The Film Director – Collaborator par excellence, by WWI Faculty Somnath Sen

Making a film is a complex process – it takes a team to make a film.  There are multiple arts that Cinema incorporates into itself – literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, music, dance.  Not to mention other applied arts – design, photography etc.  Besides, Cinema depends heavily on technology to realize itself.  Making a film is as much a right brain activity as it is a left brain.  Thus, the inputs of myriad people, each with unique skill sets – whether technical or artistic – are required to make a film.

The Director of a film, being the leader of the team (and NOT the boss – a nuance we pound into our students at Whistling Woods International constantly), has to collaborate with multiple people for a film to be realized.  What does ‘collaboration’ really mean?  Well, instinctively, we would think about co and labor being the founding roots of the word – basically working together.  But collaborators are more than co-workers where filmmaking is concerned.  Since filmmaking also involves art, collaborators need to be in sync intellectually.  Where co-workers typically fill in the lacunae of skills or knowledge which other co-workers lack, collaborators have to, each and all, take ownership of the project – in this case, the film.

The initiator of a film is the Producer – it is the Producer who owns the Intellectual Property from which a film is made.  The Producer chooses a Director based on the Director’s abilities, track record and, most importantly, sensibilities – which have to match those of the material (the script).  A Producer chooses a Director carefully – after all the team leader has to have the capability to deliver a film that the Producer then has to monetize.  The Producer and Director relationship is unique where each depends on the other and has to trust the other fully to fulfill their ends of the bargain:  “The Producer will provide, what the Director needs to make the film, right from the script and, in turn, the Director will give the Producer a film that will give the Producer a return on the investment while also being artistically appreciated.”  Filmmaking is truly a marriage of art and commerce.  The relationship between a Producer and a Director was best described by a Professor of mine in film school: “The Producer is like the owner of a ship.  They decide what size ship to buy, what kind of cargo it will carry (or what kind of passengers it will ferry), where it will travel from and to.  Then they hire a Director, who is akin to the Director of the ship.  Once the ship sets sail, the Director is in charge with the Producer (ship owner) being confident that the Director (Captain of the ship) will make sure the ship (depending on its size) fulfills the Producer’s requirements – fulfills their commitments and also assures a return on investment.”  Once a competent Director is on board a film, the Producer leaves the artistic development of the project to the Director who now takes over the making of the film.

While the collaboration with the Producer is paramount, the Director collaborates with many other individuals during the making of a film.  There are three primary phases of filmmaking: Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production.  At each stage, the Director collaborates with specialists in those areas.  But one collaboration that is critical is the relationship between the Director and Actors.

Actors are the people who bring to life, any film (including, to a large extent, Animation films) and the Director’s work with the Actors defines how well (or not) a film turns out. Typically, novice Directors are more concerned with the technicalities of the film and spend considerable time with the crew working on creating the perfect image but seasoned Directors will be found working with the actors while they have faith that the crew is setting up the shot.  Unlike theater where actors get to rehearse for a while under the Director’s baton, films just do not have such luxury, thus a lot has to be instinctive.  The flip side is that the film is stop and start, and the Director shoots it in bits and, then of course, the Director has the ability to have a retake to improve performances.  Finally, where in theater the Director’s job is done once the curtain rises, a film Director crafts performances long after the actors have come and gone via the process of editing.  Actors, like other artistes need assurance about their work and it is the Director who they seek out for this.  Thus it behooves Directors to be in the eye sight of the actor as soon as a shot is cut – the actor will immediately look to the Director for assurance.  The Director has to be the actor’s safety net.  Once an actor is cast for a role, the Director has to fully trust the actor.  In fact, the ideal situation is where the actor (through their own preparation) knows the character they are playing better than the Director does.  The Director understands the whole story and how this particular character helps tell the story – how they fit into the story – thus the Director sometimes needs to nudge the actor in the right direction.  But, in general, the Director has to have faith that the actor will deliver.

Talking of story, every crew member is there to serve the story – including the Director.  But the Director is the one who understands all aspects of cinematic language to bring the story to the screen.  Thus, they need to work with the following in every area of filmmaking:

Pre-Production:  This phase of filmmaking is critical since this is where the whole process of making a film is planned – not only how the shoot will happen (Production) but emphasis is also on making sure the Post-Production goes smoothly.  The efforts put into this phase bear fruit in subsequent processes.  The Director works with many aspects of the film with various collaborators at this stage.

