In the business of film production, the designation of "director" is a somewhat enigmatic title. Comparatively speaking, most of the other principal creative personnel involved in filmmaking hold titles that give a fairly clear indication of their professional responsibilities. Generally, one individual is responsible for overseeing the labor that is relevant to a single facet of production, whether it be cinematography, writing, editing, music, sound, production design, or costumes. With the notable exception of the producer, however, the range of the director's tasks is quite broad, and involves coordinating innumerable creative activities throughout the course of developing, shooting, completing, and marketing a film.

It shall be assumed here that the director is the individual who actively oversees the realization of a film from shooting script to finished product, harmoniously coordinating the creative activities of the key personnel involved in the production processes. He or she will liaise with each of these artists, deliberate over various expressive and/or technical options to be implemented, and arrive at a decision that is commensurate with the requirements of the developing work. Correspondingly, the director will also be answerable to the executive body that finances and/or distributes the work and therefore must ensure that production runs smoothly and within an allotted budget. The director's job, then, is twofold: to maintain a consistency of style and quality throughout production and ensure that the production itself proceeds efficiently and economically.

In other words, before one considers the director's position in evaluative terms (as a potential author), one must come to a more objective understanding of the director's position in descriptive terms (as an effective delegate). Serving as the funnel through which all of the decisions affecting a film's form and style are exercised, a director's primary task is to cultivate and coordinate the creative contributions of a production company's principal artists. In the interests of specificity and demystification, it is worth enumerating the various duties assigned to the director during all three stages of filmmaking: preproduction, production, and postproduction.

During the preproduction stage, the director's responsibilities can be divided into four principle tasks: (1) collaborating with the writer(s) on the development of the script; (2) assisting the casting director in hiring appropriate actors, and conducting rehearsals; (3) cooperating with the producer(s) in developing a practical shooting schedule; and (4) planning the overall visual "look" of the film with the production designers and the director of photography (DOP). The extent of a director's involvement in each of these phases varies according to production context and the director's personal working habits. A director may insist on meticulously preplanning a film before beginning to shoot, which is the method preferred by Satyajit Ray (1921–1992), or, the director may treat the film organically, allowing it to develop spontaneously during the process of shooting. Wong Kar-wai (b. 1958), for example, frequently devises and shoots several different versions of a loosely scripted scenario before settling on one that will become the "official" film.

Throughout the actual shooting of the work, the director must multitask efficiently, ensuring that all tasks are executed effectively, solving any unforeseen complications that may arise during production. First, the director and the DOP will supervise the electricians and grips in the lighting of a set—ensuring the correct placement of lights, cutters, and nets. Second, all camerawork—including framing and composition, lens selection, and tracking shots—must be reviewed and potentially rehearsed with the DOP, camera operator, and focus puller. Third, he or she will consult the head carpenter, set dresser, and assistant director (AD) to ensure that there are no logistical problems with the staging of a scene. The director and the AD must also properly block and coach any extras appearing in the scene. Fourth, the director confers with the sound crew regarding the proper placement of microphones and any additional sound equipment. Finally, the director will provide the actors with instructions and suggestions, guiding them through the playing of a scene based on decisions agreed upon during rehearsals. Practical directions will be given to ensure that the actors stay in frame and compensate for any camera movement, but less concretely, the director will also coach actors through improvisations, modulating the "tone" of their performances.

It is at the completion of a take that the director's most crucial decision emerges: whether or not the photographed action will be printed. If all of the above elements have been fulfilled to his or her satisfaction, the director will order the shot to be taken to the lab for processing. The processed shot will most likely appear in the final cut of the film after being carefully scrutinized at the daily rushes by the principal crewmembers. Given the enormous amount of work required during the production stages, the average amount of time needed to shoot a modestly budgeted, 120-minute film is about forty days. Independent directors working with a small crew on a shoestring budget will usually take considerably less time. For example, while working for AIP Productions, Roger Corman (b. 1926) was able to shoot eighty-minute exploitation films, such as Little Shop of Horrors (1960), in three days. By contrast, Frances Ford Coppola (b. 1939) required over sixteen months to shoot the problem-laden art-house blockbuster, Apocalypse Now (1979).

Once actual filming has finished, the director must preside over the completion of the work during postproduction. Again, the degree of a director's involvement in these stages varies according to historically determined production contexts and individual practice. Before 1940, for example, a Hollywood director often had literally no input in the cutting of a film; the footage was sent directly to the editing department, and the director might not even see it again until a rough cut was completed for previewing. By contrast, the contemporary digital manipulation of images has increased to such a degree that the director's close involvement in postproduction stages is often a necessity. Indeed, digital filmmaking has significantly blurred the distinction between filmic creation and modification, and has therefore expanded the director's postproduction role dramatically.

As in preproduction, there are four principal post-production areas in which a director's input is necessary: (1) editing, (2) visual effects, (3) music, and (4) sound. In most cases, an editor and director will develop the film's pace and rhythm, reinforce continuity between shots, trim moments of unwanted excess, and ensure that the montage generally serves to reinforce the work's intent. The visual effects category encompasses the manipulation of the raw footage by color timers, processing technicians, special effects designers, and an array of digital artists, compositors, and animators. Broadly speaking, a director will convey instructions to supervisors in each of these groups, indicating the specific "look" the director wishes to convey. Such post-filmic "treatment" affecting the overall appearance of a work can range from Robert Altman's (b. 1925) decision to "preflash" the negative of The Long Goodbye (1973) in order to amplify the washed-out pastels of its hazy Los Angeles milieu, to Robert Rodriguez's (b. 1968) development of the entirely digital, black-and-white cityscape of Sin City (2005). The director will oversee a film's aural elements as well. In working with the composer, he might intimate how the score reinforces the affective intent of key sequences, accentuates notable action, or even organizes the structure of the montage. The director may also specify to the sound designer how various audio cues will function, indicate the expressive intent of ambient noise, and/or explain the interplay between aural effects and edits. A favorite composer might be relied upon—as in Danny Elfman's recurring scores for Tim Burton (b. 1958)—or in some rare cases, a director might personally compose the film's music (as Charlie Chaplin [1889–1977] did for his features), or co-design the sound (as David Lynch [b. 1946] often does).

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