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A day in the life of a VR director

In today's episode we're going to do a day in the life of a VR director. This was a subject requested, and by a listener and new friend, Kate on Instagram. Thank you again, Kate, for the question and this is off the back of me talking about my recent production. She was kind of intrigued to hear what a day in the life of a VR director looks like. So that is what we're going to be diving into today.

Read on for the full transcription or listen to the podcast episode here

A day in the life of a VR director. Oh, it sounds so snazzy, doesn't it? I'm not gonna lie, I feel pretty proud that I am at a point in my career now where I can give insight on this, that makes me very happy. I hope that this helps a lot of you thinking about either transitioning over to VR or adding VR to your repertoire, because you already direct in other mediums, or you're just totally new to the medium and you're intrigued to see how a day in the life plays out for someone who is specialised like me.

A quick backstory - I have only really been very comfortable calling myself a director for the last, I'm going to say…probably a year and a half. So this is this is quite an interesting story, actually because for a long time I called myself a producer. And to be fair, I do still do a lot of producing and I do tend to, for the majority of projects, especially if they're small budget, I will produce my own projects, as well as direct them. But it was only really when I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, a fellow VR director, Mary Matheson. She is brilliant, If you don't follow her, go and check her out on all the social medias. If you just search Mary Matheson VR, I'm sure she'll come up. She was the director behind Google's ‘The Female Planet’ which was a 360 series that was put on YouTube, she's done loads of really cool stuff and she's just a genuinely brilliant human being. I remember having this chat with her once and we were talking just in general about the industry and what we both wanted to do in future. She said to me - “ So do you direct?” And I was like - “Well, I don't really know if you would call it directing.” And I went on to kind of describe what I'd been doing, and she was said “Alex, you're a director” and I thought that was so funny, and so weird that for the longest time, I didn't call myself a director because I had this weird image, I put this job title on a pedestal. I had this weird image in my head of what it meant to be a director and admittedly, and this is something that Mary pointed out, she said “Do you just not feel comfortable calling yourself a director because it feels out of reach, does it feel like you don't want to be perceived as giving yourself this very respected title in the entertainment space.”

She went, "Alex, if a man was doing the job that you're doing right now, he would be called a director. So you need to stop calling yourself a producer. Because until you call yourself a director, no one else is going to see you as a director.” And that conversation, I don't even know whether she remembers having that conversation with me but that really did set off a light bulb in my head and it gave me the confidence to go forward and call myself a director. And also it gave me the confidence to actually take on more of that work but to another level. I took on the extra responsibility that you have as a director because essentially what a director does, and again this is one of those things where a director means different things at different levels in different spaces, but on different productions, everyone has a slightly different definition of what a director is and what they do. But in a nutshell, the director is the captain of the ship when it comes to a project. So obviously, generally, you don't really have a specific director unless you're working on a fairly big creative project and by creative I don't just mean like, you know, has to be an original drama documentary. You know, you can still be a director on a corporate shoot. Generally speaking, you are the director when you are working with a group of people and you are the one making all the key creative decisions for the project. The difference between a producer and a director and the reason why I do tend to end up doing both on a lot of projects when there's not a specific producer is, the director is looking after all of the creative decisions. They are steering the ship, they are responsible for making sure that the project is done and done to a high standard and brings to life like, I hate using this word but, the creative vision of the project. The reason I hate that, by the way, is very self deprecating. It's because I find it a bit wonky when people are like, I have a vision.

But I think that's my own self deprecation, because there's definitely a part of imposter syndrome of like, who am I to have a vision?

But anyway, as a producer you are responsible for the logistics, and the monetary side of a project, so a producer will be responsible for things like you know, pulling together the schedule; making sure that everything is on time; making sure that the project is coming in on budget. They're the ones kind of pulling the strings in that direction. They’re also someone that is responsible for more of the logistics side of things versus the creative side of things but you can have creative producers, and you can have non creative directors. So it all gets very, very complicated. But just in a nutshell, that's the difference.

