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With the Big Screen Symposium almost upon us again with a host of excellent speakers to hear from, I thought I might reflect on professional development.
Eight or so years ago I decided to focus on narrative feature film and TV drama. I had come from a background of documentary, news, travel, and marketing storytelling for the screen, but I knew very little about dramatic narrative storytelling.
I threw myself into learning and haven’t stopped. For the first five years I applied for and attended a large number of professional development opportunities the New Zealand Film Commission and other bodies offered. If a talk was on with Script to Screen, SPADA or with anyone else, I was there. At the same time I was making or helping to make short films and developing features and TV drama series.
Three years ago I was contracted in to DEGNZ as the Executive Director. A good part of my responsibility has been to run the guild’s professional development programme for directors and editors. I’ve managed mentorships, film talks, attachments, workshops, panel discussions and seminars. And until this year I made a point of attending every single one of them.
Last year I took part in a year-long professional development programme in Europe. And this year I’m doing one here.
I think I can fairly say that when it comes to professional development, I’ve had a lot of experience with it. And I see the benefits. Not just for me, but for others, too.
Now of course professional development is not actually ‘doing it’, which is the best school of all. Most of the good speakers I’ve encountered have a long history as industry practitioners, which is how they accumulated the knowledge they impart—from on-the-job successes and failures. This is why workshops where you get hands-on experience are particularly valuable—it replicates to a greater or lesser extent the actual work involved without the pressure.
In my time focusing on narrative drama, I’ve met a lot of directors who say they want to direct a feature film. And I mean a lot. TV drama, web series, TVCs and short films offer directors the opportunity to practise what’s required to make a feature. But because drama and comedy are scripted, the amount of time devoted to the actual directing is usually much less than the time spent on developing the scripts to be made. Consequently, unless you are a TV drama director who is regularly employed, it’s likely that your ‘doing it’ is broken up by lots of ‘developing to do it’ or ‘applying to do it’, or just ‘waiting to do it’. And it’s in these troughs that you can ‘learn to do it’.
In New Zealand alone, there are lots of opportunities to learn from industry peers, the up-coming Big Screen Symposium a prime example. And overseas there are many, many more if you have the time and or money.
What astounds me is from that large “I want to direct a feature” group, there is actually a much smaller pool of people who actively seek through professional development the skills and knowledge required to learn to direct feature film well. Directing actors particularly is something crucial that you can learn about through attending acting classes or workshops, having read-throughs, rehearsing scenes, improvising material, or engaging in other director – actor focused activity.
Common comments I hear from experienced actors who either attend or facilitate our workshops is that many directors they’ve worked with either don’t know how to communicate with actors to get good performance or that the directors are actually afraid of actors.
It doesn’t surprise me that a good number of directors who make their way successfully in film or TV drama in New Zealand are also actors: Michael Hurst, Peter Burger, Aidee Walker, Danny Mulheron, Jackie Van Beek, Oliver Driver, Kathy McRae, Ian Hughes, Matthew Saville, Roseanne Liang, to name a few. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. But it’s obviously an advantage.
Editors are fortunate in that if they are working they are practising their craft every day. But they too need to learn to adapt to narrative drama storytelling if that’s their ambition.
I encourage everyone in the guild to grab as many opportunities to upskill as you can. Whether it’s applying to the Story Camp Aotearoa, attending a Rehearsal Room, going to a WIFT Coproduction Summit, or doing a Drama Editing workshop. I reckon Prof. Dev. is the next best thing to doing it.
See you at the Big Screen Symposium. I’ll be there. And if you want to talk, swing by the DEGNZ booth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the guild’s professional development programme or anything else you’d like to share.
P.S. While I may gush enthusiastically about Prof. Dev., others don’t. Case in point: Guardian writer Caspar Salmon on director Q & A’s after films here.