“Lights! Camera! Action!” aptly summarizes the major responsibilities of the film and television director. In ultimate control of the decisions that shape a film or television production, the director is an artist who coordinates the elements of a film or television show and is responsible for its overall style and quality.
Directors are well known for their part in guiding actors, but they are involved in much more - casting, costuming, cinematography, editing, and sound recording. Directors must have insight into the many tasks that go into the creation of a film, and they must have a broad vision of how each part will contribute to the big picture.
The playwrights and actors of ancient Greece were tellers of tales, striving to impress and influence audiences with their dramatic interpretations of stories. That tradition continues today on stages and film screens throughout the world.
From the days of the Greek theater until sometime in the 19th century, actors directed themselves. Although modern motion picture directors can find their roots in the theater, it was not until the mid-1880s that the director became someone other than a member of the acting cast. It had been common practice for one of the actors involved in a production to be responsible not only for his or her own performance but also for conducting rehearsals and coordinating the tasks involved in putting on a play. Usually the most experienced and respected troupe member would guide the other actors, providing advice on speech, movement, and interaction.
A British actress and opera singer named Madame Vestris is considered to have been the first professional director. In the 1830s Vestris leased a theater in London and staged productions in which she herself did not perform. She displayed a new, creative approach to directing, making bold decisions about changing the traditional dress code for actors and allowing them to express their own interpretations of their roles. Vestris coordinated rehearsals, advised on lighting and sound effects, and chose nontraditional set decorations; she introduced props, such as actual windows and doors, that were more realistic than the usual painted panoramas.
By the turn of the century, theater directors such as David Belasco and Konstantin Stanislavsky had influenced the way in which performances were given, provoking actors and actresses to strive to identify with the characters they revealed so that audiences would be passionately and genuinely affected. By the early 1900s, Stanislavsky’s method of directing performers had made an overwhelming mark on drama. His method (now often referred to as “the Method”), as well as his famous criticism, “I do not believe you,” continues to influence performers to this day.
At this same time, the motion picture industry was coming into being. European filmmakers such as Leon Gaumont and New Yorker Edwin S. Porter were directing, filming, and producing short pictures. The industry’s first professional female director was Alice Guy, who worked with Gaumont in the early years of the 20th century. The technical sophistication offered by today’s professionals was not part of the early directors’ repertoire. They merely filmed narratives without moving their camera. Soon directors began to experiment, moving the camera to shoot various angles and establishing a variety of editing techniques.
By 1915, there were close to 20,000 movie theaters in the United States; by the early 1920s, 40 million people were going to Hollywood-produced and -directed silent movies every week. Successful actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton began directing their own films, and Frank Capra and Cecil B. De Mille were starting their long careers as professional directors.
With the emergence of “talking pictures” in the early 1930s, the director’s role changed significantly. Sound in film provided opportunities for further directorial creativity. Unnecessary noise could not be tolerated on the set; directors had to be concerned with the voices of their performers and the potential sound effects that could be created. Directors could demand certain types of voices (e.g., a Southern drawl) and sound effects (e.g., the rat-a-tat-tat of submachine guns) to present accurate interpretations of scripts. And no longer was the visually funny slapstick humor enough to make viewers laugh. Much of the humor in sound comedies arose from the script and from the successful direction of professionals like Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch.
The U.S. film industry experienced crises and controversy during the next 50 years, including financial problems, conglomerations of studios, and the introduction of the ratings system. New genres and elements began to challenge directorial genius over the years: science fiction, adventure, film noir; graphic representation of violence and sex; and sensational and computer-enhanced special effects. By the 1970s, university film schools had been established and were sending out creative directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, to name a few.
The continued development of new technologies has had a remarkable effect on the film and television industries. Advances such as computer-generated animation, digital filming, digital sound, and high-definition television have given directors more tools to work with and the ability to produce an increasing variety of looks, sounds, characters-worlds-in their finished films or shows. Additionally, directors are using technologies not only to shape what the audience sees but also to determine where the audience sees it. Computers and the Internet have a growing role in the motion picture industry, as evidenced by the 2001 launching of the Sundance Online Film Festival (http://www.sundanceonlinefilmfestival.org), dedicated to highlighting new works designed specifically for presentation on the Web. Such new tools for creating films and TV shows and new avenues for presentation promise continued growth in this creative field.
