Film Directing Fundamentals: See Your Film Before Shooting / Edition 3

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Film Directing Fundamentals gives the novice director an organic methodology for realizing on the screen the full dramatic possibility of a screenplay. Unique among directing books, this book provides clear-cut ways to translate a script to the screen. Using the script as a blueprint, the reader is led through specific techniques to analyze and translate its components into a visual story. A sample screenplay is included that explicates the techniques. The book assumes no knowledge and thus introduces basic concepts and terminology.

Appropriate for screenwriters, aspiring directors and filmmakers, Film Directing Fundamentals helps filmmakers bring their story to life on screen.

Unique among directing books, Film Directing Fundamentals provides a clear-cut methodology for translating a script to the screen. Using the script as a blueprint, Proferes leads the reader through specific techniques to analyze and translate its components into a visual story. A sample screenplay is included that explicates the techniques. The book assumes no knowledge and thus introduces basic concepts and terminology. Unique, focused approach to film directing that shows how to use the screenplay as a blueprint

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Just bring your talent, add a touch of luck, and the rest you will find in this book." - Milos Forman, film director (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt)

"Nick Proferes doesn't tell you how to direct, which would be as silly as telling you what to direct. Instead, he does something much more valuable: He explains how directors actually think their way though the job." James Schamus, Associate Professor of Film at Columbia University, producer and screenwriter (The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

"An admirable overview of the nuts and bolts of directing,
Film Directing Fundamentals takes a unique approach in discussing the craft...Full of interesting observations, this book could be a welcome addition to the aspiring director's bookshelf." - Videomaker Magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780240809403
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 7/3/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 361,339
  • Product dimensions: 7.20 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Film Directing Fundamentals

See Your Film Before Shooting
By Nicholas T. Proferes

Focal Press

Copyright © 2008 Elsevier, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-08-092754-1

Chapter One



The first dramatic films were rendered as if through a proscenium. The camera was placed in position, and all the action in the scene took place within that camera frame. The audience's view was much the same as a theater audience sitting front row center. The American director D. W. Griffith was one of the first to move the audience onto the stage with works like For Love Of Gold (1908), The Lonely Villa (1909), The Lonedale Operator (1911), and the highly influential, but strongly racist, Birth of a Nation (1915). "Look here!" he said to the audience with his camera—"Now here!" Griffith was not only moving the audience into the scene, he was then turning their seats this way and that—moving them into the face of a character, then in the next instant pulling them to the back of the "theater" to get a larger view of the character in relation to other characters or showing the character in relation to his or her surroundings.

The reason for putting the audience into the scene is that it makes the story more interesting-more dramatic. But by moving the audience into the action and focusing their attention first here, now there, the director can easily confuse and disorient the audience. The geography of a location or the wholeness of a character's body becomes fragmented. Whose hand does that belong to? Where is character A in spatial relationship to character B? Usually the director does not want to cause confusion. Rather, she wants the audience to feel comfortable in this film world—to be spatially (and temporally) oriented—so that the story can take place unimpeded. Usually the director wants the audience to know, "That hand belongs to Bob, and Bob is sitting to the right of Ellen" (even if we haven't seen Ellen for a while). There are times, however, when we will use this possibility for confusion and disorientation to our advantage to create surprise or suspense.


When film became a series of connected shots, a language was born. Every shot became a complete sentence with at least one subject and one verb. (We are talking about an edited shot here, as opposed to a camera setup, which can be cut into a number of edited shots.) Like prose, a film sentence/shot can be simple, with only one subject and one verb, and perhaps an object; or it can be a compound sentence/shot, composed of two or more clauses. The type of sentence/shot we use will first depend on the essence of the moment that we wish to convey to the audience. Secondarily, that sentence/shot will be contained in a design of the scene, which can be an ingredient of an overall style. In Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), where there are but nine sentences, each one 10 minutes long (the length of a film roll), each sentence contains many subjects and a host of verbs and objects.

Let us look at a simple sentence/shot: a wristwatch lying on a table, reading three o'clock.

Without a context outside of this particular shot, the sentence reads, "A wristwatch lying on a table reads three o'clock." The significance of this film sentence, its specific meaning in the context of a story, will become clear only when it is embedded among other shots (sentences); for example, a character is someplace she is not supposed to be, and as she leaves we cut to the very same shot of the wristwatch on the table reading three o'clock. Now the shot—the sentence—is given a context and takes on a specific significance. Its meaning is clear. The character is leaving behind evidence (that could cause her trouble). The fact that it is three o'clock might very well have no significance at all.

The necessity of context in interpreting a particular shot applies to the camera angle also. No camera angle—extreme low, extreme high, tilted to left or right, etc.—in and of itself contains any inherent dramatic, psychological, or atmospheric content.


