Vincent Laforet Talks Directing Motion Tour: '90% of the Director’s Work is Done Off Set in Prep'
The Directing Motion Tour workshop, hosted by award-winning commercial director Vincent Laforet, goes in-depth with some of the most famous films in history, analyzing why and when the camera was moved or placed in a certain way, and how sequences are constructed from those shots. Not only that, but attendees actually get to work on a scene themselves where they put all of this theory into practice. I recently attended the DM tour, and I was able to sit down with Vincent and ask a few questions about camera movement, being a director, and what really matters when it comes to storytelling.
NFS: Why and when should you move the camera?
Laforet: You should always move it when it helps serve the story in some way, helps elevate the experience of the audience on a psychological level in their understanding of the space, to include or exclude, or to reveal or conceal something. The main point is that the move should add and not subtract from the story you’re shooting, and should ideally be motivated by something in the frame, as opposed to a random move that happens on its own.
NFS: When shouldn’t you move the camera?
Laforet: You don’t want to move during intimate dialogue. Generally speaking when dialogue happens you want to stop moving the camera so people can connect with the actor through their eyes. So you don’t want to be moving like crazy when there is really intense dialogue happening, or when it doesn’t serve the story -- when it distracts.
NFS: What kind of camera movement do you see newer filmmakers utilizing wrong or too much?
Laforet: I see a slider as a blessing and a curse in that so many people slide just because they can, and it is seldom motivated. Cinema is almost always a combination of movements, it’s rarely just one movement. A slide is often, if not always, accompanied by a pan and a tilt. That’s what people fail to do either because they don’t have the right equipment or because they don’t understand that. You rarely do a pure slide, laterally, in cinema and in general.
NFS: What would you suggest if someone has a slider, would you tell them to push in and pull back instead of moving laterally?
Laforet: Lateral moves are not as interesting generally as the depth or Z-axis moves, where you can appreciate the changing dimension of the environment -- so try to switch to those. The key point is that as long as they are motivated by something in the frame, you’ll have a greater degree of success. And also try to add a fluid head to make it a little richer.
NFS: When time is tight, when do you decide to abandon a movement to make your day?
Laforet: When you have no choice left. That’s experience and discipline to know that you should always try to go for gold, but when it’s clear you’re not going to make your day, there is no reason to have a really fancy move that you can’t edit into a sequence because you don’t have the final piece. So you have to have discipline to at any point pull the ripcord and go to your B plan, which is simplicity, going back to the old coverage rules of wide, medium, and tight, as opposed to trying to do a nice oner or fancy shot. Because the worst thing that can happen is that you get a bad, mediocre, or stiff one shot or fancy move and no sequence because you don’t have anything to cut to. It happens to all of us, and you learn to say “not again.” You have to be able to say, "I have to stop now or I am not going to have anything to edit with."
NFS: You’d rather have the coverage instead of trying a fancy shot.
Laforet: This isn’t still photography where you are looking for one great still shot that captures everything, this is a sequence of images or movements stitched together. And that’s the key.
NFS: As a director, what do you think is the skill you need to be most proficient at?
Laforet: Being able to have a clear vision, to understand how to describe that with clear and concise communication to your crew, and know how to do it, or let them show you how to do it if they are more proficient than you are. But if you can’t communicate, and you can’t formulate your own idea, there is no chance you’ll make it. It’s all about having that vision or that idea, and being able to communicate the idea in some terms that other people can translate onto the screen. That’s the key, executing your vision with other people.
NFS: Something that is said a lot is that the role of a director is being a problem-solver, would you agree with that?
Laforet: We are constant mitigators, problem-solvers, and we shoot off the hip all the time. The more we prepare, the more experience we have, the more tricks we have in our bag, the better we can mitigate issues. And the issues will arise, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when, and so when they do happen, don’t be shocked, and react appropriately.
NFS: What advice would you give a director just starting out?
