Christopher Nolan, You’re Doing It Wrong

I’m what you might call an “armchair film director”.

Without any training or legitimate background in Film, I like to watch movies and tell people what I would have done better.

“See that lighting?  I wouldn’t have lit that shot like that.  Not if I was the director.”

“See that elephant?  I wouldn’t have put that elephant in the foreground like that.  What were they thinking?”

“See that arrogant jerk directing from his armchair?  I wouldn’t have…” and so on.

Some of my favorite directors also happen to be pretty decent artists; and this is a skill which serves them well.

Guillermo Del Toro keeps notebooks full of concepts for his films.  Here are some doodles for Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and two for Hellboy II: the Golden Army (2008):


guillermo del toro


Guillermo Del Toro, concept work for Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006

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Guillermo Del Toro, concept work for Hellboy II: the Golden Army, 2008

Ridley Scott is another terrific director who uses his artistic abilities (and a background in drafting) to great effect.  Below are some of his boards for Alien (1979).

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Ridley Scott, storyboards for Alien, 1979

All of the films listed so far are on a whole ‘nother level, visually.  Of course, nearly all movies are storyboarded these days, just as nearly all movies have a team of concept artists.  There’s no apparent need for a director to have any skill with a pencil; but I’d like to make an argument for the Artist-Director.

A director’s job is to have a vision for the finished film.  He oversees the progress of the project, always moving toward greater cohesion between film elements.  The movie has to be a whole, with each of its smaller parts working together in harmony, if it wants to move the audience.

Since film is primarily a visual medium, wouldn’t it make sense if the person who carried the artistic vision of the project (the director) was able to actually express his ideas on paper?


James Cameron, concept painting for The Terminator, 1984


James Cameron, concept painting for Aliens, 1986

In my not-very-humble-opinion, the director’s role should not be specialized.  He or she must be a storyboard artist, concept artist, expert on lighting, sound engineer, and everything in between in order to effectively manage an artistic vision.  The director should be comfortable wearing all of the hats at once.


Terry Gilliam, storyboards for Brazil, 1985

What are your thoughts?  Is this too much to ask, or are we asking too little of directors?

One thought on “Christopher Nolan, You’re Doing It Wrong

  1. John Brito

    That was a really inspiring blog post! And yes, I agree with you totally when you say, that a really good director needs to know his tools – be it lighting, writing, storyboarding and concepting 🙂


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