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DIRECTING TIPS & TECHNIQUES
By Elisabeth Benfey February 2, 2007
In other words. that you will not have that luxury.Shooting your short film: a step-by-step approach to designing a scene Below is a step-by-step guide that is designed to help you identify and successfully managed the tasks a director must accomplish before. You will also find here practical tools that will help you to visualize the design of your scene. you start with a screenplay –words on a page. and organize your footage prior to editing. complex. How do you transform the text into images with meaning? How do you make the characters on the page come to life on screen? This process should not take place at the last minute. is the secret to creating a rich. You must consider the possibility (the strong likelihood). communicate your creative choices to your cast and crew. Challenges you will face as a director–and solutions A short film (5-12 minutes long) can contain two. Those visual tools include examples of floor plans. and available for your actors and your crew on the set. but be aware that those are ideal circumstances. storyboards. confident. You may have the time to work with your actors and to rehearse the key scenes with them. and a printable log sheet. and open collaboration during filming. Respecting the balance between adequate preparation before the shoot. memorable . As a director. marked script. shot list. on the set. the director must learn to use the ideas and talents available to him on the set. I tried to address the particular challenge of shooting a short movie with a non-professional cast and crew on a tight schedule. when constant demands on your attention risk to derail the shoot. Although he is the hub at the creative process. Therefore your plan must also be flexible enough to let the creative energy flow between you and your collaborators (cast and crew) during the shoot. you need a PLAN. which will keep you on track. and during the shoot. maybe three main dramatic scenes. you may be able to have access to your location hours before you start shooting. the one who provides and carries out a vision. The sources for this section of our website (books and links materials) can be found at the end of this document.
Acknowledgments The following material is based in great part on Nick Proferes’ book: FILM DIRECTING FUNDAMENTALS: FROM SCRIPT TO SCREEN (Focal Press). do you have access to an apartment. which would allow you to choreograph the scene? . Let the images forming in your head guide the creative process. What will you be doing? 1) Read each dramatic scene through by yourself Do not force this process. Let yourself daydream. Your first duty. PREPARING THE SHOOTING PLAN I. If you only buy one book on directing. succinct overview of what an aspiring director needs to know to shoot a short film. or of the mood of the piece. if you are shooting a scene where two people are breaking up -one is packing. as a director. and offers a clear. etc. or hallways. You have a sense of pace. and links on directing short films.ANALYZING THE (SHORT) SCREENPLAY A scene that has not been thoroughly examined by the director before the shoot will always feel superficial and flat. as we get closer to the MMM event. You should count on spending a few hours alone with pencil and script.). rooms that open onto other rooms. maybe. or a house that has communicating doors. His short book is full of insightful comments. I will add more materials (about directing actors.you could visualize the scene as some sort of chase from room to room. The script is making an impression on you. editing.movie. In this case. the other is following her. you will also find a list of reading materials. What do you SEE in your mind’s eye when you read? Are specific moments emerging as particularly strong and clear? Do you see characters moving in space? What are they doing? Can you see a gesture. directing actors. and editing your movie. a specific prop that will play a key function in the scene? Can you think of specific locations at your disposal that would work for the scene? For instance. It is Okay if you do not come up with anything concrete yet. is to familiarize yourself with the screenplay. buy this one! At the end of this document. Nick was one of the teachers who influenced me the most when I was in Film School at Columbia. etc. particularly the dramatic scenes (meaning the ones that advance the narrative) in the script.
For the director. Once you have identified your directing beats (let’s just call them beats from now on). the most common length in a short script) will be divided into clear dramatic paragraphs. What is an action? Characters perform actions to get what they want (a “want” is also called an objective). They never take their eyes off the prize. To reprimand is an acting beat. The next actor’s beat starts when there is a change in action of the character they are playing. The next directing beat could be “to ask for/to refuse forgiveness”. in the example above. to indicate when the narrative significantly shifts. Each beat takes place after another beat. An acting beat is a unit of action committed by a character. Character A comes into the scene wanting “to get his foot in the door”. the man (character A). Let’s take. “to put himself in her shoes”. shows up at her doorstep. To get a foot in the door. directors all use beats. It is a unit containing one overriding idea. hoping to make up with his girlfriend (character B). at the beginning of each paragraph. and of course. A character performs one action at a time. (To ring the door bell. the third. The second beat could be. or progresses in a different direction. etc. its . To stop him) The director’s beats Although directors must obviously be aware of the actor’s beats in the script. two lovers who had an argument. a beat is like a paragraph in prose. take a pencil and physically draw lines to separate one beat from another. actors. For our purposes. “to open his heart”. but the word is used with a slightly different meaning by each. Each scene (let’s say a two-pages scene. etc. which is in the “now” and contains the immediate intent of the character in the moment (ex. separated by a horizontal line. For instance. all the acting beats could be included in a directing beat we could call “to get in”.2) Break the scene into beats What is a Beat? Writers. which we will call dramatic beats. Now look at the pages of your script.) Always choose a verb to describe the action. To peek inside. the next could be “to argue”. There can be hundreds of actor’s beats in one scene. It encompasses several acting beats. for instance. on directing beats. etc. we will focus on acting beats. his job is to divide the script into larger dramatic blocks. In our scene. Now write.