  • Scriptwriter: The Director is constantly working with the writer to improve the script.  During Pre-Production, sometimes ideal locations cannot be found and the two need to make sure changes are made to the script so that the actual location found can be used to tell the story.  Similarly, an actor might be cast for a particular role who brings something new to the script – thus the script might need to change.  Besides, other Pre-Production activities – Props, Wardrobe, Set Construction, the Budget – might entail changes to the script while keeping the story as close to the original as possible.
  • Casting: The Casting Director typically will hold initial auditions and select the best candidates to put in front of the Director.  The Director has to be able to convey to the Casting Director exactly what kind of an actor (physical attributes, emotional makeup) that they need for each character.  Then the Director and the Casting Director together audition the best candidates and choose the one most suitable for the role.
  • Locations: The Director and Location Manager work closely based on the requirements of the script.  Sometimes the Location Manager can convince a Director about a location that might not be in the script but can help tell the story better (which, of course, means the Director and Screenwriter go into a rewrite) but a Location Manager is key collaborator of the Director.
  • Look and Feel: This is critical to a film since films are primarily visual.  In this area there are two primary (and some secondary) collaborators the Director works with:
    • Production Designer: The Production Designer is the person who creates the physical look of the film.  They advise the Director if the film should be shot on real locations or if sets need to be built.  What kind of props need to be used to lend authenticity to a built set or a real location.  Finally, they are also responsible for the physical look of every actor using wardrobe and make-up.  (Today, many starts have Stylists they use – which is basically a combination of wardrobe and make-up).
    • Cinematographer: The Cinematographer – or, Director of Photography – helps the physical look of the film, translate to the image that the audience will see.  They may use different lenses, use of depth of field, lighting, camera angles, camera movement, filters among many other technical and artistic tools of the trade, to help the Director in telling the story.  This is a critical relationship.
  • Planning for the Production: The most critical collaborator of the Director during Pre-Production is the production team that the Producer puts at their disposal.  The production team treats the script (also called the Bible in many production cultures) as the ultimate document – this is what will help them prepare for the actual shooting of the film.  Anything and everything in the script has to be organized during pre-production.  Thus the production team leads the Pre-Production process and makes sure all logistics will work when the labor intensive and cash intensive phase of filmmaking (Production and Pre-Production) begin.  This effort at this stage is done to minimize lapses – that cost money – later.

The Director knows they can keep crafting in all other areas of filmmaking but if the logistics are not taken care of, they will not have material to craft with.  Thus they will work closely with the Line Producer.

  • Planning the Shoot: Finally, the Director has to plan how they will shoot the film.  Each scene needs to be broken down into how many shots it requires, what are the requirements of each shot, how each shot will be executed and how each shot will then add into other shots to tell the story.  At this point the Director needs their team of Assistants and also works closely with the production team to make the schedule for shooting that is created gives enough time to the Director to realize their vision of the story.


Production:  During the actual shoot of a film (the Production stage), also known as Principal Photography, the Director has to really come into their own.  Till now, they have been working with small groups of people individually (see above.)  When shooting a film, the Director has to be omnipresent and omniscient.

Of course the job of Director is primarily artistic.  But at this point they become people managers.  The Director (based on all the work that they have done in Pre-Production) will have to constantly communicate with each department about the vision of the story.  All heads of departments will look to the Director for clarifications.  The Director will now have to motivate a large crew (sometimes comprised of hundreds of people) to hew to one vision.

While working with a large crew and also sticking to a budget, the Director’s mettle is really tested.  Circumstances change, challenges come up and this is where the Director really needs to carry the day.  Day after day after day.  Thus, this is the phase where the Director has to make sure the whole crew is motivated every day and that they are putting in their 100%.

During Post Production, the Director turns into an artiste – as opposed to the people manager, team leader they were during Production.  This phase is where the films are really made.  The first event, Editing is most challenging for a Director.  The Director has just come off the dynamics of the set where they might have spent a lot of money getting a particular shot or there might have been an actor that bothered the Director (an actor that the Director might be tempted to cut out of their film even.)  This is where the Editor comes in.  The Editor – not having visited the sets – sees only what is within the frame lines.  They need to take the images and sounds, the Director and team have captured during Production to rewrite the story everyone has worked on for so long into cinema.  Cinema has its own language with its own grammar and syntax – which the Editor know best.  At this point the Director has to trust the Editor (as they have trusted the Screenwriter earlier) to create the best story.  Of course, the Director leads the process here also – but they absolutely need to treat their Editors as artistes as opposed to people who can make awesome cuts.

Finally, moving on to Sound Design, a Director has to be aware of how important sound is to Cinema.  Although it has been mentioned above that Cinema is primarily visual, sound today is critical to storytelling.  Not only does the Director have to have an understanding of Sound Design but also has to believe that the Sound Designer has the technical knowledge to make their film sound its best.

Thus, from the time the Director is hired to direct a film till the film is completed, a Director’s job is to get the best out of people.  Hence, the Director is considered a ‘Collaborator par Excellence’.

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