What is good directing in films?

When I am watching a film, I can readily point out to someone good cinematography like exceptional lighting or an interesting camera angle to capture the action or mood.

I can point what in my opinion good writing, acting, and even editing or costumes.

But what can one point to on the screen and say ‘That is good directing’? How do you know that the editor or the cinematographer or the writer or the actor or the costume designer didn’t make those choices?

I guess if you see an actor who usually sucks but in this film is much better you may think that the director got a good performance from them.

Or do you have to look at several films by a director and see a consistency of quality work to know that they are a good director?

What do you consider to be good directing film?

It’s the director who looks at the work of the cinematographer or editor and says, “That’s good, let’s keep it” or “Nope. Try again.” Same thing with the acting.

Ultimately, the director is responsible for the entire movie, not the pieces. A good director is one who makes good films.

So what is the producer doing?

Putting the talent team together and paying for it all (or otherwise arranging the financial backing).

The director is the one with the “Vision”. (NB: “The director’s Vision” is something you hear about a lot.) He reads the script and visualizes how he wants it to look. He knows how the actors are supposed to act. He knows what angles he wants. He works closely with the director of photography (DP) to get the shots he wants. The director is the one who coordinates the artistic and technical aspects of the film and is the one who gives the film its “feel”. The DP supervises lighting, lenses, filters, camera set-ups, camera crew and the processing of the film.

What is “good” directing? It’s not that easy to define. One of my favourite directors is Jim Jarmusch. He likes to have long takes, and his films have a rather leisurely pacing. I love his stuff, but others think it’s boring. David Lynch likes to portray outrageously quirky characters as normal, and he likes certain camera angles. Other directors may play outrageous characters as zany, “over the top”, sick, or any other way you can imagine, and he may choose different angles that give the viewer a different perspective. Which is better? It depends on what you like. For example Lynch has used a straight transvestite FBI agent, but otherwise the character acted normally. Another director might have had the character “camp it up”. The character “works” in Lynch’s film, but would come off as something completely different in a “screwball comedy”.

When I see a film I’ll see things and say, “I would have shot that scene differently.” My “Vision” is different from the director’s. Does that make him a bad director since I think the shot could have been made better the way I’d shoot it? Not necessarily. If it works in the film, it works. If I think I can do it better, then I can scrape together my limited resources and time and try my own film. All things being equal, would my film be better? Who can say? But the other director is the one who has the career.

Ed Wood is often pointed to as the worst director ever. Certainly he made innumerable technical mistakes in his films. When something went wrong he often wouldn’t try to do it better, but try to justify it. I think Ed Wood would qualify as a “bad” director; but his films are a lot of fun to watch!

So how do you know if the direction is good, or if you just aren’t seeing what the director is getting at? It’s pretty subjective stuff. But consider the contrast between a “film” and “home movies”. It’s pretty easy to tell which was directed and which wasn’t. That’s an extreme contrast, but I think you get the idea.

Films are meant to tell a story, and stories are meant to manipulate your emotions. Did the comedy make you laugh? Did the suspense make you nervous? Did the drama make you cry? Did the horror frighten you? Did the documentary add to your knowledge? Did the action picture make you chear the good guys and revel in the baddies’ demise? If it did, then the direction was at least adequate. If it didn’t and you find yourself saying, “Why did the director do that?” or “I would have preferred the actor do act this way.” or “I would have done that differently.” then either the direction was poor or you missed what the director was aiming at. If you “didn’t get it”, is it because the direction was poor? Is it the director’s responsibility to make sure everyone “gets it”? Or is it that the director was aiming for an audience of which you were not part?

As I said, it’s very subjective.

But there’s another measure: Did the film make money? You’ll note that the industry is called “show business”. If a director is capable of making movies that people pay their nine bucks to see, and he does it consistently, then as far as the studios are concerned he’s a “good” director. Whether he is in fact “good” is debatable. For example, Titanic made a ton of money; but I don’t think it was a very “good” film. Others disagree. So we’re back to subjectivity.

So for the industry, a “good” director is one who makes money for the studios. For the viewer, a “good” director makes a good film in the opinion of the viewer.

I’ve had this question myself. Often you’ll read that a director has “done the best he can with poor material” or “squeezed wonderful performances out of” an actor. As a layperson, it’s hard for me to see what the difference is between a good director elevating bad material to adequacy and a bad director bringing great material down through bad choices.

