was successfully added to your cart.

5 Directing Tips That Will Help On Your Next Shoot

19 min read


To call it intense is certainly an understatement. It’s a crash course in everything filmmaking.

We asked Maribeth to share the 5 directing tips that she took from her experience.

Before we get there, some back story on what she was up against.

Tell a story that matters. Learn about it, dive deep, then bring it to life, all over four days in Portland. In true Stillmotion style, it’s about making the impossible possible. Each team member pushing themselves to help create something that is so much more than any one of us.

Each team will have a Director, Producer, DP, Second Camera, Gaffer, and Audio. Then two Stillmotion team members to constantly push the story forward and hold the team accountable.

Coming in, nobody knows the role they’ll get. In the am of day two, roles are assigned and then it’s off to the races.

A short time later each group learns of their charity and has about 48 hours to produce, direct, shoot, edit, and deliver a strong story that will will push them in every way possible.

One by one we sit down to meet with each attendee. We share the role we’d like them to have .

For the group I was with, Maribeth was chosen as our director. Directing at EVO is a very challenging position. And for Maribeth, it was her first time directing a larger crew while also having such a tough timeline.

Many of us feel like an island. Though we’d love to, we often don’t have crews to collaborate with. And when we do get that chance to work with a team, to direct a team, it can be quite overwhelming.

To help prepare you for that opportunity, we asked Maribeth to share the 5 biggest directing tips she can offer from her first time directing.

First off, we asked Maribeth how it felt when she got asked to direct?

When P handed me a booklet and on the cover it said “Director’s Handbook”, my first thoughts were:

Director. OK. Deep breath.

This is what I wanted, right? I came to EVO for a challenge. But, director? Leading a team of 6 to tell an important story that matters. Gulp.  I was equal parts excited and nervous for what the next 48 hours would hold.

I used to be a photographer and have recently fallen in love with the power of film. I’m also a mother of two wonderful kids. As a busy mom with a part-time career, I’m used to juggling responsibility and making decisions. But, I don’t have a ton of experience in motion. And I’ve certainly never dove into anything as ambitious as leading a team of 6 to develop, shoot, and deliver a story over 48 hours.

I wish I could say that I felt excited and up to the challenge. But, really I felt like I was going to puke. I felt responsible for the experience that the 6 people on my team were about to embark on. They had taken time away from their own work and families to come to EVO to learn. And as director I felt like I needed to make sure they had a positive experience. Not to mention, we had an unknown story that we had to tell in two days.

Could I really do this? We were all about to find out.

At 2pm we were handed our project briefs. The ball was rolling. There was no turning back. In the next 48 hours we would be telling the story of Oregon Public House, the world’s first non-profit pub.

IMG_4739

The Oregon Public House. Our group’s non-profit with a crazy twist you need to see to believe.

And here are the top 5 directing tips from Maribeth:

1) Be prepared for questions. A LOT of them.

I had no idea how many decisions you are faced with as director. No clue. I thought 5 days away from my kids would mean answering less questions. Whoa, was I wrong.

I wish I would have been able to count the number of questions I was asked in the 48 hours of our filmmaking challenge. It felt endless.

  • How should the shot of the bartender pouring the beer feel?
  • Do you want the shot of cleaning the table to be shot directly overhead, or an angle?
  • Have we secured the location for filming Rhona’s part of the film?
  • Our original plan for Rhona’s interview just won’t work, where do we go instead?
  • Did someone call Rhona and let her know the new plan?
  • Do we need to rearrange the schedule to give us time to find a location?
  • We are running late, should we push back lunch?
  • Do the photos of the pub being built need to be printed on matte or glossy paper?
  • I can’t find matte paper, do we REALLY need matte paper?
  • Does the background noise of the ice maker bother you?
  • How many different hands do you want holding the photos?

I quickly learned that the reality of being a director is that it is all about making decisions. And because the decisions just keep coming, you can’t take forever on each question. You need to decide pretty swiftly what to make a call on, what to delegate, and what to discuss in more detail.

I also learned that sometimes I had to go against a crew member’s suggestion for a decision. Which was especially challenging because there usually wasn’t time to explain my thinking. I would try to circle back later and share where I was coming from, but even that was hard as I was often on to the next decision. And the next. And the next.

