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What is a great director?


Patrick McGowan
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I guess another way to ask this is how do you appreciate directing by watching a film? I think I have an idea of how to look at cinematography, acting, or writing. I have trouble noticing what the director has done to the film. How do you measure a director? By the success of the film? This is not a knock on directors, they have a very difficult job and a lot of responsiblity.

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The orchestration of all the arts around a common theme, the coordination of the acting & actors' movement with the camera and editing in support of the narrative, the use of images, sound and editing to drive the narrative, not just to look "pretty" and sound "nice".

 

And the ability to make everyone else look good, so much that you ask what the director did!

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"Great directors dissolve and disappear into the work, while making other people look good." -Alexander MacKendrick

 

 

If you want to grow in your appreciation for what a great director adds to a film, sit down and read a published screenplay of a film like say, "CHINATOWN" and then watch the film. You'll begin to notice all the things that the director brings to the film, that weren't mentioned in the screenplay. Through camera movement, working with his cinematographer on composition and lighting, getting the right performances from the actors, use of music, editing, etc,. you'll see how a great director sets and maintains the right TONE for the film.

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That's an interesting question. I'm not personally convinced that one can specifically point out what a Director has contributed to a film until he/she has a body of work that illustrates trends. A Director undoubtedly can have a lot of influence if he knows what he is doing and knows what he wants, but I've often seen firsthand how others can easily "carry" a Director who isn't very strong. From DPs who make shot choices (and essentially editorial choices) to Production Designers and Costume Designers who make ultimate decisions, a project of any size can easily be "directed" by almost anyone besides the Director. Almost anyone who has been around long enough has seen Actors strip certain Directors of their power as they decide what will work for a scene and what won't.

 

Ultimately, the best Directors won't be so autocratic that they feel the need to tell others what to do, but rather they utilize the expertise of others and "direct" the artists and crew much like a Conductor directs the orchestra.

 

For an example, I cringe whenever a Producer I'm working for refers to me as their "DP" when we're doing a simple one camera thing where it is just me, the sound person and the Producer. In that case, I'm not "directing" anything. On the other hand, when I get into a 3 camera or more situation where I am actually "directing" others to create the setup (camera placement, lenses, lighting, etc), then I definitely accept the term "DP" and expect to get paid accordingly for it.

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I guess another way to ask this is how do you appreciate directing by watching a film?

 

The personality of the film is director's. His or her inclinations have selected everything to tell the story.

 

If you are engaged by the movie on an emotional level - that is the director. An actor can give a truly engaging performance it's true and a cinematographer can deliver an image which is beyond beautiful and enters into storytelling itself... however... if all of these elements are working in perfect synch - then everyone is working together and that is the director's job. He or she finds the story in the script and makes sure that everyone else working on themovie has found the same story.

 

Like many printed materials - 10 people can read the same script and have either totally or slightly different visions of it.

 

Beyond the storypoints there is the entire mise-en-scene. What is that? Here's an example... as a child I read "Mrs. Frisby and the rats of NIMH" and was really engaged by it. I imagined it as a movie and was really excited by the caves and all the l ittle details. The organic quality of everyting. This book was made into an animation film called "The Secret of NIMH" and was totally different than how I imagined it. All the things I thought were exciting about the book were lost. I pick this movie because it was a perfectly successful film (and doesn't involve live cinematography being an animated film) - but just to illustrate that what Don Bluth saw in the same book was so incredibly different than what I saw in the book. Would my movie have been successful? Who knows, but it definitely would have been different.

 

Imagine if Uwe Bol had directed Blade Runner. It would have had a totally different personality.

 

Also a director brings about a different performance from the people involved. For example - Natalie Portman in the Star Wars films is a different actress than she is in, say... Garden State or Closer or The Professional. This is just as true for designers and the other key artists involved in the film.

 

Enough text from me.

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While I'm a total n00b when it comes to cinematography, I like to think that I know a bit about directing.

 

I've made a few shorts and have researched the topic of directing for awhile. I wish to be a writer/director in the near future.

 

A lot of people make the mistake that shot composition and angles are a cinematographer's job. While it's their job to capture those angles and make the composition work on camera, the director has the creative investment in that portion of the film world.

 

The director is essentially handed a story. His job is to find the best way to tell it.

