Movie directors often get tons of acclaim for helming big cinematic projects, but as television continues to enjoy a “golden age”—with more streaming channels and prestige series arriving on the scene all the time—there are plenty of opportunities to build a satisfying career as a television director.
Some of the most famous and pedigreed directors in film got their start directing TV shows. Steven Spielberg cut his teeth by directing an episode of “Marcus Welby, MD”; Jane Campion started her professional career with a directorial credit on a show called “Dancing Daze.” Meanwhile, many other esteemed directors have basically spent their whole careers on TV sets—including Ed Bianchi, who helmed episodes of “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” and more.
This in-depth guide to becoming a TV director breaks how to build the experience, reel, and relationships you need to helm television’s next big thing.
A TV director oversees all activities involved in making a television show, including organizing, facilitating, and capturing the desired footage that will ultimately make up an episode. The director is always one of the top authority figures on set—and, more often than not, they have a hand in the creative process from preproduction through postproduction.
Some of the main duties of a television director include:
- Preproduction planning, including working on storyboards and frames, locking in locations, developing a shoot schedule, and casting guest roles
- On-set work, including helping to set up shots and guiding actors to give heartfelt performances
- Postproduction tasks, including overseeing the editing of footage to produce their 30- or 60-minute installment of TV
On a television shooting schedule, preproduction can last merely a week (whereas preproduction for a film will often be a months-long process). If the project is so lucky, there will also be a period of rehearsal before shooting, but in the rat-a-tat pacing of TV production, that’s a luxury that many shows simply don’t have.
During postproduction—the period between wrapping a shooting schedule and delivering the completed footage to the network—directors take on a supervisory role and work closely with the editors. Even though he or she may not be editing the footage themselves, the director oversees this process and ensures that the work is being done in their vision—and therefore, the greater vision of the TV series as a whole.
You may know the old industry saying, “Film is the director’s medium, while television is the writer’s medium.” And that certainly holds true for television directors working in the U.S. today. Both professions are those of visual storytellers, but TV directors are a bit more confined to the vision of the show’s creator and head writers.
Save for the rare instance that a creator and showrunner is also the sole director of an entire season or series (here’s to you, Pamela Adlon of “Better Things”!), a TV director is hired to come in and helm an episode or two of the larger whole, which means that they need to adapt their own personal style to fit the tone and visual language of the already-established project at hand.
That’s also important to keep in mind when it comes to working with actors. While film directors are given the opportunity to see the entire arc of a character through from beginning to end with the on-screen players, a TV director is often jumping into an already-well-oiled machine. Few people on set know their characters better than the TV actors playing them (especially if it’s a long-running series). Because of this, TV directors may rightfully practice a laissez-faire approach with the project’s actors, and just focus on keeping everything technically running smoothly.
That said, many TV directors will have the same training as film directors, and may bounce back and forth between both mediums. Particularly in recent years, the landscape of prestige TV has offered similar creative satisfaction to film work—but without the stressors of funding and budgeting—so film directors can find it refreshing to work on TV shows. And many film directors are already used to moving quickly and thinking on their feet, which are essential qualities for working in TV.
Filming a television show will typically require the help of several different types of directors:
- The lead, head-honcho director is the one with the most authority when it comes to making creative decisions about the episode that’s being filmed.
- Then there’s a first assistant director (1st AD), who supervises cast and crew, keeps track of time for the director, makes sure filming is on schedule, and is responsible for eliminating and minimizing hazards on set.
- The second assistant director (2nd AD) is in charge of tasks like moving the cast through hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Scheduling is this person’s primary role, and he or she is in charge of call sheets and assisting the first AD as needed.
- Finally, a third assistant director (3rd AD) may come into play on larger sets to direct extras and vehicles for background action within large crowd scenes.
To learn how to direct a TV show, an obvious place to start is film school. Many big-name directors—for TV and film—got their start at places like CalArts or Boston University. But training to become a television director also requires real-world experience. Start by taking on lower-level jobs on set, network, and create your own content for reels and proof of concept.
That said, film school isn’t a surefire pathway to success. Four years of undergraduate training is not the only way to become a successful director. You can use what’s available to you (like your smartphone and basic editing software) to teach yourself the ropes and fine tune your creative voice—but to do so requires a self-starter attitude and a true drive to be self-taught. Vladan Nikolic, filmmaker and media-studies professor at New School University, suggests shooting something every day. “Not everything has to be a finished film, not everything has to be good,” he says, “but that’s how you train your eye and advance your craft.” Practice makes perfect, after all.
