paul skidmore andparabolos

cinematic storytelling, strategy, and advice

conducting a film

many people have long compared film to music, primarily to the symphony. i am too lazy today to research and find specific quotes and sources, so i’ll just assume you’ve heard the same and agree with it and work from there.

because of the staggering similarities in the emotional, compressed, symbolic nature of symphony and cinema, i often first approach my directorial vision as if it were a blank musical score… empty staff lines waiting for storyboards and overheads to unfold.  my script is like the poetic lyrics, and the visual music i will compose must convey the deepest intended meanings and nuances of the lyricist.

being a director is all about making choices.  so many directors waste their time with making decisions about wardrobe and picture cars and what font that sign is going to be in, then turn around and do boring stock coverage on a scene, or worse, do some really cool-looking shot that means absolutely nothing.  now, my fellow producers, ADs, DPs, and production desginers will be the first to tell you that i’m constantly meddling with wardrobe choices, picture cars, and sign fonts.  my point is not that a director need not concern himself with those things, but rather that if a director has not done the homework on the deeper stuff first, he cannot possibly make informed, correct decisions about colors, makes, and typography.

so the first thing i do is separate the script into movements.  with a short, the movements will likely be largely based on three-act structure, perhaps a little more divided or defined. with a longer film, there will be many more movements; the three-act structure is almost separate opuses (…opi? oppossum? i’m sure that’s it).

however many movements there are, they are signified by the completion of an arc, a large sweeping musical phrase, if you will. often the resolution of this arc will be something that forces the beginning of an entirely new arc (think end of act i, beginning of the climactic episode of act iii). it must be considered broadly and will likely be present in some way in every scene of the movement. once that is defined, then the director can start to ask questions about it’s development in each scene: what conflict does this create? how does it affect each character, etc.

at that point, a director can start making informed decisions about what shots are going to best present the story and show relationships appropriately.  for me, this is really the only way i can get a sense of the big directorial picture when approaching the material.  it’s often too big to swallow all at once, and sketching it out in this way makes it more manageable.  some people will say that selecting shots should be intuitive, and it should be to some degree.  but i’ve never met anyone who didn’t benefit from analyzing why they do or want something, then improving upon it based on that new-found understanding.  and that’s not just a directorial lesson.

so that’s what i do.  what do you do that seems to help you navigate the big picture? how do you then break it into smaller, more manageable bites?  i’m eager to learn from all of you, and i hope you’ve learned at least one thing by reading this.  i will do more posts about my directorial process in the future.

to exemplify the movements process, i have included below the first page from my movements sketch of Sleepwalking, the short film on which we just finished principal photography.  it is my goal to provide as many real examples of things as i am able.  it’s likely to not mean as much to anyone else as it does to me, given a sort of short-hand nature, but the basic breakdown is this:

  1. the movements are the larger structural pieces
  2. the smaller scene groupings are like broad musical phrases
  3. the first line under the scene heading is what literally happens in the scene, script-wise
  4. the italicized line uses musical verbage to describe what is emotionally and structurally happening in that section, or what should be accomplished.
  5. the indented line following contains the specifics of how i plan on achieving that feeling and structure.

i’ll be the first to say that i didn’t achieve everything i wanted due to hundreds of factors, but having done this homework helped me make decisions on the fly on set.  i made them for good reasons and with confidence that it would work with the rest of the film.  it’s also been helpful for my editor thus far.  i shared the entire document with the key crew; i feel that the more your crew knows what’s going on in your head as a director, the more closely their work can reach toward your vision.  hopefully, they’d agree.

Sleepwalking - movements, p1

Sleepwalking - movements, p1


skidmore | administrator

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