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How can you spot good direction?


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I often read reviews, both amateur and professional, where a sentence like, "deftly directed by Joe Blow" or "So and so's masterful direction ..." appears, but I never know exactly how one can tell that Joe Blow did anything more than yell "Action!" and "Cut!"

I always think, if the story and dialogue are interesting, it's the work of the screenwriter. If the movie is pleasing to look at, it's thanks to the photographer and art people. If the scenes and camera angles flow smoothly, it's because of the film editor and continuity guy. 

How can you tell by looking at a finished product that the director was deft or masterful? 

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There is what I would call extra-filmic 'evidence' that indicate the director's control over the picture.

I would say it starts with rehearsal. Some directors like Edmund Goulding intensively rehearsed his actors for weeks on end, before letting them go in front of the camera. You can see the precision in their performances and the attention to detail, because he's given them numerous suggestions and they have basically workshopped the material before putting it on its feet.

During filming, you can sense a camaraderie that occurs between the performers and how they are connecting with the camera operators and the director behind the camera (without breaking the fourth wall).

Sometimes the level of experimentation in the lighting and camera set-ups is the direct result of conversations the director has had with the cinematographer and set designers...the talks that say 'try it this way, let's see if it works better if we do x-y-z.'

A director like Robert Altman may encourage the actors to improvise and go off the printed page, so the performance is less 'scripted' per se and seems more natural.

The director is in control of all these variables, functioning like a conductor. Also the director helps the cast and crew feel safe, feel they are in an environment that lends itself to critical thinking and creativity.

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There's a good quote on the wiki page for MY BILL (1938) that gives you an idea of how the director sometimes has to function on set:

John Farrow said he directed Kay Francis by polite but businesslike suggestions, Anita Louise via picturesque comments that would amuse her and arouse her imagination, Bonita Granville needed encouragement and praise, and Bobby Jordan required occasional sarcasm.

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16 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

There's a good quote on the wiki page for MY BILL (1938) that gives you an idea of how the director sometimes has to function on set:

John Farrow said he directed Kay Francis by polite but businesslike suggestions, Anita Louise via picturesque comments that would amuse her and arouse her imagination, Bonita Granville needed encouragement and praise, and Bobby Jordan required occasional sarcasm.

Right I know what a director does, and that some do more than others, but when I am watching a movie, I don't see the actors rehearse, I don't witness the camaraderie on set, or hear the director's consultations with the art and technical people. And neither do critics who write about the great direction. 

I can't help but suspect we tend to over-credit directors for the things we like about their movies. I have never watched a scene and thought, damn that is some fine direction right there. I've thought it about acting, and music, and imagery, but not direction. So how do critics see it and credit it to the director?

The one thing I can think of might be blocking, or how two or more actors move and physically interact on the set. I have to think that isn't written into a screenplay. But what else is there that is apparent to a viewer?

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3 hours ago, LuckyDan said:

Right I know what a director does, and that some do more than others, but when I am watching a movie, I don't see the actors rehearse, I don't witness the camaraderie on set, or hear the director's consultations with the art and technical people. And neither do critics who write about the great direction. 

I can't help but suspect we tend to over-credit directors for the things we like about their movies. I have never watched a scene and thought, damn that is some fine direction right there. I've thought it about acting, and music, and imagery, but not direction. So how do critics see it and credit it to the director?

The one thing I can think of might be blocking, or how two or more actors move and physically interact on the set. I have to think that isn't written into a screenplay. But what else is there that is apparent to a viewer?

There may be no concrete proof, except in the finished product, but that doesn't mean successful direction isn't observable. Probably some of these critics/reviewers (even the amateur ones) have seen enough product over the years that they know when something feels cohesive and something isn't cohesive, which is owed to the director of the piece. The director brings all the elements together.

Not long ago I watched a mid-70s episode of The Streets of San Francisco. Ida Lupino was the guest star. This was a phase of her career after she had finished directing films in the 50s and finished directing episodic television in the 60s. Despite no longer directing, she continued to act. You can see how she is basically directing herself in scenes of The Streets of San Francisco episode. She's very precise, very measured, very aware of how the camera can be manipulated to improve her performance. You see it, because her focus is different than the other performers. She is essentially guiding herself the way she had guided others when she had been a director. 

