The Hardest Job in Television #360


Riddle:
When I do my job well, no one can tell.
When something goes wrong, the blame will belong
To me.
What Am I?

Answer: The Director

Photo and riddle by M. Daniels


While I was pursuing a theater career, I did quite a bit of directing. No matter what kind of theater I worked in—NYC or regional, professional or amateur—one thing seemed universally true throughout: If anything goes wrong, bad performances, ill-fitting costumes, ugly sets, power outages, even if the guy on the pin rail falls asleep and misses a fly cue, the blame will always be attributed to the director.

If the lights aren’t hung in time for tech rehearsal, director’s fault; if royalties are not secured, director’s fault; if a castor on a rolling platform gets stuck, director’s fault; if the publicity person misspells the name of the play, director’s fault.

From what I have read, seen and experienced in film and video, the same holds true: the buck stops with the director.

For all the blame directors takes on, you would think their work would be highly honored and acclaimed when things go swimmingly, but, sadly, especially with a successful production, a good director’s work remains invisible. If the blocking looks completely natural, actors get the credit; If camera shots flow seamlessly in a continuous narrative, the DP or camera operator takes the bow. If everything runs smoothly and on time, kudos to the producer.  Successful directing leaves no fingerprints.

Yet in my experience and according to my Studio Production text book, the director is ultimately responsible for everything: riding herd on all members of the production team: the producer, the talent, the floor manager and the designers in all three phases of the project: pre-production, production and post.  This makes directing a very consuming and stressful occupation.

In the live theater, once a show begins its run, the best place for the director to be is high up in the second balcony strapped to the seat with a strip of duck tape across her mouth. Once the lights come up on opening night, the show is out of the director’s hands, except for a post-show “notes” session. Hopefully she has done her job well, allowing her to relax and enjoy the performance (pure fantasy, that). Still, short of nail-biting and hand-wringing, a theater director’s job ends when the curtain rises.

A video director’s duties in preproduction–process message, preparing for the shoot, script-marking and such–are very like those a theater director would perform during the rehearsal process, but there the similarities end.  During a video shoot, the production phase, according to Herbert Zettl in the Television Production Handbook, the video director plays all of the following roles:

  • Artist-producing picture and sound that conveys the process message or “calling the shots.”
  • Psychologist-setting the group goal, knowing your team, cajoling them into working for you, correcting them, with just the right tone, when they come up short, and making the talent feel warm, fuzzy and safe.
  • Technical Advisor-Communicating your goal and various instructions to the tech crew, going behind everyone to make sure they are doing their job without appearing to do so.
  • Coordinator-Bringing together all aspects of the production to work together so as to achieve the chosen process message, including the crew, the talent, producers and writers. (1)

For the video director the actual taping is probably the most stressful phase of the production process—at least in my limited experience. In the control room, calling camera positions, optimizing the audio and visual quality, communication to the switcher, and generally riding herd on the floor manager, the talent, the lighting, audio and camera operators are all tasks that fall to the director. She needs a sharp, facile mind to stay on top of everything, nerves of steel to sculpt the look and sound of the show on the fly and a very special kind of temperament.

From experience I know that directing in the theater requires a great deal of energy, time, talent, self-control and perseverance. Directing in video and film require all of that plus the nerves, knowledge, experience and the ability to create in the moment, while the cameras are running. I frankly find being an on-camera, solo performer way less stressful than being the director in the control room during the production phase.

I am glad to have experienced directing in a live taped video session; having done so, I am delighted to stay with performing and writing.

SOURCES:

  1. Zettl, Herbert; Television Production Handbook, San Francisco State University, Twelfth Edision; 2015: Pages 348-9
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