Directing and Production Tips

After more than 12 years as an independent film and video director, and three years teaching filmmaking techniques, I’ve learned some things about staying organized.

The less worry about the schedule, when lunch is being served, what the cast and crew are doing, etc., the more I can be creative. These tips will help you stay on track, and to avoid some of the many pitfalls a director can face, like losing creative control, a cast and crew mutiny and so forth. However, if you’re making simple little movies for YouTube, that are truly off-the-cuff, have fun and use this guide for your bigger productions.

Whether you’re writing it yourself or working with a writer, the script has to be locked and ready to go. Unlike major film, television and video productions that can just pour more cash in to solve the story problem, we don’t have that luxury. A half-baked script can cost you not only money, but cast and crew many not be willing to cut you a break if they don’t believe in it. 
Many first-time writers fall too in love with their dialogue, just like I have in the past.  There are dialogue-driven movies (Clerks, to name but one) and TV shows (Seinfeld, anyone?), but the norm is a mix of dialogue and action. If you have pages and pages of dialogue and monologues that could’ve been cut down to a sentence or two, you have written a play. Go into that field, then. Big chunks of lines can affect your cast, and if you don’t take care of it in the writing phase, your movie’s story may suffer if you try cutting it later. A page of script really does average out to about a minute of screen time.

I have been using Final Draft’s screenwriting software since 2000 and it’s the best, in my opinion. I learned how to write from Syd Field’s books, along with some college courses; I notice that a lot of colleges teach screenwriting, whether you’re majoring in film or creative writing, or not.

Scene from 9:04am
This is when you do your casting, hire your crew, organize and schedule the shoot, scout locations and so forth. On my film 9:04 AM, I had a longer-than-normal pre-production period, because the shoot was moved from June to October, 2006.  I was able to have plenty of rehearsals (you’ll be doing more directing with actors here than in production, based on my experience) and work out the story with my co-writer during that period.  Unfortunately, I lost a couple of actors who couldn’t commit to the new date, but picked up two excellent new ones. 

If you have the budget, get your first assistant director (1st AD) onboard as early as possible. He or she will help you with the scheduling and logistics. Speaking of scheduling, if you don’t know what scene you’re shooting at what time, and where, even on a one-day shoot, you’ll find your project falling apart fast. I recommend using Movie Magic’s Scheduling software  to help out with this, or Company Move. 

You can also do it by hand, by breaking down your script into eighths, and writing down how many pages a numbered scene is, the location (interior, exterior), time of day, cast, props, etc. Final Draft’s reports can make this easier. You can then schedule with Microsoft Office’s Excel or any spreadsheet program.

Now is the time to hire a proper crew. For a good shoot, you need at least a director, director of photography (DP, shoots the film), a line producer or production coordinator (helps hire crew and will run the set), a 1st AD (also helps run the set and works on scheduling; some will even write time codes down), a gaffer (for lighting), a key grip (to move lights, etc.), grips, a boom operator and sound mixer (can be one person), and production assistants (P.A.s, who can also act as grips). 

If you have a good budget, you’ll need to hire a make-up artist (who understands film, TV and video make-up, along with high definition production), an assistant camera (who handles slating, loading tapes, changing film, focusing, changing lenses, etc.), a script supervisor (continuity and time codes; the director’s best friend), an art director/production designer (to decorate sets so you’re not shooting blank walls) and many others. Visual effects, digital imaging technicians (DITs, help run the cameras) and others can sometimes be seen as a luxury and cost a lot more. 
 Stay cool, stay organized and have faith in your cast and crew.

One more thing, now is the time to go over the shots and the look with your DP, and to also choose a camera and format you or your editor can cut with. The camera doesn’t matter as much as your and the DP’s work on the visual aspect.  If you do storyboards, check out FrameForge 3D’s software offerings.

Lastly, make sure you know what your crew’s dietary needs are; I have learned that if you show up with a bunch of pizzas or other junk food too often, your cast and crew will grow tired of it fast. Same goes for chicken, etc. And always have a vegetarian-friendly salad or veggie burgers standing by. On most shoots, snacks and one meal at the halfway mark (usually at six hours if the movie is a 12-hour shoot) are all that’s needed.  If you go past the set day (again, 12 hours is the average), have dinner ready.

Stay cool, stay organized and have faith in your cast and crew. Much of your directing and the hard work were done during rehearsals and pre-production, so now is the time to realize your creative vision. Make sure there are plenty of healthy snacks, water (keep a marker handy to write everyone’s initials on the cap of the bottle), meals and more, especially if you have a lot of low-cost or free labor. 
Be flexible and open to suggestions, but don’t let anyone take over your film. If that happens, let the line producer talk to that cast or crew member. If they keep it up, or if anyone is out of line, be prepared to fire them. Better to do it early on, especially with a cast, before too much footage is shot and too much money has been spent. Get plenty of sleep and do NOT go out partying with the team, unless it’s the wrap party. You need to stay the boss, not “just one of the guys or girls” out for a drink. You’ll lose your authority. 

Again, don’t lose control, but don’t become a “dictator” director. There are three types of directors you can become (one who focuses on the performances, one who focuses on the look, and one who focuses on both), but you don’t need to become a “dictator.” As a line producer, I’ve seen it happen too many times, and soon enough, the cast and crew mutiny and the film falls apart. Also, if you aren’t organized, how can you be creative during production?

Perhaps one of the greatest assets for an independent filmmaker and video producer is Rick Schmidt’s seminal book, Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices. Though the focus is mostly on film-based projects, the advice Rick gives on making a film (or video production) from beginning to end is priceless. I’ve been referencing the book for over a decade.

Post Production
Ultimately, the non-linear edit (NLE) system doesn’t matter; no one will say, “Wow, that movie was great!  They must’ve used Final Cut Pro or Vegas.”  The tools are there to help make cutting the film or TV/video program easier and as painless as possible. Better make sure the NLE and you or your editor can handle whatever you shot your film on!

Since I’ve been an editor longer than a director and line producer, many people ask me for tips on cutting. All I can say, keep it simple, keep it short. Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye is the best book on editing. For software, check out Final Cut Studio , Sony Vegas ,  Premiere Pro, and Avid. There are obviously others, but I’ve used and abused each of those NLE applications, and was happy with the results.

Hopefully these tips will help you out with your next film, TV or video program when you first conceive the idea, all the way to the release. But the work doesn’t start there, now you have to market your film. My advice would be to check out Mark Stephen Bosko’s Movie Marketing Handbook to get some hard-earned advice.

Heath McKnight is a filmmaker and author in Wellington, Florida. He recently co-wrote, produced and directed the feature 9:04 AM, which was released in Spring 2007. The film was shot in HDV, which McKnight specializes in. He is co-author of "HDV: What You NEED to Know," Volume 2, with HDV guru Douglas Spotted Eagle and Mark Dileo. You can find out more about Heath at his website at and can be contacted at [email protected]