For the longest time, I had no idea what the Director of a movie actually does.
Think about it. He doesn’t come up with the story (that’s the Screenwriter). He doesn’t operate the camera (that’s the Director of Photography or one of his crew). He doesn’t go into the raw footage and edit himself (that’s the Editor). He doesn’t hold the boom mic (that’s the guy that holds the boom mic). Sure, in some cases, the Director is the screenwriter, or the DP, or the editor, but typically, he delegates the majority of these tasks.
So what DOES he do? And why does he get all the credit when the film wins awards? Why does he take the fall when it flops?
The answer, it turns out, is because he or she is actually the most important person on set.
The Importance of Singular Vision
I don’t think it’s something you can fully understand until you’ve worked in a creative field, which is probably why there’s so much confusion in the world about what Directors do, but the importance of a rock solid, singular vision in art and media cannot be overstated.
Without a Director, a film production would be chaos. Even with a long, detailed script to work from, there’s massive room for interpretation.
Imagine two characters talking in a living room. How big is the room? What furniture does it hold? What color are the walls? Are the actors yelling or whispering? Is there music or is it nearly silent? And most importantly, how do these seemingly irrelevant details come together to tell a cohesive story?
It’s the Director’s job to answer these questions.
Bringing a story from script to screen is an enormous undertaking, and it takes someone who can visualize the final product with clarity. Without a Director, there’d be no cohesion between the visual style of the film and the soundtrack. There’d be no one controlling tone, mood, and aesthetic.
You could still make a movie without a Director, but would it be a story worth telling?
The Art of Marketing
Don’t get me wrong; collaboration is a beautiful thing. But what makes the teamwork that occurs on a movie set effective is everyone’s combined effort to reach a shared goal – a goal defined, in large part, by one person.
It may sound crass, but that’s the thing. Art is special precisely BECAUSE it represents one person’s vision. Like-minded people will love it. Others may hate it. But it evokes a reaction, a response. It represents a very specific way of seeing the world. That’s what art does.
Marketing, however, isn’t art. At least, it’s often not. But it should behave in a similar way. It should reflect a very specific message or worldview. It shouldn’t be a happy melting pot of everyone’s thoughts and ideas. It shouldn’t be a school project. It shouldn’t be a democracy.
So while we may create written content, shareable illustrations, and eye-catching websites rather than films, we can learn a lot from the way Hollywood operates.
Sure, some projects just need a quick design whipped up for visual flare. And some projects just need a writer to take the reins and own the finished product. But many projects require collaboration between multiple writers, designers, and other marketing specialists.
And when there’s collaboration, there has to be a vision.
Someone needs to have a plan. And it’s not just about having the final say, it’s about creating a roadmap to get from idea to finished product. It’s about understanding the goals of the project and properly communicating them to the specialists so they can do their jobs well.
The great thing about this model is that there’s still plenty of room for everyone to contribute ideas. Let’s revisit the film set to see how.
Though a screenwriter typically writes every bit of dialogue, actors improvise their lines all the time. And a good chunk of the time, they end up improving on the original script.
It may seem random and unpredictable, but it’s actually controlled chaos. This works because there’s a steady and consistent framework to operate inside of. This allows the actor to understand the character, understand the tone of the film, understand the context, and craft a better line that fits the Director’s vision. If the entire cast and crew were making decisions independently of this shared goal throughout the production, the results would no longer be controlled. They’d just be chaos.
Having a vision for the finished product in our line of work doesn’t mean micromanaging every word of copy or every pixel of a design. Just like the Director doesn’t tell his Sound Designer which mic to use or where to stand on the set. It’s about creating a set of guidelines that helps the team create work that will elicit the desired response in the end user.
Putting Vision into Action
If you’re a day-to-day team member, someone who’s in the trenches knocking out deliverables, make a point to seek out the person who’s calling the shots. It can be tempting to hole yourself away and do the work the way you see fit, but it’s better for the project if you resist the urge. And it’s better for you.
Autonomy feels great at first. Believe me, I know. Knowing you’re free to work on your part of a project without anyone micromanaging, without anyone hovering over your shoulder, can be thrilling. But when it comes time to show your work off for approval, that’s when you’ll inevitably start to get nervous. You’ll realize you never really had any direction and you’re unsure what kind of response you’re going to get.
You know how they say if you have no idea how well you did on a test, you probably didn’t do great? It’s the same way with your work. If you have no idea how your boss or supervisor is going to react, there’s a good chance you didn’t really understand the assignment and the project goals. If you really nailed it, you should know.
And if you’re a Creative Director or a Project Lead or someone similar, make sure you’re giving clear direction on what you expect from your team, particularly on collaborative projects. Remember that it’s not so much about micromanaging as it is clearly communicating what the final product should look like, what it should feel like, and how it should function.
But be prepared to get your hands dirty. The thing about having vision is that it’s inherently unique to you, and despite your best efforts, not everyone is going to be able to see or execute it. There’s a reason the Director is the hardest working person on set in addition to being the most important. If you need to jump in and write copy, tweak design, or make tactical adjustments, do it.
At the end of the day, someone has to be able to stand behind the entire project. Not just its success, but its failure, too. And not just one aspect of the project. Not just the writing, or the development, or the optimization. The whole thing.
If you’re the one with the vision for the finished product, that responsibility falls to you.
Don’t take it lightly.