project to fruition. Producers will engage key crew and talent in the initial stages of development; they're also the ones doing the firing. It’s not uncommon for a production to have two or three directors helm the project at various stages of the productions evolution.
The director is part of the production company and has been involved with the project from day 1. This is where directors such as Ridley Scott, JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg et al. fit. Many of them will act as a producer or exec producer for the films they work on. There is never any doubt they will be helming the production. This type of certainty only comes when you’re established and successful in your career.
When green lit the director (whose name may have been attached to the project in development) comes on board to begin pre-production. During this time the director will be working closely with the 1st AD, producer, production designer, costume, hair and makeup designer, DoP, actors and the production office. The primary responsibilities of the director during pre-production are:
Reading the script repeatedly, looking beyond the words on the page and trying to discover what is at the heart of the story. Once their vision has been formed, they begin to formulate how to represent this best visually. If the film is driven by character, the director will need to understand what motivates them, how it drives the characters actions and the story. When working with the actors, they can build on the character's backstory together.
The director may decide that some rewrites are required, either amendments to the original script or some extra scenes to help establish an area of narrative or character. If working on a studio production, the rewrites won’t be carried out by the original screenwriter, which negates any clashes of artistic interest.
Once the director has broken down the script, the 1st AD will work on the shooting schedule with involves another script breakdown concerning the logistics. Dramas are not shot in chronological order (unless you're Steven Spielberg making ET). If a location appears several times throughout the script, it makes sense to shoot all the scenes at that location together rather than returning multiple times.
The casting director comes on board early in production. Working closely with the director and producer, casting directors liaise with the actor's agents, arranging auditions which can be filmed for the director, or the director may be present at auditions with bigger named talent. Many A-listers don't audition but meet with the director instead to talk the role through.
Cast read through. Once the cast list is set, a full cast read-through is hugely beneficial for the director (and their cast) to get a feel for the script and the action.
Some directors will have rehearsal time before the actors hit the sound stage or location, other directors choose to rehearse once on set - or not be given the luxury in the first place.
Production meetings with HoDs during pre-production are carried out almost daily, depending on the type of director. Some directors like to be presented with choices from their HoDs and oversee each step. Either way the lines of communication need to be open during pre-production, from the storyboards to locations, casting to costume.
During production the director can be fielding questions and make 100 decisions an hour, however; their primary focus on set is what's happening in front of camera. All those weeks of pre-production (and a good 1st AD) should facilitate the director with time to coax performance and work in close collaboration with the actors. Most likely though the director will go from talking to someone in accounts, to discussing how to best shoot a plane going over a building, to choosing one item of costume over another, to discussing motivation. For this reason, there is no typical day on set, the days will be long and after the AD has called wrap the director will go straight into viewing the rushes from the previous day, go through the schedule for the next day and try to get some sleep if their lucky.
During post-production the director works closely with the editor, VFX supervisor (if a factor), sound designer and composer. During the final stages of post-production, the director will be working with studio execs and producers to make sure everyone is satisfied with the final product. They will be contractually obliged to take part in press tours and any related marketing of the film; that's if they're not onto the next project already.
Production designer. Designers can become involved at the very start of pre-production (which is usually 16 weeks), and in some cases even earlier. Nathan Crowley has worked with Director Christopher Nolan on multiple projects. Crowley works on projects in Nolan’s garage three months before pre-production has even begun. Sketching out and designing the infrastructure of the film. Career partnerships are formed between directors and production designers such as Jack Fisk and Paul Thomas Anderson, Antxon Gomez and Pedro Almodovar, Sarah Greenwood and Joe Wright, Eve Stewart and Tom Hooper.
Director of photography. Once they’re attached to the project, DoPs can spend a day a week in the production office during pre-production, being fully on board a few weeks before shooting. The director’s relationship with the DoP is vital to capturing not just the vision of the director but the combined efforts of all departments who work hard to bring authenticity through costume, sets, props, makeup and set dressing. Long lasting relationships are often formed between director and DoP such as the Coen Brothers and Roger Deakins, Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski, Wes Anderson and Robert Yeoman.
1st AD. Arguably the most vital relationship on set. The director will hire their 1st AD on a big budget feature film; they may not have the option on an indie. Pre-production is a vital time as the 1st and director work on the logistics. Being the director's right-hand person means just that, they are aware of all the discussion between all the departments, taking on multiple responsibilities to make sure the director gets what they need in the correct amount of time.
Makeup designer & costume designer. Designing and manufacturing a wardrobe requires the maximum amount of pre-production time, and adequate time with the director and production designer. When directors are working with costume designers and makeup designers they are looking to build up character, usually the director will input early on in the process and continue to do so once the actor becomes involved too. A good working relationship with both these HoDs is vital; there isn't time to consult so costume or makeup need to make decisions based on their understanding of what the director wants.
If you're just starting out and want to direct films, you need to know there is no defined path. The one certainty is if you want to direct you have to get to it - unlike any other department there is no apprenticeship or training involved, it's down to you. That being said some directors started out as editors or cinematographers, worked their way to a respected standing in the industry and used their contacts to demonstrate their directorial abilities through short films or medium budget productions.
Unlike almost any other job role directors need to build on a showreel right at the beginning of their career. Your showreel is your calling card and can offer producers an insight into your versatility, signature style or both. No amount of networking is going to get you a job if you don’t have the goods to back up your claims. When producers come to hire a director, they want to know they're putting the project into the best possible set of hands, so you have to guarantee them those hands are yours.
Building a showreel is initially going to come from working as an independent filmmaker or working on your projects. The ideal situation is to collate a strong showreel and look for an agent who will steer you into meeting rooms with potential employers in TV, commercials or drama.
