Monday, February 12, 2018

Ron Howard's MasterClass is damn near essential for aspiring directors

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

I've had generally strong praise for the previous three MasterClass courses I've examined. Though it was for actors, Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (since made unavailable, but you can find my review here) actually gave me some valuable insight in how to direct actors. Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review) offered some really interesting peaks at how someone like Sorkin builds his scripts and gives guidance to other writers, while David Mamet's Teaches Dramatic Writing (review) is a good instructional course for beginners.

As I've previewed each of those classes, there's almost always been a moment early on where I have to remind myself, "Remember, this is geared for people who haven't necessarily spent a decade plus working in the industry, and who likely haven't even gotten a degree in writing, acting, or filmmaking." I always try to watch each class with an objective less about what I personally am getting out of it, and more about how it might function as a tool for someone in the early stages of their career.

So I wasn't surprised when that moment came a few times in the early videos of Ron Howard Teaches Directing. The first several lessons focus on things like how Ron chooses a story, the three components he looks for in a great screenplay and how he works with various department heads like his production designer and cinematographer.

It's not that Ron doesn't have anything useful to offer there. In fact, I think it's incredibly important how some of his instructions stress collaboration and demystify the notion that the director is the entire brain trust behind the operation. He expresses the hierarchy really well when he says, "We all have to be telling the story, every single department. And who is the keeper of the story? Ultimately it's the director." This is tempered in a later video when he describes his policy of how if anyone he hires has an intuitive suggestion that still accomplishes the scene’s goals, he will test it. This rule "gets people invested in the project," builds trust, and makes it easier to say "no"when he needs to.

As I watched this, my thought was, "This is good stuff, and it makes me REALLY wish there were more people in general as wise about this as Ron, but is all of this worth the money and the time the average person will spend on it."

I never should have questioned this. By the end of these videos, I was pretty certain this was the best of the courses I'd taken, by far. The groundwork laid by Ron's first several videos is dominated by some basic instruction and advice that you might find elsewhere, but the back two-thirds are utterly unique. A multi-video exercise (with most of these videos exceeding 20 minutes by the way) puts us on set with Ron and a troupe of actors as he walks us through the rehearsal, blocking, and shooting of a scene from Frost/Nixon. It's a recreation with new actors, treated as if Ron is preparing the scene for that day of production, and it's as close as we could ever get to looking over the famed director's shoulder without actually being on set with him.

First, Ron rehearses the actors without any movement or blocking. He's just gauging the energy and the rhythms of the scene and making adjustments to their performances in general. We see him direct several of the actors and here's where you really feel the collaborative spirit coming in. It never comes across as him scolding the actors for doing the line wrong. Instead, it's always an energetic, affable redirection. When he tells them to try it differently and explains how, it feels like they're eager to take the note and try it instead of getting hung up on a mistake.

After a few runs to his satisfaction, Ron guides them through another rehearsal on set, as they try to figure out their blocking, how they interact with each other, what bit of business they'll do, and so on. When redirections are given, they're in the same spirit as before, and often Ron will take a moment to explain his changes like, "If you land here on this line, it puts you by this window and that's great for composing with more depth." Or, "If you stand here, we can shoot you down the hallway and add depth as opposed to just against this flat wall."

Then Ron adds cameras and it's clear he's simultaneously thinking of several things at once: are the performances natural? Is the blocking dramatic and aiding the performance? Are there ways to add tension or change the energy of the scene with specific movements or interactions? How does the framing of the shots and the sense of space enhancing the tension and the relationship among the actors?  A lot of stuff goes by fast as we watch the scene shot again and again from different angles, and even when Ron doesn't stop to explain his thought process behind certain choices (which he does frequently), his instructions and notes are usually so specific that you start to figure out what's motivating them.

