The 7-Step Film Directing Formula

by Peter D Marshall

“There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins! And the cardinal sin is dullness.” Frank Capra

As a filmmaker, I’ve been working professionally in the film and TV business for over 40 years, primarily as a Director and a 1st AD.

During that time, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of productions: industrial films, educational films, documentaries, commercials, music videos, short films, episodic TV shows, TV movies, TV pilots, indie films and Hollywood features.

I’ve worked with dozens of good directors and not-so-good directors – as well as hundred’s of good actors and not-so-good actors.

I’ve read hundred’s of film scripts: some of which were so terrible I couldn’t get past the first 10 pages – to scripts that hooked me from page 1 and went on to win Academy Awards.

As a film directing instructor at the Vancouver Film School for over 6 years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach and mentor hundreds of film students as they write, prep and shoot their own short films.

And as a film directing coach, I’ve spend countless hours mentoring filmmakers from around the world – showing them how to conduct proper script analysis to helping them understand the techniques of working with actors on the set.

I believe that all the years I’ve spent in the “film production trenches” has given me a unique insight into finding an answer to the question: “Is there a formula, or guide, or check-list, that film directors anywhere in the world can follow, that will help them make a successful film?

(My definition of a good dramatic film (or a documentary) is “The art of visually telling a compelling story with believable characters who make us feel something.”)

Now we all know there is no 100% guarantee of anything being successful in our business, but I believe I have found a basic “formula” that any filmmaker can use as a guide to help them create “compelling movies with believable characters.”

In my opinion, most inexperienced, (or experienced but lazy) film directors spend the majority of their time figuring out how to shoot the film first (cool visual effects, creative shots and camera angles etc.) before they understand a) what the story is about and b) what the characters really want.

So I’m going to be bold here and state publicly that this is the wrong way to direct a film!

Why? Because I strongly believe that to successfully direct a “visually compelling story with believable characters”, you need to first understand and follow this “7-Step Film Directing Formula.”

STEP 1: THE STUDY OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR

(1) What do I mean by the study of human behavior?

“Human nature is the concept that there is a set of inherent distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have.”

Human behavior (or how we act) is based on different factors in our lives, such as our attitudes, character traits, social norms and core faith.

1. Human behavior is greatly influenced by the attitudes we use on a daily basis that reflect the behavior we will portray in specific situations.

2. Human behavior is impacted by individual traits (genetics) that vary from person to person that can produce different actions or behavior from each person.

3. Human behavior is greatly influenced by social norms, the rules that govern behavior in groups and societies, which conditions the way people behave.

4. Human behavior is also affected by each individual’s core faith (religion and philosophy) that results in different human behaviors.

(2) As writers, directors and actors, we are all artists – and as artists, we must observe and report on our version of the human condition. Therefore, as artists, we must understand human emotions and feelings so we know:

1. What makes us tick?
2. Why do we do certain things?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you will have a better idea of how the characters in your script should interact with each other, as well as having the proper “psychological tools” to direct actors on the set. (re: motivation!)

The good thing about human behavior is that it is observable, and as storytellers, we must first observe the way people react to different situations and circumstances in order to understand “How and Why” their behavior changes.

As a film director, you must be a “witness” to human behavior. You need to get into the habit of observing people going about their daily lives, so you can find out what motivates them to take action.

Once you know what motivates a person to achieve their daily needs, you will have the knowledge to better understand the story you are telling, and you will feel more confident helping your actors achieve believable performances.

STEP 2: STORY

(1) The Classic Three Act Structure

Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist and writer, used the term “The Hero’s Journey” to refer to a basic, universal pattern found in stories from around the world.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell’s “hero’s journey” model is also used in modern storytelling and divides a fictional narrative into a 3-act structure: the Setup; the Confrontation; the Resolution.

ACT ONE   (Set Up)

EXAMPLE: “Boy meets girl”

1. What is the story plot and the story theme?
2. What is the “dramatic question”to be answered?
3. Who is the main character and what are their needs and goals?

ACT TWO   (Confrontation)

EXAMPLE: “Boy loses girl and fights against impossible odds to get her back”

1. What is the dramatic “rising” action?
2. What are the obstacles in the main character’s way?
3. How does the main character overcome each obstacle?

ACT THREE   (Resolution)

EXAMPLE: Boy gets girl an lives happily ever after”

1. How does the story end?
2. What happens to the main character?
3. Is the dramatic question answered?

(2) The Director and the Story

There are many facets of a Director’s prep on any film or TV show, but the first, and most important part of your job, is to understand every detail about the story: where it takes place; who the characters are; and what happens to them.

