Updated: Nov 6
Directing actors is an art form in and of itself, separate from the movie you're trying to create. It’s all about making characters come alive and working with your actors to get that performance that just...clicks. Or is it? I'm only talking about one type of director, the type of director the layman says, "Oh yeah, that sounds like the job of a director". However, every director works to the beat of their own drum and there are some very specific rhythms to work with.
So, let’s dig into the directing style that might just be the secret sauce for your filmmaking journey. Directing actors isn’t a one-method approach, similar to how acting isn't just a one-size-fits-all approach. Different directorial methods completely alter the way you communicate and collaborate on set. It entirely changes where you, the director, put your spotlight and influence every single member from cast to crew.
I. THE ACTORS DIRECTOR
An Oscar-worthy film, driven by stellar performances, always boasts that unmissable and enthralling character. These performances are meticulously moulded and animated under the vigilant supervision of the Actor’s Director. This directorial approach, so focused on profoundly backing actors and their portrayals above all else, truly shines when authentic character depictions are the sole focus of the film.
An Actor’s Director dives deep into the depths of character development, often single-mindedly focusing on this one filmmaking element above all else. These directors are on the journey together with their actors through the various emotional and psychological landscapes to discover in the script. This synergy enhances the extent and authenticity of the performance, ensuring every emotional transition and expression is genuine, refreshingly surprising and grounded.
The establishment of a safe, explorative, and non-judgmental space becomes crucial in this directorial style. An Actor’s Director not only allows but enthusiastically encourages a spectrum of scene interpretations. The environment thrives on exploration, with actors probing different emotional responses, physical movements, and expressions during rehearsals, all under the watchful, supportive eye of the director, who in turn, is unafraid to delve into the vulnerabilities and strengths of each character themselves.
Ic. Performance vs. Technical
Certain compromises become a necessity for the sake of performance quality. Other pivotal craftsmen of a film, such as the cinematographer and set designer, will typically see the director taking a step back, entrusting these elements, almost entirely, to the skilled department heads with very little intervention. By allowing experts to manage these technical domains, the Actor's Director remains unwaveringly anchored in supporting and focusing on the actor's performance.
This deep and rigorous emphasis on performance often peaks in portrayals that, more times than not (just look at the Oscar winners from the last 50 years), strike a chord with both audiences and critics, frequently being hailed as the year's best performances. The actors, through their meticulous explorations and the Actor Directors guiding hands, very often blossom into their characters, offering performances that are not only authentic but find themselves bathed in critical acclaim.
Ie. Actor’s Director Style
Classic directors like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Woody Allen, or more contemporary like Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood, exemplify this style, weaving a rich tapestry of outstanding performances through their films. The Actor’s Director fosters profound and impactful relationships with their actors, navigating through emotional and psychological realms, ultimately realizing characters that echo hyperrealism and reliability.
For the Actor's Director, character depictions, painstakingly crafted with patience and deep emotional connectivity, take precedence over all else. This directorial style and the performances it carves, notably visible in Oscar winners, leave behind a feeling of sheer awe and admiration.
II. THE TECHNICAL DIRECTOR
Now having so highly sung the praises of the Actors Director does it imply that all other directorial styles pale in comparison to this beacon of direction? Not at all. Let's delve deeper and explore another intriguing facet of film direction: the Technical Director.
For the technical director every frame, sound bite, and light angle becomes a brushstroke in a meticulously crafted cinematic masterpiece. Embodied by legends like Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher, James Cameron and Wes Anderson these directors navigate through the filmmaking journey with a detailed-oriented lens, where the technical facets are not mere supporting elements but pivotal characters in storytelling.
IIa. Precision and Detail
The Technical Director orchestrates each component of the filmmaking process with a profound appreciation for precision and detail. The minutiae, such as the subtle play of shadows or the meticulous arrangement of objects within a frame, are harnessed not just as aesthetic choices but as potent storytelling tools. Every technical detail, from the hue of the lighting to the crispness of sound, is manipulated to enhance, complement, and sometimes, starkly contrast the narrative, enriching the visual and auditory tapestry of the film.
