Before You Hire a Director for Your Next Project – Read This

August 11, 2017

2012_ProductionHUB-Logo3 copy 

A version of this article recently appeared on Production Hub’s blog. They are an industry internet resource for “professionals behind-the-scenes in media and entertainment.” They describe themselves as “the global network of local crew & vendors.”

Frank_Lloyd_Wright_6007.0049

Frank Lloyd Wright at work on the Guggenheim Museum in 1957. Courtesy of The Guggenheim Museum and The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation

How many of you have you ever hired an architect? I asked this question in a presentation on Video Marketing I gave recently to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Only one person in the audience raised their hand. I wasn’t surprised. I asked the question because I thought I knew what an architect did until I actually hired one and then I found out that (just like directors) architects do all sorts of things I never thought they did. Early on in my career an architect pulled me aside and explained to me that many people who wanted to hire me, have no real idea what it is I actually do? He suggested I include a worksheet outlining my process in my marketing materials and I’ve found it to be a really valuable roadmap for clients to better understand how we work together.

alfred_hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock in his earlier years in England. He became the caricature of the autocratic film director through a carefully-crafted public image.

Architects come in all sorts of flavors and most of them are not the “starchitects” we think of when we imagine how it must have been to work with someone like Frank Lloyd Wright. Likewise, film directors specialize in all sorts of things and very few act like Otto Preminger or Alfred Hitchcock. So, when you are planning to hire a director the first thing you need to do is figure out what you really want them to do? In order to do that (especially if you have never done this before) you need to better understand the filmmaking process. The better you understand the steps in the process the easier it will be to define what you actually need from your director.

Broadly speaking, filmmaking breaks down into three basic parts: 1. Pre-Production – which is the part that proceeds shooting, 2. Production – the shooting phase and, 3. Post-Production – the editing phase. In some ways you can think of this like making dinner. Pre-production is the meal planning and figuring out what you need for the recipes you plan to make. Production is shopping (gathering the assets you are going to need) and Post-Production is cooking or (editing your ingredients down) to create something delicious.

Storyboard illustration for Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963). Alfred Hitchcock was famous for building the film in his head. He was a master of preparation and obsessive attention to pre-production planning.

Storyboard illustration for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963). The caption reads, “crows head for children.” Alfred Hitchcock was famous for building the film in his head. He was a master of preparation and obsessive attention to pre-production planning.

Pre-Production is where you plan the project. This includes your strategic plan, budget, scriptwriting, scheduling and distribution plan. This is also the part where you assemble the production team for your project. Public Relations and Advertising Agencies and Corporate Communications Departments often do these sorts of tasks in-house and will hire a director once the project has been well-defined. Depending on who you are and what you do, you may or may not need help with all this. If you haven’t done it before you want to hire a director to help facilitate all these activities. Generally speaking, directors enjoy collaborating as much possible on a project and the good ones will adapt their skill set to complement your resources and the skills of your colleagues. It is a good idea to involve a director sooner rather than later in the process. Good directors will ask you questions about all these activities and collaborate with you on perfecting them.

Director Tom Ball, Steadicam Operator Tom Upton and Sound Recordist Tim Chimes on a recent TELOS shoot. Photo by Charlie Ellis

Director Tom Ball, Steadicam Operator Tom Upton and Sound Recordist Tim Chimes on a recent TELOS shoot. Photo by Charlie Ellis

Production is the actual shooting of film or videotaping. This is the “lights-camera-action!” part that most people think of when they think of directing. In fact, this is less than a third of what a director does. Any good director will tell you it is in pre-production where most of the decisions are made to keep the production phase going smoothly. We like to aim before we shoot and most of us spend a lot more time planning and doing pre-pro than we do being on set. Back to the architect analogy, it is pretty dumb (and expensive) to design the building, and constantly change your mind, while you are actually under construction.

Post-production is where the director’s supervisory skills really shine. Filmmaking is a team sport. Very few people build buildings or make movies by themselves. It is often the architect’s job to supervise the construction and keep it on track. Same with the director. These days almost anything is possible in post-production but it all comes with a price tag. Your director can help you avoid costly mistakes all the way through the process but it is in post-production where visions (and strategies) get realized on the screen. To use another analogy, you can have the best ingredients in the world but if the chef is not paying close attention, it is easy to burn dinner and have it all go to waste.

As a word of final advice, In Hollywood, they say that “casting is everything.” When you cast the movie right, everything seems to fall into place. So what advice should you follow when it comes to casting the right director for your project? I would approach this the same way you might if you could choose who would sit next to you on a long transatlantic flight. You would want someone personable and respectful. You want someone who listens and really engages you in balanced conversation. You’d want someone who was a good communicator but also someone who was not self-absorbed, egotistical or annoying. In these sorts of things, where you are going to be working alongside someone on a project important to you and your clients, it is always a good idea to hire someone who puts you at ease and gives you a feeling of being trustworthy and considerate. In short, you want someone with a great portfolio of work who also has good people skills.

It is said, you never really know someone unless you’ve had the chance to travel with them. By evaluating the preliminary interactions you have with potential directors, and trusting your gut, you can decide which of your candidates deserves further research and investigation. One of my colleagues, a highly respected music producer, reminds me (see comments below) that the gut check is no substitute for thorough research. By doing your homework you will find an effective and enjoyable collaborator for all the phases of your creative journey together.

***

Tom Ball lives in Boston and is a six time Emmy Award-winning producer and director who runs TELOS Productions which is widely recognized for artistically driven expert storytelling in documentary and commercial projects.

Categories: ,

10 Comments

  • Mary Lane Sullivan and John says:

    Back to Joe Garry……we first looked to the identity of the director in choosing which plays to attend and this approach has worked for many years. We enjoyed reading this blog aloud!! JKS and mls

  • Martina says:

    Although I have not hired you to direct a film, I did have your help in finding/designing the perfect book covers for two books of my poems. I have been so grateful for your depth of insight, vision and design! I have also really loved your films. Thanks for all you bring to the process.
    Martina Nicholson, MD

  • Stacy Malone says:

    Tom, Such a great article! I always enjoy reading your perspective. Fabulous!!

  • Tom, it is so good to have you back on the “keyboard” sharing your insightful pondering and musings. This one is especially timely as I navigate the behemoth world of web developers who are their own breed, just like architects. I have not yet had the pleasure of working with a director, but in the event this changes you will be the first to know. Indeed, the lack of knowledge on the part of clients can be such a disadvantage. So thank you again for your penmanship that has opened my eyes. Web developer, be prepared to create your roadmap!

  • Jerry Patton says:

    Well said. Only when the director asks “All of the Questions” can the planning process proceed efficiently and effectively.

  • Patrick Meehan says:

    Director / Architect is an interesting and apt comparison.

  • Another great post! I love collaborating with you on projects because you’re smart, thoughtful, organized, appreciative and you always bring the best out in the people on your team.

  • Joe Garry says:

    Tom Ball has it all..taste..tenacity..talent.
    He always deals with essence..he always sees the core..
    He’s a First Class Artist.
    Look at the body and scope of his work..it says it all

  • Bob Woods says:

    Tom,What you wrote is concise, laid out clearly and very good advice (IMO). Telarc’s approach to recording projects was the same–pre-producion, production, and post-production. The only counter thought I have to what you wrote is the “listen to your gut” at the end. Yes, impossible not to do, but never should be a replacement for thorough research in advance of making major decisions. I got bit in the fanny a couple of times when my gut was off mark. Cheers, Bob

  • Wow! That makes em dreaming…..I wish I have a project and can hired you :)
    oxoxo
    Brigitte

Leave a Reply to Jerry Patton Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>