How do "see" the direction?
June 2, 2010 5:01 PM   Subscribe

When movie reviewers talk about film direction, what is it that they are seeing?

When they talk about "ham-fisted directon" or about a film being "directed with a light touch" what are they seeing? When I watch a film I see the acting, and I know if it's good or bad, but where does the credit stop going to the actor, and start going to the director? For me it gets even more confusing with the script, the cinematograhy, and really, really mixed up with the editing, since the director and editor do that job together. Don't they? (How the heck do they give out Oscars for this stuff?)

What about a director's style, like DePalma, or Tarantino, or Scorsese, or Billy Wilder? I only see their recurring themes and subject matter, not their direction. Help me see what so many others see.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I always thought that the director was responsible for the camera angles - the actual visualization of a shot, whereas cinematographers light these shots and make the technical stuff work.

So a director's style includes signature camera moves, the way they frame shots at strategic story moments, etc. I don't actually know that much about film studies or specific directors, this is just what I've garnered from a movie biz husband.
posted by funfetti at 5:23 PM on June 2, 2010

If an actor is either a lot better or a lot worse than in other projects, that's often attributed to the director. Ditto if a lot of the actors seem to be doing something stylistically similar, or if an actor has made a particularly strong and/or weird choice -- it's the actor's choice, but the director probably suggested or allowed it.
posted by amtho at 5:28 PM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: Hmmm. The director does control the visuals, but it's a lot more than camera angles.

What I look for is tone, pacing, things like that. If it's a drama, is it consistently dramatic? Are there clunky, bad lines that should have been cut or re-written? Is there unintentional comedy? Are there slow, boring spots, or scenes that don't advance the story? Does he get the most out of his actors- does he inspire them to break out of their "comfort zone" and really be the character? Is the camerawork distracting and showy for no reason, or does it help the story?

Once the shoot starts, the director's job is simply this: Tell the story. He needs to interpret the script he gets from the writer (assuming he isn't the writer), and figure out how to tell a visual story from it. If there are bad lines, or lines that don't work coming from a particular actor's mouth, that is on the director- he should have seen it, and changed it.

But where it gets complicated is this: If the whole script is bad, there is not much a director can do. You need a good script to make a good movie. Reviewers tend to completely ignore the existence of screenwriters, so for instance in a review of "Eternal Sunshine" you will often read about "clever ideas" or "smart dialogue" credited to Michel Gondry, the director. Which is ridiculous, because those things are completely the work of Charlie Kaufman, the writer.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:35 PM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: Given the same plot, two writers can write completely different stories. Given the same script, two actors can create completely different tones. Given the same actor, two directors could focus on completely different things.

(Caveat: I know nothing about making movies... I can only tell you my interpretation.)

I feel like a director gets to set the tone of the film, in general. The lighting guy might decide specifically which filters go on which lights, but the director is the person who says "okay, I want an uncomfortable, eerie feeling for this scene". Similarly, an actor is the one who delivers the line, but the director tells them "I want you to sound utterly earnest", or perhaps "I want you to sound like you're mocking yourself". Does that make sense? In both Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, for example, the actors have a very particular pacing and cadence to their dialogue... which is seen as very characteristic of Wes Anderson.

"Directed with a light touch" might mean that you can tell that the actors were feeling very natural with the script, and that the camera angles aren't very contrived and that the story itself is told in a very straightforward manner. "Ham-fisted direction", on the other hand, might mean that the director had one vision for a script and really tried to push that vision regardless of how well that vision actually fit the script and his cast, and you could tell that the basic plot of the story just didn't match up with whatever moral the director was pushing.

I can't think of any specific examples for the above two right now, but I'll come back if I come up with anything...
posted by Phire at 5:36 PM on June 2, 2010

Actually, in my opinion, the job of the director is this: set the tone on the production, and have taste.

A director is somewhat like a sports coach in that he doesn't actually *do* much of anything himself. (Well, some operate the camera, but bear with me). But like a coach, he needs to able to know the strengths of weaknesses of others, and create an environment where they can succeed.

