Beginning Film Hopeful
May 26, 2006 3:08 PM   Subscribe

Where should I start for film directing?

A friend of mine is interested in learning film and asked me if I knew where he could get some resources for that. I thought I'd ask you guys. From what I understand, he is not doing this as a career. He likes it and would like it to be a rich experience as a hobby and maybe as a semi-pro. Here is his question:

"Im interested in learning film directing. Never studied this, never
practiced it, but, I have always had this on mind. I would like to know :

-where to read about introduction to film directing.
-what skills are needed to start this journey.
-necessary equipment for beginners (cameras, computer)

These are the main things I'm searching on.

The most I've done in this matter is taped some 2 or 3 trips to asia, and
south america, edited them in Imovie, and started to use Final Cut Express.
I like editing and filming."
posted by theholotrope to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
this is a good book, although it contains a bit of the "oh its so hard dont even try" type discouragement that is a pet peeve of mine.

The skill set really depends on if we are talking about narrative or documentary film. Assuming he wants to do narrative, I would recommend taking a lot of time to understand scripts and how to tell a story for film. Robert McKee's "Story" is an incredible resource. The single biggest reason for bad movies, in my opinion, is directors who care more about camera tricks than telling a story.

Again assuming we're talking narrative, the biggest skill is management, keeping a cool head and learning how to get the most out of the cast and crew. The technical stuff is hugely important, but that's also why you have a DP (director of photography)

Equipment all depends on what quality you want to end up with. Final Cut (full version) is enough to edit a professional movie. if you have the money to spend on a high-end video camera ($5k or so), I would reccomend the Canon XL2 becuase it offers interchangable lenses. Of course that may be a bit much to start on if you're just a hobbyist. All these cameras can be rented too, of course.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:25 PM on May 26, 2006

Rebel Without A Crew by Robert Rodrigeuez. Do not stop, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

It should be required reading for anyone who even thinks they "what they really want to do is direct".
posted by chrisfromthelc at 4:01 PM on May 26, 2006

Directing is something you can only learn by doing. Why? Because there is no "this is how it's done" answer to the question. The great cinema directors all worked their own ways--some heavy handed, some from a distance, some improv-style or handheld, some storyboarding everything.

Anyone who says "this is the way it's done" without the qualifier of "by me" has never done it or not done it enough.

Even the hard and fast rules of telling stories with film (tell the story with the cut; etc.) have exceptions.

My suggestion is to get as good a quality video camera as you're willing to buy and just do it.

Along the way you may find advice, which you can take or leave, in books such as those suggested above or On Directing Film by David Mamet, In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch, and countless others.

I also recommend you listen to *good* dvd commentaries (they are very few and far between--most of them are utter shite). My personal favorites are The Graduate by Howard Suber, 3 Women by Robert Altman, The Limey by Soderbergh and Dobbs, Rodriguez's El Mariachi, hurlyburly's different tracks (for equally valid takes on the same material), and many of the Criterion Collection.
posted by dobbs at 4:41 PM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've produced and worked on a few little indie and student projects, so this is what I've learned:

Film Art by Bordwell and Thompson is the standard text for anyone interested in film. It demonstrates the formal elements of the medium and explains how all the pieces fit together. It's quite readable and interesting, using lots of pictures and examples.

Some key skills for me:

1) working knowledge of a camera

2) idea of how to do shot composition - a background in photography is helpful

3) editing skill

4) people skills

Film Art has a lot to say about 2 and 3:

It's good that he is interested in editing - it is the foundation of how film truly evolved, in my opinion (for example Carl Dreyer cut his teeth editing newsreel footage, Eisenstein practiced by recutting Birth of A Nation).
The way to learn editing isn't about just using Final Cut Pro - pay attention to great movies and how they are cut, what sort of rhythm they use, and how they use different angles (most Hollywood films obey the 180 degree rule, for example). Film Art can be your guide through this, as you learn terms and different styles, you'll start to notice it more and more.

When you shoot, do it with editing in mind. How can the different angles and scenes you use be edited together in sequences? It will help you plan and think about your movies.

Editing can be useful if there is a mistake in a shot that you don't notice til later, like a crewmember who accidentally lets a boom or a light wander into the shot (stranger things have happened).

Actually directing at the time of a shoot is eased by careful planning and storyboarding, especially on long films. Storyboards are your friend if you don't do well in a structureless environment. Actually working with actors and crew is something you learn how to do better with practice - it helps to be a people person, or at least work on communication skills.

Check out Celtx for a free software that helps with screenwriting.

Check out Senses of Cinema if you want to get into deeper film criticism and theory.

As for gear - try to start out with a DV cam, a tripod, and a skateboard (for low angle moving shots, or you can rig the tripod onto the skateboard). Pro lights are expensive, but you can hack cheap 300 - 600 watt worklights to help (again, Film art explains how lighting angles are typically used, but practice makes perfect). You will need to find a way to diffuse them and change colors - thin rice paper for the former and different colors of cellophane for the latter. China balls work very well for a diffuse fill light in a pinch. Try to come up with a stand that has arms that you can hang lights off of so things aren't lit from the floor. Some call these things 'coat-racks'. I call them cheap t-stands.

Don't forget gaffer tape and wooden clothespins. Do not buy 'pro gaffer tape' cuz it's a ripoff, just get some cheap hockey tape or something from the hardware store. Tape and clothespins are very handy, they are lifesavers.

As for computers, unless you can afford Avid or pro stuff, go with Apple for editing and DVD production, it's the most intuitive and user friendly.

Plan things out if you need to, but the best advice I was ever given is this: just go out there and do it!

