Behind all your favorite movies is a director sitting in their chair, looking into the camera monitor and shouting “action” or “cut”. These days, some of the most iconic players in Hollywood are directors—the likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, Nolan and Burton are all go-to names people around the world recognize for their creativity in making unforgettable films.
Breaking into the world of film directing can be a challenge and is extremely competitive, but it’s no reason to give up on your dreams. With hard work and dedication to your craft, you’ll be on your way to directing your first film and, maybe, one day it’ll be you walking onto the world’s biggest stage to accept a “Best Director” award.
Film Directing Basics
Like a sports team manager or an orchestra conductor, a film director guides the on-screen actors, instructs the crew and ultimately puts together the best visual product they can for the audience.
Directing actors for film is a unique challenge and key part of the job. Directors work one-on-one to give feedback after each take and provide direction on the mood, pace or setting for the actor to try a different approach in the next take. The director will also move actors around the set, checking the camera monitor for positioning and lighting to ensure they’re getting the look they’re after on-screen.
A director’s creative vision for the film is what everyone on a set should be working towards. As a result, they’re the primary driver behind all decisions and have a say over casting, location, lighting, sound, and even costume and makeup.
Getting Started with Film Directing
The director is often the one who shoulders the comments once critics and audiences get to see the final product. Which is why, if you want to become a film director, you need to build your skills continually. Every project is an opportunity to expand your working knowledge, try new creative approaches and learn how to bring a company together to bring your vision to life.
You can pursue a degree in filmmaking if you want a formal education in the field. Film school can open many doors and provide you with the contacts you’ll need to get a foothold in the industry. But it’s not the only way to acquire the skills you need to be successful.
If you already work in another part of the film industry, you’re one step ahead. Plenty of actors, writers and editors have all found themselves migrating over to directing roles at some point in their careers. And if you’ve never set foot on a set before, now is the time to start! Offer any assistance you can on local productions or, even student projects at a nearby college, and work your way up to the top spot.
Many famous directors began their careers on independent film projects which gave them the experience they needed to make a name for themselves. Taika Waititi, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson are all known for their distinctive styles which were cultivated through making indie films in their early days.
Books on Film Directing
Before you dip your toes into the world of film directing, pick up a few books to learn more about what this work involves. On Directing Film by David Mamet is considered one of the go-to volumes for aspiring directors, written by an Oscar-nominated leader in the business. On Film-Making by Alexander Mackendrick is similarly lauded, with a foreword by Martin Scorsese.
Branching out of the technical side of making films, a must for anyone looking to make connections in the industry is the Hollywood Producers Directory. Inside you’ll find all the information you need about getting permits for shooting, production companies you can pitch your ideas to and other insiders in film who you might want to contact.
Practical Exercises for Aspiring Directors
If you’ve decided film school isn’t for you, you can still practice a number of film directing exercises to sharpen your creativity and improve your storytelling skills.
Start with a simple one—watch as many films as you can! You’ll soon learn which directing styles you naturally gravitate towards, along with learning what makes a good story.
Pinpoint what you enjoy most about a particular scene from each film and make notes on the lighting, the camera angles and any other creative features you can think of.
Another good exercise is to have some friends recreate a scene from a book or film, with you directing them. Take a monologue from a less-well-known movie and have them recite it for you.
Then give them directions on the kind of feeling you want from their speech and ask them to try it again. You’ll quickly learn to be patient with your actors and gain communication skills to better convey exactly what you want them to give you.
Types of Film Directing
When you think about film directing, you likely go to big budget blockbusters before anything else. But feature films aren’t the only projects directors work on. Even if it’s what you hope to direct one day, starting out with other kinds of work will broaden your skill set.
Directing an Animated Film
You may be wondering how a director works when the on-screen talent isn’t actually a living and breathing person. How do those creations come to life, though? With the work of animators, voice actors and more, all of whom need direction from someone.
Working with voice actors is a major part of an animation director’s job. Actors typically work from a studio with only a script in front of them. They may never see drawings or draft animations of anything beyond their own character.
The director’s guidance is then vital for an actor to understand where they fit into the story, especially when they don’t have other actors or a set to take cues from.
Directing a Short Film
The same principles apply to making short films as they do with feature films, just with everything shrunk back to a much shorter time frame. It’s the perfect hands-on experience for anyone interested in a film directing career.
With limited capacity to show an audience your story, short film directors must understand the importance of every single shot and be selective about what’s shown and what’s edited out. This is one of the most important skills to learn as you’re directing your first short film and will make you think more critically on any future film projects.
Directing a Music Video
Working with the cast of a music video is a very different experience for film directors. For starters, your cast are likely not going to be actors. Instead, they’ll be musicians and possibly dancers who may not have on-camera experience and need additional support.
As the overarching idea is to promote the audio track, you’ll likely find the musicians will have strong opinions about how they want the music video to look. After all, it’s their song! Which is why music videos are perfect for expanding your collaboration and communications skills—you know film directing, but working with artists who hold strong creative opinions can be a challenge!
Directing a Documentary Film
Documentaries are focused on reality and can be made for both educational and entertainment purposes. It’s important to understand where you fit in as the documentary film director and how you want the final visual to come across.
Particularly if you’re dealing with a sensitive topic, you could be interviewing witnesses about something which is difficult to talk about. Build trust with your subjects by having conversations off camera and make sure they’re comfortable before you start rolling.
Think about where these interviews will fit into the overarching narrative to help drive the story forward and direct your crew accordingly to set the mood and tone.
Directing Styles in Film
When it comes to making movies, you won’t find a tried-and-tested approach every director goes for. Instead, camera angles, lighting, shot lengths and music all play an important role in defining a film director’s chosen style.
Developed by the rebellious creatives of the early 20th century, art films are usually independent pieces specifically targeting a niche audience rather than the mass market.
Dreams and fantasy elements often play out in realistic settings in arthouse films, with nonlinear story arcs and no clear resolution at the film’s conclusion. Michael Gondry of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Brokeback Mountain’s Ang Lee are known for this style.
Popularized in the 1940s and 1950s, film noir is typically used as a catch-all term for highly stylized crime dramas. Early film noir was shot in black and white, with even modern takes by directors like Christopher Nolan, Jane Campion and David Fincher utilizing low lighting and contrasting shadows to amp up the tension and suspense.
Contrast and Exaggeration
While every film will have elements of contrast and over-emphasis on certain features, directors like Quentin Tarantino have built their entire back catalog around this.
Although primarily known for his overtly violent scenes, Tarantino’s unpredictable scripts and use of contrasting colors throughout important moments in his films, like Uma Thurman’s bright yellow jumpsuit in Kill Bill: Volume 1, have become just as iconic.
Bring Your Vision to the Big Screen
Whichever style of film directing you choose to pursue, the door is wide open to explore your ideas in exciting and creative ways. Pick up a camera or find work on a film set to start building the necessary skills you’ll want to have when trying to break into the industry.
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t make it the first time. Instead, keep honing your craft and building your portfolio of work. You’ll soon start making a name for yourself as an up-and-coming film director!
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