what does a director do?

What Does a Director Do?

When it comes to movies, it’s the Director who gets all the accolades, but what does a Director actually do? The term “visionary” is often tied to great Directors, but what does that mean? When I hear the word visionary, my mind conjures up images of historical game changers, who did things like send us to the moon or invent the iPod. These are all intimidating things to live up to, so what does the term visionary mean when it comes to directing? It’s really quite simple. The Director’s vision can be boiled down to two things: what she visualizes as she reads the script and how she interprets the script’s meaning. This includes everything from how the film will be shot, how it will be cast down to how the characters will be portrayed, the mood, music and where the film will be set. Essentially, anything that we see or hear in a movie comes from a decision the Director made.

In a nutshell, the Director’s job is to get all the ideas out of her head and onto the screen and she does this with a team, collaborating from pre-production to post-production to assure that vision is fulfilled.

In answer to the question “what does a Director do?” we will explore:

  1. How a Director works with a Writer
  2. How a Director works with Casting
  3. How a Director works with Production Design
  4. How a Director works with Wardrobe
  5. How a Director works with the Camera Department
  6. How a Director works with the Editorial Department
  7. How a Director works with the Post-Production process

How a Director Works With a Writer

The genesis of a story begins with the Writer. Sometimes it begins with the Producer or a book, but it is the Writer that crafts the story into a screenplay that can be shot. Once the story is written it goes into “development.” This is when a Producer and Development Executives work with the Writer to get the story in rock solid shape, making sure the story works and will translate to screen. When a Director is attached, she will also get a chance to make changes to the script. This is the first job of a Director – making the story better (yes, it can always get better). A Director is usually hired because she has a sensibility – a particular perspective that will bring the script to life, so it might not always be the case, but often a Director will have a chance to give notes to the Writer and help them shape the story for success. It is not the Director’s job to rewrite the script, but it is the Director’s job to give feedback that will help the script translate visually on screen and have the right emotional impact. Sometimes a Director will be asked to “make a pass” on the script, in which case the Director does, indeed, rewrite the script.

If you watch a film you will notice that colors of the sets and the wardrobe are calculated. What are the colors saying about the environment or the wardrobe? Are they drab and depressing or are they vibrant and exciting? It all depends on the story the Director is trying to tell.

How a Director Works With Casting

A large part of a Director’s job is finding the right Actors, which involves working with the Producer and a Casting Director to find the talent. The Producer and the Casting Director will present choices to the Director and the Director will participate in auditions to decide who they want to see again so they can make sure the Actor is right for the role. Though an Actor is hired because of what he or she brings to the table, during production, the most important role a Director has is to work with the Actors, who are sometimes there for a only few days, to make sure they have everything they need to strike the right tone and find the comedic and emotional beats in their performance.

How a Director Works With Production Design

An important part of a Director’s vision is production design. This is establishing the world in which the story takes place. It can be as simple as decorating a kitchen to creating a futuristic world that is a product of the Director’s imagination. The Director will work with the Production Designer to find a location and decorate it or build a set from scratch to create an environment that enhances the words on the page. If the script calls for a dated 1970s kitchen, the Director will work with the Production Designer to decide what that means – is it a fancy kitchen from the ’70s or is it a working-class kitchen from the ’70s? What will the colors be? What will the space say about the characters? Are the dishes tidy and lined up on the drying rack or are they piled up dirty in the sink? These are all the details that a Director will mull over with the Production Designer, down to the hair on a comb. They will also discuss the color palette. If you watch a film you will notice that the colors of the sets and the wardrobe are calculated. What are the colors saying about the environment or the wardrobe? Are they drab and depressing or are they vibrant and exciting? It all depends on the story the Director is trying to tell. Production design usually will entail some sort of visual effects (VFX), so a VFX Coordinator is often brought into the conversation.

How a Director Works With Wardrobe

Wardrobe is another product of the Director’s imagination and is in some ways an extension of production design. In fact, the two departments work closely together. First, we establish the world in which these characters live and interact then we decide how they are dressed. In some cases, costumes must be designed and made, and other times they are purchased. Whatever the case may be, the Director works with the Costume Designer to decide what clothes the character wears from scene to scene and why. A single mom may be dressed in a shirt that looks like it has been worn a million times, while an uptown gal might have freshly pressed clothes that look like they came right off the rack. A Director and a Costume Designer work together to make sure the clothing is consistent with a character and tells a visual story about who this person is and what is going on in the story.

How a Director Works With the Camera Department

Next up is the Camera Department. Once a Director establishes what is to be shot, the next order of business is to decide how the film will be shot — will it be shiny and slick or dark and depressing? Though a Director is not expected to know which lens to use, how to light a shot, or all the ins and outs of the camera, a Director does decide how things are shot and what coverage to get to achieve the overall look of the film. It can be handheld or it can be very still with limited movement. It can be bright and sunny or it can be muted and serious. This is all a part of the Director’s vision. The Director will also create a shot list or make storyboards to help the Cinematographer understand what pieces they will need to shoot. Where the camera is placed and how the shots are framed may be a collaborative effort between the Director and the Director of Photography (Cinematographer) but ultimately, it is the Director’s call.

It’s the Director’s job to see, in the moment, what is working and what isn’t working, and to find a way to make it work. But as much as a film is a result of the Director’s vision, very much of directing is communicating.

How a Director Works With the Editorial Department

Once the film is in the can, as they say, the Editor will have a go at cutting it together. Ideally, the Editor is working through production, to make sure that what the Director is getting is cutting together and informing her if she needs any pickups or coverage that would make things better. The Director will consult with the Editor throughout the process and hopefully have time to see cuts along the way. Once the shooting is done, the Director will sit with the Editor to get the film polished and tight. This usually involves going over the footage to find the best performance from the Actors and finding the rhythm and pace of the film and making sure all the setups pay off.

How a Director Works With the Post-Production Process

Once the edit is finished, there is still work to be done! When the picture is locked and everyone is happy with it, it still needs to go through post-production. The edit gets handed off to the Post-production Sound Department and Colorist for all the fine-tuning. If the movie has VFX of any kind, they, too start working. While this is happening, the Director works with a Composer to score the picture, going through the movie beat-by-beat to decide where music will go and why, and what the tone should be. Once the music is finalized, the music goes to the Sound Mixer who works with the Director to tell the sonic story of the movie and balance all the dialog, music, and effects. Once the sound is mixed, the Director sits with a Colorist to fine tune the look of the film. And in between all of that, she is approving VFX shots, which get melded into the final product.

There is a reason a Director gets all the accolades in the wake of a successful film. Having a vision is one thing, executing it is another. A Director must have an answer to every question, and over the course of the production, a Director makes countless decisions, answering questions from all departments. If a set looks fake or cheap, or if an Actor’s performance is cheesy or melodramatic, it falls on the Director. It’s the Director’s job to see, in the moment, what is working and what isn’t working, and to find a way to make it work. But as much as a film is a result of the Director’s vision, very much of directing is communicating. A good Director will choose her department heads based on their talent and vision, so more often than not it’s about “being on the same page” rather than telling someone what to do.

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