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28 October 2014

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Top tips from professional directors.

Directing top tips

We asked top radio and TV directors for their tips - here's what they said.
For film, directors Ed Fraiman and Brian Percival, who've recently directed adaptations of Shakespeare for the BBC, gave us their thoughts. For audio, we picked the brains of drama director Peter Kavanagh and sci-fi expert Nick Briggs.

Film - Ed Fraiman

Ed Fraiman recently directed an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, starring Johnny Vegas, Imelda Staunton and Bill Paterson, for the BBC. Other programmes he's directed include Murphy's Law, As If and The Bill.

As his top tip, he told us, "The most important thing is to think of the director as a storyteller. Everything you do should be about telling the story." But he had a bit more to say too.
Think carefully about casting. Avoid sterotypes - can you challenge people's assumptions? For example, could the boss of the company be younger than his or her employees? Or could the manager of a football team be a woman?
Working with actors
Give them support and encouragement. Remember it can be difficult to expose yourself in front of the camera.
"Make sure your actors don't overact."
Make sure your actors don't overact. They should be natural, as in real-life, and not over-the-top. Ask yourself, do you believe that their characters would act in this way? If the answer is yes, then it's a good performance.
What kind of style would help tell the story? There are different styles You could hold the camera in your hand, or you could use a tripod. Hand-held can be realistic, like a documentary, or perhaps scary, like The Blair Witch Project.
With a tripod, it's more stable, and the camera is less intrusive, so the audience can focus more on the characters than what the camera is doing.
Think about the lighting. Where is it coming from? Is it natural, like sunlight, moonlight, firelight or candlelight? Is it electric, from a lightbulb or a flourescent tube?
Would a particular sort of light help to tell the story? For example, candlelight could be romantic, moonlight could be magical or scary. Flourescent lighting is quite harsh and brutal.
Sound and music.
Sound is a very important tool for the director. It does not have to be realistic as long as it helps to tell the story. Things can be louder than in real life. For example, footsteps and breathing in a thriller could give you more tension.
"An exaggerated sound effect might bring out comedy."
Alarm bells ringing or a storm outside could be atmospheric, and reflect what's going on with the characters inside. Or an exaggerated sound effect might bring out comedy - someone getting bonked on the head could make a wooden sound.
And music is very useful for enhancing atmosphere, tension and helping drive the pictures forward.
Think about what locations you shoot in and why you've chosen them. You can surprise people's expectations and show that things aren't always what they appear to be. So the outside of a flat could be run down, but the inside of it is someone's home and maybe it's warm and cosy.
With costume, you might have someone who's quite poor, but maybe they put a lot of thought into what they're wearing and they're very tidy and groomed.
The most important thing about editing is that you're telling the story.
Sometimes there is a shot or even a scene which you particularly like as a director or the writer, but if it doesn't work, if it doesn't help tell the story, cut it. It's very difficult, but all the films that are great have been very well edited. Less is more.
Break the rules.
It's a really big note from me. If it helps tell the story, break the rules. So, use things like jump cuts. People don't always have to walk into a scene and then walk out again. If there's a way of doing it quicker with more energy, and that energy suits the style of the story - do it. Break the rules and be confident about it.
This is the most important tip of all. The director may be the captain of the ship, but he or she needs to work as part of a team. So listen to others. This is a creative exchange of ideas, and as a director you need to encourage this.
"It's one thing to be certain, but another to be right."

The final decision may be yours, but always listen to others. It is one thing to be certain but it is another to be right.

Film - Brian Percival

Brian has just directed an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Sarah Parish, Damien Lewis and Billie Piper, for the BBC. Other dramas he's directed include North and South and Clocking Off.

His top piece of advice is, "Always respect the audience, never patronise or imply that your own vision is too important to listen to others." But he also had the following to say.
Ask yourself, do I believe this story in the way I am telling it? Do I believe this character?
Shoot lots of cover (extra footage), its better to have the option to cut even if you decide not to use it.
Keep your cast happy, they’ll give more and it'll show on screen.
"Work together as a team."

Build up trust with them. Work together as a team, to realise your vision, it really doesn’t matter who comes up with an idea if it makes the film better.
The collective result of the finished film is more important than any one individual involved in making it.

