My (Unplanned) Directorial Debut Part 2

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Welcome to Part 2 of Rebekah’s article on directing, and the last in her series on looking at crew profiles! It’s been a joy to have her on the blog – we really appreciate her taking the time to share her experience and wisdom. Leave her a note in the comments below!

In Part 1, Rebekah talked about the fun challenge it was to be a director for the first time, and how she was creative with a limited location and budget. You can read Part 1 here: http://mwcfa.org/unplanned-directorial-debut-part-1/

Something I understood better through this process was how unselfish a good director has to be. It’s not about getting the actor to say the line exactly how you’d imagined it. It’s not about telling the actor how to do their job – although in this case, I was functioning as their acting teacher/coach as well. There is a danger, however, in feeling the need to help everyone conform to your style of directing rather than accepting the challenge of adapting to each actor’s needs.

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At times it was trial and error, but when I made a conscious effort to listen and speak in ways that made each actor feel heard, affirmed, and empowered to do their best, that’s when we got the best results and the most growth. So if the direction I was giving wasn’t quite working, I would change my approach. Blaming the actor for a bad take isn’t a recipe for improvement in performance or morale.

Maybe the word(s) I used to adjust the actor were misunderstood; that means it’s up to me to find better words to communicate with. Maybe I have been crowding their creative space to the point where they are overthinking it and need to take a step back. Maybe I haven’t been supportive enough, and need to stir in a little encouragement. Maybe the set environment is too loud or too crowded for comfort between takes….

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There are a myriad of ways an actor can be derailed, especially if they are less experienced. But there are many ways to recalibrate their compass as well.

  • If they lack energy or are freezing up,  I try taking 15-30 seconds while the crew readies for the next take to shake it off with the talent. I encourage them to jump up and down, run in place, or simply draw quick deep breaths to promote circulation. I then remind them of a compelling scene goal to focus on, and increase the stakes for their character (artificially, if needed) right before going again.
  • If they keep flubbing the same line, we will drill it various ways to find the rhythm that works. If I need that part for a particular angle, we record a series of the line/s to have options and save time.
  • If they are constantly playing it over the top, I remind them that the “back of the theatre” is the back of the camera, and to think big and only let a little spill out as each moment arrives.
  • If they are fidgeting or have distracting movements, I can try giving them a prop to handle (unless it would present a problem for continuity), or a specific action to do on a cue word or line. This helps harness and direct the extra energy.
  • If a reaction shot isn’t working for me, it can help to prompt with a different cue line off screen. I use specific, strong verbs to describe what I’m looking for. Grieving, disappointed, shell-shocked, or betrayed are much more evocative than “looking sad.”

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Other reasons to do multiple takes would include continuity gaffes or technical errors, whether focus was too soft, a camera move could be smoother, or equipment/crew or their shadow were seen in frame (it happens!). It helped to let the actors know it didn’t have to do with them…even if I would occasionally take advantage of the pause to insert a note or adjustment. Actors are typically quite “absorbent,” so it was also important to manage my own stress as much as possible.

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And if actors EVER do something you like, be sure to let them know! It will never get old; trust me. Take every opportunity to express appreciation to both your cast and crew. This nurtures an atmosphere of kindness and courtesy. A reign of terror is not my ideal way to gain respect.

Building consistency in the basic set workflow is a helpful habit. The flow of calls from “picture’s up” to “Action!” sets a predictable rhythm that gives a measured countdown to the quiet and the tension of recording each angle for a scene. If there is an interruption during the process (i.e. “Holding on _____”), the AD must make sure the reset is clearly understood and order maintained. This said, there can occasionally be a place for a sanctioned “prank take” to lighten the mood.

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Post-Production Polish

We wrapped the second week in June, and the film was ready to submit to a festival (for use in a special film scoring competition) in September. What happened between?

First, Zack took on the job of editing the footage. When he had a cut ready to send me (by that point he was back home in CO and I was on another film shoot in GA), I reviewed it and sent notes back, requesting some adjustments. Back and forth like that, including a few phone calls, until we reached a locked edit. Then he did color correction as needed and began working on the credit sequence.

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After that, our film needed some post sound work done, both some sweetening and some foley to replace or add in missing sounds. We did end up paying out of pocket for that. It may sound ironic, but great sound is indispensable for a quality viewing experience.

I found it fascinating to be involved in the post-production process. While I wasn’t taking the lead in any area, per se, it was my prerogative and responsibility to define what was needed, refine the vision as changes were made, and stamp approval on the version I was satisfied with. The challenge was to develop and communicate strong, reasoned opinions, then balance that with trusting the people I’d picked to do their jobs well.

The main “darling” I remember having to kill was in one of the middle scenes, about a 30-second segment. Nothing was inherently wrong with it, and it had some lines I loved (especially having crafted them myself), but it was throwing the pacing off. I finally asked Zack to send me a cut with it trimmed out. The story flowed just as well – or, when I could bring myself to admit it – better, without it. So the cut won out.

My final learning curve came with navigating the new and mysterious waters of music composition. Now, this was a special case, because our film, Changing Majors, was being used for a composing competition held by the Christian Worldview Film Festival. Applicants would get a private link to the final cut of the film (sans music, with a time-code) and a spreadsheet of spotting notes from me as a guideline for the desired score. That meant I had to write those notes!

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Spotting notes consist of two basic items: 1) Cues (with specific start and end times, corresponding to the time-code) and 2) Notes. Because I would not be able to interface directly with the composing contestants, I went a little crazy with the notes. I gave context info for the cue in question, character emotions to play up or down, story arcs to hit and support, and the overall tone and feel to aim for. But with as much detail as I gave, I did my best to keep it on an abstract plane to allow room for each artist’s interpretation.

It was really encouraging to hear the different options that came in, a few of them quite good. Especially considering I couldn’t give feedback to the composers for making any changes to the winning score before or after it was submitted.

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Final Thoughts

Would I do it over again? Absolutely! The same way? Probably pretty close; I gave it my best all the way through. Would I like to direct another project? Yes, I believe I would.

Some things I look forward to doing differently next time would be a more traditional casting process, and enlisting (well, ideally, hiring!) a bigger support crew so I don’t have to produce and AD it all myself. That way I could focus more exclusively on the director-ish duties. I also think it would be a blast to collaborate with someone on a script, whether for another short or for a feature-length story.

My goals as a filmmaker are always to honor God, be kind and servant-hearted toward others, invest in others’ skills and dreams, nurture talent and teamwork, and tell a story together that is embedded with eternal value. It was such a blessing to be able to do all of those things on this project! I learned once more that prayer is not a waste of time, appreciation is relationship fuel, excellence is achieved as a team, and Christ-like love covers a multitude of faults.

Other take-aways? Remember to smile even when you are stressed. Make time for capturing room tone. Always do “One more for safety!” …And go ahead and splurge on a wrap party, even if it’s just treating the group to ice cream.

Below you can watch the finished film. Feel free to leave a comment or review for us on Facebook as well (https://www.facebook.com/changingmajors)!

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Rebekah has participated in the casting and production process from both sides and has cross-trained her skills in the industry, enabling her to mentor other rising talent. Rebekah loves working with directors and fellow actors as they develop their characters from the script and bring them to life on the screen. Both on and off of film sets, her heartfelt calling is to be an ambassador of Christ and share God's love with those around her.