When you first read a script, here are some of the many questions you will need to answer to help identify and solve potential script problems:

a. What is the story about?
b. Does the story make sense?
c. What problem is to be resolved?
d. What event hooks the audience?
e. What is the plot? (the action)
f. What is the subplot? (the theme)

Understanding the story requires a lot of work on your part because you then need to dig deeper into the story and it’s structure by analyzing each individual scene in the script to find out what the story is about, what works and what doesn’t.

And you do this by asking questions like:

a. What is the intention of the scene?
b. What are the story points?
c. Where are the scene beats?
d. Where is the climax?
e. What is the resolution?
f. What are the important lines of dialogue?

Remember, your script analysis will be a never-ending process. Each time you read the script, you will find something else you didn’t know about the story or the characters.

And the script will also constantly evolve. It will change because of your creative notes, writer changes, actor changes, producer changes, studio changes and location availability. But as long as you know what the story is about, and where the story is going, you will be able to adjust to all the changes.

STEP 3: PERFORMANCE

(1) I believe that almost everything you need to know about directing actors can be explained in these three words:

MOTIVE DETERMINES BEHAVIOR

When we break these words down, we see that:

MOTIVE (Our inner world)
DETERMINES (Controls)
BEHAVIOR (Our outer world)

And if we break them down even further, we see that:

What our needs are (MOTIVE)
Will decide (DETERMINES)
What actions we take to fulfill our needs (BEHAVIOR)

And if we break this down into Text and Subtext:

MOTIVE (The Character Subtext)
DETERMINES (Will decide how an actor plays)
BEHAVIOR (The Script Text)

(2) One of the main responsibilities of a Director is to help actors achieve a realistic performance, and a good director does this by “listening for the truth” and by asking:

a. Do I believe them?
b. Do the words make sense?
c. Are the characters believable?

And the key to getting a realistic performance from an actor, is by first understanding the character’s objectives – what the character wants in a scene.

How to choose objectives:

a. Ask yourself “What does the character want in this situation?”
b. A character’s objective should create obstacles for the character.
c. Look at what the character does (his behavior) rather than what he says.
d. Look at what happens in the scene, and how it ends.

(3) On the set, actors want to work with directors who understand their vulnerability, so it’s incredibly important to create a good relationship with every actor on your film.

And what do actors want more than anything from this relationship with the director? TRUST!

Actors begin by trusting the director – and it’s the director’s trust to lose. If actors feel they cannot trust the director to know a good performance from a bad performance, they will begin to monitor their own performances and start to direct themselves. They will become “Director Proof!”

Remember, to find the character they are playing, actors must surrender completely to feelings and impulses, and a good director understands an actor’s vulnerability and creates a safe place for them to perform.

STEP 4: THE PRINCIPLES OF MONTAGE

Film editing is the only art that is unique to cinema and it separates filmmaking from all other art forms (such as photography, theater, dance and writing.)

One of the key elements of being a good director is to understand the “principles of montage” which is a film editing technique where shots (images) are juxtaposed to tell a story.

In 1918, a Russian filmmaker called Lev Kuleshov conducted an experiment where he shot and edited a short film in which the face of a famous Russian matinee idol was intercut with three other shots: a plate of soup; a girl playing ball; an old woman in a coffin.

And Kuleshov made sure that the shot of the actor was identical (and expressionless) every time he cut back to him.

The film was then shown to audiences who totally believed that the expression on the actor’s face was different each time he appeared – depending on whether he was “looking at” the plate of soup, the little girl, or the old woman’s coffin; showing an expression of hunger, happiness or grief respectively.

So what does this experiment tell us?

By carefully using the principles of montage (the juxtaposition of images to tell a story,) filmmakers are able to produce certain emotions from the audience (laughter, fear, crying, shock) by manipulating an actor’s performance.

Understanding how to use Montage is also essential for every filmmaker because it’s not just about the scene you are filming now – you also need to think about the scenes that come before and after. In other words, you need to think about the transitions between the scenes.

As a film director, understanding the principles of montage will help you: to create a more visual script; to decide your camera placement; to block your scenes; and to get layered performances from actors.

STEP 5: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CAMERA

What I mean by the “Psychology of the Camera” are the visual meanings of shots and angles. In other words, where you put the camera can either enhance or detract the audience’s understanding of what the scene is really about, and what the characters are feeling.

Audiences will assume that every shot or word of dialogue in a film is there to further the central idea, therefore, each shot you use should contribute to the story or the idea you are trying to convey.

Since viewer emotion is the ultimate goal of each scene, where you place the camera involves knowing what emotion you want the audience to experience at any given moment in the scene.