Professionals in the film industry don't usually refer to a shot as a sentence. But in learning any foreign language, we have to think in our native language first to clearly formulate what it is we want to say in the new language, and the same principle applies to learning to "talk" in film. It can be extremely helpful before you have developed a visual vocabulary to formulate the content of each shot into a linguistic analogue (the prose and syntax of your native language) to help you find the corresponding visual images. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that film, unlike the words of the screenplay, is rendered on the screen in a series of images that, when combined in a sequence, gives a meaning that goes beyond mere words. The late Stefan Sharff, a former colleague of mine at Columbia, in his book The Elements of Cinema, wrote:

When a proper cinema "syntax" is used, the viewer is engaged in an active process of constantly "matching" chains of shots not merely by association or logical relationship but by an empathy peculiar to cinema. The blend so achieved spells cinema sense—a mixture of emotion and understanding, meditative or subliminal, engaging the viewer's ability to respond to a structured cinema "language." ... A cinematic syntax yields meaning not only through the surface content of shots, but also through their connections and mutual relationships.


Film language has only four basic grammatical rules, three of which are concerned with spatial orientation as a result of moving the audience into the action. The fourth also deals with space but for a different reason. All of these rules must be followed most of the time, but all can be broken for dramatic effect.


The 180-degree rule deals with any framed spatial (right-to-left or left-to-right) relationship between a character and another character or object. It is used to maintain consistent screen direction between the characters, or a character and an object, within the established space.

When a character is opposite another character or object, an imaginary line (axis) exists between that character and the other character or object. The issue is most acute in the sight lines between two characters who are looking at each other (Figure 1-1). As long as A and B are contained in the same shot, there is no problem (Figure 1-2). (The axis exists even if the characters do not look at each other.)

Now let's place a camera between the two characters, facing toward A, who is looking, not at the camera, but at B, who is camera right (Figure 1-3). (Characters almost never look into the camera except in very special situations, such as an object of a point of view (POV) shot, a comic take, or a reflexive moment that recognizes the presence of the camera.)

Let's now turn the camera around toward B who will now be looking camera left (Figure 1-4).

If we were to shoot separate shots of A and B then cut them together so that one would follow the other, what we would see on the screen is the two subjects looking at each other. In other words, their sight lines would be correct, and the audience would understand the spatial relationship between the characters. What happens to the sight lines if we jump the axis during a scene (Figure 1-5)?

Still shooting in separation, we have moved the camera across the axis for shooting A while leaving the camera on the same side of the axis for B. Subject A will now be looking camera left. B will also be looking camera left. When the two shots are cut together, the result will be that the subjects/characters will be looking in the opposite directions, and the audience will become confused as to spatial positioning between them, the dynamics of the dramatic moment thereby broken.

It is possible to cross the axis with impunity as long as we keep the audience constantly apprised of where the characters are in relation to each other. We could dolly across or around. Or we could cut to a two-shot from the opposite side of the axis. Other than the fact that character A will jump to the left side of the frame, whereas B will jump to the right side, the audience will still be correctly oriented (Figure 1-6). This "flip-flopping" of characters to opposite sides of the frame, at the right dramatic moment, can be another powerful dramatic tool.

Having characters change sides within the frame is also a staging technique often used by directors, and it is one that is highly effective in punctuating a moment. This is made even more powerful if, say, the position of characters A and B within the frame is changed forcefully. A good example of this exists in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), the highly memorable scene in which Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) exclaims to the private detective, J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), "She's my sister, she's my daughter!" At the start of this hysterical outburst, Dunaway is on the right side of the frame. Nicholson tries to calm her down. He fails until he slaps her hard, sending her reeling from screen right to screen left. This change in their positioning vis-à-vis the frame serves to end that dramatic "stanza" and announces the arrival of a new one. Another good example of flipflopping of characters to the opposite side of the frame is in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorcese, 1976) as Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) makes her way to a taxi pursued by Travis (Robert De Niro) after a disastrous date at an X-rated movie. Keeping both in the frame, the camera crosses the 180-degree line four times, dramatically punctuating Betsy's exit.

Can we ever jump the axis between our characters while they are in separation? The 180degree rule often terrifies the beginning director, and so much heed is paid to not breaking this rule that it rarely is. But we can break it—jump the axis between characters—with great dramatic effect if we do it on an act of energy: This act of energy can be either psychological or physical. We will see an example of this when we add the camera to a screenplay in Chapter 8.


If we are going from one shot of a character or object (Figure 1-7) to another shot of the same character or object without an intervening shot of something else, the camera angle should change by at least 30 degrees.

The effect of disobeying this rule is to call undue attention to the camera; it seems to leap through space. If the rule is obeyed, we do not notice this leap. But in some instances, disobedience can be dramatically energizing. In The Birds (1963), Hitchcock ignores the rule to "punch up" the discovery of the body of a man with a series of three shots from the same angle, each shot coming dramatically closer: medium to medium close-up to close-up. (Three is the magic number in this style of elaboration, as well as in other stylistic and dramaturgical aspects of film. Given any two types of patterns we anticipate the third, creating dramatic tension.)