Certain directors have an influence you can sense, like Kubrick or recently Paul Thomas Anderson, but I’m not really sure why. I guess I’m just not familiar enough with the language of film to sort it all out.

I have my own ideas on the subject. I just want to read what others think.

With directors that I like, I only seem to come to liking them after seeing several of their films. You get a feel for their style, pacing, what kind of story they are telling and how well they handle things like comic elements, action sequences or emotional aspects of a story. So a body of work seems to me, to be the way to spot a really good director.

It’s very subjective. Let’s look at The Blair Witch Project. From the distributor’s view, this was an excellent film. It made a ton of money. But in my opinion it only “worked” if you went in thinking it was actual film and tape taken by the actual participants who actually disappeared. Going in knowing that it’s fiction made it a bit hokey.

Now I liked the film for what it was. The idea was more-or-less original, and assuming people thought it was real it was a good effort. But when you know it’s fiction, then parts of it break down. The director was playing off (in addition to the fiction that it was not a fiction) the idea that the scariest things are the things you don’t see. I think this worked against the film in a couple of places. For example, I would have showed something when they came out of the tent at night and “knew” something was out there but couldn’t see it. I would have had their lights reflecting off a pair of eyes in the darkness for just an instant, and after that instant the eyes would have turned away. I think this would have given the audience a better fright than “Oh! There’s something we can’t see out there!” and it still would have preserved the “don’t show the monster” premise of the filmmaker.

Another thing I would have done was to not make it a “this is the raw footage” thing. I would have made it more into a documentary. That is, I would have made it a “documentary filmmaker goes in search of the missing kids” thing and would have had addtional footage that was not “shot by the kids” cut into it. I know there were more interviews and things that didn’t make it into the final cut, but even seeing those I think there should have been more and different footage. It’s a little hard to explain.

So I see a good idea , good actors and a good “script” that was pulled off competently by a good director in that the result was what the director’s “Vision” was. But watching the film I couldn’t help but think, “I would have put this here, and this could have been done there to make it better.” I can see how a less competent director could have made a total hash of the film, but I can also see room for improvement.

In short, the director had a “Vision” that he carried out apparently just how he wanted it; but I think he could have made better choices.


I agree with most posters that there is a lot of subjectivity in judging the quality of directing, but there are certain parameters that can be taken from those directors that you have judged previously to be good. In other words, the more films you see, the more of an opinion you can make about what good and bad directing is considered to be, and what good and bad directing is to you. These two aren’t always the same, but you will reach a point where you can tell reaaaaly bad directors from average and good directors. YMMV

For example. When I was quite young I watched Jaws and was awfully scared of the shark, etc. I recently watched it again, and realised why Spielberg is thought of as a good director. That film would have been nothing without a good director, as the sequels prove.

Sometimes it depends on the film.

Peter Jackson was a great choice for LotR because he didn’t feel a need to “mark” his material. Imagine the same movie directed by Speilberg or Robert Rodriguez

But Speilberg and Rodriguez are really good (in Speilberg’s case - great) directors.

(LotRs, directed by the Coen brothers…think about it.)

When I read that, I immediately envisioned a scene of Gollum’s feet sticking out of a wood chipper and all the hobbits speaking with Minnesota/North Dakota accents.

Anyway, I think good film direction is ultimately something intangible. All the decisions a director makes in the course of a movie come together to create a film that, to varying degrees, is either successful or unsuccessful according to the subjective opinion of each member of the audience. It’s like talent in a sport. Just about anyone can be taught to hit a baseball, run a football, or dunk a basketball. However, the extent of one’s success at doing these things also depends upon the athlete’s (or director’s) own innate talent.

On the subjecy of a director’s input into a pre-written script, I was very struck by a letter to this month’s Sight and Sound on the subject of Altered States ( 1980). The screenplay for the film was written by Paddy Chayefsky, from his novel. Ken Russell was brought in as director but with the stipulation that he had to film the script exactly as it was written, without changing a single word. Russell did so, but Chayefsky nonetheless insisted that his name be removed from the credits, saying the film bore no resemblance to his vision.

For further illustration of this point, I would recommend the films of the studio directors, who almost always had to work from scripts written by others. The auteurs of 1960’s French film criticism were those who could stamp their own authority on a film without changing the script: Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks to choose two of the most highly regarded.

Finally, I would recommend the book Film as Film by V. F. Perkins for a good presentation of the role of director as author of a film.