The good news is that on the first day of our challenge, as part of The Muse, we filled a white board with over 50 keywords informed by our research about OPH.

We drew lines between connected keywords. We circled words. We un-circled words. We put stars by words. We crossed out words. We landed on five keywords to guide our storytelling for the project: community, sustainability, connection, effortless, and opportunity.

So, while there were a million decisions to make in 48 hours. We had a filter to help make those decisions. Did the answer to a question, support our keywords and our story? If so, it was worth spending time on. If not, the keywords were a helpful way guide us to move on.

One example where the keywords informed a big decision in the film, was when we were setting up to film the historical photos of the pub being built. We had planned to slide across the photos on one of the the wooden pub table. But then P asked me, does that fit with the keywords? When I took the time to think about, sliding on the photos didn’t really feel right when we held it up to the lens of our keywords. We’d simply fallen into that common trap of going with what we knew, what worked.

Instead, we asked ‘What would say community and connection?’ Putting the photos in people’s hands. Lots of different people’s hands in the community. We took the time to stop and think through the choice, and doing so really made the historical photos shown in our film more authentically connected to our story.

IMG_4722

Our team whiteboarding their keywords early in the process. Check out how full that board is.

2) Never stop listening.

After we had our keywords, our next big question was ‘who would be the heart of our story?’ Who would be that singular perspective for the audience to connect to and through which our story would be told.

Ryan Saari founded Oregon Public House, the non-profit we were making a film for. He is charismatic and engaging. He’s a pastor and well-spoken. He makes a TedTalk look like a walk in the park (with a pint in his hand). And he came up with a CRAZY idea for a pub that you’ll see in our film below.

He would have been a great choice for the heart of our story. But we couldn’t just settle for the obvious.

If the well-spoken, engaging, and charismatic founder of OPH wasn’t our heart,  then who was? And why were we making the process seemingly so hard on ourselves? Because by doing so, we didn’t move the story by choosing Ryan at the start. We put him on our list of leads, but we also kept listening and digging deeper into the story.

As we dug deeper, we started to build a list of possible hearts that included:

  • The neighbourhood mail lady who also volunteered at the pub.
  • A local couple who helped build the pub, with mom carrying a newborn on her back.
  • A retired gentleman who had volunteered every week since the beginning.
  • The pub’s general manager who was SO passionate about helping individuals grow.
  • An original founder of the pub who comes weekly for his founder’s benefit of a free pint of beer.
  • A pub neighbor who has lived nearby for over 40 years who has seen the area transform and change over the years.

Then it happened.

One of the charities that OPH was supporting at the time was Breaking Cycles, a non-profit that connects homeless youth with bikes for mobility and mentorships in bike repair for job skills. Ryan had mentioned Rhona, the founder of Breaking Cycles, as a possible connection.

She was further down our list, only because we talked about her later in the meeting with Ryan. After going through many leads that were not panning out, we sent Rhona a Facebook message. And she immediately responded that she was available to talk.

When we began our call, Rhona told me that she started Breaking Cycles to help bridge a huge gap that exists for homeless youth in Portland. To use the best of what Portland has to offer (green thinking, recycling, bikes, coffee) to give homeless youth opportunities.

Breaking Cycles had just gotten off the ground and Rhona was so honored to have been chosen as one of the charities supported by OPH this summer. Rhona’s dream is to grow Breaking Cycles to a place where she can open a bike and coffee shop that pairs homeless youth with mentors to learn job skills in bike repair and customer service. Rhona said she knows that the support and exposure from being chosen as an OPH charity will help make that dream a reality.

So then, I asked her why she was so passionate about helping homeless youth through Breaking Cycles.

And she told me she was born into homelessness.

Her birth certificate listed a camp ground as her first address because she lived in a car for the first 7 years of her life.

She continued to tell me her story about being on the streets and addicted to drugs at 11. She said she knows what it is like to sleep under a bridge. To run and be in danger.

She told me she was on the streets and pregnant at 14.  And that her baby saved her life.