Laforet: Learn to direct with your iPhone or smart phone. Don’t worry about lenses or gear, and understand how to sequence shots. Then you’ll see if you know what you’re doing. The moment you start introducing gear into it, you’re giving yourself more points of failure and you’re going to focus on the gear and not on the craft — and that’s ultimately not what it’s about. If you can do a great sequence with just an iPhone or a smart phone and it works, you will see that you understand movement and how to sequence shots, how to cut and time, and you’ll be far ahead of the game.
NFS: How about advice for a cinematographer just starting out?
Laforet: Some of the same advice, but also look at other people’s work, and try to break it down. Understand why different sequences or movies work or why they don’t, use the pause and rewind buttons and play the same sequences without sound and analyze them, break them down, and storyboard them. Note the length, the motion, the speed, the lens, the lighting, everything. And try to figure out why they made the decisions they did. Read interviews about it, behind the scenes, and try to pick out information.
NFS: You started as a stills photographer, but when you were just starting to get involved in motion photography and shooting, what did you do to prepare yourself, did you look at a lot of what other people had done?
Laforet: Looked at a lot, asked questions. Analyze. Postulate. Repeat. See if you can do it on your own, you get it or you don’t, if you don’t, you go back to the drawing board and try it again.
NFS: What would you say to new filmmakers worried about the gear or the camera?
Laforet: It’s not about the camera, it’s not about the resolution, or the frame rate. It’s not about the gear. Rent everything first, don’t buy stuff. See how you can work it. The more gear you put on a production, the less time and freedom you have. Find out what’s really essential to you. Whatever you don’t need you can jettison. My role as a director is to understand what the weaknesses and strengths are of each piece of gear, what their limits are, what to be worried about, what their strengths are, and put those into practice as best I can.
NFS: What is your typical prep to shooting ratio?
Laforet: 10:1. But in reality a lot of times it ends up being 2:1 or 3:1. The more prep you put in, the better your shoot days go, because you actually work through all of the problems beforehand. 90% of the director’s work is done off set in prep. By the time you step foot on set, everybody should know what they’re doing and what the goals are. You shouldn’t be explaining any major concepts on set.
NFS: Something you touched on during the workshop is keeping the talent happy no matter what. Could you elaborate more on that?
Laforet: You’re a cheerleader. You’re a leader on set and you set the tone both with your crew and with your cast. And if you have an unhappy crew or a bad morale on set, you’re not going to be getting the best out of anybody. So keep in mind what your role is, which is to always keep a positive attitude and always find solutions. Never scream at people, never put people down, just understand that you’re all here together, and it’s generally not rocket science and nobody is going to die on the operating table, so don’t take it so seriously. This is supposed to be fun.
NFS: You also touched on the fact that no matter the budget level, you feel like you never have enough money.
Laforet: You never have enough money and you never have enough time. One of my favorite quotes is, “From the moment you stop writing the script, you start compromising.” And that’s just the reality.
NFS: Why should people attend the Directing Motion Tour workshop?
Laforet: The idea is that everyone wants to be a director these days. They think that they can buy the slider, or the jib, or the camera, and that makes them a director. This is meant to refocus people on the craft, of how, when, and why to use those things. Also, to make people understand that the reason there is "Hollywood" and "Not Hollywood" isn’t the money or the gear, it’s the level of skill involved. This workshop tries to refocus people on that fact. If you find that your pieces don’t quite have that luster that you’re seeing on the big Hollywood screen, it probably has nothing to do with the gear, it probably has to do with the level of skill and complexity involved.
Vincent also broke down this terrific commercial he directed and talked about all of the challenges and the intense time crunch to get it done. He also touched upon the fact that a ton of unpaid work went into just trying to pitch the commercial, and even more unpaid work preparing it. The rates might be high doing a national commercial, but there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done that the client is likely not paying for:
If you can't attend the tour, it will also be available for download online, but certain details will only be available by attending in person, like some of the breakdowns for the commercial above. To read more about the tour and to see which cities are still left, head on over to his blog and the DM tour website.