DESIGNING THE SCENE You are still at home. The beats will help you not only stage. in function of the real space at your disposal. alone with your script. even on professional shoots. should you think about introducing the camera and setting up your shots (B). You will probably need to adjust (and here is where flexibility comes in) the blocking once you are on location with your actors. often going to be the case. Again. and the most important one. which appear on the page as paragraphs. II. or “block” the actors on the set. or “block” the movements of your actors (A). .will now be used to render the text into spatial paragraph on the set.Blocking (or staging) the actors Ideally. Designing=Blocking+Camera placement Please remember that designing a scene is a rigorous. is that identifying the beats of each scene will help you design your scene. Given the tight schedule of the MMM. A. you should save time to rehearse the key dramatic scenes of your movie with your actors on location. Blocking must accomplish at least one of the following jobs 1-Capture the action. TWO step process. Each paragraph now has a title that is simple and clear enough to give you a sense of the main action the characters are involved in. Once the movements of your actors is clear -and only then. Do not rush it! First. The first one is purely practical: smaller sections of the script are easier to work on in detail with your actors and easier to rehearse and record when you are on the set with cast and crew. you must stage. Function of the beats There are two main reasons why you will want to break down each scene into beats. The beats -dramatic paragraphs in the script. prepare yourself ahead of time. you will probably have time to work with them on the set only moments before shooting.title: “To get in” would be the title of the first paragraph. The blocking must spatially reflect what is happening dramatically between the characters in the scene. The second reason. They will also allow you to determine your choices for camera placement. You have divided each dramatic scene into beats. This is not. and of the suggestions and dramatic choices they make during the quick rehearsal on the set.
preparing the audience to a long explanation. Their actions must be conveyed clearly.) 4-Familiarize the audience with a location (expository information) Sometimes it is important to make the layout of the location clear to the audience if the environment plays an important role in the action. Would it make sense to position one of the people behind the table. 3-Create or Resolve separation There are only main two staging patterns. the distance and the objects separating two characters at the beginning of the scene. move away. Your blocking of the scene can never be arbitrary. a character settles in a big chair. The characters are separated and come together. After they move to the kitchen. For instance. and unambiguously to the audience in order for them to understand what is happening in the scene. creating a physical barrier between the two characters as they argue. 2-Make physical what is intellectual or mental (allow the audience to get into the head of the character). The separation visually clarifies their attitudes toward each other for the audience by heightening the physical distance between them between them. 5-Prepare the audience for a lengthy scene. then one. the second character may follow. when you think of distance for your staging. For instance. or both. the characters are together at first. you may want to establish. Where should you position the actors to accurately translate the dramatic units of the scene? How can you make the essence of the moment more palpable? When they start arguing. The choices you make must clarify the dramatic moment that is unfolding. (Remember. through staging. 6-Punctuate actions . that movement always appears slower on screen than on the set.What is going on between the characters? What are the circumstances? What do they want? What are they doing to get what they want? No movement of the actors should be arbitrary. it makes sense for one of the characters to stand up and move away to the kitchen. Drama is told through the actions of the characters. You must justify the motivation for the movement of the actors. That distance may speak volumes in terms of what they feel toward each other.