When she became a mother at 15, she made a promise to herself that she would put herself in a position someday to come back and help homeless youth. And she’s doing just that with Breaking Cycles.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I called Rhona. But I can tell you I wasn’t expecting her story. A story that moved me so deeply. A story of a woman who had been through such heartbreaking hardships at such a young age, but found the strength to return to the streets and help youth that are in the position she once was.

Our team reconvened to talk about the heart of our story and it became pretty clear that Rhona was our heart.

Rhona came to meet us for the first time at 9:30pm the night before we were to begin production.

We could have made the obvious choice that was right in front of us at 4pm. We could have saved ourselves several hours of stress as we tried to search for additional options for the heart of our story.

But we trusted the process and kept listening. We continued to dig and search for strong connections. And in doing so, we really deepened the story we told.

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 8.17.11 PM

Rhona, the heart of our story, whom we discovered 9:30PM the night before production started.

3) Make the time to take the time.

In a parenting book I read many years back, I found a powerful nugget of wisdom. Time-outs are just as often for the parent as they are for the child.

I wish I would have remembered that lesson more on our shoot day. I could have used a few time-outs during our EVO shoot. Just to regroup and remember what was important in our story. But, I was daunted by all we had to accomplish in such a short amount of time, so I kept charging forward.

There was a communication breakdown between us and Ryan and the pub staff about how much we would be up in their business at the pub on the shoot day. We needed to be behind the bar to get shots of a beer pouring. We needed to mop their floor. We needed to set up lights and have gear in their space. We needed to talk to patrons during the lunch rush.

The staff was friendly, but it was clear we were in their way. And they weren’t prepared for us being in their way all day. Once we realized that the staff wasn’t thrilled we were there, we could have all really benefited from a time-out with the staff. To explain that what were were doing there on that Wednesday was going to help OPH in a big way. To tell their story so they could help more charities.

Our crew was moving on multiple setups in the pub. Everyone was doing their best, but we were an inexperienced team, so we were not necessarily working as efficiently as possible. We lost our interview location. We were behind schedule. And we only had one day for production.

When you have too much to do in too little time, stopping to pull people together seems like the wrong thing to do. But we finally took five minutes for a team time-out.  We recapped where we were at, celebrated our successes, then clearly went over what everybody had to do to complete the job. It pulled us together and reminded us of our goals.

It energized and focused us together as a team again. Those five minutes made all the difference in how we closed out a long and tiring day, and how connected every team member felt to the story we told together.

Maribeth & Co. taking a moment to map out screen direction and composition for a broll sequence.

Maribeth & Co. taking a moment to map out screen direction and composition for a broll sequence.

4) Never forget about the experience.

In the first few moments of my Tuesday phone call with Rhona, we had a connection. Even though our life experiences were vastly different, we clicked. We talked about our kids and about wanting to make a difference in the world.

As we were waiting for the crew to set up to film Rhona, she and I looked through some photos she brought of her daughters when they were babies. As we talked about motherhood, we both got pretty emotional. I was running on 2 hours of sleep, and hadn’t seen or talked to my kids in days. She was showing me photos of her as a teenage mom. The authentic experience you’re looking for on-camera was so there, but we just hadn’t gotten to set yet.

I planned to just continue that energy and experience on to set.

But instead, when we got her on set, I got more official. I stayed back by the camera. I didn’t engage with her in the same way that I did off camera

I feel like I gave the teleprompter and crew more attention than Rhona. Did she need another turtle on the prompter to slow it down and help with pacing? Was my DP set to roll? Did audio feel ready? Should we flag that harsh light coming in from the window? What is our focal length and framing?

Rhona did several takes of the script and they were pretty good. But the takes didn’t go there – to that emotionally raw place we had shared before, off camera.

A few takes in, P. came in close to Rhona and reminded her of a powerful story she had told earlier that day. A story about teenage Rhona who was hungry and alone. She had stood for hours staring at leftover meatballs in somebody’s fridge. She was trying to sort out how to eat just one and move the rest around so that nobody would notice. She was balancing not haven eaten for days with the potential of abuse if she was caught.

But taking that moment to be there with her. For real. To remind her of what this is about, and who she was trying to help, made all of the difference.

The take after P. moved in close, grabbed her hand, and spoke with her is the one that you will see at the end of our OPH film. And it’s POWERFUL. It was a huge teaching moment for me to see that it really is all about the experience. On and off set.

