My Best Film Directing Tip

– Posted in: Directing Films and Videos Directing Story

In this post, I’m going to share what I believe to be the main ingredient for moving from a backyard filmmaker to an award-winning filmmaker. It’s actually a technique taught in all the best film schools. Best of all it’s free and it’s easy to do if you have a computer and an internet connection. Let me start with a bold statement:

[bctt tweet=”The best & only way to become a film director with chops is to develop the ability to see the invisible.”]

Yes, it’s magic!

That’s the movie-making business. We create “make-believe” worlds that come from our imaginations. These worlds don’t exist but become real when the magic of film structure makes them so.

This structure is invisible to the audience, but it must be made clear to anyone who wishes to make compelling films.

This structure is invisible on purpose. I’ll explain further down why this is so.

Here’s the problem most of us have – this included me until just a few years ago.

I tried to learned how to make movies by consuming movies.

I’d admire a shot or a sequence in a movie and I’d work to replicate it in my own work. I can hear some of you saying “What’s wrong with that?” Nothing really!

Everybody starts by emulating work, but beware – you can’t rely on this method alone or for too long. It’s easy to get stuck there!

Circle of action3_600

That was my problem.

I never moved beyond emulating the work I admired. My camera setups were not motivated by point of view, subtext or anything substantial.

I was simply using the basic triangle method to document dialogue. I would add cool shots whenever I could. This method was good enough to get by but it wasn’t recipe for success.

Luckily, the “movie consumer” in me has good taste. So, I knew something was wrong.

Unfortunately, I only knew when it didn’t work. In the edit room after the sequence or scene was edited. Ooouch!

I knew something wasn’t working but, I didn’t know why.

You see up to then I hadn’t gone to film school. I had only skimmed the books on my shelf. I wasn’t motivated to study.

I was making a career out of successfully documenting properly-exposed and well-framed actors reciting lines from a script. (Say that last sentence with sarcasm and you’ll appreciate it on another level. 😉)

[bctt tweet=”While documenting may resemble directing, it lacks the ingredients that make it authentic.”]

My work was mediocre and I’m sharing this because I don’t want you to suffer the same pain.

Ultimately I did realize that if I wanted to be a top notch director, I would need to move beyond consuming films and begin to study films. Watching behind the scenes DVD extras would no longer be enough, I needed to collect the work of my favorite directors and break individual scenes into their separate shots.

Similar to what you see in this “Kill Bill, Shot Breakout Excerpt”. These show four of the twenty nine camera setups used to shoot this scene.

Kill Bill BO_excerpt_600

Don’t give me too much credit. I didn’t think of this exercise. I read about the exercise in one of the books I had previously ignored. Go figure 😉

If you think about it, dissecting a scene makes perfect sense. Are you doing it?

I mean biologists start by dissecting frogs. Writers study the structure of sentences and paragraphs. So, I realized that if I truly wanted to become a director with chops, I needed to dive deep and make whatever invisible magic show itself to me.

Now full disclosure – I didn’t even know what I was looking for.  But as I dove into the task, these questions began to form.

  • How many separate camera setups did the director use?
  • Why did he choose each?
  • What lens did he use and what effect does it have?
  • Who’s point of view does the scene favor? Where does it change? Why how?

The breakdown process itself is simple, but the “reasons why” are more complex.

Here’s why!

Once you acknowledge that the camera can be placed in hundreds of different locations, the next question is – “why here, why now?”

There is no absolute or universally right answer. There is only cause and effect and that’s relative to many of the other scene’s dynamics. In the beginning it’s enough to just break it down, ask the questions and have an opinion. Don’t worry about being right. This is not about right. This is about training yourself to think differently and to see the invisible.

Inspired film directing requires a shift from seeing the movie through the eyes of the passive consumer to understanding a film’s structure with the entire body, mind and soul of a creator. 

Pause on that one for a second and think about it. The perspective shift is huge!

That’s my best film directing tip!

That’s right. In the beginning we’re consumers. We can’t see the structure. This is due to years of conditioning. We’ve been consuming television and movies as a “passive viewer,” we’ve been trained to “not see.” This is perfect for enjoying the movie but it’s a hurdle when it comes to making them.

As consumers we don’t want the ingredients, we want the product. We want to consume it! We want the experience!

[bctt tweet=”A good movie takes us on a journey and involves us in the story so fully we get lost.”]

Anything less doesn’t cut it. We’ve watched too many good movies and our standards on some levels are high to be satisfied with “good attempts.” Even if they are our friends’ or family’s.

Luckily film directors have a secret ingredient that helps them create magic. It’s called the suspension of disbelief. It’s the reason films work!

Every viewer sits down and willingly agrees to believe things in a movie they would otherwise call nonsense. This is why making the process – “the structure” invisible is so important.

The more visible our camera set-ups and edits, the less authentic the relationships, premise or performance are. When done poorly, the audience must go deeper into the well to suspend disbelief. This becomes a problem because the well is only so deep. Go to the well to often and you’ve lost your audience.

[bctt tweet=”Trained filmmakers know how to work within a film structure and make it invisible.”]

It’s a fundamental skill set they learned in film school. The good ones build upon this fundamental by adding their voice, and paying attention to sub-text, point of view and relationship dynamics. These are the movies that move us.

It’s kind of amazing and when it’s done well, it’s art. The glue that holds it together is invisible and the “make-believe” events unfold as real and continuous. But when done poorly, an otherwise wonderful premise can fall flat.  When the structure falls apart, the “make-believe” is visible and instead of being a journey, it becomes a series of failed attempts at magic.

[bctt tweet=”A successful film takes the audience on a journey so real they forget they’re watching a film.”]

A failed attempt exposes the process and and the magic is lost.

The audience moves from being involved in the story to questioning every action, every relationship and sometimes even the authenticity of an otherwise promising premise.

That said, we will fail and in the beginning, we will fail often. But there’s no excuse for failing on the basics because they can be studied and practiced for free by working through scenes of the directors you admire. It’s not as fun as shooting a zombie scene but it will nourish your career and set you up for long term success.

So there’s my best tip – Do with it what you will! 🙂

If you like it and practice it, please share it.

Let me know what you think of this tip, or share one of your own in the comment section below.