And he needs to have artistic taste. If you don't know that that line of dialogue is going to make people laugh out loud in the theatre, then you can't change it on the set. If you don't know a joke about "dwarf tossing" is completely and utterly inappropriate for a fantasy epic , because that jokes pulls the audience completely out of the world you spent hundreds of millions creating, well then you are Peter Jackson.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:41 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sidney Lumet's book Making Movies explains what directors do. Basically, directors are responsible for making thousands of small decisions about every aspect of the film. They must make all of the decisions in such a way that the finished product feels like a complete work of art, rather than like a movie made by a huge team of specialists who don't know each other. A director leads a huge team of hundreds of people, and produces a movie that feels coherent and expresses a single vision.
posted by josh at 5:44 PM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

The director is responsible for all artistic/creative decisions for the production...he tells the cameraman what to do, he tells the actor how to act, he tells the lighting director how he wants it lite... he tells the editor how to edit it, he tells the cgi guy what he wants, he tells the makeup people how the makeup should look...
posted by HuronBob at 5:48 PM on June 2, 2010

Specific to some of the people you mentioned:

Tarantino goes for visual cleverness, as far writing on the screen and such. And his movies tend to be montages of bits he took from old movies he likes- more like a scrapbook of stuff he thinks is cool than actual storytelling in the traditional sense. His characters are not so much human beings as they are vessels to spout lines Quentin Tarantino thinks sound cool. This makes his films unwatchable for me, but I'm obviously in the minority there.

Scorcese uses music to great emotive effect, as in the famous "entering the Copa" scene in "Goodfellas." He uses both to establish a sense of time and place, and to add emotional impact. In some of his later films they kind of degenerate into music videos- just a series of quick scenes set to music, without much else holding the film together. "Bringing out the Dead" was really bad that way. But then Marty is kind of a chameleon- "Raging Bull" is way different than "The Aviator," obviously.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:50 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Directors are responsible for so much of what goes into a movie that it can be hard to tell where the dividing lines are but most of what film reviewers are seeing (if they're not just talking out of their asses) when they talk about direction is visual storytelling. This is the stuff that happens in between the lines of the script, that may be independent of dialogue. A well-directed scene should still be comprehensible even with the sound turned off.

One line of argument would be that if a film is well-directed you will not notice the direction, you'll just be absorbed by the story. In the case of Billy Wilder for example, you'd be hard-pressed to find outwardly obvious directorial flourishes in his work. Instead, as you go through his films, every shot seem just right. That is, the camera is in the right place, the shot is held for exactly as long as it needs to be, and the cut to the next shot feels organic and moves the story along.

Martin Scorsese on the other hand really makes his presence known in every shot and every cut. Here's a justifiably celebrated sequence from Goodfellas.

Now, what's going on in this sequence? This is Henry Hill's last day as a gangster before he gets arrested by the feds. It starts with a title card indicating the date and time and cuts straight to a close-up of Hill snorting a line of coke off a table. That first shot is important because in many ways that's what the scene is about -- Henry Hill's undoing is his coke habit and the way it makes him paranoid and sloppy. From here the sequence takes Henry out to his car, with his voice-over explaining all the things he's got to do on this day. The cuts are pretty fast and many of the shots are in motion, like the dolly-in as he's getting into the car and the whip pans as he looks up in the sky at the helicopter. As the sequence progresses, the cutting will speed up and the shots will become more frenetic. This is a textbook of the various techniques at a director's disposal: smash cuts, dolly shots, steadicam, intercutting, zooms, close-ups... etc.

Scorsese's also famous for the way he uses music in his films. Here's how the music works in this sequence: We start with Nilsson's "Jump into the Fire" which has a thumping bassline intro and is overall a pretty intense track. After Henry sees Jimmy about the guns he switches to the Rolling Stones' "Memo From Turner" but pretty quickly switches back to Nilsson again, which carries through for a while and then it's a switch to the Stones again, but this time it's "Monkey Man". Then as Henry and Karen are searching the sky for the helicopter, we hear the intro to Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" but then cut to George Harrison's "What is Life" for a while, and then when Henry's at his girlfriends place cutting the coke, we're back to "Mannish Boy". We lose the music while Henry talks to his drug mule about getting her lucky hat, and as they're backing up in the car before the cops stop them there's a brief snatch of a drum solo I can't identify. I think Scorsese's idea behind choosing these tracks is mostly about feel. The songs have a certain intensity about them and jumping around back and forth between the tracks reinforces the disjointed and frantic qualities of the sequence that he's set up with the camerawork, the editing and the acting.

