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So... what do Directors even do? That's not an easy question to answer but today Lily will do her best. Generally, directors are the driving creative force behind a movie, deciding what kind of cinematic world the story will take place in, how the performances will fit into that, and how the camera will capture that world. But, there's a lot more to discuss on this episode of Crash Course Film Production.


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  Intro (0:00

So, I have a script to work off of, to tell you about directing. But what do you think we should do in this video? Should I show you what a director does? Should I explain everything a director does? Should I try to get you to guess what a director does? 

People often assume that the director has all the answers, but directors also ask a lot of questions. According to American playwright and filmmaker David Mamet, directors only have two main questions to ask themselves: What do I tell the actors? and Where do I put the camera? 

And that's a cheeky way of encompassing a lot of what the director should do. But maybe a better way of looking at it is that the director has a strong sense of where the answers are buried, and their job is to steer their team to where they can uncover those answers.

That might sound a little foofy, but it's the clearest way I can describe what the job of the director is. A director must use everything at their disposal to clearly communicate to their actors, their crew, and ultimately to us, the audience. 

[Opening music]

 What Do I Tell the Actors (1:00)

A director's job is to bring their vision to life in the film. So, a common misunderstanding is that the actors are just like puppets, illustrating the director's ideas. An actor's job is to bring a character to life. And we need actors to think real thoughts and feel real feelings to make the film relatable. 

A good actor gives director options, by making informed choices about how a character would act in the various situations that the script puts them in. We've talked about the language of the camera, and how the way in which shots are framed can help convey a story. But the camera's most important job is to read the character's thoughts. 

For that to happen, actors have to be vulnerable and think as the character. This is incredibly demanding work, so it's up to the director to ensure that the actors have a safe space to explore their character and to take risks. And the actor relies on the director to steer them in the right direction. 

I joked earlier about having you guess what I would say in this video. That's because forcing an actor into a position where they're unsure about how to act in a scene is one way to ruin their performance. If an actor feels like they need to direct themselves in a scene, they won't risk losing themselves in the world of the film and it'll feel fake. To give an actor the confidence they need to inhabit a character, a director must give clear, actionable directions. 

What do I mean by that? Well, let's say we're working on a scene about a breakup. A clear, actionable direction could be, "Since your character has been blindsided by this breakup, you want to keep the other person from leaving the room so you can get answers."

The actor receiving this direction now knows that their character has just learned that they were wrong about the other character and they have a goal of keeping the other person there. They know where they're coming from and where they're trying to go. Now, no matter what happens in the scene, this actor can feel confident in their decisions if they're working toward keeping the other person in the room. 

On the flip side of that, an unclear or non-actionable direction in that breakup scene could be, "You wish this wasn't happening and it reminds you of when your parents got divorced." How do you act "wishing" or "being reminded" of something? That's way too vague. But if the director knew what they wanted, they could tell the actor something like, "You see this person as the father who left you when you were 10 and, just like then, you'll do anything to keep them here."

So now, this is a more actable note, because our actor understands the power dynamic of this relationship and knows that they're using the same tools a 10-year-old would. And, most importantly, the actor now has a goal: Keep the other person from leaving. So the director has a plan for how they'd like the scene to go, and the actor will add their own interpretations to that, and the hope is that they uncover the best possible scene. 

It is possible to a director to get the scene they envision without allowing the actors to do their work, but this doesn't build trust or create conditions for a better film than the director is capable of imaging. This is something author and directing instructor Judith Weston calls result-oriented directing, and it's a common mistake of new directors who are focused on the surface-level aspects of acting instead of the true work that goes into it.

Instead of working with the actors to unpack what the line means and what the purpose of the scene is, a director will focus on outward emoting and try to control how an actor does things. You may have heard directions like, "On that line, laugh." or "When you see her, you start to cry." This tells the actor nothing about what their character is actually thinking and feeling. 

A director might think they're helping the actor by telling them how they should say the line or where they should put the emphasis in the line, but this is called a line reading, and it limits the actor to just mimicking the director rather than communicating what the character is feeling. 

