A Guide to Working Effectively with Unscripted Directors
Posted on: Oct 19, 2023
Unscripted directors are responsible for telling stories in a visually compelling way, but they don’t work alone. Directors work in tandem with producers, act as department heads for the camera crew and interface heavily with on-camera talent. For directors to direct cameras, they need capable camera people, camera assistants and sound recordists who are in the right place at the right time to capture the perfect moment.
Directors work closely with creative producers to ensure they are on the same page about the story’s editorial focus. Technical and creative production teams work together to ensure that post-production has footage that looks good and is in alignment with the story the network has paid for. As someone with an extensive background in unscripted, I have a lot of experience collaborating with unscripted directors in a way that’s professional, efficient and produces work that everyone in the crew can be proud of.
A Producer’s Perspective
No one director manages their projects in the same way and each project is different. Some directors like to interface with various department heads directly, while others prefer to work closest with the producing team. The producing team then disperses this information to other departments the director hasn’t spoken with. There’s more than one way to successfully execute an episode’s creative vision. The trick is to understand the director’s professional needs and see how you can be the answer to whatever issues spring up that day.
Things can change on a dime. Have a plan for how you’ll cover any stories you see bubbling up between cast members. Since most of the time producers don’t have direct access to directors, it’s imperative that producers at all levels have excellent, consistent communication between each other. Producers help directors by being the additional eyes and ears of the cast. Producers see everything and a good producer is a strong observer who doesn’t immerse themselves into the story.
When producers communicate consistently, they can prepare the director for many things, such as additional props needed for a meaningful scene, or a change in the number of camera coverage needed for an emotionally intense scene. They help prepare directors for the interpersonal storm they will capture on tape.
Building Strong Communication
Although the director oversees the capturing of the creative vision, there are other people on the director’s team who are also important. Assistant directors, or ADs, assist the director in making sure production gets the needed shots in a budgeted amount of time. ADs keep the schedule flowing, are aware of any changes and will inform the crew of any logistical or safety concerns. Knowing the day’s events allows you to prepare for changes and gives you the confidence to deal with them.
Communication between a director’s team and the rest of the crew should be one of respect for each other’s time and capabilities. Listen to what a director and their team is advising from a place of collaboration. The director’s team is very knowledgeable about the lay of the set or location. It’s important to not overload the director with information. Lean more on your immediate team and converse with the ADs.
Pay attention to body language and listen closely to what people are saying on-set. A problem shared is a problem halved. When you step up and help your teammates, most will do the same for you. Before moving forward with a creative plan, make sure the director’s team knows about the broad strokes of said plan so they can prepare.
Problem-Solving and Flexibility
Crews above and below the line sometimes must do a lot with less due to limited resources. Being decisive is your friend. For example, when producing a product launch event for the finale on a show I worked on, the plan was for it to be palatial and glamorous. However, our limited budget for the first season only allowed the event to look expensive. We had to get creative with how we executed that.
Without the option of an upscale nail spa, I pitched to the director and showrunner that we hire highly talented local nail technicians who would work out of mobile nail stations with their own water supply. Having nearby, but discreet, cleaning stations allowed the technicians to tidy their stations in between clients. An in-demand event planner executed a beautiful design plan that elevated the first floor of a 1920s mansion—the cast member’s home.
The result was an elegant event with a large turnout. The nail techs were able to service clients with ease, and we were able to use the money we saved in location fees to pay nail techs for their time on camera. Even when you solve a problem, have a backup plan in case some element of the plan falls through. That means having an available backup cast member that you’re in regular communication with, or having not one, but two signed location releases just in case one location becomes unavailable.
By looking at your professional relationships with unscripted directors from a place of partnership, you’ll find that professional frustrations are less and solutions are plentiful. Learning how to successfully work with others sets you up to be seen as a leader and will cause your career to flourish.
Start implementing these tips today and watch your collaborations with unscripted directors thrive!
Gabrielle Glenn is an unscripted TV producer and development professional.
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