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Production is the most difficult part of filming a movie. So many resources are on the line—pricey equipment rentals, expensive cast and crew salaries, just to name a few. Not to even mention the time. This is perhaps the biggest cost.

Especially when you’re a new, and inexperienced filmmaker. If you’re not paying anyone (as few beginning filmmakers can afford), patience from a group of people thins faster than you can say “cut.” This goes doubly so for friends who begin to sense that your efforts are as aimless and confused as the movie they’re in.

What makes all of this especially difficult is how few opportunities anyone ever gets at actually directing a movie. How much time, really, does a director get to physically be on a set, coordinating with crew and actors? Even a successful director—one with 10 movies on their resume—has in actuality spent LESS THAN A YEAR directing movies. Provided the average shoot lasts 30 days, you can quickly see how little time even a professional director spends directing.

Just imagine if LeBron James could only practice his jump shots and other skills for less than a year. Or, any athlete for that matter. There would be a lot less competitive sports.

Practice is the way to “Carnegie Hall.”

Anything that involves an activity that has to be accomplished in a limited time and space—and accomplished well—demands a lot of practice. It therefore goes without saying then that you, aspiring movie director, need to practice. And no. “Rehearsing” with actors doesn’t count. That’s it’s own thing, and requires a separate set of skills.

When I say practice, I’m talking about being able to repeat a set of mechanical skills over and over again until they become hardwired into your brain. Until you no longer have to think about the thing you’re practicing. Until you can focus on what really matters: actually directing the movie.

It just so happens then that I have a method of practice for you.

A Method To ‘Up’ Your Directing Game…

Wherever you can find them, gather up a bunch of new or old toys. Action figures, more specifically. Because I’ve always been a die-hard movie fan, my go-to toys are my old Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park figures. Once you pick out yours, spend some time setting them up in different positions. In whatever way you want.

Act out scenarios with the action figures, having them look at one another, looking away; set up a backdrop with whatever you want. And then film it all. You need to create as many “set-ups” as you can. Keep doing this until you experience all of the wonderful frustrations such an exercise will expose you to.


Using your action figures gives you a chance to practice a host of skills

Refuse to see this as childish. There is absolutely no other exercise that can so accurately simulate the physical motions, emotions, and visceral frustrations of directing a movie. The camera will refuse to work just like on a real set, requiring you to improvise. The batteries will die, just like they do out “on location.” The tripod will jam. You will get too lazy to re-adjust the tripod height. You’ll trip over all the light cords. Even the lights themselves will overheat—just like they do in real life.

Everything that goes wrong on a movie set will go wrong here.

Directing In Miniature Is Directing

But doing everything in miniature allows you to actually replicate the experience of making a movie—sans the time and expense of directing a movie.

My favourite part of this exercise is how easily the toy figures, standing in the midst of all this activity, just fall over. The slightest bump, and there they go. This becomes excruciatingly frustrating when you’ve got these tiny figures right in the crosshairs of the camera, all focused up and lit well, and the slightest vibration knocks the them over.

It mimics how delicate people actually are, and how no one will wait for you to have everything “just right.” It mimics exactly how fleeting the “right moment” is on a film set. It mimics the need to get “while the getting is good.”

…and to not fuss too much.

Not to mention how difficult it is to get a decent shot of a figure so small.

Practice makes perfect. Using action figures replicates the stresses of a real movie set.

All of this teaches you to move with the stealth of a ninja, and to think with the strategy of a general.

Dive Deeper Into The Method

If you want to go further with the method, use the soundtrack of a real movie to act out the scene with your figures. Shoot all the coverage you need, including moving them around (this really shows you how difficult it is to introduce movement into moviemaking); and then using the audio of the sound, edit your scene together.

The level of practice can be easily adjusted. Use one light instead of two. Or, use six lights. You’ll very quickly discover how hard it is to actually get good lighting—no matter how many lights you use. Not to mention how difficult it is to hide those lights from the camera.

Action figures won’t complain while you fiddle with the lighting. They just fall over.

Also, you could use sticky tack on the action figure’s feet to prevent them from moving. It would allow you to figure out how to dolly the camera in without losing focus on the actor.

In fact, you can introduce a second camera, and see how much more efficient it is to get all of this business done twice as fast. Of course, this introduces a whole host of other problems that will imbue you with skills no film school could possibly ever teach.

Your old action figures make for a wonderful ‘stand-in’ when practicing.

Practice Does Make Perfect

Following this exercise, extrapolating on it, expanding it to fit your needs, doing it over and over again, will put you in a class of directors the planet has never seen. Keep in mind, it’s only been in the past 20 years such a practice like this has even been possible. One couldn’t have done such cost-free practice with film. Even videotapes would have put a considerable cap on how many repetitions a filmmaker in the past could have done.

Ignore The Naysayers

Of course, friends and family will scratch their heads as to why you’ve taken to playing with old toys again. Of why you’re spending so much time agonising on that close up of your old Alan Grant figure (for all you JP fans out there). But that is something you’ll have to ignore. No one questions an aspiring basketball player why he or she spends hours practicing the same jump shot. No one, but no one, questions an aspiring athlete why he or she practices the same seemingly meaningless act again and again.

Such repetition is the mark of a master in training.

Try this method, stick with it, and you may shortly find yourself in a class of directors unlike the planet has ever seen.

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About 

Tom Getty is a writer, producer, and director known for EMULATION and AMERICA HAS FALLEN, as well as the author of the filmmaking book "How To Make Blockbuster Movies—And Do It On Your Own."