Start out with the first skill I mentioned and learn as you go. There is no substitute for experience because filmmaking is hard work - anything you do badly is seen immediately, this is why so many film students ... heh, nevermind.
posted by tweak at 4:50 PM on May 26, 2006

Oh, and don't let anything catch on fire, I almost burned a script once - it's a long story. What I mean is if you use worklights do not ever let the paper touch the hot parts of the glass.
posted by tweak at 4:53 PM on May 26, 2006

Sidney Lumet's "Making Movies" is a great introduction into what directing a film actually entails.
posted by blim8183 at 4:57 PM on May 26, 2006

All the books are good, but they aren't a subsitute for making a film. If you really want to direct a film, then do it. It's not all that different from writing a novel or starting a band or any other creative pursuit. The Robert Rodriguez suggestion is the best I think. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you don't "know how" to direct or any other such nonsense. Ok, there's the tough guy "I don't take no guff from anyone" answer. Practically speaking? Bulliten boards at film schools always have requests for people to help out. Go crew on a student film or two and see what a film set is like. Try to get some jobs and work your way up, and maybe, with a ridiculous amount of luck and ambition, you'll be able to swing into a directing job. It's hard and not very many people get to do it, but the ones that do are friggin' tenacious.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 5:32 PM on May 26, 2006

David Mamet: On Directing Film. Learn from a master.
posted by cribcage at 5:37 PM on May 26, 2006

My first thought was 'Rebel without a crew' also!
posted by TwoWordReview at 5:58 PM on May 26, 2006

Doublewhiskeycokenoice is right. The best thing you can do is go out and actually make films. Try to work with trained actors too. The most important thing you can learn is how to talk to actors. An actor who knows what he or she is doing and isn't a jerk will be able to provide you with feedback too and help you on your way to becoming a good director of actors and films, not just a director of traffic who tells the actors where to stand and where the DP should put the camera.
posted by blim8183 at 7:26 PM on May 26, 2006

What Cribcage said. Memorize the contents of On Directing Film and then you can play with the elements of Story.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 7:41 PM on May 26, 2006

I also recommend the Rodrigeuez book, as well as the advice to just make some movies. The first dozen things you do will suck, get them out of the way soon.

One thing that helps: watch movies with the sound off. It helps you focus on what's happening on the screen. Then, listen without a picture. You get the same focus.
posted by Marky at 10:30 PM on May 26, 2006

Book-wise, the major texts I've read for class or for personal enlightenment include The Filmmaker's Handbook by Ascher and Pincus, which is a good general reference for all things filmmaking; Matters of Light and Depth by Ross Lowell, which is a DP's book to be sure, but I'd reccomend reading at least once because it is concise and useful for lighting setups (something you may have to do yourself if you're an indie/hobby director); Cinematography by Brown, which is similar to the Lowell book except focusing on camera setups. This one's a bit cheezy in many ways, but it covers some useful information. Get it from a library; don't buy it.

I highly reccomend spending some time learning about directing for the theater, in addition to the tech work and cinematography. They're not entirely similar disciplines, but I know the last director I worked with had been trained as a theater director before she started in film, and she definitely had an understanding of directing actors that was very useful to her..

Beyond the "read the book" stuff, which I completely agree with, here's what I've learned, hands-on, at least about the technical aspects of filmmaking:

Life Lesson #1: Preplanning is king. Everyone up there who mentioned storyboards? They're right. Let me add location scouting (and drawing detailed diagrams of the locations you plan to use). Sure, it can get boring, but try to think out every aspect of every scene well in advance. Know what you're doing when you come into a scene, in as much detail as you can know. This knowledge will make shooting days run smoothly, even if circumstances change. Lack of this knowledge will leave you running around like a chicken sans head, with a bunch of people waiting on you.

Life Lesson #2: Invest in sound. The difference between image quality in a good consumer camera and a decent prosumer camera is not huge. Its there, but you can deal with it. The difference between a cheap on-camera mic and a good shotgun on a boom or wireless lav definitely is. Sound can make or break a scene, so be careful!

Life Lesson #3: Don't panic. Filmmaking is a tough business, and as a director, you will have several people depending on you for instruction and direction more or less constantly. If you're not already comfortable as a manager, get comfortable. Things will go wrong, and its your place as a director to help steer the project around them.

Life Lesson #4: Listen to your actors. Sometimes they have really good ideas. You don't always need to implement them, but sometimes they help. If your actors are good, they may know when they need another take to get it right, etc.

Life Lesson #5: Schedules break. Try to let them break as little as possible, but be aware that nothing will ever happen in the time you want it in.

Practically speaking, making a film is just a question of getting a camera, a crew, and some actors on a set at the same time, and then doing some stuff. As a hobbyist, this can be tricky because you probably don't have the money to pay people, or a pool of student talent willing to work for the promise of exposure and resume-building materials. All my experience is as a student director/DP, so I can't help much there.

Sorry for the long post; I hope you find at least some of this useful.
posted by Alterscape at 5:03 AM on May 27, 2006

There are maybe 200 or so actual "film directors" in any one year (narrative, released in theaters.)

If you're going to get 'into it', y'know, for you and your're going to be a guerrilla film maker. There's just no way to ignore this. There aren't semi-pros. You do this because you want to...the odds/reward are too high.

Rodriguez's book, the 10 min film school that's on the El mariachi DVD, the "more" on the desperado and the "even more" on Once upon a time in Mexico.

You're not going to have 'real money' to direct. So the books you'll want to look at are a mix of directors who have come up...and listen to the commentaries of the directors who have financed their own work.

Kevin Smith, Wes Anderson, Rodriguez, Sayles are all great examples....and their first couple of DVDs where there are commentaries give you great insight to directing.
posted by filmgeek at 7:13 AM on May 28, 2006

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