 

Each scene in the story have to get a point across, and in order for that to happen each individual shot has to have a purpose in the scene. Every motion, every item, and every angle has a purpose in the story.

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Ive always liked the conductor analogy in that there is such a level of experience in the combined HOD/talent of any film but that it takes a very special kind of person to mix the strengths of these individuals, to meld them into a defined direction and to produce something greater than the sum of their parts.

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Ive always liked the conductor analogy in that there is such a level of experience in the combined HOD/talent of any film but that it takes a very special kind of person to mix the strengths of these individuals, to meld them into a defined direction and to produce something greater than the sum of their parts.

 

I love that analogy :)

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A good director has a point of view and has something to say. ?On the Waterfront? isn?t about the mob trying to control the dock workers it is about self respect and standing up for what you believe. A writer can create that message but it is a good director that sees it and brings it out in story and cast.

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It's tough to bring up this question without getting into auteur theory, so I'm just going to chime in a little on the matter.

 

Films by the "auteurs" generally have the director's signature all over the film. Just by watching a scene or two you can say "wow, this must be a Kubrick", or "Looks like a P.T. Anderson film", and so on with Hitchcock and Allen and Hawks etc etc. So there's a distinct style that seems to carry across a body of work.

There's no doubt that these are great directors with a very distinctive style and perspective in storytelling.

 

There's also no doubt that the director is absolutely crucial to being the "golden thread" that ties everything together, through any production. That being said...

 

I'll never in my life subscribe to the auteur theory. It takes more than one person to make a movie, I believe the "auteur theory" genuinely takes away from the contributions of many of the cast and crew. I mean except for You Can't Learn to Plow by Reading Books - Linklater's debut super 8 feature may just be a true exception to that. But that movie also just so happens to be about absolutely nothing.

 

Anyway, I think it's easy for critics and film buffs to label someone an "auteur". I find it especially hard, however, to believe it from someone who's ever actually been through the process of filmmaking.

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Try to remember moovies that changed your life and you will find some great directors :ph34r:

 

A good director has a point of view and has something to say. ?On the Waterfront? isn?t about the mob trying to control the dock workers it is about self respect and standing up for what you believe. A writer can create that message but it is a good director that sees it and brings it out in story and cast.

 

 

 

 

Excellent approach!!

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There are different kinds of directors and how one understands them and what they contribute to a film varies. Alll of the replies so far have described one type of director, the working industry professional.

 

There are other types of directors, for example in the American avant-gard or in the European art cinema tradition. The criteria listed in other posts do not apply to directors working in these traditions. Tarakovsky, Ozu, Bergman (at least his best work such as Persona and Shame), and others produced their work out of an aesthetic / philosophical framework that sought to define the cinema in specific terms. For Tarkovsky his unifying concept is summed up in the title of his book "sculpting in time" Although he didn't consider himself a formalist (couldn't stand formalism) in his approach to cinema we see that he understood the spiritual aspect of time as the sole essential component of the cinema (a point of view that to western readers has a formalist ring to it). His understanding and use of time was remarkable, as was his camera movement and nearly everything else in his films. But to say that he was tring to bring together all the different elements (editing, camera movement, visual style etc) for the sake of creating a "story well told" would be to parody his approach, his thinking about cinema and the films themselves.

 

Personally I find the professional's description of the director to be a bit anemic. It sets the bar pretty low in that all it really asks of the director is to be an assembler. As was correctly pointed out above, the crew can and will often carry a director in many ways (not always bad). Also in the realm of the Hollywood studio system and American TV the director is, 90% of the time, just a well paid hired gun. In this system its really about money, nothing more. The studio likes what the director does they are happy and feel good about the money being spent. The studio doesn't like what the director does (or the director truely screws up) then the studio fires them because it was costing to much for what they were getting, etc.

 

But honestly of the thousands of directors working in the US from the local, regional, to the national level, few if any have what could be called a unique point of view or unique skill at creating films or TV, but also being uniquely skilled is almost never asked of directors these days. As long as both films and TV remain for the most part ready made forms this will continue to be the case. I hope this does not sound too cynical, I'm not cynical at all (I have great hopes for what the cinema can achieve) but I cringe at the lionizing of the banal that occurs every day here in Los Angeles.