The director provides focus and the director oversees the type of energy that will be brought into the scene. Yes, we cannot pick it apart to where we have concrete pieces of evidence, but there is an abstract quality. 

Also, keep in mind that while people might praise the director, they may also blame the director, for things like performance, writing and cinematography. The director (and producer) put the final stamp on the material. Note that some high-ranking directors also serve as co-producers or executive producers on their films so they have even more control over the finished product. 

Most directors play an active role in post-production, sitting in the editing suite with the editor and determining which takes are best and how to splice the film's scenes together. The main reason they must collaborate with the editor is to ensure that the pace and momentum of the narrative is consistent with how they interpreted the script and used the performers and on-set technicians to put it across. Plus there is the fact that they have to work with the editor in choosing the correct background music and scene transitions (wipes, dissolves, intercutting, etc.).

Some directors, like Dorothy Arzner and Robert Wise, began as editors. Some directors "edit" while they are filming. For instance, John Ford was known for not shooting much extra footage. He knew exactly what shots were needed and how he planned to put it all together in post-production.

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One more thing I want to add...this is something that amateur critics often don't (can't?) do...but it helps if you can compare the finished film with the original shooting script. Then you really see what the director added or subtracted.

When I was in film school we had a room in the main library that just housed scripts. There was a film I enjoyed, that I had seen a few years earlier in a movie theater. It was a Merchant-Ivory picture called MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE (1990). I read the two books by Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge and the sequel Mr. Bridge that was written a decade later. The books are really novelettes with each chapter basically a vignette of a period of life in the Bridge family.

Merchant-Ivory's chief scribe, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had gone through both books and she only chose the vignettes she thought could be put together in a linear narrative, probably the ones she found most interesting in terms of characterization and social commentary. Her script was quite long.

I read the script in the film school library because I wanted to see how she had "translated" the vignettes she chose, how she put them into script format. 

I was surprised to find that director James Ivory and producer Ismael Merchant had discarded the first 30 or so pages of her script. I suspect they cut the whole beginning prologue because of budget and because the film would have been too long. Also one of the vignettes Jhabvala chose for the prologue featured the family in church and Merchant-Ivory probably wanted to get rid of the religious aspects of the story. 

In order to start the film on the right note, with the necessary background information that was contained in the discarded 30 pages, James Ivory adds a brief montage of the main characters, Walter and India Bridge, when they were first married (without any church attendance). One of the shots in this brief montage has India Bridge at the country club swimming pool one day with oldest daughter Ruth as a toddler. Little Ruth takes off her top in the pool, causing considerable embarrassment to Mrs. Bridge. This is a very significant moment, which is not in the books and not in the script, because it foreshadows the problems the Bridges will have with Ruth later, since she is rebellious and sexually promiscuous when she grows up.

Also the film just sort of ends on a cliffhanger, since Merchant-Ivory revised the end of Jhabvala's script. Maybe because they didn't like the choice she made regarding which vignette she wanted to end the story on...? 

In order to provide some sort of resolution, James Ivory gives us a brief epilogue before the closing credits that is not in the script. These are quick captions that tell us what happened to each main family member after that cliffhanger last scene.

My reason for mentioning this is because in this case, the director and producer team have substantially changed the beginning and ending of the movie, deviating from what their scriptwriter had provided them. So in that regard, they assume an added level of authorship and control over the entire project.

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What makes a great movie?  What makes great art?  Why are Rembrandt and Marc Chagall great artists?  I find knowing about art, its history and schools helps in understanding what a director is doing in a movie.  That and a lot of film courses I took.  Community colleges and continuing education programs offer courses if you are interested.  You can probably also find something on the internet.

A book called The Cinema As Art, by Ralph Stephenson and J. R. Debrix is a great overview of filmmaking, from sound and lighting to cinematography and editing.  It was published in 1965, but is available used.  It doesn't cover many decades of movies, but the basics it covers are still the basics today.

Here are some examples of what I think are how directors show their brilliance.  Clarence Brown to me is the equal of any director.  One of the things I like about his movies is how he uses light and shadow to create atmosphere.  It might be said it was the cinematographer that did it, but I see the same things in his movies with different cinematographers, so that tells me it is Clarence Brown that is responsible for it.  Here's a shot from The Yearling (1946):

Untitled.png

The standard way would be to light the scene from sources all around the set.  Brown uses light from the candle and fire as natural sources to create a warm affect for the home.  See also how he uses a downward spot to show the candle's light, eliminating the usual shadow of the candle stick by a side light.

