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Film and Television Directors


The playwrights and actors of ancient Greece were tellers of tales, striving to impress and influence audiences with their dramatic interpretations of stories. That tradition continues today on stages and film screens throughout the world.

From the days of the Greek theater until sometime in the 19th century, actors directed themselves. Although modern film directors can find their roots in the theater, it was not until the mid-1880s that the director became someone other than a member of the acting cast. It had been common practice for one of the actors involved in a production to be responsible not only for his or her own performance but also for conducting rehearsals and coordinating the tasks involved in putting on a play. Usually the most experienced and respected troupe member would guide the other actors, providing advice on speech, movement, and interaction.

A British actress and opera singer named Madame Vestris is considered to have been the first professional director. In the 1830s Vestris leased a theater in London and staged productions in which she herself did not perform. She displayed a new, creative approach to directing, making bold decisions about changing the traditional dress code for actors and allowing them to express their own interpretations of their roles. Vestris coordinated rehearsals, advised on lighting and sound effects, and chose nontraditional set decorations; she introduced props, such as actual windows and doors, that were more realistic than the usual painted panoramas.

By the turn of the century, theater directors such as David Belasco and Konstantin Stanislavsky had influenced the way in which performances were given, provoking actors and actresses to strive to identify with the characters they revealed so that audiences would be passionately and genuinely affected. By the early 1900s, Stanislavsky's method of directing performers had made an overwhelming mark on drama. His method (now often referred to as "the Method"), as well as his famous criticism, "I do not believe you," continues to influence performers to this day.

At this same time, the motion picture industry was coming into being. European filmmakers such as Leon Gaumont and New Yorker Edwin S. Porter were directing, filming, and producing short pictures. The industry's first professional female director was Alice Guy, who worked with Gaumont in the early years of the 20th century. The technical sophistication offered by today's professionals was not part of the early directors' repertoire. They merely filmed narratives without moving their camera. Soon directors began to experiment, moving the camera to shoot various angles and establishing a variety of editing techniques.

By 1915, there were close to 20,000 movie theaters in the United States; by the early 1920s, 40 million people were going to Hollywood-produced and -directed silent movies every week. Successful actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton began directing their own films, and Frank Capra and Cecil B. De Mille were starting their long careers as professional directors.

With the emergence of "talking pictures" in the early 1930s, the director's role changed significantly. Sound in film provided opportunities for further directorial creativity. Unnecessary noise could not be tolerated on the set; directors had to be concerned with the voices of their performers and the potential sound effects that could be created. Directors could demand certain types of voices (e.g., a Southern drawl) and sound effects (e.g., the rat-a-tat-tat of submachine guns) to present accurate interpretations of scripts. And no longer was the visually funny slapstick humor enough to make viewers laugh. Much of the humor in sound comedies arose from the script and from the successful direction of professionals like Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch.

The U.S. film industry experienced crises and controversy during the next 50 years, including financial problems, conglomerations of studios, and the introduction of the ratings system. New genres and elements began to challenge directorial genius over the years: science fiction, adventure, film noir; graphic representation of violence and sex; and sensational and computer-enhanced special effects. By the 1970s, university film schools had been established and were sending out creative directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, to name a few.

The continued development of new technologies has had a remarkable effect on the film and television industries. Advances such as computer-generated animation, digital filming, digital sound, 3-D technology, and high-definition television have given directors more tools to work with and the ability to produce an increasing variety of looks, sounds, characters—worlds—in their finished films or shows. Additionally, directors are using technologies not only to shape what the audience sees but also to determine where the audience sees it. Computers and the Internet have played a major role in the growth of the motion picture industry, with films available online and through downloads that can be viewed on personal computers, televisions, smartphones, MP3 players, and other devices. Such new tools for creating films and TV shows and new avenues for presentation promise continued growth in this creative field.

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