Lights ... Camera ... Action!
August 2, 2016
Who doesn't love watching movies? Watching a movie, for me, is pure escapism. I get drawn in by the multi-dimensional characters and quickly lost in the intricacies of the narrative. I am moved by powerful stories and movies are just that. I try to find time to watch at least one movie each weekend. As a result, I have always been curious about the relationship between a director and the actors. It seems like it could be, at times, a very tense difficult relationship to navigate. The director has his script full of complex characters that they need the actors to portray convincingly with unwavering detail. It is here where I imagine the colliding of interpretations occurs; the director's initial vision for the character is likely to be slightly different from the way the actor sees it. This happens whenever we add others into the creative process; things begin to morph as other people inject their experience, thoughts and ideals. It is this collaboration that ultimately makes for a better end product. The great directors understand the delicate line they walk; too much direction and control and the actor can't completely invest themselves for fear of not delivering. Likewise if a director gives vague and unclear direction the actor is likely to not deliver closely enough on the Director's intended vision. A great director guides an actor but doesn't stifle the freedom they need to perform. When the synchronicity works between director and actor they are able to create real to life characters and magical stories.
As I have explored more about the making of movies and visited movie sets, I have been amused by the similarities between a movie director and radio programmer. Both are tasked with mobilizing a team to tell a compelling story; both must set an overall direction, establish a context and provide ongoing feedback to those in the production. Both are the stewards of the plot and it is their job to keep the story on course.
Directors know the importance of giving feedback to their cast and crew. In the movies, Directors give 'notes.' Notes are instructions from a Director given to shape the movie. Visiting a set recently I got to watch a great director at work and in particular, I was paying attention to how they gave 'notes.'
Director's notes are a mix of both positive comments and improvements. The role of the director's notes is to help ensure that the story is told in the intended way. Positive comments are used to help those on the set understand what they need to keep doing - what is working - which is particularly important as they shoot a scene multiple times. Directors know that positivity works. Not because actors all have huge egos that need to be massaged, but because when we know what we are doing well, we can easily do more of it. It is easier for us to build on a positive than to try to stop repeating something we are doing wrong. When giving notes, directors will often start by highlighting something that is working. The positive gives the actor something to lean into. This positive approach doesn't mean the director isn't suggesting or asking for improvements. They just know that actors can be defeated by nothing but corrective instructions.
Whenever the word 'cut' echoed around the set, the director was out of his seat heading in the direction of the actors. The Director offered immediate feedback on what he had just witnessed. He started his notes with an acknowledgment of what he had just seen before he gave instructions on what he would like to see in the next take. As the Director gave a rundown of what he had just seen, I realized it was like he was holding up a mirror to the actors and explaining to them how their performance had landed. This mirroring helped the actors to understand how they were presenting themselves to the audience. It was that understanding that gave context for the note the Director then offered to them. Feedback is meaningless if you don't first put it into context.
It is amazing how many people work on one production. A set is buzzing with lots of hurried looking people. Everyone seems to be working at an alarmingly fast pace. There are a multitude of things all occurring at once. The magnitude of a director's responsibility could easily be overwhelming. It's essential for the director to get the entire cast and crew on the same page (quite literally at times!). It would be easy for the vision to get clouded with the busyness of the set. A great director is constantly resetting the vision for the movie and explaining how each scene moves the story forward. They share their vision and their expectations with everyone, constantly. They answer questions continually. They are consistent in their answers. They ensure everyone understands what's expected of them and each other. The only way this movie is getting completed on time and in the way intended is if the director can pull it altogether. The notes they give always honor the overall vision.
A director isn't afraid to change their approach. Sometimes things just don't appear to be right. The scene just isn't working. This can be a frustrating moment, for everyone, on set. A great director won't let these moments grind the production to a halt. They know it's their responsibility to find a way forward. They think about the notes they are giving the actor; they consider how they may communicate the note with more clarity and contemplate other ways of offering the intended instruction. Sometimes the director will choose to offer a new note and simply abandon the previous one that caused the actor to become stuck. The important thing is that the director knows it's their responsibility to get the scene right. It is their responsibility to help the actor move forward. They are charged with finding a way. It is no one else's responsibility, it is soley theirs.
A director makes time for their actors. The director knows that their relationship with the actor should be built on a foundation of collaboration. They work with the actor. They frequently check in with the actor asking for their input on what is and isn't working for them. The director respects that actors have an intimate sense of their own work and that when actors are allowed to share their thoughts without fear of rejection or judgement they can offer a perspective the director may fail to see on their own.
A director's overall role is to give notes to those working on a production. Directors don't think that 'if I give the wrong kind of note I could 'kill' their performance.' Instead they know it's the most important thing they do during the filmmaking process. They make the time to observe and provide notes. They delegate almost everything else in order to witness performance and provide notes. Nothing is more important. They need to experience their story so they can guide it to conclusion.
The parallels between what's happening on a movie set and in a radio station are unmistakable. It's inspirational to see the emphasis put on continuous feedback in order to deliver the best product. There is an expectation from the whole team that feedback will be given -- it's thoroughly embedded in the process. Sadly, in radio this seems to sometimes not be the case. Maybe it's a lack of delegation, confidence or maybe even resources that gets in our way. Having witnessed how important feedback is to making a 2 hour piece of entertainment, I would urge us to make it more of a priority for those of us trying to make 24/7 entertainment. It's worth noting that feedback is an expectation in filmmaking and actors welcome and want to receive feedback. In radio it all too often feels that talent are reluctant to receive notes and at times even dismissive of the feedback they receive. If Tom Hanks and Leonardo Di Caprio expect and welcome notes then maybe some of our talent needs to rethink their grandiose positions on the matter.
For those programmers wanting to give effective 'notes' to their team, here are the key things to remember:
- Give feedback often; make it part of your everyday.
- Offer thoughts as close to the point of performance as you can. Be timely.
- Positive feedback is essential. Notes must be a mix of positive reinforcement and instruction.
- Communicate the vision. Help people understand what you are trying to achieve.
- Be consistent with your vision. Communicate all the time.
- Change your approach. Alter your tactics. It's your job to help the talent see the possibilities.
- Involve the talent. Ask for their input, perspective and help. Create together.
- Make sure observing the product and giving feedback get your highest priority.
We can all become better PDs if we embrace the director part of our job titles. Are you ready? Lights... Camera... Action!