you should draw a sketch of the location you will use. If you are interested in finding out how to get a great performance out of your actors.Movement can be a way to suggest a change of pace. Or you could choose to start choreographing the movement of your actors with the moment when the two characters start arguing. in the kitchen. The movement acts as a pause between two beats. counter. stands facing the other. Each beat is taking place in a different space. table. You could block the second beat “To ask for/to refuse forgiveness” in another space –on another stage. Tools to visualize blocking Use a floor plan. By creating clear. for this particular part of the scene. A few notes about directing actors Our goal here is not to give you a crash course in acting. “To argue”. you could start designing your scene from the moment the first character rings the door-bell. To ask/refuse forgiveness. Either way. The first beat. which gives him time to think. the one you visualize most easily. Here are a few . in the living room of the house. even pushing his way in.for instance. Let’s imagine that the scene is taking place in a house. This might be the dramatic core of the scene. or of mood. On the floor plan. The third beat. To argue. and the other resisting. or in directing actors. you make the progression of the action visually clear to the audience. could take place on another stage. They may sit down. or in another area of the living room. and mark the movements of your actors from space to space. geographical paragraphs for the action. or overhead diagram (picture #) This will help you choreograph the scene. you can start by reading some of the materials I suggest at the end of this document. One character may become absorbed in a task. could be taking place on the doorstep. still keeping her distance. you should also include any props (couch. or stage. In the example of the two characters above. for instance. “To get in”. etc) that may be important in the action. in the lobby. Changing the stage within a scene You can save a particular part of the location. we isolated three main dramatic blocks: To get in. following the beats you identified in the script. You can imagine one character talking. Where do you start? You can start at the beginning of the scene or start with what is the dramatic turning point of the scene to guide you through the design. or one of them does and the other. In our example.
which is only a result of what he does). Emotions derive form actions that are embedded in relationships and circumstance of the scene. Make sure that the people you cast not only resemble the characters as you imagine them. so don’t hesitate: Type-cast! Communicating with the actors Learn the vocabulary to communicate with your actors. You can tell them. but that their general demeanor. read a few books on acting (list below). Casting You have only a few hours to cast the parts. however that should be enough to help you get a believable performance from your actors. I will give a list of definitions for the terms that you will use to communicate with your actors in rehearsals and on the set. it might be a reprimand. what they tell you about themselves. You are reading a magazine. Actors do not “act emotions” The emotional life of the character comes from actions (wants) that are contextualized. it may be a greeting. If you have the time. that they want to “hide in a corner” or “punch him in the face”. Dialogue is action! If I say “Hello” to you. you will drop the reading. instead. or “act upset”. Be sure to use an active verb that gives your actor a sense of what he would be doing (not what he is supposed to feel. At the end of this document. a glare. If you are late. is as close as possible to the characters in the script. their behavior. of what his behavior would be under the circumstances. They advance the drama as effectively as words. You are not in a position to work long and hard with them to “get” the part and create a character.tips. The reading is the activity that accompanies the action of waiting. . Once you are done drawing the positions and movements of your actors on the overhead diagram. a mournful glance are all acting beats. A character’s silence. You cannot tell an actor to “act sad”. What is the action –reading or waiting? As soon as the dentist calls you. even if you never directed before. Difference between action and activity Suppose you are sitting in an office waiting to be called by your dentist. Silence is action. you are ready to bring in the camera.
Make the behavior palpable to the audience. A new visual vocabulary began to emerge. like an audience in the theater. The camera had. while the other character remains in the living room. in Birth of a Nation. as opposed to “his”. plot elements. Just as blocking has to serve narrative and dramatic purposes in your scene. decide to follow her move to the kitchen. you may set up the camera in a different position if you decide that the person who opened the door is your main character. Think about putting together a visual sentence. Where do you put the camera so the resulting images will tell the story you want to tell? How can the camera convey behavior. Camera. had a revolutionary idea: he moved the camera in the midst of the action.Setting up the shots: working with the camera In the beginning of the movies. W.D Griffith.B. you may want to set up the camera in a way that reveals what is going on inside the character’s head. 2-What is the essence of the moment I have to convey to the audience? Once you have determined who is the main character in your scene. The camera was placed in a proscenium position. Action”. You may. Once he was done directing them. The only dramatic tools the director had at his disposal to tell the story were the actor’s blocking and the quality of their performance. Camera placement Now you have blocked the movements of your actors. the camera had a job: it became an active participant. finally. Suddenly. a narrator in the drama. you will make different choices. atmospheric touches? There are five questions to answer to help you determine where to put the camera: 1-Whose scene is it? Whose head does the audience need to be in to fully appreciate the scene? For instance. . and that was it: one Master Shot covered the whole scene. You are ready to for the second step of your scene design: selecting your shots. as he would actors in a theater. the only function of the camera was to record the action of the actors as the director bellowed to them what they were supposed to do. If you decide it is “her” scene. he would shout “Lights. In our scene (two lovers in a room). its own “voice” to tell the story. so does camera placement. for instance. Each shot must have meaning within the context of other shots. dramatic elements.