With those videos, Ron drives this series into the end zone, but then he REALLY spikes the ball with what he does next. With the scene's coverage committed to film under one set of blocking, he tells the actors he's now going to restage the scene the way he considered doing in the original film before abandoning it in favor of another plan. And so he blocks them for a Stedicam shot. His original plan to do it all as a one-take Stedicam "oner" proves impractical given the limitations of the set, so he instead does it as successive Stedicam takes, giving us a contrast with which to compare the earlier staging.

This also gives Ron an opportunity to point out the virtues and the pitfalls of one-take scenes. They're not just challenging in the sense that every performer in the scene has to be dead on in their work. It also means that the director is giving up some of the power they normally have in the editing room to tighten up the scene, extend the tension in the scene, take out entire lines that don't work, put lines in different order. That's a lot of manipulation that gets taken off the table. But, he concedes that there's an energy and immediacy to a long take and that audiences certainly respond to the emotion of that.

Then, in a video that is probably especially useful for the student filmmaker, Ron walks us through how he'd stage the scene if he was running behind schedule or if he was on an indie film with a tighter shooting schedule. We're shown the economical way to block the scene, and while the coverage isn't quite minimal, it's certainly less elaborate and refined than the first version.

When I was in film school, we never had an exercise like this and it's not something I've seen discussed in depth in many how-to filmmaking books either. Sure, we were instructed about basic shots like Master, Close-Up, Medium, and Extreme Close-Up - and also when we could and could not cut from one of those shots to the other. When it came to staging scenes, the only truly important rule I recall being given was "The 180 Degree Rule" and the strict instruction to never "cross the axis." And to be honest, that was presented to us in a way that made it as much an editing rule as a rule of shooting coverage.

Weirdly Ron doesn't even bring up those guidelines or even other principles like "directional continuity." At this point in his career, Ron is following those rules instinctively, perhaps so intuitively that it doesn't even occur to him to point them out. As much as I've lamented the basic 101 info that pops up in these master classes, it might have been beneficial to squeeze a crash course on these into one quick video. Having said that, it could just be that the MasterClass is assuming some degree of familiarity with filmmaking principles.

Editing is only touched on relatively briefly, and I hope that some future MasterClass focuses on this. (Stuart Baird as an instructor, perhaps?) At the time I took the course, three videos were not yet online. In each video, Ron deconstructs a different film scene, discussing the mechanics of the shots, how research helped him compose the scene and how he managed a key transition in the story's point-of-view. Hopefully they'll be online soon because I'd love to hear what Ron has to say.

Ron Howard sets a high bar with these videos, and in the coming months I'm hoping to find time to watch the directing courses by Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. It'll be interesting to see if they compliment each other or prove redundant.

If you're looking to buy MasterClass, it'll cost you $90/class. If you have any inkling that you'll want to try two or more of the classes, your best bet is to get an All-Access Pass. With that, you have unlimited access to all of the MasterClasses for one year.

Assuming it won't affect your ability to pay rent or bills, is Ron Howard's class worth $90? We're talking about over six hours of videos, so figure $15/hour. If I hadn't gotten a film degree, or if I'd only taken a basic filmmaking class and I wanted to learn more about directing, I'd probably consider this a pretty good investment. Sure, you could always buy a few books on filmmaking or check them out of the library for free - but there's no other opportunity that basically lets you shadow a major feature film director on set as they shoot a scene. If what I've described holds any appeal for you, you'll probably find Ron Howard's MasterClass to be money well spent.

The Full MasterClass roster:

Writing/Directing:
Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing
David Mamet's Teaches Dramatic Writing



Music/Performance:
Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring
Reba McEntire teaches country music
Usher teaches performance

Sports:
Stephen Curry Teaches Basketball

Cooking:
Wolfgang Puck Teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking
Thomas Keller Teaches Cooking Techniques


Other:
Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs Teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. I'm definitely going to get the All-Access Pass for my birthday. While I plan to watch all of the film and writing classes, I would also watch Serena Williams, Annie Leibovitz, and the cooking classes.

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