In The Thing From Another World (1951), Howard Hawks dazzles us with minimalism.  He has people wander around a frozen waste and all without warning forming a ring:

By having us come to the same realization that it's a flying saucer under the ice at the same time as the characters, he pulls us into the story.  Identifying more with the the players heightens the power of the events in the movie.  All with just a few dark points moving across a featureless plane.  It always thrills me to see this.

One last example and I'll have done.  It's also from Hawks, from Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  He was the master of what I call ensemble scenes.  You see them from time to time in his movies where he assembles a group of people in a space.  This is his best.  It starts out simple with a small group around a piano:

 

Static.  Not much energy.  Sparsely populated.  Other groups focused elsewhere.  But as the scene goes on, more people join, the energy grows until at the end the screen is packed, tiers of people into the background, vibrant, celebrating.

This is what I look to see in movies.  I hope this gives you an idea of how to decide how good a job the director has done.

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It's true moviemaking is a team effort.  That's why I look for similarities in movies by the same director with different crews.  That helps to recognize what the director is doing.  I don't watch different movies by the same cinematographer or editor with the same end in mind, but now that you mention it, I may start.  My guess is it would be harder to see their styles because, though a collaboration, making a movie is still controlled--guided--by a director.

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I'm thinking poor direction shows more than attentive, careful direction. If an actor looks bad, if scenes don't match, if shadows are being thrown unnaturally all over the place, the director should have spotted it and fixed it. 

And that can be discerned by the viewer as he is watching the movie, which is what I am curious about. What are the immediately noticeable marks of a good director? As opposed to those which can be discerned after considering a body of work.

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On 3/26/2021 at 11:37 PM, LuckyDan said:

I'm thinking poor direction shows more than attentive, careful direction. If an actor looks bad, if scenes don't match, if shadows are being thrown unnaturally all over the place, the director should have spotted it and fixed it. 

And that can be discerned by the viewer as he is watching the movie, which is what I am curious about. What are the immediately noticeable marks of a good director? As opposed to those which can be discerned after considering a body of work.

Your post reminds  me something I heard related to sports about referees and umpires:      One knows they are doing good work when one doesn't notice them.

E.g.  good direction is when a film flows from scene where the individual "parts" work and where the sum of these "parts" is fairly seamless.  

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On 3/26/2021 at 8:37 PM, LuckyDan said:

I'm thinking poor direction shows more than attentive, careful direction. If an actor looks bad, if scenes don't match, if shadows are being thrown unnaturally all over the place, the director should have spotted it and fixed it. 

And that can be discerned by the viewer as he is watching the movie, which is what I am curious about. What are the immediately noticeable marks of a good director? As opposed to those which can be discerned after considering a body of work.

I don't quite agree with your first sentence. I think there are some people who look for attentive, careful direction. Producers certainly do, because they want to make sure the director is helping to protect their investment. The lead actors do, because they want to make sure they are coming off well on screen. They don't want to make what will turn out to be a massive flop.

Also, other actors may spot careful direction if they are looking to suggest a director for a new project. 

As for the part about actors looking bad, some actors are physically ill or going through emotional problems in their personal lives while filming scenes. A good director will minimize those distractions, even if it is almost impossible to mask issues within the performance. Therefore, a strong director may not always succeed but will do his/her best to ensure the film turns out the best that it can.

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On 3/26/2021 at 8:37 PM, LuckyDan said:

I'm thinking poor direction shows more than attentive, careful direction. If an actor looks bad, if scenes don't match, if shadows are being thrown unnaturally all over the place, the director should have spotted it and fixed it. 

And that can be discerned by the viewer as he is watching the movie, which is what I am curious about. What are the immediately noticeable marks of a good director? As opposed to those which can be discerned after considering a body of work.