This is what film reviewers are talking about: the choices a director has made so that what's on the screen is what it is and not something else. If those choices seem inevitable and integral to the story and keep you involved in the film and not twiddling your thumbs, that's good direction.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:55 PM on June 2, 2010 [9 favorites]

(Oh and one surprising thing I have learned from directing my own (very small) movies: like any kind of leadership, directing is an acting performance. It really is. People need to believe in the project, and believe that you can complete it successfully. A lot of movies crash and burn, and everyone's time and effort is wasted. You're constantly selling people on the idea, "Stick with me. I'll get us through this.")
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:56 PM on June 2, 2010

This is a complicated question. Be wary of anyone who says that a director's job is "simply" anything, because they're probably not giving the whole picture. (Also, drjimmy11's argument about Eternal Sunshine (above) doesn't totally hold water, because Michel Gondry brainstormed the story with Charlie Kaufman before the latter wrote the script, so the "clever ideas" at least can be partially credited to him.) To say that a director's job is to "tell the story" unduly privileges the writing over other aspects of filmmaking which are just as (or more) essential. I (and a lot of people, really) think that this attitude is hogwash, because if all we cared about was the "story" then there's no reason to watch the movie at all -- the screenplay itself will do.

Anyway, direction and cinematography are very closely related, and I don't think that they're ever totally separated. Everyone is right that the director sets the tone for the production and makes sure that the actors are on the same page. But the director and the cinematographer also work together to achieve certain specific aesthetic goals. Traditionally, the director has artistic control over mise en scène ("putting in the scene"), which refers to things like setting, staging (where the figures/objects are and how they move), lighting (though this is also considered a part of the cinematographer's job), some costume and prop choices, and that sort of thing. Directors and cinematographers also work together to make choices about framing, shot length, and camera movement. Cinematographers have the job of dealing with what type of film and lens to use, with input from the director.

It's true that it's hard to see these things unless you have some idea of what to look for. For example, Wes Anderson's trademark isn't just the way his actors talk. He's also known for rectangular, head-on compositions, using wide-angle anamorphic lenses, use of slow motion, virtuosic tracking shots, and all sorts of other things. The website Museum of the Moving Image has a great five part video essay on Anderson's stylistic influences, and it's worth checking out if you want to see what people are talking about when they talk about a film's style.
posted by jweed at 6:02 PM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: When I watch a film I see the acting, and I know if it's good or bad, but where does the credit stop going to the actor, and start going to the director?

In general, you give nearly all of the acting credit to the actor. However, a bad director can ruin a good actor. In addition, the director usually sets the interpretation of the character. You can read a script lots of different ways, and the director is the one who chooses which way to read it. The actor is responsible for selling that interpretation, but not for making it.

For me it gets even more confusing with the script, the cinematograhy, and really, really mixed up with the editing, since the director and editor do that job together.

The writer writes the script, and then it's revised with notes given by the director. So, in general, unless the director is also the writer, give credit for good scripts to the writer.

The cinematography, however, is mainly the director's. The cinematographer's job is largely technical in many productions. The director says, "I want a wide-angle shot from the corner of the room, brilliantly lit, except that Bob's face should be in shadows." Then, the directory of photography makes that happen. In particularly complex scenes, the director and the DP will work together to create the types of shots that work to tell the story (think action scenes and whatnot).

The visual style of a piece is often where a director's signature most noticeably shows up. Have a look at all Tim Burton films. With a few glaring exceptions, they tend to be low saturation, with heavy use of grays. The shots will be sterile, except for where they're intentionally creepy.

Or, Quintin Tarantino (sp). He goes so far with his style as to sign every one of his movies with a trunk shot. Seriously, it's in all of them. Likewise, Tarantino has a style of photography that pays tribute to the sorts of movies he grew up loving: action-noir and kung fu films. The angles replicate the sort of workmanlike, low-tech factory Hollywood style from around the war. Then, he'll depart from those angles occasionally to creep you out.

Similarly, Spike Lee uses dolly zooms to show that a character's world has changed, and uses the Spike Lee Shot when he wants you to really, absolutely focus on just one character and how he's different from the rest of the world, "the background". That last shot is so his that nobody has a generic name for it, it's just the Spike Lee Shot*.