It is oh so easy as a director to get so overwhelmed with the amount of questions you’re getting hit with that you forget that you also need to create an experience for both your crew and those in your film. The time-out was a moment for our crew. And this conversation with Rhona was a moment just for her.

The whole team making a final push on the narrative, sound design, and color as the deadline approached.

The whole team making a final push on the narrative, sound design, and color as the deadline approached.

5) People first. No matter what.

By 7pm on the shooting day of our EVO challenge, we had already been shooting for 10 hours. We were behind schedule. Our team was tired and hungry.

We were also losing our light. The sun was setting and there was no way to stop that.

And to top that off, we still had one of our most challenging series of shots to accomplish. And it was one of those shots that just make your story – the one we couldn’t live without.

We needed somebody homeless, on the streets, to open our story and setup our hook.

Rhona took us to the Burnside Bridge which is quite the eye-opener at dusk. On, under and around the bridge, hundreds of homeless people settle into their tents, sleeping bags, and refrigerator boxes for the night.

With Rhona’s help, I approached several homeless people on the bridge and asked them if we could film them. Alison who was getting ready for the night in her tent, didn’t want her face filmed. Lucy was in a sleeping bag on the bridge, and while she let us film her, she was actually 45 years old. We needed a homeless youth.

Just when I thought we weren’t going to get the shot we had planned for, Cassie approached us. I told her how filming her would help our story to make a difference for homeless youth. She wanted to do it, even though we were out of the fast-food gift cards we had been handing out to those who were allowing us to film them.

While Krystal, Ahbi and P. setup the shot under the bridge, I talked with Cassie. She told me that she left home two years ago at 16 because as a lesbian she wasn’t welcome in her parents’ home. She told me about how her day was upsetting because the police questioned her earlier about a stabbing that happened under the Burnside Bridge. Right where we were standing.

I could have caved to the uncomfortable situation and stopped talking. I could have rushed us along because we had no light. But instead, I kept talking with Cassie. Listening and making sure she felt heard.

She sat down for the opening shot of our story on the train platform under the Burnside Bridge and held a sign asking for money. But before she did, I told her “I’m right here with you. You’re not alone.” I sat down on the dirty ground across from her, as close as I could without being in frame. We locked eyes, and we shared a genuine connection.

The Final Unveiling of our film (just 48 hours after we started)!

We all gathered at Stillmotion for the premieres of the EVO films. When I arrived, after editing up to the very last minute, I was so happy to see that both Ryan and Rhona, from the non-profits, were able to attend. I gave Rhona a big hug and she introduced me to two of her daughters and two of their friends.

When it was time for our film to play, I was sort of watching the film but mostly watching Rhona and her daughters watch the film. Watching their reactions to the story our team told.

I learned later that night from Rhona’s daughter, that she didn’t know all the details about her mom’s story of being homeless. Our story helped her daughter know her, and love her, just a little bit more.

In just 48 hours we’d told the story of Oregon Public House and it had already made a difference.

We were an inexperienced crew, but we worked together to create a really powerful story. We did so by allowing our keywords guide our decisions, always listening, remembering to value the experience of our crew and talent, and always, always putting people first.

For me, it was a powerful experience to know that in a short amount of time, you can band together with other storytellers that you just met, and create a film that really means something.

I know first hand from my experience at EVO that it is SO worth it to spend a day collaborating with other filmmakers to tell a story with heart that matters. I’ll be telling a story for the Parade in Minneapolis. If you are in Minneapolis and you’re interested in joining my team, I’d love to find two people to collaborate with.

The world is full of amazing stories, let’s tell them together!

-Maribeth

Thanks so much Maribeth for being so open in sharing your first experience directing. What you learned are certainly things that both new and experienced directors alike will continually face.

If you’d like to join us for the EVO Experience in November 2015 in Portland, you can read more about that here.

If you’d like to join us for Storytelling with Heart and/or EVO Experience in Australia and New Zealand in July 2015, you can read more about that here.

We hope these 5 directing tips have helped you. If you’ve got any questions for Maribeth about her first time directing, or about the film that our team crafted, let us know!

About Patrick Moreau

I love stories that challenge the way we see things.