So as a director, when you are planning your shots, you want to ask yourself: “What do I want the audience to feel at this particular moment?”

For example: Here are six camera choices a director can use to enhance viewer emotion:

1. The Lens

Lenses expand or compress space, so when you choose a lens, you are choosing the “space” a shot takes place in. So before you choose a lens for your shot, ask yourself: “How intimate do I want to be with the character and how do I represent that visually?”

2. Depth

The illusion of depth is a part of visual storytelling. To get this illusion of depth in a 2 dimensional medium you want to block your scenes with an eye for depth. In other words, you want to arrange your shots in 3 layers or planes: Foreground, Midground and Background.

3. Focus

One of the main jobs of a director is to direct the attention of the audience while telling a visual story. So where you place the focus in a shot is determined by what is important in the frame.

4. Angle

The distance from a character’s eyeline affects the identification of the character with the audience. For example: there are three angles of view for the camera:

a. Objective: The audience point of view. (Camera is placed outside the action.)
b. Subjective: The camera acts as the viewer’s eyes. (Camera is placed inside the action.)
c. Point of View: What the character is seeing. (Camera is the action.)

5. Frame

Because composition makes an emotional statement, the framing, emotion and meaning of the composition comes from detailed script analysis by the director. In other words, before framing the shot, he needs to know “What is the shot about?”

6. Motion

Motion can apply to screen direction. If we use North American conventions (or the way any map is drawn with South at the bottom) if someone is traveling from New York to London, they will be traveling from “Left to Right.”

Motion is also about camera movement. So ask yourself: “Why is the camera moving?” Is it to follow the action; to reveal information; to re-position for a better frame?

STEP 6: BASIC BLOCKING AND STAGING TECHNIQUES

“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Martin Scorsese

Blocking is simply the relationship of the camera to the actors. Essentially, it is the physical movement of the actors relative to the position of the camera.

However, when a director starts to plan the blocking of a film scene, he is thinking not only about his shots and camera positions, but he also needs to take into consideration other items affecting the scene such as lighting, window placement, vehicle movement, extras, stunts, special effects and of course, time and budget.

Because viewer emotion is the ultimate goal of each scene, where you place the camera involves knowing what emotion you want the audience to experience at any given moment – and that is determined by:

a) What’s important in the scene;
b) What the scene about (scene objective);
c) What the characters want (character objectives.)

As a director, your job is to reveal a character’s thoughts or emotions through actions -because actions reveal more of a character than dialogue. (Think Real Life!) Actor movement must have a precise purpose and goal, and a director needs to make sure that every move actors make has to have a specific purpose.

Your blocking choices can either enhance or detract the audience’s understanding of what the scene is really about and what the characters are feeling. So when blocking actors for movement and for the camera, you want to drive the blocking emotionally so no actor movement is done aimlessly.

You accomplish this by determining:

Why the actor moves
Where the actor moves
When the actor moves
How the actor moves

Audiences will assume that every shot or word of dialogue in a film is there to further the central idea. Therefore, each shot you use should contribute to the story or the idea you are trying to convey.

Remember, there is never one interpretation of how a scene should be blocked. Blocking is like a puzzle – keep working at it until the whole scene falls into place.

STEP 7: CINEMATICS

The dictionary defines Cinematics as “the art or principles of making motion pictures.” For the purpose of this article, I define Cinematics as “everything else it takes to make a movie!” (Locations, Sound, Cinematography, Set Dressing, Props, Visual FX, Costumes, Stunts…)

Yes, I know I’m putting the majority of the filmmaking process into one category, but without understanding the first 6 steps of this formula, you are setting yourself up for “Filmmaker Mediocrity”: writing unimaginative scripts with unbelievable characters that create predictable films.

To be a good film director, you need to know what is expected of you when you begin pre-production; when you step on the set; and when you are in the editing room.

And to do this successfully, you must:

1. Have complete confidence in yourself and faith in your talent and ability
2. Have the courage and tenacity to stick it out “no matter what”
3. Have a relentless focus on what is possible rather than what is not possible
4. Never stop searching for your unique voice, style and expression
5. Stay true to yourself: it will guide you to the right people and the right choices

From what I have witnessed over the past 40 years, I believe that if you follow this 7-step film directing formula, you will see how any director, even someone with very little experience, could create a visually, compelling movie with believable characters.

We must always remember that filmmaking is a universal language – and no matter where we live in the world, we all have our own stories to tell.

So if you have a compelling story built upon Universal Themes, you should be able to tell this story, in your own language, and audiences around the world will watch it.

It’s your choice!

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