Notes on the strange art of directing




In November 2009 I attended a masterclass for movie directors put on by the AFTRS.  Steven Soderbergh gave an amusing and informative talk under seventeen headings. I jotted down a few salient points. (I hasten to say these are simply my notes and may contain errors and misreportings):


He started out by noting that there are three types of filmmakers:

Ones who know what they’re doing and I like.

Ones who know what they’re doing and I don’t like.

Ones who don’t know what they’re doing.

He advises us to get into his first two categories, and states the seventeen necessary points to achieve this.

1. Be early. If you’re on time on set, you’re late.


2. Write everything down. All thoughts and musings.


3. Law of Diminishing Returns.

Will another take improve things? 

Consider:             Will other scenes up ahead benefit from extra time?

                             Do the crew need a rest?

                        Are you wearing down the actor?


4. Take a specific approach.

Are you a synthesist or an originator? As a synthesist you need good influences, a sense of film history and how approaches developed from D.W. Griffiths through Eisenstein to Soderbergh.

Watch a lot of movies. + Watch without sound.


5. Use other artists’ careers as inspiration.

Three phases of development.                                     - Imitation

- Autobiographical (where your own observations are so important they have to be recorded),

                 - Original.


6. Relentless application: The 10,000-hour rule. (It takes that many hours of doing any art to get really good at it)


7. Narrative.

            - You have 20 mins to fuck with the audience before they desert.

            - Know your Emotional Core (Hitchcock – guilt)

            - Character is the central aspect of story.

            - Don’t have things happen jut because they can.

            - Loops - repeating images that create different feelings each time they appear.

- Don’t mix the two narrative styles. They are: The world how it is vs. The world how you’d like it to be.

            - Get the script as good as you can.

- Don’t try to review what went wrong if the film doesn’t sell. (No-one knows, and you’ll stunt your growth.)

- Don’t mistake Ambiguity (a binary situation - either this can happen or that) with Confusion (anything can happen).


8. Scenes.

Scenes are generally interrogations or seductions. (About wanting something – to connect or get something.)

            Scenes can be adjusted in post by:             Length of scene

                                                                                             Length of shot

Text order

Emphasis on what aspect

Scene order

The ‘Oner’ ( a scene done in one shot) can give pleasure up front but be painful in post.

Useful in defining geographic space.

For overlapping dialogue.

In a dance or fight where elegance may be maintained.

For maximum use of magic hour.

Can control the rhythm.

Contrast to cuttiness elsewhere.

Read:  CUT TO THE CHASE by Sam O’Steen

Scenes are composed of shots:

            The wide establisher

The tableau

The master

The reverse master



ECU’s (use very sparingly like salt, because of their power, don’t dilute by overusing – Reverse Engineer from Emotional Intensity)


Try to have variety, not repeating shots much. Find new shots.

Look at framing and shots from stills and other movies – height, lens length, negative vs. positive spaces etc.

Overs vs. Singles. Overs are motivated, address the actors. Singles are unmotivated and can go anywhere.

Cross the line with full figures or overs, not CUs

Sound and image don’t have to connect.

Music can counterpoint (slow music over fast action, soft music over loud activity)

Don’t overuse music. Silence can be good.

Scene transitions: Contrast or Link (framing, colour, line, movement)


9. Sequences.

            Have a goal.

            Manipulate time (compression)

            Require lots of new shots

            cf: Montages, which are generally transitions and not goal oriented.


10. Impasses – require radical surgery. (Take a limb off, may cure or kill)


11. Camera.

            What’s there as opposed to what you want to be there.

Movement requires a good idea.

            Foreground elements add depth.

            Lenses for a frame – wide or tele?


12. Style. Fixed or Changing?

            Is your camera objective, an observer, or is it subjective, a participant?

            (The objective camera can’t be in the fridge, but the subjective camera can)


13. Economy vs. Cheap.

            Comes down to ambition vs. responsibility.

            Organization is the key.

            Keep your eye on WHAT THE AUDIENCE CARES ABOUT

            Perfection is boring.

            Energy is important.

            There will always be something wrong.


14. Lighting.

            Time of day. Time passes. (Life is not lived between 11 am and 2pm)

            Allow brightness and darkness in a single shot.

            Light the space, then find the shots.

Soft light is forgiving; Hard light is difficult to manage.


15. Cast and Crew.

            Don’t be an asshole.

            Cast properly. Let people send you their auditions.

            Dinner with actors vs. rehearsal. How do actors want to be spoken to?

Keep out of the actors’ heads. Give them physical things to do. (e.g. Rather than telling them to act as if they don’t want to stay in a restaurant, get them to keep their coat on.)

            Avoid hostility and chaos.

Wield power carefully – like a parent.

Chain of respect rather than of command.

What stories do you want told about you?

Who will work with you again?

Tell the truth unless you’re trying to protect someone.

Look to the endgame. (Politics)

When something isn’t working – on set or in post:

            Is it:            The text?



                        Lighting – say too bright?

Be decisive.

            Panic is no solution.

If you don’t know and have time – think about it. (Problem solving ideas can’t be forced – get Zen and relaxed and the solution will appear.)

Know when you can’t be interrupted (you can’t be accessible all the time or you won’t be able to think of anything.)

If you don’t know and you can, slow things down – or shoot something else.

            If you don’t know and have no time – just decide.


16. You’ve made a film and people see it. How do you behave?

            AWARDS             = employee of the month.

            DESCRIBE             how you DID things, but NOT how it FELT.

            VALUE             experience ahead of result.

Anonymity. (So you can observe and not be observed -eavesdropping is fuel for creativity)

            SUCCESS            can smother progress by making you try to repeat.

            INTERVIEWS are written in 72pt type.

Thirty-minute minimum – at least you can get some of your own story out.

Less history, more mystery.

Use ‘we’ and ‘our’, not ‘I’ and ‘my’.

                                    Never use ‘First’, ‘Best’ or ‘Only’.

                                    Don’t pose for portraits, or appear on TV.

            CRITICISM and setbacks.

                                    Take them in, but don’t let them stop you working.


17. Safe art sucks.