But not all directors are so blatant with their touch. You mention Scorsese. I've watched most of his films, and I can never detect a specific signature to them. What they are, though, is consistently excellent. He chooses (and modifies) only excellent scripts, gets excellent performances from his excellent actors, tells the story visually. He has a style, and I can spot a Scorsese... but, it's not something specific enough that I can describe it in general.

As for editing, again, this is also something for which the director is greatly responsible. He and the editor do sit and do most of it together.

Basically, the director chooses the overall look and feel of the piece. He then instructs all of the collaborative professionals on what they should achieve. They then work to achieve it. If it goes well, then they've implemented the vision and you get a film people can see the director in. If they've implemented it badly, then the director has failed. Ultimately, the buck stops with the director. It's his (or her) responsibility.

*The Lee Shot is achieved by putting the character, the light, and the camera all on a dolly and moving that.
posted by Netzapper at 6:18 PM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

There's a lot a director can do, and a certain amount he can do but has to negotiate with the producer and the film-execs. It's hard to summarize it all, but consider Pulp Fiction.

In the scene where Tarantino is onscreen in his kitchen talking to Jules and Vince, there are about 2 camera angles and the camera stays steady. Another director might have told the actors to pace about nervously and followed them with a camera held steady on a tripod. Or he might've followed them with a hand-held camera to make you feel like you were 'really in the room with them.' He might have done a lot of rapid cuts to try and ratchet up the tension: a close-up on a cigarette, a wide angle, a close-up on someone's eyes during a nervous glance aside, then a medium shot, then a close-up on someone sipping coffee. Rapid back and forth between the characters as their dialogue escalated to make you feel the increasing tension in the room. Another director might've just used one camera from a corner of the room like some kind of reality-TV show. Another would have used some background music to guide you to what s/he wants you to feel.

QT just used 2 cameras, positioned about normal eye-height, so you could see the characters just as you might see them if you were standing in the room but standing next to the characters as still as they were standing. He lets the actors and the script along with the camera work that this is pretty damn tense but the characters are not (because they're cool tough guys or trying hard to be cool tough guys) going to panic beyond raising their voice a notch. He cuts to a what-if scene where QT's wife shows up early and discovers the body, and this scene is entirely her POV with an unsteady hand-held camera to make you feel the panic that would happen if this, in fact, were to happen. And then flips back to slow cuts with steady cameras in the kitchen to contrast the calm-and-steady-but-tense of those characters with the panic of the wife's character.

Later (earlier?) you see Vince taking heroin. Here QT does things that he specifically did not do in the above scene. You hear music and get a close up when the needle goes in his arm. You hear music and get a close up as he drags on a cigarette. You get an extreme close up on his face as he's driving down the road listening to music, and the scene is all about him feeling groovy. Not a high-angle shot as if it were a security camera. As best he can, he wants you to feel Vince taking drugs and feeling groovy, like there's nothing else in the world (and because of the camera's close-up, you can't see anything else).

It would have been a very different film if QT had used rapid-cuts in the kitchen to make it seem a panic-scene instead of just tense, or used music to make you feel the tension instead of just letting the script and actors do the work. Or if he'd let you see Vince taking drugs from a security-camera view instead of using music and cameras to try and get you close to his sensual experience.

That's part of what the director does: deciding how to use the tools (camera angles, rapid or slow cuts, music, etc) to decide if he wants you to feel the scene from afar, feel it as if you were in the room, or feel it as if you were actually in the character's head. There's more, but that is some of it.
posted by K.P. at 6:31 PM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

w/r/t Goodfellas, the first part of this clip consists of commentary and the second part is the famous tracking shot entering the Copacabana. The Director of Photography and one of the screenwriters, Nicholas Pileggi as well as Scorsese are interviewed. They briefly talk about the process of shooting the scene and how the scene came to be. Someone points out that the source material had only a few sentences about entering the Copacabana but that it was Scorsese who turned it into the magnificent scene that it is.
posted by mlis at 6:42 PM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: I am a theatre director, not a film director. But I've worked on films in other capacities, and my father is a film historian. So I know that industry. If I ever direct a film, I will almost definitely work in a similar way to the way I work on stage.

I also have a specific way I direct, which is definitely not the way all (or even most) directors work. But I thought I'd give you an answer -- just understand that it's one director's point of view; not a universal one.

