Crafting a Director’s Visual Reference

This article was originally posted by Nick LaRovere on his blog, Storyteller.

Do you want to be an effective director? Creating a visual reference for your film is a vital step for effective teamwork and good storytelling.

As the decision-maker of the film, you must take the time to know what you want. By being ready to make definitive decisions, your set will run smoother, your team will execute your vision more seamlessly, and you will finish the project with a result closer to what you originally envisioned.

Part of knowing what you want is taking the time to deeply explore all facets of your film.

Your visual reference in pre-production

I’ll start by covering how the visual reference helps you as you are planning for your shoot, as a director.

Firstly, when you break down your film into categories, you will have to consider each of them. If one of your folders is empty, it makes you think, ‘why haven’t I considered any of this? Do I not care about these elements? How do they matter and how might I use them?’.

With new awareness of what you’re missing, you can now begin filling that creative gap and be more intentional as you go through your prep.

The lookbook process causes you to consider the atmosphere and tone of your film. A great way to do this is to look through Google images and pick out things that stand out to you. You can also do this with film and television show clips, taking screenshots of things that stand out to you as possibly fitting your film’s message.

I usually start by looking at sections of my film that have similar tones.

As you can see, there’s a pattern emerging in the tone of these photos I’ve gathered. I had a general sense of what I was looking for, but in my search, I was able to narrow the vague vision into my head into concrete examples of what I liked and discard ideas in my head that didn’t work or no longer fit the vision.

The lookbook process causes you to consider options you hadn’t thought of before.

It is very easy to get stuck on one particular train of thought. For me, once I’ve gone down a mental path and I think I like where it’s going, I can have a hard time thinking in a different direction. Sometimes, the options you haven’t thought of can be the best ones. It is worthwhile an exercise to force yourself to refresh your mind and return to planning at another time. That way, you can look at your film from a different perspective.

A way to do that is searching for images and inspiration for your visual reference. I’ll bet you will stumble on something out there in the vast internet that will make you go ‘Aha!’. After all, I know I certainly can’t think of every possible option when I’m working. It’s just too much to consider at once. Along those lines…

The lookbook process gives you a chance to consider techniques used by others.

This is similar to the things ‘you didn’t think of’, but I’ll touch on it anyway.

When you are going through the web or any other resource looking for inspiration, you are likely to stumble upon techniques and methods employed by both great and obscure directors and filmmakers.

Learning from those who came before is a good strategy. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, since someone else may have already found a great way to communicate to the audience. Use the past 100 years of visual storytelling tradition to your advantage and don’t be afraid to try out the techniques of other filmmakers.

For example, I pulled this screenshot from Mad Max: Fury Road because I thought the lighting fit the mood I was looking for.

The lookbook process will help you identify specifics.

Going through this process will not only give you the opportunity to discover what tone and atmosphere you desire for the film, but you will inevitably find specific elements and examples from your references. These are specific elements you can point out to your team, such as ‘I want practical lighting on the floor like this during the emergency mine venting scene because it will give a sci-fi touch to a mine location in the film which would otherwise seem to be in the same world in which we live now’.

Your visual reference in production

As for being on set, taking the above planning steps will do a few great things for you.

Your reference is something your team can act on.

Your reference, plus your explanation of the vision to them, is practical and actionable information for your team. They can take this info and run with it, finding a solution and path to execute your vision. It also brings them closer to your mental wavelength and they will better understand your intent. Lastly, your teammates may make great suggestions that often can be better than your original plan.

Basically, the visual reference is another opportunity to communicate to your team what it is you are trying to do, and effective communication is the key to a team’s success.

Your reference gives your team freedom to act.

Your reference gives your team a sense of what tone you are looking for. I’ll assume your team is experienced enough to know how to get a result like you desire. If they have the necessary skills, they will have the freedom to try techniques you don’t think of or may not even know exist. They can reference what you communicated to them with your visual aid. Your team can now act autonomously since they don’t need to consult you for every little decision if they know the big picture.