For me, bad direction isn't more apparent, because I don't waste my time watching the movie.  What discerning good direction comes down to is art, what makes a good picture.  Directing well is the same as making a good picture, at 32 frames per second.  You can tell when a director is aware of how to compose a picture, how it's put together, what lines are formed by the objects, how they are balanced (or imbalanced), how foreground, middleground and background relate to each other, how movement ties the whole shot together, how light and sound are used.  For openers, here's this:

thesearchers1.jpg

Everyone knows the opening shot of The Searchers (19566).  When Martha opens the door to the Edwards' homestead, Ford is literally opening the movie, like opening the cover to a book.  He's playing with proportion, too.  Trimming the wide screen to the doorway--about the same proportions, only stood on end.  He's framing a picture.  Making the interior black heightens the effect of the light and color outside.  Opening the door is a revelation, a discovery.  The camera follows Martha, bringing us with her out of the house, into the story.  That's somebody who knows how to take a picture.

Michael Powell does likewise in I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), though it's not the opening shot:

Wendy+Hiller++-+I+Know+Where+I'm+Going+(

Apropos, that movie has one of the great entrances:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzTVir52WKg

Pamela Brown, as Catroina, comes home to people waiting for her return.  The silhouetting, the angles, the axis of movement perpendicular to the screen, convey energy, surprise, wonder, and reinforce the joy at the reunion of the two friends.  I don't know why the link hasn't embedded.

Here's a scene from Once Upon a Time in the West (1968),  directed by Sergio Leone:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzTVir52WKg

Leone is also playing with proportion, making the window similar to the screen.  He's framing a picture.  By keeping us out of the action, he paradoxically draws us into it, an otherwise mundane exchange of Jill finding out where the McBain place is.  Then he magnificently raises us (aided by Ennio Morricone's score), gives us the power of flight, and makes the view of a shabby dirt-paved town a revelation.  Again, I can't say why the link didn't embed.

Here's one last example of what thrills me when I see good direction.  From Baby Face (1933), directed by Alfred E. Green:

Barbara Stanwyck as Lily surveys the scene of destruction after her former lover kills her current one, then himself.  The scene is a masterful example of understatement.  Her impassive study of the scene, acting more as a guide through it than an interpreter, allows the audience to absorb the shock without any filter.  Thankfully someone had the insight to have no music.  This concentrates the attention on the visuals and heightens the sense of the enormity of what happened.  

There is a technique in pottery called burnishing.  Before firing, a dried pot is rubbed with a smooth pebble, compacting and hardening the surface clay and giving it a sheen.  Whenever I see Ms. Stanwyck standing in profile in front of the shut door, hair permed, immaculately made up, she always appears to me as highly burnished.  The ultimate attainment of her relentless program of self-transformation.  Exquisitely hard surfaced--hollow inside.  Completely detached from the scene, unconcerned about what has happened.  The perfect Nietzschean hero.

That's how I tell a movie is well directed.

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18 hours ago, TopBilled said:

I don't quite agree with your first sentence. I think there are some people who look for attentive, careful direction. Producers certainly do, because they want to make sure the director is helping to protect their investment. The lead actors do, because they want to make sure they are coming off well on screen. They don't want to make what will turn out to be a massive flop.

You haven't been terribly keen on my premise thus far. I'm not a producer guarding my interest. I'm not an actor hoping I don't look stupid. (That goes to my other point about not looking good, which you also didn't seem to quite get.) 

I'm a viewer, or a reader reading a review that says a certain picture was well-directed, and I'm going how one can discern that as either a viewer or reviewer.

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7 hours ago, slaytonf said:

What discerning good direction comes down to is art, what makes a good picture.  Directing well is the same as making a good picture, at 32 frames per second.  You can tell when a director is aware of how to compose a picture, how it's put together, what lines are formed by the objects, how they are balanced (or imbalanced), how foreground, middleground and background relate to each other, how movement ties the whole shot together ... 

 

I agree with all that, but I would first credit the photographers. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've directed some short films and videos, but never understood exactly what a director did (! -- I don't have any formal training) until I had this revelation a few years ago: the director's job is to make sure that everything in the movie is understandable to a viewer coming to it who has no knowledge of what it's about.

I've seen a number of movies that had plot points that didn't make sense, or a character's motivation didn't make sense, or something that needed to be seen wasn't visible in the picture, or an actor voiced his lines unintelligibly -- things like that. To me it seems that it's the director's job -- particularly if (s)he's also the writer or producer -- to work all those things out so that it's clear to the viewer what's going on.