My first job is to know the story. And when I say "know," I mean in the biblical sense. That's a metaphor of course. I don't actually have sex with the story. But it's barely a metaphor. By the time I go into production, I have probably read the story over a hundred times, forward, backward and in every other imaginable way I can. The story is my lover.

My main jobs are ...

1. to protect the story.
2. to make the story shine. (To let it be the best it can be.)

I say "story" instead if "script," because there's a subtle difference -- subtle but important. Two directors could start with the same script but mine a very different story from it. So by "story," I mean my personal interpretation of the script.

Most of us like movies when they seem to have a point-of-view. When they seem to be told by a storyteller who has opinions and prejudices and wants and desires and fears. That person is the director. I'm not telling you "Hamlet." I'm telling you what turns me on about "Hamlet.

To some directors, "interpretation" means that they use the script as a framework from which they veer a great amount. I am much more conservative. Those who like my direction tend to praise how I honored the writer's intentions. (Those who dislike it wish I'd taken more risks with the material.) I'm glad they feel that way, but it's not what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to honor the writer's intentions, because I don't have access to them. I just read the script over and over, get a sense of what the story is -- what elements of it stand out to me and how they make me feel -- and I work to convey those elements super-clearly and evocatively to the audience.

I am really telling MY story, even if it's written by David Mamet or Shakespeare.

I don't mean to make this sound mysterious. By story, I am mostly talking about plot and character. What made my heart race when I read it? What characters did I like? When you see my show, I want to give you a chance to get just as excited at those same moments. I want you to see what it is about Cordelia that I love.

I work closely with the actors and designers to bring those elements to the forefront. I work with them on tiny little nuances (the color of a button on a costume; the word an actor chooses to emphasize in a line), but I also do a lot of big-picture stuff: "I think this is basically a seduction scene. There's a lot going on in it, but I think the really exciting moment is when you convince her to go to bed with you..." or "Everything makes sense, but it seems like the stakes are too low. The audience needs to understand that you'd rather die than lose this case...."

A story is made of a huge number of details. I decide which ones are the most important ones and which can be downplayed.

If it's a new script, I may do similar work with the writer: "I think the key moment in scene five is when the hero decides to rob the bank. Everything changes for him after that. But I don't quite get WHEN he makes the decision. It's a little murky. On page 37 he has decided not to rob it, but by page 39 he's changed his mind. But when, exactly, does he change it? Can you rewrite it so that this pivotal moment of decision is clearly placed?" (These sessions with writers can be incredibly exciting collaborations -- or they can be fraught. The story, to the writer, may be different than what it is to me.)

(I often talk about myself in these sessions. "What excites ME is knowing exactly when he decides to rob the bank." Once again, I am doing what I can to make the story my story. This may seem arrogant, but I'm the person who has to actually tell the story, and my best tool for doing that -- my only tool, really -- is myself. I want you to be excited. But I don't have access to you. So I need to excite myself and hope that you're enough like me that you'll come along for the ride.)

When the show opens, hopefully, you won't be able to tell what I've done. If the play works, it's because the story is crystal clear and continually evocative. It makes you laugh and cry and wonder what is going to happen next. You senses are tickled and you care about the characters.

But WHY do you care? Because the actor is doing work that all originated from him or because I coaxed him in a certain direction? Why is the pacing making your heart beat faster? Because I pushed everyone to speed up or because of the terseness in the writing?

Honestly, I don't think there's a way for you to tell.

I've read dozens of reviews of my plays. The reviewers damn me or praise me, and whether they're right about where they throw the roses or tomatoes seems like a total crap shoot. They'll talk about what a great job I've done with some element, and I'll know that the real person responsible is for that moment is a particular actor or designer. Or they'll praise the lead actor for his inventiveness, and I'll know that every idea he supposedly had came from me.

IF a reviewer comes to see many of my productions, he will probably see trends, and if I'm the common denominator, he can make a semi-accurate guess that I'm the origin of those trends. But from seeing just one play, he's guessing -- often badly.

I think this is true for movie reviews too (and filmmakers I've talked to have said as much). A reviewer will get some sort of feeling about an aspect of a movie, and he won't be able to pin that aspect clearly on one of the actors or crew members -- so he'll assume that the director is responsible. Again, this guess gets more and more likely to be true, if he's reviewing a film by Scorsese or Woody Allen -- someone whose movies he's observed for years. He can note trends.