Audio - Nick Briggs

Nick directs sci-fi comedy Nebulous, starring the League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss, for Radio 4. He's also directed masses of Doctor Who audio adventures, and is the voice of the Daleks. Here's what he had to say about the art of audio directing.
Nick's topmost tip
Always just listen to the actors when they're acting. Never look at them. It gives you a false impression of what their voice is doing, because you naturally get influenced by their facial expressions.
The most important thing to keep in mind.
Ask yourself, is the whole sense of the scene being conveyed through audio? Is the actor channelling their whole performance through their voice?

It is, for example, possible to convey a lot by just a look, and have an actor's voice almost completely unaffected.
"Ask yourself, is the whole sense of the scene being conveyed through audio?"
Someone could sounds very in control, but tears are in fact streaming down their face. But on audio, if you need to convey the crying, that has to be present in some way in the actor's voice.

Secondly, are the sound effects conveying a sense of the setting? I think it's best if a scene can work without any sound effects, but sometimes they're essential in setting the scene. But even when they're not, they help the listeners to transport themselves into the world of the play.
Getting the best performances
You need to make sure the performance is really honest and true to life, no matter how fantastical the situation might be.

I always find it works to give actors examples of situations they might have experienced themselves, that might help them to get closer to the 'reality' of the situation in a scene.

As a general rule of thumb with any kind of directing that you should be as encouraging as possible and never make the actor feel they are failing if you ask for a second or third take.
"It helps to make the actors laugh."
Always make it clear to them that you and they are on a journey together to get it as good as you can both make it. Rather than saying, "No good, let's do it again," I always say, "That's good, but I think we can do a better one."

It also helps to make the actors laugh now and again. Laughing loosens up the vocal chords and relaxes actors, so they're likely to worry less, and also give a vocally more interesting performance.

Beyond all that stuff, which you'd do for any kind of good directing, you have to talk to the actor about them channelling it all through their voice.
What you shouldn't do!
Some actors object horribly to being given a 'line reading', which is when you literally tell them, "Say it like this and you do the line exactly the way you want to hear it and expect the actor to reproduce it accurately. Many actors feel this robs them of their individuality and that it is insulting to their abilities.

But sometimes, a quick line reading is what an actor wants and needs. Some actors actually directly ask for it now and again.

What you must never do is brutally ridicule or criticise an actor. If you do that, you might as well all go home, because the fun and imagination is replaced by anger and fear... and that's when good acting stops. Always encourage. Never attack.
What makes a good director?
A good director makes the actor feel they're paying attention and picking up on everything. They should seem ahead of the game and able to help them actors with things they hadn't thought about, and also able to discuss a part freely and accept ideas from actors in an open way.

I often say to actors, "I don't care who's right, as long as one of us is". The best kind of director is one who balances being passionate about the work with humour.

If, as an actor, you feel you can laugh and enjoy yourself, but still feel confident that you're doing it well and that you're going to get the play finished on time, then I think that's an indication that you've got a good director.

Audio - Peter Kavanagh

Peter Kavanagh moved to radio from film because he thought the quality was better. He's had over a decade's experience directing for audio, has won many awards, and has worked with actors including Sophie Dahl and Ian MacDermott. Here are his tips.
Be encouraging.
You won't get a performance out of an actor if you're discouraging, bullying or hectoring.
"If you're discouraging to an actor, they'll think they've lost it."
You can give guidance, but if you're discouraging to an actor, they'll think they've lost it, and it's not worthwhile.

Just let them know they're doing fine, but could improve with a small change.
Be realistic about casting.
You work out what the character you're casting is, and look round for the person who's closest to that character. If you've got a part for a bully, you try and find someone who's got a voice that will fit that. You don't go to the thin wiry edgy person and hope you can get it from them.
Never lose your rag!
If you you get cross, if you bring it to the piece, that will get you nowhere. Actors will do their best. If they can't do better, that's to do with your casting, not their ability.
Plan your time
There's no point in spending hours and hours and hours on a scene if it means you've got to rush the rest of the scenes off in no time at all. That'll just cause misery. If you've got a lot of cast together in a scene, that takes a long time.
Know your play
So that if [the actors] ask you questions, you will know the answer. Having said that, none of us know everything, so it's better sometimes to be frank and say, "actually, that's a tricky one, that puzzled me too." Don't try to pull the wool over their eyes.

Shakespeare's plays, themes and characters


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