They just ask you if you like the end-result. If yes, you move on. If not, you provide feedback and move forward from there.

Your reference allows your team to identify possible problems and solutions.

As a director, there will be many times where you will not know whether your vision is possible.

As a director, you will probably be more of a jack-of-all-trades, so there will be gaps in your knowledge. You may have a shot or style you are looking to achieve that actually isn’t possible as you envision. Or, it’s possible, but the practical constraints of the budget just won’t allow it.

This is another great thing your reference will help with. It allows your team, in discussion with you and while looking at the reference, to identify where those gaps in your vision may exist.

From there, your team can let you know where problems may arise and how to deal with them. This is an important step to go through with your team and one you always want to deal with before you get on set, if possible. The more problems you knock out before you get on set, the smoother your shoot will be.

Above all, the more your team is coordinated and working seamlessly, the more smoothly things will go.

The US military knows this well and often puts on shows of efficiency and coordination. The military culture applauds this togetherness as a virtue, and as filmmakers, we should have this same mindset.

How to put this sucker together

I create a folder for my project. I already have a folder for my project on Google Drive. This is where I organize many of my files and how I collaborate with my team. You may have another way, but I think the principles still apply.

Create a visual design folder. Within that folder, I create one specifically for all of my visual brainstorming. I exclude anything about sound design, music, or other topics. I create another set of folders for those.

Break down the visual design by category. You can break down your folders however you like. I suggest organizing it however it makes the most sense to you. What is logical and easy to navigate for me may be a headache for you; that’s fine.

The key is to give your visual design folder enough organization so that you and your team can make easy sense of it.

Some logical organization might be, for example:

  • Breaking set design ideas into folders for your major locations.
  • Breaking costume ideas into folders for major factions or primary characters.
  • Breaking the film into its key locations for your lighting and moods.

Whatever works for you – go for it.

Start putting inspiration into the folders. Find stuff from just about anywhere you like and put it in your folders. Movies. TV shows. Google images. Links to clips on YouTube. Whatever will help you and your team.

Your references will help your team greatly. For example, all these references gave my concept artist plenty to work with. He was able to create some great concepts for our futuristic slave miners’ outfits.

Because of my references for the long-escaped brethren of these miners, he was able to create more art for our production. Having the references and a clear vision made the experience much more pleasant overall.

Make note of what you like about the item. You don’t necessarily have to make a written note, but you should have a sense of why you put an image in your folder. You should be able to specify what about that image you see is important for your film. Without this information, your team will find it more difficult to translate the image into anything helpful for you in executing your vision.

Whether it’s one tiny element of the image that inspired you, or you like the overall mood of the image, you should be able to articulate this to your team.

A summary of lookbooks and their benefits:

  • The lookbook helps you in pre-production by: making you think about your film’s general tone and atmosphere, consider options you hadn’t thought of before, allowing you to consider techniques used by others, and helps in identifying specific inspirations.
  • The lookbook helps you in production by: giving your team the freedom and information to act independent of you and allowing your team to identify possible problems before they occur.
  • How to put the visual reference together: create a folder for your project, create a visual design folder, break down the folder by category, put inspirational images into the folders, and make note of what you like about the image.

It’s just a tool

All that said, don’t allow the process of making this reference to bog you down, slow you down, or keep you from getting things done. Don’t allow it to become a distraction. It is just a tool, so use it until it is no longer helpful, then move on. If it doesn’t work for you like it does for me, modify the tool and apply it according to your needs. As always, I hope that you find this information helpful. Break a leg.

About the Author:

Entrepreneur & Storyteller. Co-founder of Occulus Films. I love working with teams to create compelling and engaging films and commercial video content. Fave films include Blade Runner and Mad Max: Fury Road.

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About The Author

John P. Hess A man in search of a cinematic story.

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