Do film directors need to know how to light?

– Posted in: Directing Films and Videos Directing Story Directing the Camera


I got this question “Do film directors need to know how to light?” came from from Mukul, a Digital Film Farm newsletter subscriber named  last week. It’s a great question and likely one many new and even experienced filmmakers have.

When I first read the question I thought the answer was straight forward and obvious, but it’s not. I almost fell into the trap of looking at it from a very limited perspective – mine. – Lets take a look.

Mukul writes,

I want to become a director. To what extent must a director know about lightning and about the other aspects of filmmaking like three-point lightning, techniques used in photography, about visual effects etc?

The answer that first came to mind was,

 N0,  The director’s job is to guide the story, not focus on technical lighting or other technical things.

But, instead of just giving him my knee jerk answer, I decided to put the question out to all my email subscribers. I’m glad I did because they helped me expand my perspective and see the bigger question.

My knee jerk answer was based on assumptions I’ll share in a bit. Here’s a few excerpts from the advice I got. I think will help us all.

Mike Camoin

It depends. Every director is different. Some hire extremely experienced and knowledgeable cinematographers such that they can focus on what interests them more, like directing actors. Some do a lot of prep mapping out each shot, still others do that once on set.

Right on Mike. It depends on what you mentioned and so much more. First and foremost everything the director does must serve the cinematic, emotional and narrative arch of the story within the genre of the film.

Daley Baker

I believe the director must know enough to communicate his or her vision to the departments in as concise a manner as possible. The director does not need to be an expert in all the different aspects, but the more one knows, the larger the tool set at your disposal. The director only needs to be an expert on the story he or she is trying to tell.

Daley brings us back to the directors core responsibility “the story.” Daley also mentions communicating in a concise manner.

This is huge!

Every production runs on “time” and anyone who’s shot a film know’s there’s never enough of it. Time is your most precious commodity. If you’re on-set and lack the language or knowledge to communicate your vision you’re wasting time. The more time you waste talking, the less time you have for shooting.

The more knowledgable you have, the more likely it will be that you’ll be able to work through many of  workflow and creative decisions in pre-production. Pre-production is the time discuss ideas and make plans.  Solve as many problems as possible before you arrive on set.

Doug Harrington

I feel that a director must know lighting, techniques, possible visual effects, etc. The director must have a vision about the production, how he wants it to look, what is possible – both in time and in budget… Without that knowledge, a director is flying blind..

So there you go three different perspectives and they all have merit.

Who’s right?

This brings me to my assumptions. When I said – NO!

The director’s job is to guide the story, not focus on technical lighting or other technical things. I assumed the director would be working with a skilled crew 0n a film project designed to be entertaining for the average indie film fan. Not a short film designed to be a learning experience.

That’s a problem.  If you’re new to filmmaking  you’re not going to make a great film. You may aspire to that level but getting there takes time. You need to practice and focus on limited disciplines in the beginning.

So, Do film directors need to know how to light?

Here’s my new answer.

  • If you’re making your first film and working with people who understand the tech better then you do. Let them do it and focus on the story and the actors.
  • If you’re making your first film and you’re shooting and directing, you need to understand enough about  lighting to achieve the result you’re looking for.
  • If you’re a writer/director and you want to build a career in the filmmaking industry, you need to learn the basics of lighting and special effects so you can efficiently communicate and ultimately realize your vision.
  • If you’re a editor/director interested in special effects, you need to learn about lighting and special effects.
  • If your a director who wants to make people laugh and cry, you need to focus on writing, directing actors and uncovering truth in your writing and the performances.

So I hate to say it again but it depends on:

  • What your long term aspirations are.
  • What kind of movies do you want to make.
  • Can you find a cinematographer and an editor willing to take on the tech work?

There is only so much time in a day, so my advice is start by learning to use a camera to tell a good story. Make films fast, make each one better then the last. If you make five films fast (2 – 3 days per 3 minute film) you’ll be on your way to knowing what you don’t know.

I can hear some of you screaming. “But they will be crap.” Yes, the production quality might be terrible, but thats ok.Everybody’s first films always suck. So do them fast and get them out of the way. This is how you’ll learn what you don’t know and you can build from there.

If you’re a new director you need to learn to use the camera to tell a story – that’s it !

If all this sounds like to much work then rethink being filmmaker – it’s not work when it’s what you love!

Do you have an opinion on the subject?

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts. We all get better when we engage!