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Personally I find the professional's description of the director to be a bit anemic. It sets the bar pretty low

 

If I set the bar so low... then why is it so hard to find directors who meet it? Basic professional directorial skills are less common than you think, particularly in the feature world. The joke around town is that the only entry-level positions in Hollywood are PA and Director.

 

The only reason I hesitate to overemphasize the whole directorial "vision" thing over professional skills is that it feeds into the whole auteur theory, which is a disservice to people like screenwriters. But I agree that a director is more than a traffic cop; the trouble is that so many directors can't direct traffic, let alone a movie. The professional skills I listed are what I consider the MINIMAL skill sets a director should have -- you can call that "anemic" or "setting the bar low" if you want but I didn't intend to suggest that these were the only elements to a great director, just a competent director. Obviously to be "great" one has to be more than technically proficient but actually create movies of some artistic value.

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David,

 

My words were not a direct reply to what you had posted, I would have quoted you if they were, sorry if you felt I was putting you down. I like that joke about PA & Director, there is some truth to that due to the nature of how deals are made etc., I've been on sets with large budgets where the director totally lacked the skills you mention, but I've been on far more sets (T.V.) where the director had a solid grip on the skills you list, was a skilled pro. could get a lot of set ups in a day, solve problems well, get acceptable performances etc. but that's it they are high paid working professionals creating a product for a network / studio, that's it. Its not that I think the world is full of people who have the basics of directing down cold, I just think far more should be asked of directors than a basic skill set. I actually think that there are probably more solid directors in TV than in features because concepts like directorial "vision" play little or no role in T.V. its all about who can get the job done on time and on budget.

 

I agree that terms such as "vision" and "auteur" are problematic, but for different reasons than you suggest. The idea of vision is often ambiguous, doesn't define anything specific about what the director does, and Auteur can't be used without sounding like adoration, its uncritical. But in the end there are a tiny number of directors in the history of the cinema who did something more valuable than the rest, had a aesthetic and philosophical, even ethical comitment to making certain types of films or using the cinema to express something they believed to be essential to the human condition. What ever one chooses to call them I think they should define the standard to which the rest of us aspire. But I realize that this is pretty romantic notion that has little to do with the professional worlds you and I work in.

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Personally I find the professional's description of the director to be a bit anemic. It sets the bar pretty low in that all it really asks of the director is to be an assembler.

I don't agree with that at all. The concept of "directing" indicates that an individual is actually directing others, insinuating that the project is not an individualistic activity. What you seem to be describing is a person who either creates a project entirely on his own or completely ignores the potential contributions of those around him. By definition, that isn't a "director" of anything. A good Director will recognize and welcome what others have to offer in terms of creative input and weave all of those elements together to create a wonderful whole. If it also manages to become "popular" it might also have the potential to make its money back so that more films can be made.

 

The Director indeed is an "assembler," but also is responsible for making sure the individual pieces of that project are aligned to best serve the idea. Note that I didn't say "script" as even the screenwriter may not quite "nail it" at times. This is of course assuming that the initial notion which became a screenplay and then a film was worthy to begin with. So yes, the Director does assemble, but it is much more than that.

 

I hope this does not sound too cynical, I'm not cynical at all (I have great hopes for what the cinema can achieve) but I cringe at the lionizing of the banal that occurs every day here in Los Angeles.

Sure, some of it can be banal, but I rather doubt that any of the Directors out here would appreciate the thought that they have given up on being creative. Granted, sometimes the projects in and of themselves paint Directors into specific formulas, but there is certainly room for being creative within those parameters. To suggest that all "Hollywood" type Directors are just flipping burgers doesn't give them very much credit....

 

All of the replies so far have described one type of director, the working industry professional.

 

...because, as nice as it is to have no limitations and just create art, we live in a real world with mortage payments due and mouths to feed. That said, absolute "freedom" isn't necessarily a good thing either. Sometimes art benefits from someone telling the creator "No" every once in a while. Limits require even more creativity while the concept of the auteur encourages little in the name of practicality. Not that such a thing is bad (assuming that auteur-ism even really exists), but it doesn't often put much food on the table.

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A lot of people make the mistake that shot composition and angles are a cinematographer's job. While it's their job to capture those angles and make the composition work on camera, the director has the creative investment in that portion of the film world.