One sign of good directing is that you don’t notice it - the film is so immersive you are never jarred into a disassociated perspective in the first place. Only on reflection would you comment on the direction. That’s why I’m not a big fan of overly gimmicky shots ala Hitchcock. The role of director is also very amorphous - some are director/editors or director/writers or director/producers, etc. Some directors may not know the first thing about cinematography so they’ll rely 100% on the DP. People often forget that directors direct actors. Shots are usually made completely out of context and the director must have the vision of the entire story so that he can communicate the level of intensity of emotion an actor needs for a particular scene. You don’t see this aspect in the finished product.

Actually, I have to disagree here. One of the best things about Fellowship of the Ring (and, presumably, the next two movies) is that Jackson is fully aware that he’s making his version of the story. He knows (1) no book will work on film exactly the way it does on the page, and (2) some segment of the purists will howl no matter what he does. So he goes ahead and makes his own movie.

Yes, he takes it seriously, very seriously indeed. (As you watch the movie, imagine the Monty Python guys delivering the exact same dialogue, and you’ll see just how close to self-parody the High Fantasy genre really is, and what an amazing feat the movie pulls off.) He keeps 99% of the plot, though streamlined radically, and reworked somewhat (sequence, flashback vs. actual event, etc.). He understands Tolkien’s underlying themes (pastoralism vs industrialization, for example), and works these into the tapestry.

But it’s still his movie, recognizably his style. He has always used a very active and fluid, almost melodramatic, camera, from Bad Taste to Heavenly Creatures. See towards the beginning, when Gandalf gives the Ring from the fire to Frodo. At first, there’s no writing, and he relaxes. But when the writing appears, look at the extreme damn closeup with Gandalf right up in the camera. And a bit later, when he reappears in the dark, startling Frodo, look at how the handheld camera swoops up to reveal him. That’s a very modern camera move, very much his own style. And the wide-scale flying camera, such as the tour of Saruman’s mine, is straight out of The Frighteners.

Not to mention his fondness for grotesquerie (the birth of the Uruk-Hai is as gloopy as anything in Dead Alive or Bad Taste), or his desire to keep the story solidly rooted in genuine emotion (Heavenly Creatures again), or any of the other touches that identify this as “his” film.

So, there’s that.

As far as the question in the OP, it’s definitely a good one, and not one that can really be answered solidly. If you read my article What does a producer do? you will get the idea that there are just as many different directorial approaches as for producers. Some directors focus on the actors and don’t call attention to the camera (e.g. Altman); some are the opposite (e.g. Bay). Some are able to do both (e.g. Fincher at his best, though he waffles). Some directors don’t know anything about the camera and let the cinematographer run the visuals (e.g. Costner in Dances with Wolves, for the most part). Some directors know all about the camera and are their own cinematographer (e.g. Soderbergh).

The generalized answer – a good director makes good movies – is maybe the best it’s possible to narrow it down. I can think of movies that are fun despite a mediocre script, or a middling performance, or shaky production values, or an inappropriate musical score. Lots of movies are acceptable despite some iffy element or other. But I can’t think of a single movie that succeeds despite bad directing. Or, indeed, bad editing. Hmmm.

Woops, that link should be What does a producer do? Sorry.

Yeah, by mark I meant “spray with urine.” Jackson’s LotRs is a Jackson film. But he remains (or attempts to remain) true to the material (even when changing it to make it a better movie) and doesn’t overdirect.

Not that overdirecting is necessarily bad. I happen to like the John Woo/Robert Rodriguez school of directing. But, when in the middle of a gun fight you say “God, what a shot!” its a hint that its a little over directed.

(I’d drafted this earlier talking about Costner and Dances with Wolves - Costner really didn’t deserve a Best Director Oscar really just hired the best Cinematographer.)

If you take a look at the shorts at BMWFilms.com, you can really get a good feel as to how a director affects a film. Each film has a relatively simple plot due to time constraints, and each had the obligatory car chase scene (because they’re basically long car commercials). But the look and feel of the films are unique and have an their own individual style that clearly separates them from each other.

Look at a few of them and you can get a sense as to what the director of each one has done to make it original. Later, if you watch full length films by the same director, you can see traits within them that the director duplicates in the BMW film.

Sorry. I didn’t make clear that each of the films at BMWfilms.com is directed by different big-name directors. The reason I suggest watching those films is because you can get a sense of each of the directors’ styles without having to spend countless hours watching movies.