Sometimes, because of the geography of the set or other limitations, we have to cut to the next shot from the same angle. We see it done successfully fairly frequently, but the reason it works is because of one of the following mitigating factors: the subject is in motion, the second shot includes a foreground object such as a lamp shade, or the change in image size from one shot to the next is substantial.


The sections that follow explore various aspects of screen direction.


If a character (or car, or anything else) exits a frame going from left to right (Figure 1-8), he should enter the next frame from the left if we intend to convey to the audience that the character is headed in the same direction.

If we disobey this simple rule and have our character or car exit frame right (Figure 1-9), then enter the second frame from the right, the character or car will seem to have made a U-turn.


Excerpted from Film Directing Fundamentals by Nicholas T. Proferes Copyright © 2008 by Elsevier, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Part One

Chapter 1
Introduction to Film Language and Grammar
-The Film World
-Film Language
-Film Grammar
-The 180-Degree Rule
-The 30-Degree Rule
-Screen Direction
-Familiar Image

Chapter 2
Introduction to the Dramatic Elements Embedded in the Screenplay
-Whose film is it?
-Dynamic Relationship
-Acting Beats
-Dramatic Blocks
-Narrative Beats

Chapter 3
Organizing Action in a Dramatic Scene
-Dramatic Elements in NOTORIOUS Patio Scene
-NOTORIOUS Patio Scene Annotated

Chapter 4
-Main Functions
-Patterns of Dramatic Movement
-Changing the Stage within a Scene
-Staging as Part of a Film's Design
-Working with a Location Floor Plan
-Floor Plan and Staging for NOTORIOUS Patio Scene

Chapter 5
-The Camera as Narrator
-Objective Camera
-Subjective Camera
-Where Do I Put It?
-Visual Design
-Camera Height
-Where To Begin?
-Working Toward Specificity in Visualization
-Looking for Order
-Dramatic Blocks and Camera
-Shot List, Storyboards, and Camera Setups
-The Prose Storyboard

Chapter 6
Camera in NOTORIOUS Patio Scene

Part Two

Chapter 7
Detective Work On Scripts
-Reading Your Screenplay
-The Piece of Apple Pie Screenplay
-Whose Film Is It?
-Spines for The Piece Of Apple Pie
-Dynamic Relationships
-Acting Beats
-Tone for The Piece Of Apple Pie
-Breaking The Piece Of Apple Pie Into Actions
-Designing a Scene
-Identifying the Fulcrum and Dramatic Blocks
-Supplying Narrative Beats to The Piece Of Apple Pie
-Director's Notebook

Chapter 8
Staging and Camera For The Piece Of Apple Pie
-Staging The Piece Of Apple Pie
-Camera for The Piece Of Apple Pie

Chapter 9
Marking Shooting Script With Camera Setups

Chapter 10
Work With Actors
-First Read-Through
-Directing During Rehearsals
-Directing Actors on the Set

Chapter 11
Managerial Responsibilities of the Director
-Delegating Authority While Accepting Responsibility
-The Producer
-The Assistant Director
-A Realistic Shooting Schedule
-Working with the Crew
-Working with the Director of Photography

Chapter 12
-Music and Sound
-Locking Picture, or, How Do You Know When It's Over?

Part Three

Chapter 13
Staging and Camera for Over Easy Action Scene

Part Four

Chapter 14
Staging and Camera for Wanda Narrative Scene

Part Five

Chapter 15
Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious
-Overview of Style and Design
-First Act
-Second Act
-Third Act

Chapter 16
Peter Weir's The Truman Show
-Overview of Style and Design
-First Act
-Second Act
-Third Act

Chapter 17
Federico Fellini's 8 1/2
-A Masterpiece?
-The Director as Auteur
-Dramatic Construction
-Overview of Style and Design
-What Are We Watching for in This Film?
-Detective Work
-First Act
-Second Act
-Third Act

Chapter 18
Styles And Dramatic Structures
-Narrative, Dramatic, and Poetic Visual Styles
-The Variety of Dramatic Structures
-Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu (1935, Japan)
-Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder (1959)
-The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo (1965, France)
-Red, Krzysztof Kieslowski (1994, Poland, France, Switzerland)
-sex, lies and videotape, Steven Soderbergh (1989)
-Shall We Dance, Masayuki Suo (1996, Japan)
-The Celebration, Thomas -Vinterberg (1998, Denmark)
-The Insider, Michael Mann (1999)
-The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick (1998)
-In the Mood for Love, (Kar-wai Wong , 2001, Chinese)
-Little Children (Todd Field, 2006)

Chapter 19
-What's Next?
-Building Directorial Muscles
-Writing For The Director
-Begin Thinking About Your Story
-Concocting Your Feature Screenplay
-"Writing” Scenes With Actors
-Shooting Your Film Before You Finish Writing It
-The Final Script
-Shooting Without A Screenplay?
-Questions Directors Should Ask
-About Their Screenplays
-Building Directorial Muscles

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