Two critical positions in a motion picture or television show are the director and technical director in the entertainment industry. Theatrical productions also have directors and technical directors. However, the director typically receives most of the glory and publicity in filmmaking. Most people know Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, James Cameron, and Joel and Ethan Coen. Not all are household names like the previous ones; for example, have you heard of Chloé Zhao or Bong Joon Ho? Perhaps not, but they won a Best Director Academy Award in 2020 and 2019, respectively.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has no award for a technical director, and it does award an annual Best Cinematography that started in 1929. Infrequently do the director and the cinematographer take on both roles. The latter’s responsibilities are technical, as this individual’s goal is to capture the film director’s vision via lighting, camera movement, aspect ratio, shot size, focus, lenses, and camera placement. Another title for this person is director of photography.
Anyone who spends any time watching movies or TV shows has seen mention made of directors and technical directors in credits to these productions. Nonetheless, most people don’t know the specific roles of a director and technical director, let alone the differences between the two. The best way to appreciate the differences between a director and a technical director is to consider the essential elements of each.
Role of the Director
A film, television program, or play director is in charge of all creative aspects of a production. The general public is most familiar with the work of a director with actors. However, the duties extend to controlling the film’s entire artistic and creative aspects, similar to the orchestra leader. The band leader doesn’t need to know how to play all the instruments, but she/he must know how the music should sound for the particular composition. Like a symphony, many artists are involved in the production –musicians, leader, lighting technicians, sound engineers, and behind-the-scene production assistants. All of these roles are crucial for the performance.
Filmmaking is the same. Unlike the orchestra conductor, the film director typically has many assistants involved in casting, the screenplay, filming locations, choice of camera operators, the cinematographer, special effects personnel, stunt people, and more. However, the director participates in all of these duties, as well as watching auditions, reviewing the script, working with sound technicians, and the music score. The list can amount to hundreds when a movie ends with the lengthy scroll of people engaged in the film—everyone from the director and producers at the beginning to makeup artists and actors’ assistants.
In 2000, there was an average of 185 crew members on a film – by 2018, it had increased to 280.
The work of a director typically is categorized into three areas:
The development stage might begin with a screenplay or script written by screenwriters for a film or television program. The idea for a film could originate from a novel or non-fiction book, and a screenplay created for television is a teleplay. In the case of books, film studios might purchase the rights to an author’s work to make it into a movie or television program. Studio executives meet with producers and screenwriters to discuss an original idea. Many scripts become dust collectors in an executive’s office and never see production.
The 1992 film, The Unforgiven, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, took fifteen years from concept to production. The 2003 remake of the 1969 movie, The Italian Job, starring Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, and Edward Norton, took eight years to reach the production stage.
During this stage, the creative wheels begin to turn by establishing the production company and consultation with concept artists and the storyboard artist. The crew members take shape, their number determined by the film’s budget, and a low-budget movie may have only eight to ten people. Larger financed movies hire:
- Production Designer
- Costume Designer
- Director of Photography – supervises the cinematographer
- Camera Operators
- Choreographer (dance or fight scenes)
- Location Manager – finds film sites
- Casting Director – may handle auditions
- Sound Designer
- Sound Editor
- Production Sound Mixer or Engineer
- Composer – creates music post-production
- Visual Effects Technicians and Artists
- Special Effects Technicians
Until now, most of the director’s work has been behind the scenes. However, at this phase, filming commences, and many of the above personnel begin their hands-on responsibilities. More crew may join the production, like a picture editor, stills photographer, a script supervisor, electricians, carpenters, and a property master. And of course, the actors must know their lines, be in costume, and be ready to play their part when the director yells: Action!
Production is an exhausting and often grueling experience for the director and crew members. Days of 14 to 18 hours are typical, filming under adverse conditions, such as severe cold or heat and humidity –depending on the film location. In contrast, animated films are produced in comfortable air-conditioned or heated studios. Many scenes require the voice actors to read lines without seeing the other stars doing other voices.
After weeks, months, or even years, the production ends, but the director continues to be active. They remain integral to ensure that the final product turns out the way they envisioned during pre-production and production. The director usually works closely with the film editors to produce a ‘director’s cut.’
Post-production employs a task force to handle various aspects. For example, picture editing, sound mixing, sound effects, visual effects (VFX), adding titles and graphics, dubbing voices, removing unwanted noise, adding music, correcting color (aka color grading), and preparing for distribution.
Many directors have become household names in more recent years. Directors have become stars in their own right, as referenced by those in the first paragraph.
Role of the Technical Director
A technical director reports to the director of a movie, TV show, or play. A technical director is the most senior “technical person” in a film, television, or theatrical production. Typically, this individual has been involved in the film industry business for several years and attained expertise in production-related technical matters.
A technical director works for a film studio, production company, television studio, or film studio. This person is responsible for executing the technical aspects of specific production projects, including effects, lighting, layout, hair, and sound. This person isn’t as well recognized or awarded as the director who receives most of the accolades – next to the actors.