But even then it's tricky, because those directors tend to collaborate with the same people over and over. For instance, Thelma Schoonmaker has directed Scorsese's films for decades. I'm met and spoken to her. It's pretty clear that she and Scorsese have formed a single brain. So who is really responsible for "Scorsese's" tone and pacing?

In the end, I think it's a buck-stops-here situation. In the back of our minds, we know that there's not just a President of the United States running everything. There's a whole executive branch. We know that many of the President's opinions and policies were actually formed by collaboration. Even his words were likely written by someone other than him. But we talk about Obama's decisions. It's a code we've all agreed to use. Obama is the public face of his group.

I think something very similar is going on with directors and how reviewers write about them.
posted by grumblebee at 7:17 PM on June 2, 2010 [12 favorites]

I have nothing to do with film, I'm a writer, and perhaps this metaphor only seems to apt to me because of that. But I did want to chime in here and say the thing that made me get what a director does was taking a film class in college and dissecting A Touch of Evil by Orson Wells (damn good flick, if you haven't seen it). If you have, you're of course aware of it's famous opening shot, a single, very long take that starts when we see a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car and two characters getting in the car and driving off without noticing it.

One of the things Wells does in the sequence in have the car with the bomb drive in and out of the frame --- the camera moves, too, it's all one shot, but it doesn't always stay with the car. The first time you see the scene, this is incredibly anxiety-producing, almost irritating --- you're like, hey, dude, there's a bomb in the car, why the hell are we watching Charlton Heston walk down the street? What's so important about these characters that they're more important than a ticking bomb?

Being forced to take apart that scene, to describe the way the camera moves and what it chooses to focus on and how those choice inform the audience how to feel, what's important, what ought to be noticed ---- all of a sudden it clicked with me how the eye of the camera is the functional equivalent of the narrator's voice in a novel. What it chooses to look at, the way it flows through space, or jumps quickly back and forth from one thing to another, it's doing the same thing for a film that the narrator's voice, the flow of language, does in a book.

The director tells the camera what to look at and how to look at it, just as the novelist chooses the words to describe the scene. The camera's eye is transparent, and once you get into a movie it's easy to forget it's there, unless you notice it playing with you (like Wells letting the car go out of the frame)*. You sink into a narrator's voice, too, but a novel being a one-man show when you put the thing down, all credit and blame accrue to the novelist.

*I could write a piece of prose that does the equivalent of what this shot does, something like, "The kid twisted his wrist and set the timer, nipped across the alley, set in the trunk, the soft thump of the lid going down covered by the sound of the gritty, tipsy tread of the American and his wife as they walked across the lot. The convertible pulled into the street, the platinum wife's giggles and any possible ticking sound drowned out by a wash of brassy Latin Jazz. Turning the corner, it nearly clipping Captain Vargas and his bride as they crossed the street before rolling headlessly toward the boarder.

Vargas, a tall thin man with hair so slick and thick it looked Shinoled, was bringing his bride home to Mexico, to the little border town of....."
posted by Diablevert at 7:59 PM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a good question, and you'll get differing opinions on what good direction is. (As for what a producer actually does, that's beyond me).

To me, there are two types of directors: the good ones, and the hacks. To me, a hack director is someone who puts absolutely no personal touch to a picture, nothing distinctive, nothing that says hey, this is me directing this thing. A hack's movie looks like every other movie, which is why I have a problem with, say, Ron Howard, Edward Zwick, and Lasse Halstrom, just to name a few. These are successful--and even capable--directors, but if you watched one of their movies without knowing who the director was, you probably wouldn't say, "Hey, that's a trademark Ron Howard shot!"

Kubrick has his long tracking shots with a Steadicam, Woody Allen has long takes with characters walking in and out of the frame, Johnathon Demme has characters look straight into the camera. Robert Zemeckis always keeps his camera roving around. Et cetera. These are just a handful of characteristic touches that are present in their films. A hack director doesn't have this, and this is what makes a director great.

