The Directors

Many books list qualities required by a director. By the time you have tallied off wisdom, intelligence, patience, an IQ of two hundred, and a summa cum laude from Harvard, you realize that you are looking at the requirements for God and not for a mere humble documentary director. The one serious asset I would list besides basic intelligence, patience, and a capacity for hard work is a good visual eye. Film is a visual medium, and the good director is one who knows how to use all its potential.

This point may seem so obvious as to be trite, yet the custom the last few years has been to treat documentary, in many cases, as if it were radio with pictures. Thus we see interview after interview, all filmed in the most boring way and interspersed with meaningless visuals that seem to have been put in merely to pass the time. It seems to me at such times that the director has forgotten the very basics of the medium. Obviously, some all-interview films do work, but in many interview films, one senses a director who is more interested in the polemics of the printed page than in the excitement of a visual medium.

So the director must have a good eye. We accept this as a given in feature films and look to the work of Ford, Von Sternberg, Peckinpah, Ken Russell, Oliver Stone, and Ridley Scott for examples. A good sense of what is visually important is just as essential in documentary, but the eye is subservient to purpose. You first determine what you want the film to do and say, and these decisions will then determine the visual style. You can work the other way, determining a visual style regardless of subject matter, but that can be a recipe for disaster—witness the later work of Ken Russell.

You fix your style and discuss it with your cameraperson. Again, the more the cameraperson knows about your thoughts and feelings, the closer he or she can interpret your approach on film. When you actually shoot the film, there are a few obvious things the cameraperson should know or be considering. What should a particular scene do, and what is its place in the film? What is the mood of the scene? Is it to be frenetic, calm, dramatic, poetic? Is the scene to be viewed from a distance, or is there to be a participation effect?

This last point is extremely important. If you are shooting on a tripod, your shots will normally appear to be calm, third-person observations of the events. You will be the aloof spectator at the political meeting, the outside observer at the college graduation. By contrast, shooting from the shoulder and moving with the action enhances the first-person, participatory quality of the scenes. Instead of observing the crowd at the disaster, you become one of them, moving in their midst. You will, of course, have to decide whether you want to aim for the third-person or first-person point of view.

Finally, the cameraperson will also want to know the degree of intensity you want in your shots. Are you going to go for close-ups or extreme close-ups, or do you prefer to maintain a greater distance from the subject?

When we talk of a director having a good eye, we are actually talking about two things. A good eye means that he or she should have a good sense of framing and composition and should be able to see the best angle from which the story can be told. But a good eye also signifies a sense for the telling detail. Sometimes that significant detail is written into the script. Thus, you shoot the employees busily at work, and then the script tells you to shoot the boss with his feet up on the table perusing a Playboy. However, many of the most telling sequences happen without any warning, and the job of the director is to see their significance and get the camera to film them. I mentioned earlier doing a film on a music teacher and his work in various villages. For the last scene of the film, I had the teacher telling the story of Stravinsky's Firebird to some eleven-year-olds and then conducting an imaginary orchestra as the ballet music swelled upward. Suddenly, I noticed that while David, the teacher, was waving his arms with the imaginary baton, a very sweet eleven-year-old in the first row was carried away and was conducting alongside him. It was a nice shot in itself—the two of them conducting, arms just inches apart. But it was more, because the shot accidentally symbolized the continuity of the generations. Had I tried to set up the shot, it would have looked very kitschy, but happening naturally it was tremendously useful.

Again, we return to the theme of the director hunting for the symbolic shot. The technique can be overdone, but used well, it can be highly effective, because in a few seconds it encapsulates what the film is about and what you want to say. The most famous example comes from Humphrey Jennings's masterpiece Listen to Britain. All the shot shows is a small man in a dark suit, carrying a helmet and gas mask and walking jauntily along a street. But the street has been bombed-out; the windows of the shops have been shattered. In itself, the shot is nothing. But what the shot symbolized to British audiences was the courage of the ordinary Londoner to face life in spite of the worst the Nazi bombing could do.

Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

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