The Top Three Skills that a Film Director Must Have

“What are the top three qualities that a director must have?”

A reader asked me this question yesterday on Twitter and it made the wheels turn inside my head – even better than coffee!

I always tell people that filmmaking is a sublimely difficult art at which to excel, because it encompasses many art forms, each of which is its own colossal undertaking: cinematography, acting, design, writing and, of course, editing. A director who is deficient in one or more of these skills will never quite reach the summit of excellence.

That said, if I have to boil it down to three qualities, my answer is this: (i) an encyclopaedic knowledge of lenses, (ii) sharp knowledge of film editing and (iii) a nuanced understanding of what makes humans tick.

Filmmakers who master these three qualities will consistently get “Wow!” feedback on their work – guaranteed!

Let’s take a look at these three qualities.

1. Lenses and cinematography

Lens mastery
The camera is the mediator between the vision inside the director’s head and the audience’s eyeballs. Hence anyone who downplays the importance of cinematography is so wrong it’s not even funny.

With an advanced knowledge of lenses and cinematography, the director can make the audience see precisely what he wants them to see in precisely the way that he wants them to see it. It is truly phenomenal how much control you have over your audience’s feelings and perceptions if you really know what you’re doing with cameras and lenses.

I have some excellent news for you (and correspondingly grim news for film schools): you can become a real expert in lenses by practising on a regular basis with the first camcorder you can get hold of. A director’s viewfinder is also useful in practising, but it doesn’t give you as clear a view of your composed image as the flip-out LCD screen of even the cheapest camcorder.

2. Film editing

Lens mastery
Filmmakers who are able to visualize a fully edited sequence in their heads are skilled to the point of being almost dangerous – certainly dangerous to their competitors and anyone who wants to see them fail.

If you make the effort to learn film editing, you will:

– see a fully edited sequence in your head long before you shoot anything;

direct actors and design shots in a way that will allow them to be edited together incredibly smoothly and in a very narratively effective way;

direct the actors and camera crew with enormous confidence, because the fully edited scene already exists in your head and it is simply a matter of recreating it with cameras and actors;

– consistently impress people with the sheer quality of your finished projects.

Fact: the compliment I get most consistently relates to the editing of my projects (which I always do myself).

Most gratifyingly, my editing has been complimented not just by editors, but also by cinematographers, actors, music composers and, most important of all, random viewers with no explicit knowledge of filmmaking. I love it when an investment pays off.

As I have written in the past, learning the nuances of film editing is an activity that offers enormous bang for your buck.

My regular readers will notice that I never tire of exhorting aspiring filmmakers to get their act together with their editing skills. I have a strong suspicion that the importance of this advice is underestimated by most readers, and if one more person follows it every time I repeat it, it is worth the effort.

3. Understanding what makes humans tick, a.k.a. Fine judgement, a.k.a. Good taste

Lens mastery
Advanced mastery of lenses and editing is necessary but not sufficient: what clinches the deal is a nuanced understanding of what makes humans tick.

If you know what makes humans tick, you will produce work that truly gets to people.

My three favorite film directors – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Franco Zeffirelli – have very different styles, but they have one thing in common: they are quite incredibly attuned to how the human heart and mind work. They know how to get to you.

“Understanding what makes humans tick” can also be referred to as “Fine judgement” or “Good taste.”

In addition to having poor judgement, most filmmakers err on the side of omission rather than commission. In other words, they do not do enough; they do not wield enough directorial influence.

I will not deny that excelling in this third quality relies on some innate potential even more than the first two, but regardless of how good one happens to be in this area, one can always get better by engaging in the following activities:

– engage in plenty of social interaction to develop razor-sharp social calibration and an understanding of what makes people tick;

– browse as many art-related publications as possible to refine your taste and sharpen your understanding of how different looks achieve different effects on people;

– study your favorite filmmakers and also learn from the less successful films, particularly those that would have been excellent had it not been for one or two subtle but crucial mistakes made by the director.

I hope you find this useful, and thanks to Elizabeth for a very stimulating question!

27 Replies to “The Top Three Skills that a Film Director Must Have”

  1. The information is really an eye opener. Thanks for such wonderful information on film making. It really encourages me. Keep posting.

  2. Great article! I have to admit…not what I expected! (for one at least!) Evidently I have all three of those! Working on mastering editing however…need to get on the Premiere Pro boat I guess…I understand the principles though and shoot with the idea of “Wow I can’t wait to get this in the NLE to cut it like this!” Sorta a lens nerd too.

    1. Hi Nate,

      Awesome! When I encourage people to learn editing, I mean the principles of editing and how to assemble shots in the most effective way possible, regardless of which editing software they use.

      But you probably knew that 🙂


  3. A director must have the leadership qualities . But I’m not sure whether I have those qualities or not , and I want to become a really great film maker . Any post which includes this topic ?

    1. I might write one at some point. Leadership is like any other talent: it can be developed and improved, but there is also an innate component and some will always be better leaders than others.

      As always, I will not sugar-coat the truth: if, for whatever reason, you are unable or unwilling to develop strong leadership skills, you will struggle to launch your filmmaking career. It’s not just about leading and managing the crew and actors on a shoot — it’s also a question of convincing people to donate time and resources to your projects, which you absolutely will have to do in the early stages of your career.

  4. Hey
    Thanks for the his. About to enter v48 contest so very timely and focusing. Agree with your favorites but would have to add Guillermo del Torro to the list.

  5. Thanks a lot, you have really encouraged me a lot on my work as a person who really want to be a good director. the good thing I have the three of them so my task now is to perfect and have the best productions.

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