 

True in a sense, but pick up the book "Directing Actors" and read it cover-to-cover. If your number one opinion as to what a director does is decide camera angles, you may be putting too much focus on the visual elements of directing, either because you don't have actors to work with, or you're trying to avoid working with actors. Soon you'll have to surrender more and more to the DP just so you can spend time working with the performance. I still DP my own stuff just because I don't have a DP I can trust. But I've been realising, especially with 16mm, how much it takes to try to do both.

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I think the only difference of opinion here comes from the phrasing of the original question. When talking generally about good directorial traits, we tend to emphasize professionalism.

 

But if we are really talking about "great directors" as in the greatest directors of all time, the ones who have made great movies, then it's hard to make general statements about what makes them great as a whole -- partially because one key element that they have is originality, so what they have in common... is that they have less in common with other directors!

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True in a sense, but pick up the book "Directing Actors" and read it cover-to-cover. If your number one opinion as to what a director does is decide camera angles, you may be putting too much focus on the visual elements of directing, either because you don't have actors to work with, or you're trying to avoid working with actors. Soon you'll have to surrender more and more to the DP just so you can spend time working with the performance. I still DP my own stuff just because I don't have a DP I can trust. But I've been realising, especially with 16mm, how much it takes to try to do both.

 

It does take a lot of effort to think about that stuff, but I've been getting into the habit of storyboarding so then I can attempt to concentrate on angle and composition and on the performance of the actors. Cinematographers do usually get the final say on angles though : )

 

Keep in mind that a lot of (good) directors storyboard, if not then they explain the shots to a storyboard artist.

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I think the only difference of opinion here comes from the phrasing of the original question. When talking generally about good directorial traits, we tend to emphasize professionalism.

 

But if we are really talking about "great directors" as in the greatest directors of all time, the ones who have made great movies, then it's hard to make general statements about what makes them great as a whole -- partially because one key element that they have is originality, so what they have in common... is that they have less in common with other directors!

 

I think my original question was more about: "how do you appreciate directing by watching a film?" I probably should have made that the topic instead.

 

I agree with the comment on originality, particularly in many of the new wave films, they are really films of the director. By that I mean from my understanding, films by Goddard used improvisation and he would come on set with a new treatment for each day. I can also see the originality when I look at scripts and compare them to the finished movie.

 

I guess I always felt that the script, actors, cinematographer etc. were (almost?) as important as a "great" director. This is taking into account that the acting, cinematography, art direction etc. are all guided by the director and he or she is the boss on set. Even though everything is guided by one person, that person relies on the talents of others as well.

 

I don't think I am total newbie, this question came out of having good and bad experiences with directors. in the end the people I really respect are the directors who have an exact idea for what they want to achieve. In student productions, that is useful...it's not fun when productions fall apart.

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Keep in mind that a lot of (good) directors storyboard, if not then they explain the shots to a storyboard artist.

 

Yeah, and I storyboard because I love to draw and I'm passionate about my movies, but what goes onto the boards is never in stone, and adjustments are always made on set anyway. I think the director should have the final say on angles, and the DP should have the freedom to find what works, allowing him to make use of the creativity that probably got him the job in the first place.

 

As far as appreciating the director's input by watching a film, just take one director and watch the movies he's made. The most recognizable may be Sam Raimi; Spider-Man I and II definitely came from the same mind that made Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, and Darkman. Just by watching "Inside Man," which is the only Spike Lee film I've seen, It's quite obvious what is a result of Lee's input. Good directors capture "moments" that seem real, and not set-up or stilted. They also put their own personality into the film, and Lee definitely did that, even in a film which could have been very straight-forward and uninspired.

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Yeah, and I storyboard because I love to draw and I'm passionate about my movies, but what goes onto the boards is never in stone, and adjustments are always made on set anyway. I think the director should have the final say on angles, and the DP should have the freedom to find what works, allowing him to make use of the creativity that probably got him the job in the first place.

 

Agreed.

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On narrative films great directors excel at rehearsing, preparing, and nurturing their casts. They may get involved in all the technical details but there are plenty of directors who excel in tech and turn out stinkers - because they don't understand what actors need to let it all hang out. Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen for two seem to be adored by their casts - and both have turned out some really outstanding films.

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