Film directors, also called filmmakers, are considered to bear ultimate responsibility for the tone and quality of the films they work on. They interpret the stories and narratives presented in scripts and coordinate the filming of their interpretations. They are involved in preproduction, production, and postproduction. They audition, select, and rehearse the acting crew; they work on matters regarding set designs, musical scores, and costumes; and they decide on details such as where scenes should be shot, what backgrounds might be needed, and how special effects could be employed.
The director of a film often works with a casting director, who is in charge of auditioning performers. The casting director pays close attention to attributes of the performers such as physical appearance, quality of voice, and acting ability and experience, and then presents to the director a list of suitable candidates for each role.
One of the most important aspects of the film director’s job is working with the performers. Directors have their own styles of extracting accurate emotion and performance from cast members, but they must be dedicated to this goal.
Two common techniques that categorize directors’ styles are montage and mise-en-scene. Montage directors are concerned primarily with using editing techniques to produce desired results; they consider it important to focus on how individual shots will work when pieced together with others. Consider Alfred Hitchcock, who directed the production of one scene in Psycho, for example, by filming discrete shots in a bathroom and then editing in dialogue, sound effects, and music to create tremendous suspense. Mise-en-scene directors are more concerned with the pre-editing phase, focusing on the elements of angles, movement, and design one shot at a time, as Orson Welles did. Many directors combine elements of both techniques in their work.
The film’s art director creates set design concepts and chooses shoot locations. He or she meets with the filmmaker and producer to set budgets and schedules and then accordingly coordinates the construction of sets. Research is done on the period in which the film is to take place, and experts are consulted to help create appropriate architectural and environmental styles. The art director also is often involved in design ideas for costumes, makeup and hairstyles, photographic effects, and other elements of the film’s production.
The director of photography, or cinematographer, is responsible for organizing and implementing the actual camera work. Together with the filmmaker, he or she interprets scenes and decides on appropriate camera motion to achieve desired results. The director of photography determines the amounts of natural and artificial lighting required for each shoot and such technical factors as the type of film to be used, camera angles and distance, depth of field, and focus.
Motion pictures are usually filmed out of sequence, meaning that the ending might be shot first and scenes from the middle of the story might not be filmed until the end of production. Directors are responsible for scheduling each day’s sequence of scenes; they coordinate filming so that scenes using the same set and performers will be filmed together. In addition to conferring with the art director and the director of photography, filmmakers meet with technicians and crew members to advise on and approve final scenery, lighting, props, and other necessary equipment. They are also involved with final approval of costumes, choreography, and music.
After all the scenes have been shot, postproduction begins. The director works with picture and sound editors to cut apart and piece together the final reels. The film editor shares the director’s vision about the picture and assembles shots according to that overall idea, synchronizing film with voice and sound tracks produced by the sound editor and music editor.
While the director supervises all major aspects of film production, various assistants help throughout the process. In a less creative position than the filmmaker’s, the first assistant director organizes various practical matters involved during the shooting of each scene. The second assistant director is a coordinator who works as a liaison among the production office, the first assistant director, and the performers. The second unit director coordinates sequences such as scenic inserts and action shots that do not involve the main acting crew.
Film and television directors’ careers are rather nontraditional. There is no standard training outline involved, no normal progression up a movie industry ladder leading to the director’s job. At the very least, a high school diploma, while not technically required if you wish to become a director, will still probably be indispensable to you in terms of the background and education it signifies. As is true of all artists, especially those in a medium as widely disseminated as film, you will need to have rich and varied experience in order to create works that are intelligently crafted and speak to people of many different backgrounds. In high school, courses in English, art, theater, and history will give you a good foundation. Further, a high school diploma will be necessary if you decide to go on to film school. Be active in school and community drama productions, whether as performer, set designer, or cue-card holder.
In college and afterward, take film classes and volunteer to work on other students’ films. Dedication, talent, and experience have always been indispensable to a director. No doubt it is beneficial to become aware of one’s passion for film as early as possible. Woody Allen, for example, recognized early in his life the importance motion pictures held for him, but he worked as a magician, jazz clarinet player, joke writer, and stand-up comic before ever directing films. Allen took few film courses in his life.