22 Comments

  • Peter Simon says:

    Hello All,

    Great blog post of course! Love getting the perspective from one of your participants.

    I am very interested in joining a group in PDX (Joyce’s?). I wanted to enter the storytelling parade, but I was intimidated to do so by my lonesome. Let me know how I can help!

    Thanks,
    Petey Boy

    • Joyce says:

      Hey Peter,

      That’s what Story & Heart is all about, connecting likeminded storytellers together so we don’t have to do things by our lonesome-selves :)
      Send me an email at joyce @ stillmotion.ca and tell me a bit about yourself, what you’re interested in doing and the types of stories you like to tell.

      Joyce

  • I have the privilege to work with a top Gaffer in South Africa since last year and work with him closely other than merely lighting. He has 18 years experience ranging from commercials to feature length films from Hollywood, and have been all over the globe. He mentioned something on a TVC we did two weeks back: the difference between digital film making vs celluloid. The thing about shooting on actual film means there are numerous times on set when you wait for 5 minutes as the cameras are loaded with new film reels. Those little breaks are crucial to the process – heard a story recently that even Robert Downy Jr. even did some interesting things on set of his first digital feature film cause the breaks where gone.
    The process of story telling when shooting on film as oppose to digital is vastly different and he so wishes the guys at Rooftop Productions could experience the old way of doing things. Suppose it is a reason I’ve been enjoying shooting stills on film for the past 5 years.

    Interesting how this “natural” occurrence during the days of actual film, has been lost with digital film making and is now a tip for directing: take the time to take the time.

    Thanks for the post Stillmotion, thanks for sharing your experiences Maribeth.

    • Maribeth says:

      Great insights Fanjan. It’s amazing what can happen by taking a few minutes to regroup and regain perspective.

      What are you working on these days? Would love to have you join the Storytelling Parade (www.storytellingparade.com) and tell a story in South Africa! Please join us. Email me at maribeth@stillmotion.ca if I can answer any questions about the Parade or help you get connected with other filmmakers to tell a story for the Parade.

      Thanks!
      Maribeth

  • Stephanie To says:

    Insightful blog post with great tips! I also signed up for the Storytelling Parade in Minneapolis and am interested in collaborating with Maribeth’s team. Please let me know if there’s a spot still available.

    Thank you,
    Stephanie

  • Nice job.

    I’ve been cooking for an outreach program for the past twelve years. We feed the homeless, helpless and those with mental and coping challenges. There are young families who attend the meal as well. Our team has fed as many as 125 guests in one evening. One lady I have known for the past twelve years still lives in her car.

    Homelessness is a culture, mental incapacity is a culture as is being poor. All of these create walls between the problem and the public. These wall have all disappeared for me because I have gotten to know these people. I cannot change their plight, so I just make sure they have a good, wholesome and healthy meal every Monday evening.

    Religion and politics aside, I believe that we, as human beings, have an obligation to take care of each other……regardless.

    And yes, I do tell this story

  • Renee McCandless says:

    Hi Joyce,
    I would love to be a part of your team in PDX. What can I do to help you? No task is too big or small!

    Cheers,
    Renee McCandless

    • Joyce says:

      Hey Renee,

      Thanks for reaching out to us! Please send me an email at joyce @ stillmotion.ca and tell me a bit about yourself, what you’re interested in doing and the types of stories you like to tell. I’d love to get to know you better, talk soon :)

      Joyce

  • Emily Thomas says:

    Hi Joyce,

    My name is Emily Thomas and I love reading the Stillmotion blog posts (in fact, I’ve read all of them) I really liked your post about how to succeed as a female filmmaker. I too love powerful stories and would love an opportunity to tell one with you.

    One of the things I loved the most about your blog post and about Maribeth’s blog post was that it featured experiences from a female filmmaker (which are few and far between!) and I think it is important to share those experiences to hopefully inspire other women to pursue careers in film.

    That being said–I think it would be awesome if I could work alongside a female filmmaker :). I don’t really know how to work a camera, I can’t tell the difference between one lens and another, but I really care about telling powerful stories.

    If your team is already full I completely understand, but I would love the opportunity!

    Hope to hear from you soon.

