Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why Writing About Directing Is Tough...

Still labouring over some posts on directing for television... they're not easy I tell you!

I mean, in a nutshell, for me TV directing is about answering four questions:

1) What's the overall story/episode about and how to visually portray that efficiently yet effectively?
2) What's each scene about and how to visually present each efficiently yet effectively?
3) Where do we put the camera?
4) What do I tell the actors?

...and doing four things:

1) Getting the coverage
2) Designing cool transitions (between scenes)
3) Being a pleasure to work with while creating a fun yet forward-moving set environment
4) Making the day (getting the scenes listed on each days call sheet)

Simple, eh?

Except it isn't that simple, really.

And trying to describe it all effectively usually means using words like tone and palette and lenses and frames and angles...and most examples seem like 'you had to be there' sort of thing, or would be better served by a commentary track on a DVD...and before you know it you can end up sounding like director Greg Beeman over HERE describing his experience on the first episode of the second season of Heroes:

I feel I sort of know how to shoot the show these days. The frames are as graphic as possible, super low angles, super high angles, lots of foreground and big big close ups (all in keeping with graphic novel frames to which we owe a big allegiance.) But I’ve also been interested in exploring the edgy faux-documentary style used in movies like THE CONSTANT GARDENER and THE BOURNE IDENTITY movies. A week or so before beginning production I saw A MIGHTY HEART, the Michael Winterbottom directed movie which starred Angelina Jolie. I found it very bold and felt inspired by it. It uses a very modern style, with all handheld cameras and a very captured-in-the-moment documentary style. Even though this is something I’d already been doing on HEROES, I left the theatre feeling that I could push myself further in this direction. I took it upon myself, in all of the sequences that were inherently edgy and tension-filled, to employ this style.

Followed up by:

I used a variation of this style in the scene with Ando and Kaito Nakamura on the Kirby Plaza. The camera was not hand held, but I went on very long lenses and used numerous extras to create numerous foreground wipes. Because of the long lenses the wipes are just quick blurs. And since there are so many of them I was able to cut from shot to shot fluidly. Even though the characters are just sitting there, the numerous cuts and the numerous wipes create an inherent tension. Then at the end of the scene when Kaito realizes he’s marked for death, I changed up style completely and went to a long take with no coverage (i.e. cuts) on a very wide lens.

Anyone still reading? I know I'm supposed to be into this stuff and my eyes were starting to glaze over. Nothing against Beeman at all...hell, I commend him for even giving it a shot (no pun intended). And especially in episodic TV where you, the director, really are only a hired gun...a spruced up traffic cop in many ways. Though it must be nice to have 10-13 days to shoot a TV one hour (the last four eps I did I got 6 days per, and most I ever got to make a one hour was 7 - welcome to Canada)

Film and TV is a visual medium...and it's hard to relate how you came up with the images when there's so many other variables and factors (crew, actors, weather, schedules, budget, etc.) that impact on how those pictures actually turned out. I've always said directing is about making a really specific plan for each day...and then the first time you call 'Action!' more or less throwing it out because - the dog didn't bark on cue, or a cloud moved across the sun, or an actor strolled over and said: "You know, I was thinking..."

Thus a lot of my recounting about what happened usually goes something like: "What I wanted to do was this, and we ended up getting that. But it turned out alright. Actually, you kinda had to be there."

Nevertheless, crashing ahead (my fav 1st AD phrase when trying to plough through a production meeting)...I'll keep trying and we'll see what comes out the other side.

P.S. And no matter what Mazin or Epstein say, I'm taking the 'A Will Dixon Film' credit every time I do a feature, baby. Course I've never done nor have any plans to do a feature, but if I did, boy...if I did (mostly because I've co-written and produced every TV movie I've done).

However, the 'A Film By...' credit should be outlawed.


Damaged Goods said...

as a documentary director I must admit to feeling a sense of irritated smugness (if that makes sense) at all the "movie" directors who suddenly are discovering the documentary "look" - which, of course - does not exist. I've directed probably 100 hours of network docs for everyone from ESPN to the BBC to Fox (don't hate me) - and if some of my pieces had a visceral rawness to them it was either because I had NO BUDGET...NO TIME...or some asshole was trying to shoot me. Take my word for it the shaky-handi cam look sucks. And there's not a doc director I know who wouldn't trade his PD-170 for a Panasonic - 900 Digi-beta (with steadi-cam) in a milli-sec if given the choice.

wcdixon said...

I hear you, Don...sure, sometimes I've gone hand held because the story/scene warranted it, but 9 times out of 10 the camera came off the sticks because we were late in the day, losing the light, and there wasn't any chance in hell that production was going to push the scene to the next day. So no time and no budget definitely played a factor...and it's funny, the only people that have tried to shoot me have been execs from Fox.

Go figure.

Tim Thurmeier said...

Hey Will, I've often wondered, how does a guest director on a TV show handle the actors?

How do you approach a situation where an actor obviously comfortable in their role isn't "bringing it" for a scene? Or for that matter, TV or Feature?

How do you make sure you're giving the actor playable directions on set? (Assuming anything talked about before hand is somehow not working) And that you're getting good performances.

You'd think recognizing a bad performance wouldn't be THAT difficult, and yet, so many movies and tv programs show otherwise. I'm just curious.

Bill Cunningham said...

Here's a subject you can pick over from the director perspective:

What sort of stuff in scripts really get your blood boiling? Stuff that really makes you ask,"How the hell am I supposed to shoot that?" or "WTF?"

What are the mistakes, missteps we all make that drive directors into a frenzy?

Kelly J. Compeau said...

Anyone still reading? I know I'm supposed to be into this stuff and my eyes were starting to glaze over...

Yeah, mine, too. I'm a regular reader of Greg's blog -- and I know that, as a producer, I really should pay more attention to this kind of thing -- but when he started to write about the technical aspects of the work he was doing as a brain started to melt and I went "Whatevs!"

wcdixon said...

Hey...some questions!

Keep 'em coming and I'll work some answers into whatever I end up throwing together.

Anonymous said...

I found the techie stuff interesting, and back when I was a kid I would have eaten all that up if it was available. When you are young you don't even know where to put the camera, let alone knowing what every movement or angle or trick can do in terms of controling the story.

I have respect for those directing skills. If people don't find it interesting, they don't have to read.

This is a screenwriting and directing blog. If you have knowledge about where to place the camera and how to tell the story, Mr Dixon, I want to read it.

Damaged Goods said...

Hey Bill your question - as a doc director I can't really answer with the credibility of Will or some of the other dudes who post here...but I'd hazard a guess that scripts which call for WIDE SHOTS OF CROWDS make producers' blood run cold

Tres expensive. Yes ??

I used to direct episodes of TOP COPS for a New York prodco back in the early 90s...and I'd always shoot the "crowd" shots in compression. Then cut a way fast.

I rarely had the budget to do an actual shot with more than 8 or 10 people in it.

Damaged Goods said...

one more thought on Bill's question -- I'd be interested in hearing from some film directors as to how much the REAL WORLD of the program budget impacts their interpretation of the script ?? Writers can create all sorts of dreamscapes..but some poor soul has to cost them out -- then I assume it's the director who has to change -:


into -:

mc/up -- MAN SHOUTS "Run for your life"



So, how much time DO directors spend on the financials rather than the creative ???


wcdixon said...

Lots of good questions, Don...I'll try to weave into some future posts.