In television or theater, the technical director ensures that the technicians are versed in their respective duties, such as lighting, sound, props, and equipment usage. In theater, the individual may work on the play or musical for its duration. He/she is responsible for the set design, equipment placement, video broadcast equipment (if applicable), and speakers. Some work as freelance technical directors (TD) hired for specific jobs or events in this capacity. During live television, such as sports, the TD might preview commercials scheduled for airing during the broadcast and roll commercials and graphics when required.
Another title for the TD is Technical Production Manager. In live news television, books studios, assigns satellite trucks for live on-site reporting, manages logistics, sets up live video shots, manages studio control room intercom, and supports editorial and production staff.
The online and television weather source, Weather Nation, advertised a position for a Technical Director for their live and recorded studio transmissions. The person hired will be in charge of the technical quality of the broadcast or recorded signal and provide creative input in the video and audio production. Applicants must be familiar with Adobe for cutting and editing field packages. The job is in Denver, Colorado.
Directors and technical directors represent crucial roles in producing movies, television shows, and stage plays. While pursuing an education in these production areas is necessary, obtaining hands-on experience in film, television, or theatre is vital to becoming a director or technical director. Because these roles are essential, they are also highly competitive. A person intent on becoming a director or technical director nearly always must work their way up through the proverbial system.
The pathway to becoming a director can be significantly different from the technical director—first, a look at some famous movie directors and how they reached the profession’s pinnacle.
James Cameron, who won an Oscar as Best Director for Titanic, also directed Avatar (2009), Aliens (1986), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), began his directing career in 1978. He and a friend created a short film called Xenogenesis that came about after quitting his job as a truck driver in 1977 to enter the film industry after seeing Star Wars. After a few years of self-study, he worked as the art director for the sci-fi movie Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Cameron became the special effects director on a sequel to Piranha (Piranha II: The Spawning) in 1982. That same year, he wrote the script for The Terminator (released 1984), which the studios declined until his future wife, Gale Anne Hurd, purchased it for one dollar. He directed Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom in the film and cemented Cameron’s status as a film director.
The 2021 Oscar for Best Director went to Chloé Zhao (born 1982), who was still learning English when she attended Brighton College, a private boarding school in the United Kingdom, at the age of 15. She went to the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television Graduate Film Program at New York University in 2005. Coincidentally, the first introduction to American cinema was The Terminator (1984).
Television director Gail Mancuso (born 1958) started as an usher on the set of several talk shows, then became a scriptwriter and associate director for the comedy series Roseanne in 1989. Her career flourished into directing Friends, Dharma and Greg, 30 Rock, and Modern Family episodes.
Many actors assume the directorship role while acting in the television series. Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation), Steve Carell (The Office), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Neil Patrick Harris (How I met Your Mother) directed and starred in their shows. Others are Ellen Pompeo (Grey’s Anatomy, Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn NINE-NINE), and Julie Bowen (Modern Family).
Does this mean you have to become a TV celebrity before directing? No – but it helps, especially in a long-running series like Friends and Grey’s Anatomy. Actors watch and learn from experienced directors before being behind the camera and in front.
Technical Director’s Education
The road to being a television or film director will vary for each. Cameron was a self-taught former truck driver, whereas Zhao attended graduate film school. A bachelor’s degree is imperative for technical directors and managers as statistics show that 92.07% have a baccalaureate. Indeed, earning a degree is an asset for entry-level TV or film industry jobs.
The job combines creativity with technical expertise in computer software. Technical directors require a foundation in programming languages, like Python, MAXScript, and MEL (Maya Embedded Language). MEL is a scripting language developed by Autodesk for 3D graphics; MAXScript is also an Autodesk creation used in 3D animations, games, and images. Knowledge of sound engineering and mixing, visual effects, and live digital effects is beneficial.
The similarity with the director is that the technical director may begin a career in a supporting role, such as animation, sound mixing, camera work, scene design, or visual effects. If your goal is to be a Television or film director, the more production phases you experience, the better your chances of progress. A degree in film, television, and digital production is one option as offered at Miami Dade College, and the curriculum studies Digital Cinematography, Digital FX, Sound Design, and Broadcast Design.
The Bachelor of Science at The Los Angeles Film School is another example of a program teaching Independent Filmmaking, Editing, Screenwriting, Cinematography, Lighting, Digital Audio, Location Scouting, Special Effects, and Documentary Production.
Whether you aspire to be a director or technical manager/director, the opportunities can be slim in live-action and animated movies. The prospects can be risky for steady employment. Once a project finishes, then what? Wait for the next film venture, and hope you are part of the crew? Mega production companies like Disney may constantly have the next creation in mind. Television production has a set crew that works each episode – you would have to wait for an opening. One never knows if a new TV series will flop after one year or two years.