A result-oriented direction will usually give the director what they think they want in that moment, but at a pretty high cost. These directors are only paying attention to what the characters look like outwardly instead of what's going on inside their minds. And when you're working with a good actor who's thinking real thoughts, the camera - and therefore the audience - can pick up on those thoughts. The result will be a deeper, more nuanced performance than when the actor is just pantomiming what the director tells them to do. 

It's important to remember that filmmaking is collaborative by design, and while the director is the creative leader, insisting the film turn out exactly like the director imagines can severely limit the film. Result-oriented directing can also break trust that's been built between director and actor. After all, if a director can't trust an actor to experiment and discover what's needed from a scene, then why should the actor trust the director?

The detrimental short-cut of line readings can be avoided by making time for rehearsal. And rehearsal is a great way for the director and actors to build trust. Some directors, like Sydney Lumet, are subtle about it. Lumet would tell each person where to sit at the first read through of a script. This made it clear to the actors that he had a plan and was confident in his choices. 

Directors like Mike Leigh are more overt about building trust in rehearsal. Leigh purposely works with actors who are willing to explore themes and ideas before they even have a script. They work through proposed scenes together, and then Leigh develops a script around what they've uncovered together in the rehearsal process. 

By the time the cameras are rolling, the actors having been living and growing as these characters, so they know to approach every scene. From rehearsal to the final cut, a director's job always includes guiding the actors in their roles and shaping those performances, but the director also works with every creative department on a film. 

  Where to Put the Camera (5:33)

That's what Mamet calls "where to put the camera," but it involves much more than that. Just like with the actors, the director has to deeply understand the other departments so they can communicate clearly with everyone. 

During pre-production, the director coaches the location scouts on what the film needs in its setting. They work with the Production Designer, set decorators, and props department to build the world and orchestrate everything in the mise en scene

And before the actors even get to set, the director needs to understand the film's characters to communicate their personalities and struggles to the costume designer. Both before and during filming, the director works with the Hair and Makeup and special effects departments to perfect the details of the storytelling. 

And yes, the director decides where to put the camera. There are an infinite number of ways to make a shot look cool or beautiful, but there's usually one best way to shoot a scene when you remember than every shot should be motivated by what the scene is trying to convey. What's motivating the camera placement and movement can be practical - like, if you need to show someone driving, we need to see who it is, and also see that they're in a car. 

But how the director decides to use the camera can also help us understand something about the character or the themes of the film more deeply. Starting in pre-production, the director and cinematographer work together to design the shot list. They'll usually work with a storyboard artist to illustrate what the shots will look like and work off of the storyboards as a reference. 

They can do this before the locations are nailed down, and it's possible to work on it even before the actors are cast, because what determines how a film is shot is that blueprint we talked about before: the script. Just like every line of dialogue, every shot should convey new information to the audience.

We should be able to watch a film with the sound off and still be able to get what's going on. We should be able to know things like who our protagonist is, what they want, what's standing in their way, and how they feel.

  Post-Production (7:05)

Once we know what to tell the actors and where to set the camera, there's still one huge job left for the director: post-production. Just like all the other creative leads, the director needs to communicate the story with the editor and composers in order to tell the best version of the story.

The editing process introduces the final layer of discovery for the director. The director is the guiding force in uncovering the answers right up until the final cut. What the best version of the story is, depends on the director and the film. While a director leads their team in unlocking that best version, they're also the decision makers.

They're holding the whole film in their heads, and actors, cinematographers, designers, editors, and composers all give the director options they think are the right answers for the film. Then, the director chooses which are the best. Depending on the size of the production, the director might not be the one calling action or cut, but the director is always the one who says, "Yes, that's what I want." 

  Review and Credits (7:54)

Today, we explored the director's role as a leader and creative guide for everyone else working on the film. We learned that the director must have a strong vision and be able to communicate it clearly. And we talked about how one of the director's most important jobs is creating the safe space for the rest of the team to do their creative work. One of those people is the cinematographer, who we'll talk about next time. 

Crash Course Film Production is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel, check out a playlist of their amazing shows, like Eons, PBS Infinite Series, and PBS Space Time. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all these nice people. And our amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

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