Tips: From editing to directing

By Dave Henegar

Recently, I was asked by a client of mine to direct a national commercial. At first I thought, “What a fantastic opportunity!” Then reality set in. I realized that for the last 23 years I’ve been editing for some of the greatest commercial directors in the industry, but I had no idea how they did what they did.

So, naturally, I felt a mix of excitement and anxiety. After picking myself up off the floor, I thought about the many years I was lucky enough to work with such beautiful pieces, and my confidence grew as I recounted the varied and ingenious ways those directors told their stories. From the way they composed their images to the art direction of every meticulous detail. The great effort they put into connecting one shot to the next.

As their editor, I realized my life was much easier when all of those details were worked out well in advance. In fact, the worst projects I’ve worked on were the ones where directors set up many cameras and simply “captured” the action and said to themselves “we’ll figure it out in the edit.”

With that in mind, I set out on day one to craft a 30 second story that had a structure similar to the great directors I had worked with in the past. Thankfully, the commercial turned out to be a success, and I was proud of the final product.  In fact, there was very little I would change if I had to do it over.

So in light of the fact that I’ve only directed one commercial, I was asked to give my thoughts on making the leap into directing from editorial. Perhaps the best way to do that is to offer up the top five lessons I learned that may help other editors who dream of becoming directors.

1.  Pre-pro is more than half the battle
The day after I got the call from the agency I began drawing my own storyboards. I needed to understand quickly if I could pull off the grand concept the agency had presented. I must have drawn a hundred images. Like editing, I was rearranging shots in my head, but now I had to draw each one of those images and decide if they would work or not. Then came the process of the director’s treatment. Because I was a first-timer, I had to design and write the treatment myself. I took the treatment very seriously because I knew that it would be my one chance to prove that I understood what the client’s needs were and how to execute what the agency had carefully constructed. My words had to be clear and compelling — the images and layout had to be crafted and polished. Everything you present in your treatment is a reflection of your taste level. And lastly, location scouting is incredibly important. Design the perfect environment in your head before you begin your search, it will help you narrow down the vast number of images that will start pouring in from the location scouts.

2. Choose the Best Help You Can Afford
I would not have been able to achieve the look I wanted without the best cinematographer. Once I had secured best DP, I knew that he would bring with him his best keys. It’s a trickle down effect: choose the best and they’ll choose the best. The shoot day goes infinitely smoother and faster when the right people are in place.

3. Pay Close Attention to the Client
The client knows their audience far better than you will. You will be tempted to take their money and make the film of your dreams, but in my opinion that’s not what makes a good director. A good director is someone who can take the limitations and opportunities they’ve been handed and make an outstanding product.

4. Try Not to Edit Your Own Work
I believe that teamwork is better than a one-man-band. Talented teams can elevate a project. A talented editor will show you different ways in which your story could be told. As a director, it’s easy to get your storyboards firmly embedded in your head and simply edit what you had storyboarded. Let someone else you trust take your film in ways you didn’t expect.

5. Learn How to Present
Often times as editors we are required to say a few words before we press “play” for the first time. We may caveat the edit before showing it, saying something like “the sound is still rough” or “VFX aren’t in place yet.” Apart from that, we’re not required to go into great detail about deeper concepts. As a director, I learned that I was accountable for several hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for the vision I was trying to sell.  I have never spent so much time on the phone in my life!

Being a director is mostly about being a great communicator. You need to be able to effectively explain your concept and execution to the agency and the client — several times over! People who are prepared to plop down a six-figure check want to have everything explained to them in great detail. As well they should! If they’re paying the bill, they deserve to know what they’re getting for their money. Also being able to communicate with your crew is tremendously important. The more you communicate, the more respect you’ll get from those who are trying to help you bring your vision to life.  Respect everyone in your crew — period.

So that’s the top five, of what could easily be 25, things to think about when moving from editorial to directing.

To all my friends in editorial, I highly recommend trying it if you’ve not yet had the opportunity. It’s a challenging task but exciting. Take advantage of your many years of storytelling experience and put them behind the camera. It’s a humbling and exhilarating experience!

Dave Henegar is co-founder and editor at Butcher Post in Santa Monica.


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