So for me personally, I was directing my all of my own stuff, really the the main project that I didn't direct was Keyed Alike, which is one of my first original projects and the reason that I didn't direct that is because I was definitely not confident directing actors back then. So this was 2016, I'd only really worked on documentary and factual programming before. So for those of you who don't know, I worked in television before, and I worked specifically in non fiction television. So I only had ever had experience working with contributors, and what we call documentary subjects, like people, normal people, non actors, basically presenters and that kind of thing. So I had no real hands on experience directing actors. For Keyed Alike, I teamed up with Chloe Thomas, who is a phenomenal director of television and this was her first time directing VR so in a way I kind of helped her shape the directing for Keyed Alike. It was her job to bring the script that I had written for it to life and my job was to kind of think about the technical side. So I guess on that project, I was kind of acting more as a DOP, thinking about the actual technicalities of the shoot, and thinking about where we wanted the camera, etc. And then we had a camera operator, who was there to look after the actual capturing of it all. So it was anyway, it was messy but that was one of the only projects that I've ever done in my career really, that I haven't personally directed. But like I say, for the longest time, I didn’t want to call myself a director and that's really funny, that's something that you should know, if you are the person steering the creative ship, if you are the person, either coming up with the idea, and thinking about what you want it to look like, how do you want the scenes to play out etc, you’re still a director because you are controlling everything creatively in frame.

Now, if you're the only person on the shoot and if you are self shooting, I mean, I don't know, some people will call themselves self shooting directors, I would usually call myself like a creator in that point, because I’m dealing with everything. I'm the director, the producer, the editor, the colour grader, the sound recorder, as I'm everything on a shoot when it's just me. But when you start to work with multiple people, when you're the director, you're essentially the person running the show. So what does a day in the life of a director look like? Again, this is going to really vary depending on what kind of project you're working on, how long you've been doing it, and whether you are also the producer or exec producer on something and the difference between those by the way, which took me ages to figure out because no one seems to have a concrete definition of any bloody job title in this industry, which is not surprising, really, because it's so new that we're inventing jobs as we go along but exec producers are usually are the ones putting the money in, or they found the money. They have the ultimate say on where it's going and what the business strategy is for the piece and they're very hands off. Usually, when it comes to the creative side, they are not in the weeds doing things like schedules or call sheets or anything like that, they’re there to usually either liaise with the client, and to oversee the project, or usually, they're the ones that have found the money for it. So they have like a little bit of say, on the bigger creative decisions for example: a director will set what happens in a scene and what the actors are doing but ultimately, if the piece was commissioned to be a seated thread of experience, and that's what they put money in for, you, as the director can't make the decision to make it a six off room scale interactive experience, because, again, that's not what's been assigned. So if you think about it, if you have a client, they are essentially the executive producer, because they are the ones giving you the money, but they are also the ones that have certain expectations of what you are delivering.

So let's talk about a day in the life. So when it comes to shoot days, a day in the life of a director is pretty simple…you show up on set, if you've not met the crew before, if you've kind of you've not done any prep, or whatever it might be, you might have a bit of a hurdle, and kind of set your expectations for everyone. You may be give them the big overview, the creative statement about the project. So if it was, let's say, a recent project of mine, it would be kind of saying… “Okay, so today, we're all here to create this project, you're all familiar with the script, you're familiar with the fact we've got two days to shoot this piece, I'm really looking forward to working with you all, but here's my expectations for the day and here's how I want things done.”

So as a director, people should be looking to you to make all of the decisions, and this is something I could do a whole separate episode for and I will at some point do a whole separate episode about the difficulties with potentially being a woman and a particularly young woman in this position. Especially when you're working with a lot of particularly older men. You know, the setting expectations, and getting people's respect so that they do come to you for decision making, and is quite important and it's something I'm not going to sit here and say that I'm the best at it, because I still struggle with this every single shoot at some point, so just to throw that out there as a little preview for maybe a future episode but once you've done that hurdle, it's go time. So your job depends on what the the shoot is, but for me, I pretty much exclusively work on shoots with story and actors now. So my job then, is to set my technical crew up and make the decisions of I want the camera here, I want it facing this way, and the action is going to happen here. It’s good to set expectations like, I want to be able to preview the shot afterwards, or maybe a previewing before, whatever it is that you personally want to do as a director in terms of the way you want to work - that will be totally dependent on you. But for me personally, I generally like to set up the camera, I want to see a preview photo from that point of view at pretty high res in a headset, so that I can see what that looks like from that camera position. Then I'm going to bring in the actors, we're going to rehearse it in the location, I'm going to set their movement blocking, I'm going to make sure that they're comfortable doing that. We'll then do a couple of rehearsal takes, I want you to film one of the rehearsal takes, and I want a rough stitch and I want to be able to see that in a headset before we go for an official take. That's my personal preference. So then the technical crew, they get on with doing that.