Apparently in the golden age of Hollywood, back in the 20s and 30s, there were always big ego clashes and fights between the director and cinematographer. Over the years the director has won that battle and is responsible for the overall "look" of the film. Same goes for the editors. A director can be bad simply for his editing style, which is what drives me nuts about Michael Bay films. He'll film a scene from 5 different angles, apparently picked at random, one camera stationary, one a rising crane shot, one a shaky hand-held camera. Then in the editing suite, he just mashes all the shots together with seemingly no coherence whatsoever. And it's cut-cut-cut! I wonder what the longest shot in a Michael Bay movie is....15 whole seconds?
posted by zardoz at 9:14 PM on June 2, 2010

Ham-fisted direction, to me, generally means a director who can't see beyond the words on the page. Although good actors can overcome this to create a passable film, it's usually the one thing that ruins a film more than any other. It can also apply if an actor is miscast or beyond their depth, because ultimately a director is responsible for choosing the actors.

Directed with a light touch would be a situation where a story speaks for itself, or perhaps the performances, and the director is basically there to capture this. A related concept is being an actor's director. An excellent example is Clint Eastwood: as an actor himself, he knows how to wring great performances out of his cast, or when to just stand back and let them do their job. But you hardly ever see him "direct" in a way that forces a framing of the story outside of what you've seen, or that uses unnecessary visual flourishes (although he does often select good cinematographers, Clint is just not about "the shot").

Beware of thinking of the director as the controlling cinematographer. In some cases you have arty directors who are like that, but there are cinematographers who work with that sort of director and collaborate just the same as actors collaborate.

but where does the credit stop going to the actor, and start going to the director?

Tarantino, by the way, is not just a puppet-master. I think it was Letterman that he was on, and Dave asked him a left-field question like "When you direct, do you make your actors do what you want, or do you want them to bring something to the table?" QT laughed very nervously and said, "Well, I hope they can bring something to the table," because actors are the palette with which the director paints, even a very stylistic director like Tarantino.

I have a stable of actors that I like, but who are not necessarily really, really great actors with extensive range, but who can be exceptionally good if they have a strong director. The guy I have most in mind here is Bruce Willis. He can be really clunky with a weak director, but with one who has a real vision, such as Gilliam in Twelve Monkeys, Bruce can be molded like clay into true art.

A female example is, perhaps, Anne Hathaway, who rarely seems to really pull off an amazing performance, although she is smart and skilled and can handle complex material. I don't think I've seen her made amazing yet, though. On the other hand, Isabella Rossellini is beautiful and seemingly bottomless in depth, always fascinating to watch, but not really in my book a great actress. This is getting off on a tangent....

For me it gets even more confusing with the script, the cinematograhy, and really, really mixed up with the editing, since the director and editor do that job together. Don't they?

Well, sometimes you need to see more than one film by somebody in a job before you get how they contribute to the project. Was that a great film because of the screenplay, or was the director making so-so material sing? At this point I can answer questions like that with ease, but that's something you need to develop an ear for. Editors collaborate with directors, of course, but again to differing degrees. Many directors storyboard to within an inch and you get exactly on film what was envisioned, so editing is about finding the best performance of three or something like that. In other cases an editor can recast an entire film. Woody Allen famously, at least formerly, would shoot lots of material and then build the movie in the editing studio. Movies that have changed extensively in editing include Allen's Annie Hall (it was originally a mystery) and American Beauty (which was filmed ending with two characters on trial for the murder of another). Both of those were great movies that might not have been great without heavy, extensive, ruthless editing. Editing in any medium is as much about knowing what to take out and still leave your intent communicated as anything.

I would watch a number of movies by the same director, as much in order as practical, to get a sense for how a director's skill improves. The aforementioned Eastwood was obviously talented but quite sloppy in some of his early outings. Watch movies by great screenwriters and see how different directors interpret the material. (Heck, watch remakes for an even more stark comparison.) Watch the same actor under several different directors.
posted by dhartung at 9:18 PM on June 2, 2010

Directors can control every little detail in a film. Big name directors who know their art leave a definite stamp on everything. It is their work of art and can be seen but sometimes is subtle. Once you see a number off pictures in a director's ouvre then it starts to become apparent especially when you see the difference in acting by a popular actor, for example.

