Film & TV

What Is a Movie Director? The Responsibilities of a Film Director and Tips on Directing Actors

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 22, 2019 • 6 min read

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Even though they may not appear in front of the camera, the director is one of the most important people on a film set. They do more than shout “action” and “cut” behind the scenes—they’re the person who determines the creative vision and makes all of the film’s biggest decisions. Learn more about what a director does during every step of the production process and get tips on how to break into the business if you’re an aspiring director.

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Jodie Foster Teaches FilmmakingJodie Foster Teaches Filmmaking

In her first-ever online class, Jodie Foster teaches you how to bring stories from page to screen with emotion and confidence.

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What Is a Director?

A director is a person who determines the creative vision of a feature film, television show, play, short film, or other production. They have complete artistic control of a project. In addition to having a strong grasp of technical knowledge taught in directing classes, they must also have a personal or emotional connection to the material.

What Does a Director Do During Pre-production?

  • Assemble a team. The first people you’ll need are a line producer, production designer, location manager, cinematographer, and assistant director.
  • Create your vision for the film and communicate it to your crew. Establish a visual language for your film by creating a lookbook. Fill it with reference images to help you articulate your ideal color palette, locations, and framing. It helps to reference other films that inspire you.
  • Discuss your vision with each key crew member individually. Your vision affects every department differently. For example, if you say, “I want it to feel like the character is isolated,” that affects lens choice, lighting, and music. Learn to speak the language of every department so you can successfully communicate what you need from them.
  • Make casting choices. You can change many of your decisions along the way, but casting is the least flexible in terms of making last-minute changes. Before you cast an actor, it’s important that they understand the story you’re telling. They should be someone you trust to prepare the role to the best of their ability and who is willing to be flexible and collaborate with you.
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What Does a Director Do During Production?

  • Guide the actors through scenes. It’s your job to help inform and shape their performances, so give the actors positive but specific (and short) praise and/or notes after every take. Make sure you’re on the same page about who the characters are and what they want in each scene.
  • Ensure every department is doing its job. You’re the person who is most familiar with every part of the production. You must make sure every department is doing its job and working together to bring the film to life.
  • Communicate with everyone as much as possible. Directing is a collaborative process. Having open communication with every team is vital to making the best film possible so everyone feels comfortable speaking up and knows exactly what they need to be doing.
  • Keep your artistic vision alive. Continue to check in with every department, from the producers to the actors to the crew, about what you need from them in order to translate your creative vision to the screen.

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What Does a Director Do During Post-production?

  • Give notes to the editor. Review the editor’s cuts, break down the footage, and find the shots, angles, and takes that add the most meaning.
  • Check in with post-production teams. Work with the sound design team, the music supervisor, and the visual effects team to ensure every postproduction decision is in line with your overall vision.
  • Give final signoff. You have complete creative control, and it’s up to you to determine when a project is finished.

How Do You Become a Director?

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In her first-ever online class, Jodie Foster teaches you how to bring stories from page to screen with emotion and confidence.

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Directing students study the art form in undergraduate programs, graduate programs, conservatory programs, and directing workshops. Many Hollywood directors have a directing degree from an accredited directing program in New York City or Los Angeles, such as:

  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Filmmaking
  • Master of Arts (MA) in Film and Media Production
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Filmmaking
  • Associate of Fine Arts (AFA) in Filmmaking

Having a directing degree is important, but to get paid jobs as a director, you need to actually gain experience directing projects. After your work gains attention and praise, you can land an agent to help you find bigger opportunities.

Many directors get their start by working on a film set as an intern or a PA while directing their projects on the side. As you work your way through the ranks, you’ll learn how sets are run, gain experience, and make connections that may help you get a job in the future.

Some directors come to the craft after working on film and/or television sets as writers or actors. When a film industry professional transitions to directing, the learning curve is less steep because they learned what makes a good director from working closely with and observing them for many years.

10 Tips on Directing Actors

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Directing actors is a collaborative process from prep to wrap. Keep these things in mind when working with them on set:

  1. Know who you’re working with. If you’ve never worked with an actor before, research them on your own. You can also call other directors they’ve worked with and ask about their processes and how they like to work.
  2. Include them in your process. If they’re open to it, ask them if they’d like to look at your shot list, lookbook, storyboard, or whatever else you’ve done in preparation. This allows them to better serve your vision.
  3. Create a calm and respectful environment. Reassure your actors that you’re there for them every step of the way. Try not to yell or raise your voice on set, as it creates unnecessary tension that isn’t conducive to creativity.
  4. Be prepared and be flexible. Have a succinct Plan A for how you want each scene to go, but be able to be spontaneous with different takes within that preparation.
  5. Give them space to work. Communicate your ideas in pre-production, talk through things before a scene starts, and give notes afterward. But when the camera is rolling, the actor is in control, and it’s best to let them do a complete take before speaking up.
  6. Don’t make them wait. If they’re called at a certain time, do everything in your power to get them to set at that time. If you’re unable to do so, check in with them as soon as possible so they know what’s going on.
  7. Be direct. If you want an actor to do something differently, tell them. Don’t be precious and try to sugar coat anything. Be kind, but be blunt and honest about what you want.
  8. Avoid results-oriented direction. For example, don’t tell an actor you’d like them to cry at the end of a scene or say things like “I want the audience to feel ___ .” If an actor is only thinking about a result, this may block them from being able to emote and perform in an organic way.
  9. Be aware of their needs. Sometimes you need to lighten the mood a bit, or the actor needs to step away from the character momentarily. Be conscious and thoughtful of their process so they can give the best performance possible.
  10. Listen to their instincts. If a part of the writing isn’t making sense and the actor is having trouble getting it, consider a rewrite.

Learn more about directing in Jodie Foster’s MasterClass.

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