I think there's more to it than that -- e.g., it seems to me that the pacing is largely determined by the director -- but making it comprehensible is his/her first job. 

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I like movies as we all do here, but I am not a student of the art and I have no particular expertise in directing or even recognizing it its good. For me, therefore, good directing is less than something I can spot and more about what I might have thrust upon it.  I was so taken by Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991) that I watched it seven times in ten days. I would make sure I the sandwich and coffee was ready, and managed other possible interruptions so that I watch unimpeded. This movie plays so smooth. Wonderful pacing, one scene scene seamlessly moving on to another. I always think that anyone who IS a student of the art should watch this.  The music (by Rachel Portman) is wonderfully synchronized with the action. Some criticize that the story is not clear in some places but I blame the book for that even though it was written by the finest of authors, E.M. Forster. In his defense it is noteworthy that this was his first novel and lacks the polish of subsequent novels. This movie remains in my top 5 in absolute faves. The director is Charles Sturridge.

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On 3/31/2021 at 7:39 AM, LuckyDan said:

I agree with all that, but I would first credit the photographers. 

Remember, the photographers are under DIRECTION. Of course, some actors & photographers are chosen because of familiarity with their work & expertise. I can imagine a director instructing the actor or photographer as to what they want from a scene, then it's up to the talent to execute.

Then watching the dailies, the director sees something not exactly what he wanted: it's a reshoot or acceptable to his/her vision of how the completed movie will work. 

On 3/26/2021 at 11:05 PM, slaytonf said:

It's true moviemaking is a team effort.  

I can imagine a director hiring a cinematographer like JW Howe or J Cardiff & saying, "I'd like it to look a little more "dreamy" and leaving the technical aspect to the experts. Some top notch talent may be too haughty for direction and the best direction is to leave them alone. I'm sure those kinds of personality traits are taken under consideration when assembling a cast/crew.

The director is often really just a coordinator of the elements, visualizing the final product.

So "to spot" a good director is one who consistently does well bringing all the elements together to make a good movie- Billy Wilder, Powell/Pressburger, Frank Capra all come to mind. 

On 3/30/2021 at 12:00 PM, jamesjazzguitar said:

One knows they are doing good work when one doesn't notice them.

I'd say the opposite- poor directing stands out to a viewer right away, like Ed Wood. To a lesser degree, many of John Ford's choices in THE QUIET MAN 👎

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On 4/13/2021 at 7:40 AM, alcr1 said:

I've directed some short films and videos, but never understood exactly what a director did (! -- I don't have any formal training) until I had this revelation a few years ago: the director's job is to make sure that everything in the movie is understandable to a viewer coming to it who has no knowledge of what it's about.

I've seen a number of movies that had plot points that didn't make sense, or a character's motivation didn't make sense, or something that needed to be seen wasn't visible in the picture, or an actor voices his lines unintelligibly -- things like that. To me it seems that it's the director's job -- particularly if (s)he's also the writer or producer -- to work all those things out so that it's clear to the viewer what's going on.

I think there's more to it than that -- e.g., it seems to me that the pacing is largely determined by the director -- but making it comprehensible is his/her first job. 

Re: your last sentence about pacing...I've always felt pacing is determined by two things-- blocking (which in musicals is more choreography) and editing. The story's pace can be sped up or slowed down with smart post-production editing.

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  • 1 month later...

I think it's easier to spot bad directing.

Two films for me that really stood out for how great the directing is Scorsese's Who's That Knocking At My Door (1967) where there's a simple scene with two characters having a conversation while sitting next to each other and i was simply floored at how creatively it was shot and then Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996) for the cool shots/editing and overall stylization.

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  • 2 months later...

What I often wondered is if new and upcoming directors were nervous to direct big, big stars. Did or do major stars respect a young director or do they intimidate them? I would guess the actors would familiarize themselves with a newer director to know what they can expect? 

 

Just guessing off the cuff here.

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22 minutes ago, KidChaplin said:

What I often wondered is if new and upcoming directors were nervous to direct big, big stars. Did or do major stars respect a young director or do they intimidate them? I would guess the actors would familiarize themselves with a newer director to know what they can expect? 

 

Just guessing off the cuff here.

You might appreciate Ron Howard's Bette Davis story.

https://tribecafilm.com/news/video-ron-howard-bette-davis-story-brian-williams-talk

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