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How to Keep Directors Focused On The Masterpiece When There Are So Many Cooks In The Kitchen
- Friday, Mar. 23, 2018
If you’ve ever watched a team challenge on “Hell’s Kitchen,” you’re familiar with this scenario: First, it’s the flow of big ideas as a kitchen full of chefs attempts to set course on the winning entrée. Then, depending on the strength of that episode’s chosen leader and their ability to funnel all that feedback into one delicious concept, you’ll either witness the well-executed creation of a fantastic meal or the total meltdown of a team unable to realize any real cohesive vision on the plate… with Gordon Ramsey shouting at them… on national television.
The fact is the “too many cooks” scenario plays out every day across industries and in various ways, killing even the best intended visions by fragmenting, complicating or slowing them to a halt.
For the live-action director, whether your forte is promo, commercial or feature film, this may come in the form of the high-profile project with a huge money spend and a laundry list of stakeholders requiring sign-off. It may be the diverging interests of multiple brands being integrated into a single message. Or you may encounter it when you’re working with a team whose leadership is simply micromanaging and indecisive.
Whatever the case, directors juggling multiple feedback sources risk seeing their projects lose impact or derail entirely if they become too mired in conflicting visions. So how do you stay focused on the masterpiece when there are so many cooks in the kitchen? For me, it all comes down to three important things: 1) honing in on the true project vector; 2) doing your homework; and 3) gently steering to keep the mission on course.
With the start of any new project, you will be consuming a lot of information while you craft the vision and weigh the feedback of your client, team and other stakeholders. At a certain point, however, it’s about being able to define this vision or “vector” it in a one- or two-sentence “big idea” that boils down all the various ingredients to an elevator pitch you can quickly articulate. I like to look at this process like using a metaphorical funnel.
When creative starts, you’re at the wide end of the funnel… taking in everything from the original client brief, reference searches and team brainstorm to that 1 a.m. email with late-breaking notes from the sponsor. To find the “creative vector” requires a straining process that ultimately gets you to the funnel’s narrow end. Basically, the “why someone will be moved” by your story, brand message or product. What’s at the bottom is the most concise way to explain your story or express the vision.
Fundamentally, the business we work in is human communication, so whether it’s short-form, integrations, alternative content or feature films, the thing you’re trying to do is emotionally connect with your audience and motivate a response. Success hinges on being able to consider the input, business needs and even personal agendas of different stakeholders at the big end of the funnel and distill it into a succinct, powerful message at the fine end.
This was especially crucial for us on a recent project for HGTV and DIY, for which our project involved an extensive ask of capturing tons of elevated lifestyle footage that could be used across a wide range of network applications… a sort of specialized stock footage shot with HGTV and DIY needs in mind so that it can solve innumerable problems down the line. We brought on external director David Russo, who worked with 2C and the client to take a fairly broad creative agenda and funnel it down to get as much high-quality, usable content as possible from a single day shoot.
Considering all the input from 2C and our client, Russo had to start with a 35,000-foot view, make sense of everything and turn a lot of non-related scenes and thoughts into a cohesive shooting schedule. He began by whittling down the scenarios and what could be achieved based on a number of location factors (natural light, resources, timing) and also priority of use for the client.
To accomplish this, he incorporated such essential directorial tools as a treatment, reference frames and shot lists aimed at narrowing and defining the very wide ask into something attainable. In the end, Russo’s prep allowed him to devise a plan for the day so that everyone walked away with an abundance of beautiful footage, and it was all about narrowing that funnel to get as many different scenarios as we could possibly capture.
The best way to prevent being flooded by a sea of feedback is to anticipate and alleviate any likely concerns in the first place. The most successful among us try to identify any challenges in the prep process and solve for them. Or, as my father would say, “Proper pre-planning prevents poor procedure.” And while this may require a considerable amount of homework, the time spent on prep will be far less painful than the time you’ll spend on misguided notes or unhappy clients screaming for reshoots.
It’s about creating a vision hierarchy/flow chart of what works for story and also identifying what doesn’t work. Then you’re always vetting your story against this foundation. It’s like building that creative rudder—if you will—that steers the whole process and keeps the team pointed in the right direction despite the issues or rogue currents that try to push you off course.
On a recent spot I directed for the season 6 launch of “Nashville, such visualization and homework were vital to my team’s success, helping us be certain that our complicated visual effects were executed properly so that later, when we put them together in post, there were no issues.
Extensive prep work like storyboards, motion tests and style frames were essential because so many of the effects we were going for were hard to visualize, not to mention using an expensive, specialized tool like the Bolt motion control unit, which meant there was no going back for a re-do once we were done shooting.
Beyond that, it was essential that our focus on VFX not overtake the emotional performances we wanted. Therefore, understanding our effect came through visualization and continued on set by being able to preview what some of the composites might look like in post. To do this, we had tools that allowed us to create rough composites on the set, so that we could preview what the end result might look like in motion and would line up when we did the effect for real in post.
This meticulous preparation ahead of time and on set allowed us to focus on highly emotional performances – crucial when marketing a show like “Nashville” – instead of trying to figure out how the effect would work. Then, when we started sending the spot to the client, there were no surprises because this deliberate process worked to keep everyone on the same page the entire time.
Of course, no matter how clearly you define your vision or how much homework you do in advance, there will still be times when you field confused or off-base feedback – whether external or on your own team. This is where you’ll need to tap both confidence in the vision and tact, as a director, to keep your team headed down the right course. If you’re the ultimate creative decision maker, it’s about being able to diplomatically articulate why certain feedback or notes don’t serve the story.
However, most of us live somewhere in the middle, and without ultimate sign off power, not to mention creative can often be very subjective, this means entertaining the whims. In other words, it’s about demonstrating why something doesn’t work while simultaneously providing something that does. Basically, Instead of just saying “No, that won’t work,” you should be providing solutions and workaround options you can then show side by side – a method we have used successfully with a number of clients.
“We tried X and this is what it looks like, but we believe that Y and Z might be better ways to solve the problem.”
Rather than making disparaging remarks about a creative solution you don’t feel strongly about, you’re able to fulfill the original ask, showcase some other solutions and let your client arrive at the conclusion based on being able to see it laid out before them. After all, selling a vision is often much easier when shown than when merely explained, and people may hold onto a vision in their head, believing that to be the answer, until they’re presented with a better option.
More often than not, such a side-by-side visual representation of options will help someone realize what doesn’t work and move it in the right direction, which ultimately keeps your vision moving forward and your team as well.
Let’s face it. Every director believes their vision is the right one, but what will really make you successful is being able to process the input from others in a way that enriches the vision. Being willing to collaborate and explore these different tastes is what ultimately builds trust in you as a creator. In fact, the most successful directors are those who can take all the various ingredients they’re provided and craft it into one succulent dish.
Brian Eloe is live-action director/creative director for 2C Creative, an award-winning creative agency and content production company.