I then move on to sitting with the actors and running through the lines and at this point usually we've done a rehearsal. So I've already kind of set expectations around tone and emotion, and everything like that. But if not, if we're meeting on that day, then we will do that there. Then in the rehearsal, we're going to block out the movement when we get into the location, but let's just talk tone and emotion, I want the pacing to be a bit faster or a bit slower. This scene really needs to communicate this. So you know, your character's motivation is this, all of that kind of stuff. So you set that with the actors, you set that emotion, do a few run throughs. If you're on a client project, you will usually have a client present, to be signing off your creative decisions and this the big difference, obviously, with working on a corporate versus a creative project, is that ultimately, although you're the director, and you're there to steer the creative ship, the client is the one that has ultimate sign of. Please, please, please don't make the mistake of just going absolutely wild and just doing it as you want to do it as the director because you've got a vision, only to then get to the end of the day, or show the final piece and the client say - “oh, well, that's totally not what we wanted, that tone won't work for our company" or “that's totally inaccurate” . Whatever it is, just make sure that you are checking in with the client and having them sign off decisions as you go. That is so important on corporate jobs and so yeah, maybe you've done the rehearsal, the tech setups, you’ve had a look and you're happy with the camera positioning, everyone's checked all those boxes for you, you're good to go, right, let's get the actors in position. So you get the actors in position, I'm specifically talking, I think you would have gathered this by now about 360 video production, and so you get the actors in position, you then run the blocking, which means you're running the choreography, if they've got movement, if you want them to, you know, slap the table at a particular time or you want them to interact with a prop or you want them to be this far away, but then get really close, like, whatever it is, you're setting the movement, then you're doing your rehearsal takes. And again, your job as the director is to kind of puppeteer of all these different moving pieces. So there are so many things happening underneath, you've got the technical side of things that are dealing with all of the tech setup, you've got the production and logistics side of things. Are we running on time? Is everything logistically right? Does that person have the right wardrobe? Is the lunch on order? All of that kind of stuff, you've got loads of things happening underneath you and your job is to kind of a be the decision making for a lot of that, but also make sure that you're pulling all of that together to do the best job that you can for the project.

For example, we've set this in motion, we've done a rehearsal take and you think, shit…

this location we've got is actually really bad. We didn't spot that there’s a really bright window or there's a really noisy thing happening next door. It’s your job to set people in motion to go and deal with those problems. DOP, is there something we can do with that window? Is there any way we can block the window? Can we move the action around so that we're not capturing that side of it? You are the senior decision making, you're having to make a million decisions every hour, that might be an exaggeration, but once you're overcoming those hurdles, maybe seeing the rehearsal take in a headset and you're happy, let's go for a recorded take.

So this is obviously when the traditional idea of a director comes in. Is it quiet on set? Is everyone happy? Then, you say…action! Then everyone performs. Obviously if something goes wrong, if someone flips the line or if you've spotted something, whatever is obviously you're going to cut but it's your job to decide whether or not that was the take. This is the big part of being a director, is having the confidence and the the kind of trust in your ability to decide when you have you got what you needed from that scene, that's basically the biggest part of your job as a director is to be able to say…yep, that was the one. This is a skill that takes ages to get comfortable with, because it takes a lot of trial and error and it takes a lot of knowing what isn't going to be good in a headset, and it takes a lot of getting it wrong to then know when it's right. But a certain amount of it is just actually trusting in your instincts and this is something that I was terrible at for a long time and this is probably the number one reason why I wouldn't call myself a director until very recently. It's because I didn't trust my own instincts when it came to knowing that we had got the shot, because ultimately, if you say you've got the shot, and then later on down the line, it doesn't work, so it doesn't work in the edit or the client doesn't like it, whatever it is, that's on your head, because you're the director. So really, what it comes down to is the fact that you're taking on a lot of risk, because ultimately, the book ends with you. You are the last line of defence, there are lots of other people that should be doing their job, right but ultimately, if something goes wrong, it's your fault. Because you're the director, you are the head of the ship, in terms of every project being its own mini company, you are the CEO, so everything is your fault, if it goes wrong.