in the rest of the scene. her reaction to the man standing behind the door. you may want to have a “cutaway” of the gun. You could. If he puts it on the table. It is as if the camera had a personality. for instance. in close up. to allow the actors to improvise and give them ample space for physical comedy. A pan. It is the way you are telling the story. and capture. and the fact that she is present before the other character suggests her importance dramatically. and be kept into play throughout the scene. start with her. which you can bring back as a visual leitmotiv during the scene. Watch a great example in the first hotel room scene between Benjamin and Mrs.capturing the essence of the scene would be to convey the emotions of the woman who opened the door. Choosing a style is not an ego trip. you may want to use a hand-held camera to give the audience the impression that they too. 3-What story points. character or props must be introduced or kept alive? What essential elements must be introduced and reinforced to show what is happening in the present and what might happen in the future? In our simple scene. usually. is an effective way to resolve the distance (spatial and psychological) between two characters. 4-What stylistic elements or motifs must be introduced? If you intend to use hand-held camera. wide. Robinson in Mike Nichol’s The Graduate. Remember that style must first and foremost serve the story. Although you should definitely consider this time-effective . or otherwise orient the audience to location or time? By keeping characters in a separate frame. you may want to shoot the scene in a wide shot. are in the room. slow motion. for instance. The image size. 5-Is it necessary to resolve the spatial separation between the characters. for instance. middle and close. If it is a comedy. It is used to express the number of camera setups to render a scene. jump cuts. If you want to create a realistic feel. the psychological separation between them is highlighted. the prop will have to “make an entrance”. location. do it early to prepare the audience for the way the narrator is going to tell the story. You may want to reveal the gun before you reveal the man himself. did the man bring flowers to make peace with the woman? Did he bring a gun to threaten her? In this case. and allows the audience to identify –possibly to side with her. A good example is the envelope scene in the first act of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Note: Coverage is a term you will hear a lot.
The significance of this film sentence will only emerge when the shot is given a context. The director must recreate the visual and dramatic coherence of the action by connecting the shots. The significance of the sentence only becomes clear in a context. The fourth has to do with Space and Time. Ex. forcing them to figure out what is going on on-screen. Cut to a woman. As a result. This is called fragmentation of the action. The man looks intense. his attention focused to something off-screen. . Therefore. Film grammar has only four rules. the movie stops making sense.) contains in itself any inherent dramatic psychological or atmospheric content. Context also applies to camera angles. the main concern of a director is clarity. Cut to a plate of food. The audience is constantly engaged in an active process of matching chains of shots. Three deal with (A) spatial orientation as a result of the audience into the action. you jolt your audience out of the world of your movie. Eisenstein gives an example of how context changes the meaning of the story. When DW Griffith moved the camera into the scene the action became more dramatic and engaging for the audience. the sentence reads: “wristwatch lying on a table reads three o’clock. you run the risk of creating a generic design that has little meaning. The Rules of Film Grammar Every time there is a lapse in logic of the choice and articulation of the shots. The narrative elements of cinema In the first films –filmed plays. pan. tilt. Shots are the sentence of the movies. The four rules of film grammar help maintain the visual logic of your film by keeping the audience oriented at all times. The audience mentally connects the shots: the man wants the woman. Now the audience thinks: “This man wants to eat”. Now use the same close up of the man. If you show a watch on a table. etc. but it also created the potential for confusion because the geography of a location.technique when shooting under a deadline. It is the connection and mutual relationships of shots that yield meaning. No camera angle (extreme low or high. It has to be put in context of other angles. or a spatial relationship.the audience knew where the actors where at all times because the action took place within a single camera frame. or parts of a character’s body. looking off-screen. where now framed in separate shots. Imagine the shot of a man’s face.