There are a variety of ways to go about creating a showreel. Firstly you need to decide if film school or a university degree is going to best suit your career path. Choosing a degree will give you some time to develop away from home. There's going to be more than a few people on the course who wish to direct, so it’s unlikely you will direct all your university productions. The upshot of this is you can try other avenues of interest before fully committing to one defined career path. You never know, you may find editing more to your taste. While at university don't rely on your student films to fill your showreel, work on other projects with professional crew. If you decide university isn’t for you, invest some time in making short films, take short courses that will best enable you to understand narrative structure and the technical elements of filmmaking such as camerawork, sound and editing. This path could limit you regarding contacts. Film schools who offer MA courses such as the NFTS are adept at providing their students with industry contacts, for this, however, you will need a degree. Think carefully about what is best for you.
As there is no defined path for directing it’s entirely possible you can make a short that gets seen at a festival, someone working in commercials or another sector sees it; they offers you a job. It’s a crazy business where some people can spend an age trying to get a project off the ground while others manage that and more in a few months. Luck and talent are often at play in equal measure in the film industry, although many state you have to make your own luck.
In the UK one out of ten directors who make their first feature film will go on to make a second. Directing a feature and working in drama is an intense experience that requires patience, drive and determination while concentrating on the dramatic and technical sides of the filmmaking process. Directors need to stay calm and focused while mediating between departments, but they should also have a clear and concise voice for when they feel they are not getting what they want. After all the buck stops with them remember.
Directors are freelance and brought into the production early on; however, it is not unknown for a director to start work at the last minute to replace another. During pre-production directors work with all departments in preparation for principle photography, making sure they have a clear brief. Directors cast actors and collaborate with a storyboard artist to deliver a concise vision for the rest of the crew to follow. During pre-production the director will be working with:
DoP (who may come on board just before principle photography)
While involved in production the director will be the central point of the set. On a lower budget feature, the director will have full say over any changes or alterations that take place; if working on a studio production, the director will give their view and then have to confer with the producer(s) and exec producers for final sign off.
On some productions the edit can be running in tandem to the shoot, allowing the director to watch a rough cut of shot scenes in the evening. If this is not the case, the rushes are sent digitally to the post-production house where they are ingested into the servers awaiting the editor. Often the edit can be about compromise if the producer's vision is in conflict with that of the director. During post-production the director will be working with:
Agencies often, but not always, have preferred directors whose interests are aligned with specific commercials or promo companies. Once the script has been approved, the agency will ask their favoured directors to write a treatment, laying out their vision for the commercial. The treatment needs to answer all the questions of how to convey the client's message of brand. It needs to be visually stunning, so a team of treatment writers and picture researchers work alongside the director optimising the company's chances of success. Agencies will be asking 3 - 4 companies for treatments, which is modest considering music videos will have around 40 companies pitching for the work.
The promos section of the industry is extremely competitive, particularly since small businesses are entering the marketplace all the time. The work of the director in both formats is as much about client liaison as the creative process. Directors need to be steering the production, keeping all the interested parties working to the agreed brief. Both commercials and music videos have launched the careers of feature film directors, such as Guy Richie, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Michel Gondry and Ridley Scott.
Directing factual can be a different experience to directing a drama, but as the documentary format and subject matter is so versatile anything goes. Documentaries offer an immense amount of creative freedom; a documentary can be shot with the same production value of a feature film or adopt the reportage style of documenting situations where the camera is simply an instrument to capture the action. Most often directors are involved from conception, take a hand in finding finance for the film which they may also end up shooting.
Working on a corporate film requires directors, who are usually freelance, to work in close collaboration with producers and production companies to bring about a visually pleasing film that conveys the message of the client. The process a director takes when working in corporate films is very similar to that of commercials. Corporate companies have returning customers, and when they wish to produce a film the production company will call up a trusted director who will:
Research the project and make suggestions on how to approach the subject, making particular reference to style and tone.
Write a treatment the production company will forward to the client; if the client is interested they will make a face to face presentation.
Write a framework script.
Once the project has been green-lit the director works with the client on the full script, makes sure the terminology is correct and ensures it appeals to the client's audience, keeping in line with the company's brand.
Once the client has signed off on the script, the director and production company will hire the crew and actors. If the film is to be made in a documentary style, the director will research and recce the locations and contributors.
The project is then shot, edited and delivered.
Directors working in the corporate sector become experts in many facets of the business world; they need to become fluent in the language of the client’s business, being able to conduct interviews and posses an understanding of how their business works, which can be anything from oil rigs to banking. Corporate communication companies take on a variety of projects such as:
Online commercials. Freedom from the 30 seconds of screen time and significantly cheaper, commercials for online content are of a lower budget but have the opportunity to go viral and reach a large audience, if they have a great story behind them.
Training videos. Staff training or first aid training videos can be a useful tool in the workplace, and save companies significant amounts of money when looking to induct employees into the company.
Films for a conference. The conference itself can be filmed, allowing viewers full access to the extended content from the day’s events. Films are also made before the conference to be shown, such as an address from the CEO if not in attendance.
Consumer testimonials. Connecting potential customers to previous customer experience whether on the website or within the consumer marketplace.
Industrial. Films aimed at companies working within a specific industry, used for business to business marketing or at trade shows.
Internal communications. Films made to be placed on company intranets are a useful tool to connect senior staff with their employees.
Promotional or branded content. Promotional films are mostly web or intranet based. They can come in the form of panel discussions designed to showcase products and create interaction.
Charity film. One of the most effective forms for charities to reach out to their supporters and funders is via a film. A film detailing the work they carry out, who it affects and what you can do to make a difference is a major tool for fundraisers.
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