A director has a light touch when they don't have much of a stamp on a film. John Hughes was a director with a light touch. I would say that Tarantino is ham-fisted because he is by no means subtle. When you watch most of his films they are on the very same level. There are directors with clear visions that mold their actors. It can be pretty obvious when you see George Clooney's roles in a Coen brothers' film and a Steven Soderbergh film.
posted by JJ86 at 6:00 AM on June 3, 2010

I think the best way to get a feel for the director's vision and influence is to first read a book which has been adapted to film. Cormac McCarthy is a good example because he has a distinct style and several of his books have recently been adapted. The Road and No Country For Old Men are similar books with similar characters although the setting is vastly different. The Coen Brothers' made a hugely different adaptation than John Hillcoat. Of course they are different interpretations of McCarthy's vision which tells a lot about the director.
posted by JJ86 at 6:07 AM on June 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Such great answers - I want to favourite them all because every response has had some really useful nugget in it. The links to examples are really helpful. I think I'm starting to get it now.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:23 AM on June 3, 2010

I think the best way to get a feel for the director's vision and influence is to first read a book which has been adapted to film.

You could also read Red Dragon by Thomas Harris and then watch Manhunter and Red Dragon (and probably Silence of the Lambs too). None of these 3 versions are classics certainly, but here you have one book being made into a Hollywood film twice only 16 years apart--and without a major film development happening in the middle (like the transition from black&white to color, or 2D to 3D).
Obviously some differences between the two film versions were determined externally: the second film would necessarily have more screen time for Hopkins's Lector, and Lector's cell and other cast members would have to be carried over from Silence of the Lambs. But there are a number of scenes in each film that are faithful to the novel and do not require recycling from SotL. You can reread what's above and then compare how 2 different directors handle virtually the same scenes and scripts.

(You could also possibly do the same with The Shining: novel, Kubrick's film and the TV adaptation--or Maximum Overdrive versus Trucks, both based on the same King short story--although I wouldn't be surprised if they are both unwatchable.)

I'm sure there must be other modern novels or plays that have been made into films twice in a short time and the same country--but I can't think of them right now.
posted by K.P. at 9:13 AM on June 3, 2010

I think the problem with "Watch two different adaptations of the same source material" is that it only shows you that the two movies are different from each other. It doesn't get at the heart of the question, which is how do we know that these differences stem from the director? Unless the rest of the staff is the same on both films, we're talking about a really dirty test tube.

Again, I would say that the differences between the two arise from the two different production teams, which are HEADED by the two different directors. For convenience sake, we don't talk about the production-team-headed-by-Ang-Lee. We just call that entity Ang Lee.

Please note that I'm not claiming that directors are (necessarily) "just" administrators. I'm not making any claims about how much of what you see on the screen is or is not the work of the director. I'm just making a claim about what you can accurately know or guess from just watching the movie.

I suspect that a lot of reviewers rely on information that is external to the movies. For instance, I know that Kubrick's sensibilities informed much of what we see on the screen, because I've read a lot about his production process. It's pretty clear, watching his movies, that they come from a strong point-of-view, and it's reasonable to assume that p.o.v was actually Kubrick's (though he did work with the same staff over and over). But I am much more sure that I'm right because I've read interviews and reports about what happened in production.

Sometimes the dirty test tube leads to interesting debates. Is "The Godfather" largely the film it is due to Francis Ford Coppola (director) or Robert Evans (studio head). Or was it a mixture (and if so, who contributed what)? Both have claimed a certain amount of "authorship."

Outside the film world, there's a debate on whether that signature Raymond Carver prose style came from Carver or his editor, Gordon Lish.

But these are debates that mostly take place amongst uber-fans and specialists. To most people, the author writes the book and the director makes the movie.

By the way, the job called Director is relatively new. It really didn't emerge until the 19th Century. Before that, there were, of course, people in charge of production, but they were usually the lead actor or the stage manager. (See this article.)

You could argue that this is just a matter of a label. And I'd largely agree. But I bet that back in Shakespeare's day, many productions had just as strong points-of-view as we're used to today. But critics at the time didn't assume that they came from "The Director."

Even more surprising: this view that it's "the director's film" didn't really take hold until the 1950s. It's called The Auteur Theory. This doesn't mean that directors started working differently in the 50s. It means that perception about authorship (in a highly collaborative medium) changed in the 50s.

To some extent, this shift in perception created a feedback loop. If people now think of directors as captains of ships, young directors think of themselves that way, too, and so they expect to be treated as such when they get into the industry.

Authorship is complicated. And the way we mostly deal with this complication is to ignore it and pretend things are simpler than they are.
posted by grumblebee at 9:51 AM on June 3, 2010

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