IIb. Engineering Every Frame
An unwavering commitment to creating the 'perfect shot' often characterizes The Technical Director as, well, a Technical Director. In this environment, exhaustive takes are not an anomaly but a norm, aiming to distil performances and capture scenes that align flawlessly with their envisioned outcome, sometimes to the point of intentional exhaustion for cast and crew alike. The ultimate aim of the Technical Director is to seamlessly intertwine the actor's performance with the meticulously constructed environment around them. Rather than prioritizing one over the other, the focus is on harmonizing both elements, so they appear as if they were indistinguishably one.
IIc. Technical Brilliance
For the Technical Director, the story unfolds not only through dialogue and performance but through lighting, sound, and visuals. The narrative is intricately woven through each calculated camera movement, strategic lighting adjustment, and deliberate sound choice. Here, the technical elements become a language, conveying subtext, emotion, and thematic undertones, sometimes speaking louder than the characters themselves.
IId. Transforming Vision
Post-production is truly the starting line for a technical director. This is where the raw footage embarks on its nearly boundless transformation. Moving from meticulously captured frames to a canvas, the Technical Director initiates the subsequent phase of their artistry, sculpting and refining the visual narrative. The technical director, more often than not, lives in this space, tweaking, refining, and sometimes, reimagining elements to ensure that the final product not only meets but exceeds their exacting standards.
IIe. Balancing Act
Despite a pronounced emphasis on technical aspects, The Technical Director navigates a delicate balance, ensuring that while technicalities are highlighted, they do not overshadow the narrative and performances. The actors, under this directorial style, become components within a well-oiled machine, contributing to a story told as much through their performances as through the symphony of technical elements.
While this directing style has given us some eye and ear candy in the cinema, see Avatar... it’s also gotten some side-eye for maybe letting genuine emotional performances take a back seat. Conversations about Technical Directing often bounce between nailing technical perfection and keeping that raw, real emotional core of storytelling a focus.
Technical Directors often possess an expansive breadth of knowledge across all departments on a film set, with particular expertise in cinematography, lighting, costume, set design and sound design. The Technical Director savours having the ability to manipulate every facet of a frame, from selecting the lens, lights, and set design to sound production, to ensure their technical vision is brought to life.
III. THE COLLABORATIVE DIRECTOR
Okay, so those are the two "main" types of directors you are most likely to encounter on set, but what else is there? Well, possibly a style that encompasses some of our most beloved directors in history. The Collaborative Director. For the Collaborative Director filmmaking is a melding of creative minds, with each idea converging into one final vision. Figures like Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard exemplify this approach, spearheading a directorial pathway that has forged some of history's most poignant films.
IIIa. Diverse Creative Voices
In the realm of collaborative directing, a collection of strong voices converge, each bringing a unique tone, perspective, and creative impulse. The Collaborative Director, while having an overarching vision, welcomes, and often seeks, inputs from actors, crew members, and sometimes, even the audience. This myriad of voices isn’t perceived as interference but welcomed as a viable contribution.
IIIb. Inclusive Creative Space
Creating a democratic and psychologically safe space where every idea is welcomed and considered is a cornerstone of this approach. Here, not only are seasoned professionals, but even novices are encouraged to voice their thoughts and ideas, fostering a setting where innovative solutions and unexpected, brilliant concepts can sprout from any corner of the set.
IIIc. Pre-production and Rehearsals
Extensive pre-production and rehearsals become a fertile ground where characters and stories are sown, nurtured, and allowed to blossom through mutual exchange and exploration. This isn’t merely a space to practice but to delve into the psyche of characters, explore alternative story arcs, and play with varied emotional and narrative textures, all within the safe confines of the rehearsal room before stepping onto the set.
IIId. Unified Narrative
A Collaborative Directors main endeavour is to make sure every idea, input, and creative impulse intertwine with one another whilst maintaining the overall narrative. They guide the storytelling in a manner in which the final product ends up being much like a collective of creative streams flowing in parallel and smoothly coming together into one big, engaging storytelling ocean.
