I had a project a while back. We called it the Prius Prototypes, and I knew exactly what I wanted to make. Or so I thought I did. We had a lot of calls with different directors early on, and I wanted to see how they'd make what I told them to make. But, after a few calls, I realized that I hadn't thought of half the problems with the project. I mean, I had a wish list and a vision, but I had no idea how it was actually going to come to life.
I thought I needed a creative craftsman, but what I really needed was a creative opinion.
One of the best parts about being a creative is actually bringing your idea to life: the "creating" part. But whether it's a photo shoot, video production, event, installation, or anything else, chances are you aren't going to be the one actually making it.
I mean, more often than not, you're going to hand your idea over to a production company, and that can be terrifying. Because as creatives, our ideas are our babies, and we want to make sure they grow up to be big, strong ideas that look pretty and everyone thinks is super smart.
The problem is, choosing a director is an art in itself. (And with the director comes the production company.) It's something I picked up along the way, but I'm re-learning it every project, because each one has such a different need. Here's where to start.
What does your project need?
First off, you need to understand what your project needs, and the "no duh" part is the specialization of the production company: video, photo, event are the simple breakdowns. But, there are actually more subtleties to it.
Now, one of the most popular mediums is gonna be video. Whether it's on TV, pre-roll, or social media, video is an inherent part of advertising. Most of you are going to have to decide on a video director at some point, so let's run with that.
These are a few questions you should ask about your project, to find the right director:
- Is it live-action or animated? Different directors have different strengths, like being able to work with talent or understand how to coordinate a team of animators.
- Is there a lot of dialogue? Getting actors to say words well is a specific skill, while being able to non-verbally tell a story is totally different.
- Humor, drama, action? Or somewhere in between? It's really easy for humor to fall flat in a production, and while a lot of it is on the talent, it's amazing what the right director can do.
- Stylized, documentarian, etc.? There's a laundry list of styles, and you need to figure out what your project's is.
- Will it need lots of post-production? Understanding how to get talent to work in front of a green-screen, or interact with CG characters or sets isn't as easy as you'd think.
But that's what to ask about your project. So what do you ask about your director?
What do you need out of them?
Here's where things go wonky, because there are so many creative people involved. See, you've got the creative that came up with the idea, you have their creative director, then you've got the client (well, they've got creative opinions). But on top of that, there's the director, the director of photography, the set's art director, and so on and so on.
And all of them have a creative opinion.
The question is, do you need a creative opinion? Or do you just want someone to get the job done?
A Creative Craftsman
Plenty of times, I've worked on projects that went thirteen rounds with the client, needing to create a delicate balance of words, visuals, and scenes that they were comfortable with. All the work was put in upfront, to the point where we needed to simply hand over a script, sketches, and reference images to a production company.
Sometimes, you need a kickass pair of hands to execute your idea.
At that point, we knew we were looking for a skilled executor. More than a pair of hands, but not someone who would go off the rails with their own interpretation of the project. There are some amazing directors for these kinds of projects. Ones that know what an agency needs and how to get it done. Ones that love bringing someone's vision to life and, many times, accomplishing the impossible ask.
The key is to be honest with yourself and your possible directors, if these are the kind you need. Don't make it out to be something where you're looking for them to take liberties with the script, or do their own thing at all. They're skilled crafts(wo)men, and know that's their strength, but you all need to set expectations.
To find these types of directors, look for a couple things in their reels. Most of the time, they're either incredibly specialized, because they've figured out how to solve a specific problem perfectly, or they're super versatile, because they can execute anything as long as they have the creative instruction manual.
A Creative Opinion
To me, the scariest (and the most exciting) projects are the ones where you're looking for that something special, but you don't know what it is. You haven't filled in all the details, but you've got the broad strokes. You're looking for a creative partner, not a creative craftsman.
If you hire a director with a creative opinion, don't be surprised when they have one.
These are the types of directors that have made a name for themselves, and have a style of their own. So, you need to expect that style to come through and to be honest with yourself about whether you want it or not. Think about it: you know what a Wes Anderson film is going to be, because it's Wes Anderson. If you're looking for a Michael-Bay-type-of director, you're going to leave Wes off that list.
The great thing about these directors is that they'll come up with solutions that you never thought of. They're going to become a creative partner, where the thing you started the process with is simply a guide to where it'll end up. Make sure you remember that, because the whole point of hiring a director like this is to get that vision you didn't have, and constantly pushing against their input will frustrate them, just as much as any creative.
Finding these directors means looking for that niche. Usually they've got a few key projects that define them and their style, so you know what you're getting into. Honestly, it's easier to pick between these ones, because there's no mystery about what they can or will do. But, the hard part is that once you've decided to go in that direction, flexibility is not so easy to come by.
You'll never know everything you need.
No matter what kind of director, photographer, or production company you go with, there's going to be lots of creative problem solving. It's impossible to consider every little detail about a project, which is why there are specialists in every company, dedicated to that.
The (production) art director has to create an entire visual space, based on the vision. The director of photography needs to define a look, from lighting to camera angles. Even the casting director has to find the right kind of talent. Then the director needs to understand how everything works together: the music, the sound, the visuals, the actors.
You're not in this alone. There's a production company for every project who will be there with you. And understanding exactly what you need is going to help you find them.