A film director is much more than just a person in charge with a vision. In fact, it is one of the most complex professions that requires knowledge and experience in a number of industries and crafts, such as filmmaking, cinematography, acting, screenwriting, advertising, marketing, psychology, philosophy, and more. It is a very multifaceted job that lays somewhere between art, humanities, and social sciences.
Regardless if you are an aspiring director or not, there are always ways to master your craft. Frankly, no matter what your craft is or how experienced you are, you should never stop mastering it. The second you stop, you give away your leading position and allow somebody else to come over and take it. Below are some tips that will help you stay on top of your craft.
1. Get Experience Working in Every Department
If you’re going to be in charge of a crew and make decisions that will affect a film, you need to know what every single person’s job is about. Not by a definition, but by experiencing it on your own. I’ve worked with plenty of directors that had no idea what it’s like to be a production assistant, or what the responsibilities of an assistant director are, or how long it takes to set up lighting or to put on makeup.
If you don’t know the process from the inside out, you can’t make an educated decision in regards to your film, you can’t understand why you are being told “no” by a producer, and you surely don’t have enough appreciation or respect towards the people you work with. Learning how to work each of the film jobs will allow you to make better decisions, to understand why things work one way or another, to be able to see through every situation and person and to appreciate your crew’s work.
2. Watch as Much Diverse Content as You Can
You need to stay on top of what’s going on with the industry and how it progresses. I once worked with a music video director who never watched any of the latest films or series. His position was as follows: “I only watch music videos because this is what I direct professionally.” As a result, producers and DP had a hard time communicating with him and explaining what they had in mind for the video because he simply didn’t know any references they suggested.
Watching things that are outside of your preferred specialty helps you think outside of the box, get educated on what’s going on in your industry, and get inspired. Besides following what’s happening in our time, be sure to study what has happened before you came around — some of the most brilliant contemporary ideas were inspired by much older films.
3. Get Friendly with a Camera and Lighting
Some of the best film directors in history were or are capable of photographing their own films. Of course, it’s not the brightest idea to work both jobs at the same time, so I’m not encouraging you to do so, but understanding how the camera and lighting work is crucial. Directors are the ones responsible for the vision, which is much more than just an unlimited shot list that can be adjusted by a fellow DP.
You need to know how certain shots, lenses, angles, and lighting setups affect your storytelling. Just because the shot is beautiful it doesn’t mean it serves the purpose, and in fact, it might even be misleading in relation to the storyline. The other advantage that you’d have is to be able to recognize whether the camera department or grips and electrics are being honest with you in regards to their assessment of your request, which is quite an advantage if you ask me.
4. Improve Your Editing Skills
To have a solid experience in editing is the only way to avoid an unnecessary amount of shots and takes, and to be able to visualize the completed product during pre-production. If you don’t have editing experience, chances are you also have very little idea of how all those shots are going to come together.
Don’t be one of those that hope to fix it in post — there are no miracles in post, they only can work with what you shot. This is why a film director needs to know how things are going to work in the editing room before he gets there.
5. Direct as Many Projects as You Can
This one is most applicable to younger or less experienced directors: take on as many projects as you can, especially at the beginning of your career. Even if the pay could be better, or if you’re not too excited about a project, take it on. The thing is nobody launches their careers by directing commercials for Dior or directing films that are produced by Spielberg. If you don’t like the script, get over it. Here’s some painful truth: lots of directors can come on board and direct a perfectly written story.
Your true value as a film director is to turn a mediocre story into a great experience. Now, if you’re an up-and-coming director and you don’t like the pay, remember that you always have two choices: to sit around and do nothing, or to get out there, get more experience and meet new people. If big paychecks and fame are the only things you are after, then directing is not your true calling. There is always a ceiling in how far you can get if money and fame are what drives you. With a mentality like this, you’ll hit that ceiling pretty fast, or worse, will never be able to move up from the starting point.
Lastly, don’t take long breaks between your gigs — producers tend to stay away from directors that haven’t directed anything for a while because this means that either nobody wants to hire you, which raises a whole other set of questions in our minds, or you’re not committed to your craft professionally so the perception is that directing is more of a hobby for you vs. an occupation.
6. Learn The Basics of Acting
One of the most important qualities of a film director is knowing how to work with actors. There are dedicated professionals on set for everything else, but when it comes to acting, directors are the only ones responsible for this. There are plenty of directors that will tell actors something like “you just do what you think is best, and we will take it from there.”
Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. What’s important to understand is that actors don’t have a complete vision in their minds of how the final product is going to look like, so they can only envision it based on the limited amount of information they have. Therefore, directions are always needed. To give proper directions, you need to be able to think like an actor and understand how they work. Having experience in acting will allow you to speak the same language, to communicate with actors more efficiently and find ways to pull out deeper emotions from them that other directors can’t.
7. Discover How To Write A Screenplay
Film directors need to have a good sense of story, which is only possible when you know the storytelling craft. You don’t necessarily have to write scripts yourself, but you at least need to know how to write them, what makes a good story and a good character, how story structure works, etc. You need to be on par with writers to be fully capable of understanding and transforming their story into a film.
If you don’t want to write, get into a habit of reading as many scripts as you can, and try to evaluate them. Write down the strengths and weaknesses of each script, rate its elements, understand their structure, their characters, envision them produced, and ask yourself how you can turn their weaknesses into something better on set. Always remember what your true value as a director is about, and over time you’ll get better.
8. Make Psychology Your Hobby
Directors work with people while transforming stories about people into a great experience for people. Since your career and livelihood constantly depends on people, their experiences, and reactions, the best way to succeed in this situation is to start with yourself. Directors that can truly understand human behavior are the ones that constantly get booked for jobs because they know how to treat people respectfully and diplomatically yet get what they want.
They know what makes or doesn’t make sense for their characters, therefore they can provide better directions to actors. They understand what the audience likes to watch and how to get their attention, so producers and clients prefer to choose them over directors that are less educated on the subject.
9. Ask Lots Of Questions
Be curious. Don’t assume you know everything. Ask questions. Sometimes people can surprise you. By being curious you are allowing yourself to be more open-minded in your thought process and to understand others. This can help you improve your psychology skills drastically and to transcend into a better version of yourself, personally and professionally.
10. Cultivate Experiences
There are many ways to cultivate experiences: reading, getting to know different people, traveling, trying new things, etc. The more you know, the easier it is for you to develop a vision that is actually accurate to reality or on a contrary, too far away from it.
Successful film directors are some of the most educated, experienced, and curious people on the planet. They become successful because they are interested in everything, they are curious, they are eager to learn and have experience in dozens of things you’ve never thought they had any affiliation with. They know that success is not something that comes to you, but something that you build over time by investing every part of yourself in, day after day.