    -Emily

    • Joyce says:

      I always get a kick when working with other ladies on a film, that doesn’t happen very often, so I’d love to see if we make a good team in the field. I’m not sure what the story is yet but I’d love to hear about what kinds of stories you like to tell and see if we’re a good fit. Send me an email joyce @ stillmotion.ca :)

      Joyce

  • Great job you guys!! Maribeth, I’m so proud :)

    • Maribeth says:

      Thanks Angelina! Love, love, love your Craft film I saw on Facebook. We should definitely collaborate on a project someday. Hope all is great in sunny San Diego.

  • Joyce says:

    Thanks so much for everyone who has emailed with an interest to join me in creating a film for Storytelling Parade here in PDX. It’s been so awesome to hear from many of you, learn about who you are and see what kinds of stories you like to tell. I’m not sure what story we’re going to tell yet and who I’ll be working with but the idea of collaborating on a film with someone new in our collective community is really really exciting to me. There are even a couple who have emailed about flying in to join me – how awesome is that!

    However I do want to mention that since this contest is organized by Story & Heart and Stillmotion is helping with the education that whoever joins my team will not be eligible for any of the prizes. What I can promise you is that we will have a ton of fun and make a kickass film together :p

    And regardless of whether we’ll be working together or not, I’d love to hear from you guys — what kinds of stories do you like to tell?

    Joyce

  • Jim Nihart says:

    I am so unbelievably impressed with the short and it would be a privilege to help Maribeth on a project here in Minneapolis or wherever she needs the help.

    Thanks for the story,
    – JIM

  • Rhona Mahl says:

    Hello Maribeth and everyone! :)

    I wanted to thank you SO much for the incredible experience (having my story told), that quite frankly, changed my life. From the very first moment of contact, to the debut of the film 36 hours later, I felt like I was caught up in a whirlwind. I can’t begin to share with you just how deeply this experience touched me on so many levels (personal, professional, relational, and spiritual) but I do want to share with you and your audience a few other thoughts…

    The excellence in which you and your team approached and worked with some very sensitive subject matter, and the extremely vulnerable population of homeless youth in Portland, quite honestly, altered my already immense hope in humanity, to an even greater level. You see, while the cameras were rolling and you were all watching me and the youth, I was watching you. What I saw, from front to finish, was empathy, compassion, authentic and genuine interest in each and every person you all spoke with, and a vulnerability that truly allowed you to step into the personal and profound worlds of those you interviewed. You didn’t hold back your own hearts from the process… you opened them to us and allowed us to connect with you too.

    There are so many moments that race through my mind… The moment you all ran beside our precious homeless girl who we gave the bike to, the moment you knelt on the ground with another youth, the moments that followed every single interview with our youth and how one of your team members stuffed money into my hands to give to them and how he didn’t want to be seen doing it, the moment when Patrick reached into my very soul to pull out the emotion that was needed to capture the message you all knew was there, and how he dive bombed me when the camera caught it.

    So many more moments come rushing to my mind, but I need you to know… none come more profoundly to my heart than the evening of the debut and how you all cried with me and my daughters; how you celebrated not only your amazing work, but the reason behind it.

    I have shared with many people how this experience has changed my life. To be all of a sudden, surrounded by a team of total strangers, diving into the deepest parts of my memory I have shared with no one, and the deepest parts of my heart that I share with anyone who will listen. That last evening I felt a little bit like Dorthy from the Wizard of Oz as she said goodbye to her friends and recounted their incredible attributes… wisdom, courage, and heart.

    Thank you, Meribeth, and the incredible StillMotion team, for not only telling stories that challenge and change us, but for being a part of them as well.

    God bless you as you help breath life into our glorious world! :)

    Rhona Mahl
    Founder and Director of Braking Cycles

    • Maribeth says:

      Rhona!!!! Again, you’ve got me in tears, my friend. I will never forget our first phone call and the 2 days we spent together in Portland, telling your powerful story. Our experience together has had a great impact on me as well. Your commitment to making a difference in such an inspiration and I’m so grateful to know you.

      Sending love from Minnesota,
      Maribeth

  • Tonya says:

    Hi Maribeth,

    Did you storyboard?

Leave a Reply to Stephanie To Cancel Reply

Next Post