On the other hand, many successful directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martha Coolidge have taken the formal film school route. There are more than 500 film studies programs offered by schools of higher education throughout the United States, including those considered to be the five most reputable: those of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles (AFI), Columbia University in New York City, New York University (NYU), the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Southern California (USC). These schools have film professionals on their faculties and provide a very visible stage for student talent, being located in the two film-business hot spots, California and New York. (The tuition for film programs offered elsewhere, however, tends to be much less expensive than at these schools.)
Film school offers overall formal training, providing an education in fundamental directing skills by working with student productions. Such education is rigorous, but in addition to teaching skills it provides aspiring directors with peer groups and a network of contacts with students, faculty, and guest speakers that can be of help after graduation.
The debate continues on what is more influential in a directing career: film school or personal experience. Some say that it is possible for creative people to land directing jobs without having gone through a formal program. Competition is so pervasive in the industry that even film school graduates find jobs scarce (only 5 to 10 percent of the 26,000 students who graduate from film schools each year find jobs in the industry). Martha Coolidge, for instance, made independent films for 10 years before directing a Hollywood movie.
Other Requirements Konstantin Stanislavsky had a passion for his directorial work in the theater, believing that it was an art of immense social importance. Today’s motion picture directors must have similar inspiration and possibly even greater creative strength, because of the many more responsibilities involved in directing modern film.
If you are a would-be director, the most obvious opportunity for exploration lies in your own imagination. Being drawn to films and captivated by the process of how they are made is the beginning of the filmmaker’s journey.
In high school and beyond, carefully study and pay attention to motion pictures. Watch them at every opportunity, both at the theater and at home. Study your favorite television shows to see what makes them interesting. Two major trade publications to read are Variety (http:// www.variety.com) and Hollywood Reporter (http://www. hollywoodreporter.com). The Directors Guild of America’s official publication DGA Magazine contains much information on the industry. If you are unable to find this magazine at a public library or bookstore, visit the DGA Web site to read sample articles (address at end of this article).
During summers, many colleges, camps, and workshops offer programs for high school students interested in film work. For example, rising high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors can take courses in film and video for college credit via Columbia College Chicago’s five-week High School Summer Institute. For more information on this program, visit http://www.colum. edu/admissions/hs_institute.
Employment as a film or television director is usually on a freelance or contractual basis. Directors find work, for example, with film studios (both major and independent), at television stations and cable networks, through advertising agencies, with record companies, and through the creation of their own independent film projects.
It is considered difficult to begin as a motion picture director. With nontraditional steps to professional status, the occupation poses challenges for those seeking employment. However, there is somewhat solid advice for those who wish to direct motion pictures.
Many current directors began their careers in other film industry professions, such as acting or writing. Consider Jodie Foster, who appeared in 30 films and dozens of television productions before she went on to direct her first motion picture at the age of 28. Obviously it helps to grow up near the heart of “Tinseltown” and to have the influence of one’s family spurring you on. The support of family and friends is often cited as an essential element in shaping the confidence you need to succeed in the industry.
As mentioned earlier, film school is a breeding ground for making contacts in the industry. Often, contacts are the essential factor in getting a job; many Hollywood insiders agree that it’s not what you know but whom you know that will get you in. Networking often leads to good opportunities at various types of jobs in the industry. Many professionals recommend that those who want to become directors should go to Los Angeles or New York, find any industry-related job, continue to take classes, and keep their eyes and ears open for news of job openings, especially with those professionals who are admired for their talent.
A program to be aware of is the Assistant Directors Training Program of the Directors Guild of America (address is listed at the end of this article). This program provides an excellent opportunity to those without industry connections to work on film and television productions. The program is based at two locations, New York City for the East Coast program and Sherman Oaks, California, for the West Coast program. Trainees receive hands-on experience, through placement with major studios or on television movies and series, and education, through mandatory seminars. The East Coast program requires trainees to complete up to 350 days of on-set production work; the West Coast program requires 400 days. While they are working, trainees are paid, beginning with a weekly salary of $540 in the East and $521 in the West. Once trainees have completed their program, they become freelance second assistant directors and can join the guild. The competition is extremely stiff for these positions; each location usually accepts 20 or fewer trainees from among some 800 to 1,200 applicants each year.