IIIe. Challenges and Triumphs
Even though teaming up brings a lush and layered final product, it’s not all smooth sailing. Merging different ideas into one solid piece, keeping that main vision pure, and juggling all sorts of personalities and creative egos requires a director’s touch that's clever, delicate, and pretty savvy in playing the diplomatic game. But, when you steer through it skillfully, what comes to life is a story that's not just rich and deep, but also has a piece of every creator in it, crafting a cinematic expression that's bound together in a really special way.
IIIf. Shared Journey
When the final film hits the screen, it's not just showcasing one person's vision but revealing the adventure every crew member took part in. So, the Collaborative Director isn’t just making a film; they're weaving a shared experience, a group memory, and a legacy that belongs to everyone, humming with the vibes of every creative spirit who shared their input.
In this creative environment nurtured by The Collaborative Director, a film doesn’t just finish as a directorial project but more as a piece of collective art. Every stroke, detail, and shade is the creative product of a tight-knit team, making each film not just something to watch, but a storytelling adventure everyone gets to share.
IV. THE AUTOCRATIC DIRECTOR
Let's switch gears to a style that’s pretty much the polar opposite of the Collaborative Director: meet the Autocratic Director. This director brings strong and clear leadership to the set, and crafts a film world entirely from their special viewpoint, tailoring every frame, feeling, and tiny nuance to snugly suit their unwavering vision. Standing in stark contrast to the Collaborative Director, big names like Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino have proven that this kind of strong-willed control can turn their highly unique imaginations into memorable, and usually quite accessible, yet somehow still enigmatic movie experiences.
IVa. Solo Maestro
On the set as or of an Autocratic Director, the set becomes a stage where every element bends to the will of a singular maestro. Every choice, from the subtleties of an actor’s expression to the exact hue of a set piece, is dictated, or at least strictly overseen, by the director, ensuring an unblemished translation of their vision to the screen.
IVb. Blueprinting Every Breath
Detailed storyboarding, exhaustive scripts, and precise planning epitomize this style of directing. Every movement, every glance, and every whispered word is often charted out with surgical precision, leaving little room for improvisation or deviation. The pre-visualized world in the director's mind is plotted with such exactitude that it becomes a tangible blueprint guiding every action on the set.
IVc. Sculpting Identities
Mostly a continuation from above, every hue, shadow, and sound is meticulously chosen to serve the director’s singular aesthetic and narrative agenda. From the crispness of a character’s attire to the timbre of the background score, each element is sculpted, sometimes ruthlessly, to conform to the overarching visual and auditory narrative meticulously constructed by the director.
IVd. Burden and Brilliance
Carrying the weight of an entire cinematic world on their shoulders, the Autocratic Director embraces both the burden and the brilliance of their unyielding vision. While this often results in a coherent and strikingly original cinematic piece, it’s also a treacherous path where the director must navigate through the perils of potential creative myopia and the challenges of ensuring team adherence to a singular vision.
IVe. Fear and Respect
An autocratic director usually stirs up a special mix of a little bit of fear and a lot of respect on set. Their rock-solid vision and high demands can be intimidating, but it also earns them respect for their absolute dedication and a super clear focus on their movie-making goals. So, more often than not, Autocratic Directors grab respect from top-tier actors. These pros are ready and willing to dive into the strict orders and guidelines that come with such a director.
IVf. Unadulterated Narrative
As the curtain lifts, what unfolds on the screen is a raw, unfiltered display of a solitary imagination. The audience isn’t welcomed into a woven story of collaboration, but rather plunged into the absolute world of a single visionary, delivering a cinematic experience that’s potent, unblemished, occasionally brutal, and often teetering on madness, while uniquely echoing one director’s journey.