Let me just go back a minute before I move on, there is so much I want to say…so you’ve finished one scene and you’re happy and you move onto the next and then you just work your way through until you finish the whole thing, that is generally speaking how my day looks as a director on set.

But this is totally a subjective way of working because every director is going to have their own way of working their own process, their own workflow, their own way of how they like to do things. I personally and especially on a 360 video shoot, I like to set the tech team up and know what we're going to do with that before I start rehearsing with the actors. And I have a particular way and sequence that I like to do things which has been very trial and error and it's based on a workflow that is a the most efficient, but it means that everyone can do their job to the best of their abilities and that's all you want, really.

I am a very collaborative director, so I really like hearing people's ideas. I like hearing other people's opinions. I also know that when I work with a crew, all the best at their job,'m not going to really know the ins and outs of their job. I've spoken before that it's very important that you do have a good sense of what everyone does and you know a little bit about the process so that you can hold a conversation and you can make educated, creative decisions that are going to save you a lot of headache, and you don't have to rely on someone telling you what isn't as impossible. But realistically, your crew should be very good at what they do in their particular job, so I don't like to baby people, I don't like to tell people how to do their job, but I also put a lot of trust in them to if they've got an idea that might benefit the tech side of things. If they've got an idea and you’re on my crew, I am more than happy for someone to talk to me about those ideas. And then I will make the decision whether or not to give it a go or whether I think it's a good idea. This is the thing that annoys me about crew or when crew do make suggestions and then you don't take them on board. If a crew member gets a bit arty about it, sometimes you need to take them aside and explain to them that the reason you've made that decision and you shouldn't really have to explain yourself because you're the director at the end of the day, it's your decision. But I would always explain that the decision I'm making is not just a creative decision because in the back of my head I have all of the things that are in the balance when making that decision.

So for example, if someone comes to me with a great idea, but in my head I kno that won't work because the delivery format for this is going to be XYZ or I know that the kind audience that’s going to be seeing this is XYZ, so that wouldn't work for them. Or even something as simple as, I know that we are running tight and we've got another scene where an actor is less confident at memorising their lines and we need more time on that scene than this one. So I might turn down an idea for that reason, it's not always like if I had all the time in the world, and all the budget in the world, I would try everything because I feel like in our medium, we need to be open and collaborative to working on other people's ideas and, and trying everything to see what works but often is the case that you have to make those decisions based on everything else that is hanging in the balance. But having said that, I am a really collaborative director, the thing that does annoy me and now I just feel like I'm just going on a bit of a personal run, but the thing that does annoy me slightly, is when people will try and make those decisions and they will try and talk directly to the actors, or they will try and talk directly to the client or whatever it might be. They will overstep the line because as the director, every decision should come through you. You are the decision maker on set, even if the client is there, and they're the ones paying for it. You are the only person that should be talking to that client, unless you've put someone else in charge of it, but you're the only one making decisions. So if you are a crew member on another director set, if you've got an idea, if you've got a question, if you've got something that needs a decision being made on, you go to the director, you do not overstep them, or go above them or go directly to an

actor and tell them your idea. Whatever it is, you should always go through the director.

That can be sometimes be where things get a little messy in terms of being a collaborative director, because sometimes when I've worked on sets where the director is an absolute dickhead, no one would overstep the mark with them, because you would know that you'd be in for a real bollocking. So the only slight thing if you are going to be a more open collaborative, fun director is that you do sometimes need to have to reestablish those parameters with people that you work with because sometimes people can confuse that and think they have a bit more control than they actually do.

Ultimately, as the director, it's your project. So yeah, those are my thoughts on that. Obviously, this episode is already 30 minutes long, so I'm going to stop talking now, but this was purely just a kind of day in the life of being a director on set. Obviously, there's loads that goes on before the shooting day that we could talk about and I should do an episode on that too. If you enjoyed this episode, let me know and I'll be more than happy to share details about what a day in the life of director looks like in pre production in post production? What are some of the decisions you have to make before you even go into the production? How do you handle difficult situations on set? Any kind of questions that you've got, please do feel free to reach out and ask because I am an open book, and I love talking about this stuff and can clearly talk for England.

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