You can jump the axis if you then cut to a two shot from the opposite angle. When two characters face each other an imaginary line or axis. In the first shot. more tension is created if the characters moves from right to left and up. *Right to Left and Up: since we are used to reading from left to right anddown. Compression: To shorten the distance a character has to cover. connects them at the tip of their nose. the camera angle should change by at least 33 degrees.Spatial orientation . he starts walking and exits it. on a heightened dramatic beat. Again you can break the rule to create dramatic tension. by doing so. In the second. and b camera left. The audience would understand the spatial relationships between the characters. If we shoot them in separation. but the shot should be varied in length and duration. The last shot of the series should respect the grammatical rule. The idea is that. we can compress the distance traveled.The 180 degree rule This rule deals with the sightlines of the characters-where they are looking. You break this rule for dramatic effect (Hitchcock in The birds-used to punch up the discovery of the body) -Screen direction *Left to Right. he should re-enter it screen left. What happens if we jump the axis with the camera? The audience will become disoriented. if a character exits screen right. you do not notice the leap.A. he enters the shot and is already at his destination. *Approaching and receding: a character approaching the camera and exiting frame camera right (bottom) should enter camera left (bottom) B. Character A will be looking camera right. -The thirty three degree rule If we are going from one shot of a character or object to another shot of the same character or object without the intervening shot of something else. .Film time: A story unfolds in time as well as space. We can shorten what is interesting (compression) and lengthen what is interesting (elaboration) in a single scene. their sightlines would be correct. Usually jumping the axis is used for dramatic effect.
use extreme Close ups etc. you stretch time by through variation of angles to cover the same action. You. distant. tracking shot (moves with people in motion). Close Up (CU). -Subjective camera: The camera allows us to see what a character is experiencing (Ex: the frame becomes blurry to convey the fact that the character’s vision is impaired. long lens. a zoom shot (no actual movement. -Change speeds or stop motion with a freeze frame A little more film vocab: -Objective cam: What the camera sees: it can be playful. crane shot (camera rises above the actors’ head) -Change the focal length of the lens: wide angle. which mimics what a person would normally see. -Put it into motion: pan right and left.Elaboration: we take a moment and make it larger. medium shot (MS). which is an approximation of what a character sees. is at eye-level. overhead shot.) If film is a language. Just an electronic adjustment of the lens). as in the climactic fight scene of The Cinderella Man). The most neutral shot. etc. Long Shot (LS). Coming soon to the MMM Website… More about the tools you can use to visualize the shots and communicate your vision (storyboards. tilt up and down. marked script) and to edit more efficiently (log sheets). shot lists. and by repetition of familiar shots. For now. (Ex. -Cut to another angle: low angle. high angle. -This is different from a Point-of-View (POV). etc. as a director will integrate and manipulate these elements to create the sentences to write the cinematic story. two shot. here are a few useful books and links: From Word to Image Storyboarding and the Filmmaking Process by Marcie Begleiter (Michael Wiese Productions) . What is the vocabulary at your disposal? There are five things you can do with the camera to change what is in the frame. over the shoulder shot. -Change image size: master shot (covers the entire scene). static. Staircase scene in “The Untouchables” by Brian de Palma.
uk/eejit/storybd/ts9. Irving and Peter W. Example of marked film script: http://www. Make sure you indicate the Shot #. and Sydney Pollack (a really great book – DVD also available) Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen.co. by Sonia Moore . Proferes (Focal Press) Total Directing Integrating Camera and Performance in Film and Television by Tom Kingdon (Silman James) Producing and Directing the Short Film and Video by David K.gif also.nyu. Indicate if there are any sound effects (FX) –the Off screen sound of a keyboard. Rea.exposure. On acting and directing actors: Sanford Meisner on Acting by Sanford Meisner. With Haskel Frankel (Macmillan) The Stanislavski System The first simplified Guide to Stanislavski’s teachings.jpg A few books worth reading On directing: Film Directing Fundamentals From Script to Screen by Nicholas T. the Action (ex. High-Angle on Envelope). Second Revised Edition. http://www. Dennis Longwell.ca/rta/handbook/tvpaperwork/tv_paperwork_forms/ efp_master_scene_script_marked.edu/~sa1222/BLOGGER/03_01. Third Edition (Focal Press) Thinking in Pictures The Making of the Movie Matewan by John Sayles.GIF I recommend that you download a storyboard (framing) sample. etc.For the relationship between storyboards and overhead diagrams.ryerson. dialogue exchanged over the shot you are drawing (Ex. Frank picks up the envelope from the table). Frank: “I’m going to the post office”). take a look at http://itp. Houghton Mifflin. children playing.) that will be needed in post-production. the size and angle of the shot (Medium Close up.
For more information concerning the Movie Making Marathon.duke.On editing: The Converstations (with Walter Murch) and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf) This Directing Tips & Techniques Packet was created for the Movie Making Marathon at Duke University.edu/web/mmm. . please visit www. Copyright 2007.