Embodying a style that may appear domineering yet undeniably results in some of the most uniquely potent cinematic experiences, The Autocratic Director pulls the audience, most often willingly, into a world where every frame, every emotion, and every narrative twist is a window into their unparalleled, unshared vision, offering a journey that is as unique and unpredictable as the visionary behind it.
V. THE IMPROVISATIONAL DIRECTOR
An Improvisational Director, often synonymous with spontaneous creativity and serendipitous brilliance, harnesses the unscripted and unpredictable energies of actors and crew members, fostering a set that becomes a fertile ground for unplanned moments that often metamorphose into cinematic gold. Directors like Taika Waititi, Christopher Guest, Terrence Malick and David Lynch, known for their inclination towards this unbridled style, typify a filmmaking environment that encourages exploration, experimentation, and the unexpected.
Va. Uncharted Creativity
In the universe of the Improv Director, the script often becomes a loose guideline rather than a rigid blueprint. Actors are encouraged to explore beyond the written word, giving them a license to drift into uncharted emotional and narrative territories, crafting scenes that are refreshingly raw and palpably authentic.
Vb. Creative Experimentation
The set of an Improv Director, you'll hear more often than not, buzzes with a unique vibrancy, as actors and crew are not just performers and technicians but co-creators in the truest sense. Ideas are not just welcomed but eagerly solicited, creating an environment where every individual becomes an integral thread.
Vc. Control and Chaos
Walking the tightrope between keeping things in check and letting chaos reign, this directing style is largely about softly guiding the ship while leaving room for surprises. On this ride, the Improv Director discovers storms of raw creativity that often create a movie's most unforgettable moments. This gentle balance often shows up in scenes that flow naturally, while still holding onto a subtle, underlying storyline that ties things together.
Vd. Experience and Output
But wait, it's a trap...? While the set might be ablaze with a vibrant creative spark and the whole process feels like a delightful adventure into unknown territories, it's vital to separate the experience of making the film from the final piece that rolls out on the screen. A set that's harmonious and buzzing with creative excitement doesn’t automatically mean the film will be a hit, and conversely, a successful film doesn’t always come from a smooth-sailing, joyful production process. The Improv Director has to be very mindful of keeping the journey enjoyable and open, while also ensuring that the final film, regardless of the path taken to create it, can stand alone as a successful piece of storytelling. A fun free set doesn't always necessitate a successful project.
Ve. Risk and Reward
Embracing improvisation is a gamble, where unscripted moments can either elevate a scene to unexpected heights or steer it into unanticipated challenges. The Improv Director, while basking in the potential of unplanned brilliance, also assumes the risk of navigating through moments that may diverge from the intended narrative path. It's like walking a spontaneous tightrope, teetering between unexpected brilliance and the chance of a scene gently (or not-so-gently) falling to pieces.
Vf. Adaptive Storytelling
In the ever-shifting sands of the improvisational set, the director must adeptly adapt the narrative, ensuring that the spontaneity on display still threads into a coherent and engaging story. It becomes an art of moulding the unexpected into a form that aligns, even if unpredictably, with the film's overarching narrative and emotional journey.
Working as an Improvisational Director means stepping into a world where surprise is the only sure thing, and creativity flows wild. This directing style, while free-spirited and buzzing with dynamic energy, calls for a very special type of director, one who can shape spontaneity into a story, one who, when principal photography has wrapped and the post-production suite lights have turned off, has crafted a narrative that still grabs hold of its audience in a highly coherent structured manner. Improv Directors deliver not just a film, but a lush, unpredictable tapestry woven from unscripted moments and narratives in a coherent, thought-provoking emotional rollercoaster.
Let's be honest, we all use a little bit of all these methods. With a catalogue of endless movies, TV shows, social media posts, and creativity in every direction, it's rare to find directors who stick to just one technique. Remember, these are tools in your toolbox, whether it's the wild and untamed journey of the Improv Director or the authoritarian, laser-focused vision of the Autocratic Director, there's no one "right" way to do things. Use that different tool, that different method when it fits, and shape your next project with more adept mastery. Mixing it up might just spark something beautifully unexpected.
- M. Young