Three Legs of Film Directing – Performance

– Posted in: Directing Films and Videos Directing Performance

In order to get good at directing, and for that matter any craft, it’s important to identify the individual skill-sets that make up the craft. Only then is it possible to focus on specific tasks and the most useful techniques.

There are too many dynamics involved to approach directing as a broad stroke “thing.” It only becomes a “thing” when we’ve learned to blend the separate skills-sets into a process.

I like to look at film directing as having three major legs, each comprised of many skills sets.

1. Directing Performance
2. Camera Blocking
3. Directing Story

At some point, a seasoned director must be capable of juggling all of these simultaneously.

After all – This is Directing.

That said, trying to be good at all three too early is a recipe for disappointment. When working with new directors, my role has been to:

  • Introduce new directors to the unseen processes that are necessary for success. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
  • Help new directors identify and isolate disciplines and skill-sets so they can develop a plan to master  these individually.
  • Guide new directors in the timing and blending of these separate skill-sets into the organic process of directing.

Combining all three legs right away isn’t a mistake in and of itself. The problem comes from trying to do too much too early. New directors moving too fast almost always results in going through the motions of directing instead of practicing the art of directing.


In some ways, directing is easy and the tasks are obvious.

  • Assemble the actors into a location and shoot them “acting” and saying lines.
  • Give the actors some result based direction like “say it more like – you’re happier.”
  • Shoot a master shot and additional camera setup for scene coverage.

Once you complete these steps, you have the building blocks and can edit a sequence of shots that look and sound like a movie.

But as many of you already know, this kind of directing might impress your mother but it won’t result in a film that entertains a real audience. And it won’t help you develop a reputation of a “director with chops“. FYI – You need to develop a good reputation or find a lot of money if you eventually want to work with experienced crew and seasoned actors.

This dilemma outlines what I consider to be – The Biggest Hurdle to Good Directing.

New directors almost always try to take on too much and move too fast. They inevitably become overwhelmed. If they know about the many tools of directing, they don’t set themselves up for to properly leverage them. I know this to be true because this is exactly what I did for years and it’s exactly what I want to to save you from doing.

If this topic interests you, get my free “Directing Actors Mini-Course.” Click the enroll button below and get valuable insights you can apply now and use forever.

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I’m passionate about treating film directing as a craft and I hope I can relay this passion in a way that is empowering for you.

[bctt tweet=”Directing is an art that can be learned.”]

We can’t obtain true directing skills by only watching movies and DVD extras. If we want to increase our chances of real success, we must study and practice the right things at the right time. But knowing what to focus on and how to focus can be difficult to impossible, especially if we’re brand new to directing.

Where do we put our limited time and energy?

This is where we can best leverage the advice of a teacher or coach. This is also why people attend film schools like NYU, USC or AFI. These schools are expensive but they force the student to focus on the fundamentals so they can later blend them into the process of directing. They might not graduate great directors but they’ve been exposed to what it takes.

That’s the key!

We can follow this “film school” model as we learn on our own at a fraction of the cost if we take some time to isolate and focus on one directing leg at a time. We allow ourselves to more clearly see our role and thus responsibility to the separate components of the process.

Instead of being overwhelmed by too much to do, we become empowered by putting all our efforts on a particular skill.

This makes it much more likely we’ll get a satisfactory result within the discipline were focusing on if we have:

  • a clear understanding of the result we want
  • a clear understanding of what skill-set were focusing on
  • a plan, script and or an exercise designed to leverage our focused attention
  • the right environment to achieve this result.[bctt tweet=”These are the elements for successfully learning to direct.”]

Let’s now apply these dynamics to learning how to Direct Performance.

Directing actors is primarily about building trust. It’s easy to go into a production taking this for granted. After all you’re the “director.” While this title gives you some leverage, it doesn’t give you supreme power.

[bctt tweet=”The good actors will take their time before they decide they can trust you.”]

They want to know:

  • if you have “chops”
  • do you know a good performance from a bad performance
  • can you guide them with clear, concise direction
  • do you have their best interest in mind

If they think they can’t trust you, they will begin to monitor their own performance.

