We have been discussing general approaches to becoming a better-rounded film director, and now let’s talk about the types of dynamics that must be built and maintained on a set to achieve a positive and productive environment.
As stated in previous entries, the support staff can make or break a director (and a director can ruin or catapult their hard work in return). While every member of the crew is a precious asset, the department heads are your generals and will largely determine how mobile/agile and successful your production will be. The main question is how to select the right candidate, provided you have that luxury.
The 1st Assistant Director
Traditionally a role that all aspiring directors had to occupy (especially in the Japanese system), this is perhaps the most vital person to a film director on set. Part executor, part negotiator, part guardian angel, part administrator, the AD is a multi-faceted person that must juggle several duties.
Apart from the paperwork, phone calls, scheduling, the AD enjoys a role very similar to that of a diplomatic taskmaster. He/she must immediately earn the trust and respect of the entire crew, but never become cozy with them. He/she has to field the many questions and logistics that the director cannot afford to get mixed up in, and also keep track of crucial time limitations, location safety, and sometimes mediating disputes or production traffic jams.
The ideal candidate is an individual with maturity (above all). A person who is both calm and assertive in a manner that is never personal but that immediately calls to attention. Many AD’s are often selected on their ability to run around and intimidate the crew into staying the course, this is a very short-sighted and destructive style of management that may hurt the production significantly. Loud and abrasive is not professional, it smacks of insecurity and poor people skills.
The archetype you want is the airline pilot or bank manager, a person who must shoulder great responsibility, and can do it well, but always communicates in a measured, concise, and respectful tone that inspires people to stay focussed and do their best on the job.
This individual should be especially effective at keeping the director on target, and know when to step in and take charge if necessary. In turn the director must publicly anoint this person as their commander-and-chief from Day 1, and make it clear to the crew that their word is law on the set. There must be an implicit trust and complicity between you and your AD; this person in your agent in the field and can help you get the best work out of the cast and crew.
The Director of Photography
Few roles are as misunderstood in filmmaking as that of the cinematographer (yes, it’s the same thing as a DoP). This is a position that eludes sometimes even members of the cast and crew. The reason for this is simple; it is a very technical job that must be executed by a creative type, and as such this individual needs a tremendous amount of focus, concentration, and time. (We will look at a more complete portrait in a future post).
The ideal candidate is clearly someone who does their homework on a technical level, but also someone who is receptive and collaborative in nature. Much of the planning and strategy regarding the look of the film should be done by the time you step on set, so at that juncture you want a person who will follow-through on the agreed-upon approach, while also being flexible and open to the spontaneous needs/opportunities that will likely arise during your production.
You have to remember that you are dealing with an individual who must create artistic images and paint with light to achieve a credible, atmospheric look that provokes emotion and tells a story. They have to conceive something natural using complex artificial tools that take time to set up, are extremely delicate, and need constant adjustment.
Personalities will vary, but your ideal DoP is someone who’s respect you have already hopefully earned during pre-prod, and who in turn understands the needs of the production as much as the vision that you are trying to bring into reality. Cinematographers are thinkers, contemplators. You must give them their space to consider and execute the plan, but they should also stand with you shoulder-to-shoulder when tough decisions have to be made. The archetype is the trustworthy engineer or architect.
To be concluded.