Keep in mind that major studios in Hollywood are not the only place where directors work. Directors also work on documentaries, on television productions, and with various types of video presentations, from music to business. Honing skills at these types of jobs is beneficial for those still intent on directing for the big screen.
In the motion picture industry, advancement often comes with recognition. Directors who work on well-received movies are given awards as well as further job offers. Probably the most glamorized trophy is the Academy Award: the Oscar. Oscars are awarded in 24 categories, including one for best achievement in directing, and are given annually at a gala to recognize the outstanding accomplishments of those in the field.
Candidates for Oscars are usually judged by peers. Directors who have not worked on films popular enough to have made it in Hollywood should nevertheless seek recognition from reputable organizations. One such group is the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent agency of the U.S. government that supports and awards artists, including those who work in film. The endowment provides financial assistance in the form of fellowships and grants to those seen as contributing to the excellence of arts in the country.
Directors’ salaries vary greatly. Most Hollywood film directors are members of the Directors Guild of America, and salaries (as well as hours of work and other employment conditions) are usually negotiated by this union. Generally, contracts provide for minimum weekly salaries and follow a basic trend depending on the cost of the picture being produced: For film budgets over $1.5 million, the weekly salary is about $8,000; for budgets of $500,000 to $1.5 million, it is $5,800 per week; and for budgets under $500,000, the weekly salary is $5,100. Motion picture art directors earn an average weekly salary of about $1,850; directors of photography, $2,000. Keep in mind that because directors are freelancers, they may have no income for many weeks out of the year.
Although contracts usually provide only for the minimum rate of pay, most directors earn more, and they often negotiate extra conditions. Woody Allen, for example, takes the minimum salary required by the union for directing a film but also receives at least 10 percent of the film’s gross receipts.
Salaries for directors who work in television vary greatly based on type of project and employer and on whether the director is employed as a freelancer or as a salaried employee. A 2002 salary survey by the Radio- Television News Directors Association found that television news directors had salaries that ranged from $18,000 to $250,000. Their median annual salary was $64,000. Assistant news directors earned between $19,000 to $150,000. The median salary was $57,000.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the median annual salary of film, stage and radio directors and producers was $53,860 in 2005. Among this group, the lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $26,870, and the highest paid 10 percent earned more than $141,500.
The work of the director is considered glamorous and prestigious, and of course directors have been known to become quite famous. But directors work under great stress, meeting deadlines, staying within budgets, and resolving problems among staff. “Nine-to-five” definitely does not describe a day in the life of a director; 16-hour days (and more) are not uncommon. Because directors are ultimately responsible for so much, schedules often dictate that they become immersed in their work around the clock, from preproduction to final cut. Nonetheless, those able to make it in the industry find their work to be extremely enjoyable and satisfying.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for motion picture and television directors is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014. This forecast is based on the increasing global demand for films and television programming made in the United States as well as continuing U.S. demand for home video and DVD rentals. However, competition is extreme and turnover is high. Most positions in the motion picture industry are held on a freelance basis. As is the case with most film industry workers, directors are usually hired to work on one film at a time. After a film is completed, new contacts must be made for further assignments.
Television offers directors a wider variety of employment opportunities such as directing sitcoms, made-for-television movies, newscasts, commercials, even music videos. Cable television networks are proliferating, and directors are needed to help create original programming to fill this void. Half of all television directors work as freelancers. This number is predicted to rise as more cable networks and production companies attempt to cut costs by hiring directors on a project-to-project basis.
For More Information
For information on the AFI Conservatory, AFI workshops, AFI awards, and other film and television news, visit the AFI’s Web site or contact
American Film Institute (AFI)
2021 North Western Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027-1657
For information on scholarships and grants, interest divisions, and publications, contact
Broadcast Education Association
1771 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036-2891
Email: [email protected]
Visit the DGA’s Web site to read selections from DGA Magazine, get industry news, and find links to film schools and film festivals.
Directors Guild of America (DGA)
7920 Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90046-3304
For more information about DGA’s Assistant Directors Training Program, visit these Web sites:
East Coast Program
West Coast Program