This is exactly what you don’t want to have happen!

As we look at the trust dynamic and isolate it from from the one hundred other things we do while directing performance. We notice the isolation step affords us the opportunity to have an opinion on just how important the actor-director trust relationship really is. Do we really believe it’s this important?

The most important step in this process is the “awareness” step. The next step is always to question what you’re being taught.

If we accept the premise that trust is a very important dynamic, we become willing to put effort into learning how to better manifest and evaluate this dynamic prior to, during and after an actors performance. We have something to focus on.

But, if you don’t buy into the importance of trust and believe that what you’re doing is working, then keep it up until you find yourself with an actor who’s directing themselves.

Now, you might be asking, what’s wrong with a competent actor directing themselves? What does this have to do with trust?

Here’s the problem.

Good performances require the actor to be spontaneous. Legendary acting instructor Sanford Meisner calls it “being in the moment.” The definition of acting I like is “living truthfully in an imaginary circumstance”

“Living truthfully” requires the actor to surrender completely to the moment, the feelings and any truthful impulses that arise while working toward a predetermined objective the character wants to achieve. The actor must be fully present, open and vulnerable to their acting partner as well as the unfolding situation.

When an actor “directs themselves”, they’re watching their own performance and becomes increasingly more self-conscious. This is the opposite of open and vulnerable.

When we look at ourselves, we can see this in play during an important encounter. The more important it to us to make a “good” impression the more we watch ourselves, stiffen up and become less spontaneous.

When the actor continually monitors their own performance, you’ve lost them. You’re no longer directing and they ultimately become “director proof.”

When this happens, you’re just along for the ride.

A directors primary onset concern is to provide approval and to reassure the actors. It’s important to the actors that you’re listening to them and that they know you understand their character’s needs and objectives.
A good director understands when an actor’s is most vulnerable and will work to create a safe place for them to perform. This awareness, effort and ultimately skill is what builds trust and keeps them open to your direction.

The better they feel about the direction they’re going, the more “directable” they become.


Developing an actor’s trust is something you could isolate and work on as a skill-set. If you’d like to practice this, I invite you to to this simple exercise.

Developing Trust Exercise

Put out a call looking for actors. Advertise a casting call for a few character types. Even if you don’t have any production in the works right now, let them know you’re scouting for future projects.

You won’t be lying and the only thing actors like better than working is working with directors who want to work with actors. Once you overcome the nervous energy, you’ll find this to be great fun.

Every casting call comes with nervous energy. Being aware of and working with this energy is an important part of the exercise. Taking charge at a casting call will go a long way in instilling confidence. This is your first opportunity to build trust.

The second part of the exercise is to give the actor a specific “as if” direction. Ask them to change they’re delivery, but instead of giving them general, result-based direction like “be more happy” or just describing the unfolding situation, give them specific, concise direction.

You might say – “try these lines as if your character knows something the other charter doesn’t know.” Then really listen to the delivery. Compliment them by saying “nice’ or some other short compliment and continue to refine and or explore the performance.

Don’t overwork the actor and try to be specific and concise. When it comes to directing performance, there are a lot of tools a director have at their disposal, but the best tool and the one you can begin with is developing the ability to listen and trust in your ability to know a good performance from a bad performance.

This isn’t hard but it does require practice.

To get the most of this exercise, I recommend taking the footage back and reviewing it by yourself or with a trusted filmmaker-colleague. Play a performance back without picture. Just listen to the delivery.

What do you hear?
Listen to another actor’s delivery.
What’s different?
Which do you like more?


This is an example focused learning.

Instead of trying to make a great movie and dealing with all three legs, this is a way to focus your attention on specific skills and train yourself to hear and eventually direct truthful performances.

The early and obvious benefit of this approach will be the trust you’ll gain from the actors who will notice your attention to detail and appreciate your desire to listen.

Give it a try and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear about your results.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the my posts on Camera Blocking , and then on Directing Story. These will follow and round out this series on “The Three Legs of Film Directing”.