While not required, it can be hugely beneficial to have some experience in front of the camera before working as a director. “One of the first things they recommend to new directors at the Directors Guild of America is to take an acting class,” writes actor-turned-director Shawn Hatosy. “We actors speak our own language. To me, performance comes first and everything fills in around that. It’s what draws me in as a viewer. If the performance is horrendous, but the lighting is perfect and the camera angle is tight, I don’t care; I’m changing the channel. My strength as a director comes from the actor’s performance. Here, performance is king.”
In recent years, there’s been a growing trend of actors in popular TV series taking a turn behind the camera as director for one or more episodes. Jon Hamm and John Slattery directed episodes of “Mad Men,” Ellen Pompeo directed episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and America Ferrera has directed several episodes of her hit comedy, “Superstore,” just to name a few.
There’s a good reason for actors to direct their own shows: In many ways, they have an advantage as directors because they are so used to being on their particular set with its specific cast and crew. They are intimately familiar with the characters and world of the show.
When directing, actors also have the benefit of being able to think like an actor and ask themselves, “How would I want to be directed in this scene?” As Hatosy points out, “Actors need a safe environment in order to take risks and to arrive at emotionally challenging places. As an actor, I know how to create that atmosphere on set.”
So, it’s not a requirement to be a trained actor before trying your hand at directing, but it can certainly be easier to direct actors if you have some firsthand understanding of what an actor does.
To find work as a TV director, you first have to put in a lot of time working low-level jobs (in order to gain on-set experience and build relationships), researching other directors’ work, and creating your reel.
- Start low. Get a job on a TV set, and learn the ins and outs of a day in production. Examine the moving pieces at work and pick up on how it all fits together; how the director works with the writer, the actors, the DPs, the gaffers. This may mean a certain amount of time that you’re working as a PA or a director’s assistant or other entry-level TV personnel. Don’t run away from something that at first may be undesirable. This is where you’re going to find your sea legs on set. Richard Walter (screenwriter and co-chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at UCLA) notes that “every experienced famous, wealthy, adored director once had little experience, so [you] are in great company and should feel encouraged.”
- Create your own work and put it online. Make a reel to highlight your best work (just remember to keep it to about three minutes long) and start to build your brand online by putting together a website that has your reel, credits, and bio. Make sure that your IMDb page and Wikipedia page are up to date. The first thing someone does when told about an up-and-coming director is Google them, and if you’re a filmmaker, the first thing that’s likely to come up is your IMDb page.
- Learn the visual vocabulary of other directors. Watch a lot of films and analyze them; read about directors in biographies, memoirs, or interviews; and teach yourself how the greats before you came to do what they do. Few other things can be as inspiring as that while still an early-career creative.
There are several tactics you can use to find your style as a television director. It’s all a matter of honing in on the visual storytelling style that feels natural and unique to you.
- Document your daily life. You can use something as simple as your smartphone to record your life—as you see it. What catches your eye and piques your interest on your morning commute? Are you easily distracted by a bustling world around you, or do you find yourself zooming in on a tiny detail in the surrounding chaos? Practice your framing and play around with lighting. Over time, you should start seeing patterns in your work that will help you discover yourself as a filmmaker and storyteller. In the most simple and organic sense, you will have a documentation of how you see the world, which is what directing is all about.
- Study up on the great directors that came before you. With so many wonderful directors out in the world today, it’s a no-brainer that you’re going to be inspired by some of them—and maybe even borrow some tricks of the trade. Examine why these particular directors and filmmaking practices inspire you, and you’ll unlock the truth of your own creative vision.
- Collaborate with others. Creative collaboration is an exciting and contagious atmosphere for all involved. And especially if you want to work in television, you must learn how to thrive in a collaborative environment. See what happens when you join forces with other filmmakers; you’re likely to learn as much about what works for you as you are what doesn’t. Each artist is different; focus on how your work feeds off of theirs rather than on what makes yours different, better, or worse.
Jumping into an already-established series as a director is tricky business. Instead of foregrounding your personal vision, you have to work within the guidelines already established by the showrunner and others.
“I got great advice on my first episode of TV from a director who described the episodic television gig as substitute teaching,” director Kyle Patrick Alvarez explains. “A substitute teacher can show up and try to make the classroom too much of their own for that day, and then it’s exhausting, or they come in and throw a movie on, turn off the lights, and don’t even say hi. The best ones are the ones who come in, blend into the syllabus, keep the day going exactly as it was meant to, and leave with you wanting to come back.”
Keep in mind that you’re not there to build an entire universe from scratch; that’s up to the writers and the actors portraying them. But you were hired for a reason, and the team behind the show believes that your past work falls in line with what their project needs. So, embrace that. Hold that confidence close, but know that you’ll probably have to occasionally compromise your personal take or vision on the subject for the greater good of the series. Be prepared to make that negotiation from the director’s chair. Remember: writers are the kings of this world.
Want to get working on TV? Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!