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So You Want to Direct?

And who doesn't? Here's how. By Charlie White

Directing a live television program is about the most fun you can have with your clothes on. The whole production hinges on how well you do your job. If you're great, you'll make your cast and crew look even better than they really are. If you stink, so will your production. Join me while I spill the beans about directing, revealing valued secrets I've learned in the director's chair over the past 30 years, in every conceivable directing situation from the stupidest cable TV access show to a live nine-camera national broadcast -- and everything in between.

As director, you might not be involved in all the intricate planning of a TV show -- that might be left to the producer. But you'll be responsible for the actual execution of the broadcast, so you might as well be as involved as possible in the planning and preparation of that production. Think of yourself as a parachutist; you'd like to have a part in packing your own parachute, because after all, you'll be the one suffering if it doesn't open, won't you? So what this means is paying attention to the right details such as checking out the lighting, making sure there are no unpleasant shadows falling on your talent, confirming that your set is designed to your liking and that there are no distracting objects in the background, making sure you can control how the production looks and how you'll direct it -- things like that. Notice I wrote "right details." That means not worrying about tiny things that nobody will ever see, such as the color of the studio walls that won't be seen in any of the shots and many other goofy things directors have obsessed over that make no difference whatsoever. Ask yourself as you ruminate over some detail, "Is this going to make a big difference in the quality of the production?" The best directors insist on near-perfection with important details but ignore things that don't matter. This triage can make the difference between an under-budget/on-time director and an over-budget, day-late (and maybe fired or not hired again) director.

Perhaps the most important task you have before the production begins is choosing where the cameras go. In a three-camera studio production, you can place the cameras around the set and have them move wherever you'd like during the shoot. On an auditorium shoot, perhaps for a music or sports production, your camera placement choices will be a bit more limited and semi-permanent. If you have no idea where to put your cameras in a situation like this, ask someone who's done a show like this before, or watch shows of this type, tape them, study them and then imitate. After you've done your first one, you'll start developing your own style. For example, of you're hired to direct a basketball game for the first time, watch lots of basketball games and study the technique. In a basketball production, watch how there's one camera that covers all the action and all the other cameras, no matter how many, are shooting cutaways. You'll be imitating at first, but after that you'll break out with your own way of doing things.  

Before the show begins, walk around. Look over your set just like a pilot walks around his airplane before a flight. Are there audio cables that will be seen in the shot? Will you see other cameras in some of the shots? Are your camera people who might be seen in other shots dressed in black? Is it too hot in the studio, so much so that your talent will be dripping in sweat? Will a crowd of people stand up and be right in front of your main camera? Ask yourself these questions. Ask more. Pay attention to the right details. Pack that parachute.

Another thing to remember before you begin is to tell your crew what you intend to do, especially if they haven't worked with you before. Get up in front of them, have a meeting, let them know that you know what you're doing and are in charge. Speak to them with respect, let them know you are working in their best interest, tell them when their lunch/dinner and other breaks are going to be and then stick to that schedule. You are like the coach before the football game here -- if you show confidence and leadership, it will stick in the minds of your entire crew. Command respect, but don't demand it. If you're worthy of respect, you'll earn it -- it can't be ordered. Expect great things from your crew and they just might surprise you and live up to your expectations.

If there's a rundown, format or shot sheets for the show, go over these with the crew before the program starts. If you have a chance, rehearse the program and let the crew know the way you intend to execute it. One thing to avoid, though, and I knew a director who was always guilty of this: Don't over-explain what you're going to do. This director would get the crew together and describe every shot she was going to do at great length, every transition she was going to use. By about the seventh or eighth shot, eyes glazed over and everyone knew they'd never remember all the information being thrown at them. Don't overload the crew with what you will and will not do. Just give them a general idea. Ask if there are any questions.

At the same time you're telling the crew what you're going to do, assess what they're going to do. If you can accurately estimate the skill level of your crew, then you will know what you can reasonably ask of them. For example, if you know you have a pack of network-level camerapersons, you can be sure that if you ask them for arcing, swooping camera moves that will look like they were all executed by a seasoned Steadicam operator, you'll get those moves and then some. You'll also see them selling shots to you that you never would have thought of yourself. But if you're dealing with a bunch of beginners, you'll know that to ask for even the simplest camera move is probably not worth it. Direct according to your resources. This is easy if you've been working with the same crew for months or years -- you'll know what each person can do. But it's tricky if you've pulled together a team of freelancers for a one-time shoot or your managers have grabbed a few people off the street and tossed them into your studio. This is where a rehearsal, however short, can help you discover what you're dealing with. If you do have a green crew, if it's an ongoing production, teach them how to shoot the way you want. That's right -- a great director is also a sympathetic and engaging teacher -- and the better you are at teaching, the better the performance you'll get out of a tenderfoot crew. But don't depend on them too much at first. Give them a chance to grow and learn, and use positive reinforcement to get them to perform -- congratulate them on a job well done. Point out smooth moves, fast repositions and creative camera angles that you didn't ask for. Quietly discourage sloppy camerawork. You're the coach -- develop a leadership style that extracts maximum performance from your staff and use it consistently. 

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