Directing the Action
Posted May 7, 2010

On my wedding day, I could have used a little more direction. Someone cuing me to “stand here,” “now look at him,” and “run, fast” would have saved many good people much time. Your couples hopefully aren’t looking for quite that level of direction from you, but we wanted to find out how much is too much. And conversely, how much is too little (if that’s possible) when it comes to drawing out performances and guiding couples toward moments that will make a good film. The filmmakers who shared their take on the matter with us also offered tips on how best to go about directing or, in the other case, not directing.

We spoke to fly-on-the-wall method storyteller Maurice O’Carroll of Ireland’s Velvetine Studios. Evro Moudanidis of Sydney’s Moudanier Pictures chimed in, and so did fellow Aussie Rochelle Morris from Sauvignon Media Creations and Alvin Paver, creative director and co-owner (with Raphael Pranga and Jose Esquera) of Mayad Studios in the Philippines. Finally, veteran Hollywood assistant director Joth Riggs of southern California-based Whitestone Wedding Films added his two cents.

Do Ask, Don’t Tell
To make a long story short, we found that most of these videographers agree that there are certain acceptable times on the wedding day during which one can, and in some cases should, influence the scene with the goal of making a good film for the couple. Moreover, a “do ask, don’t tell” policy is their preferred MO. Planning ahead and liaising with other vendors in that process makes for a happy videographer and a happy couple. And last but not least, getting your shots requires a degree of flexibility in your bedside manner, as it were. Unless you care to disqualify some specific personality types from your pool of potential clients, your ability to adapt to couples’ expectations and comfort levels is key.

“Some couples want to feel a ‘command presence,’ some will not,” reasons Riggs, referring to the take-charge directing style that Ray Roman espoused, somewhat controversially, in his WEVA Expo presentation in September 2009. The command presence approach (which was generally interpreted as more controlling than it actually is) calls for assertiveness and forthright demeanor to tell, not ask, when it’s time to get the shots you need. “Be aware and use discernment,” Riggs (below) says. “It’s not all or nothing.”

Joth Riggs, Whitestone Wedding Films

To gauge the level of direction couples expect on their wedding day, Paver, Morris, and Riggs put out feelers at in-person meetings and rehearsals and even continue to adapt their style throughout the wedding day.

When clients ask Mayad Studios what they can do to make their wedding look like the weddings they see on the company’s website, the videographers know that the couple is seeking some hand-holding, and they are ready to oblige. “At this time,” says Paver (below), “we can actually coach them on where to do the dance, what part of the program the fireworks start, the best music to use for their entrance, and so on.”

Alvin Paver, Mayad Studios

Prewedding interviews and rehearsals are Morris’ opportunity to brief the couple on best practices for a great wedding film. It’s here that she will “speak about issues that affect what and how we film, such as how to exchange rings so that the camera gets a good shot.” Ironically, she says, getting a good view of the ring exchange isn’t a make-or-break, but rather a nice-to-have. But “talking about it makes clients realize we take our task of filming seriously, and that the little things matter.”

She often continues to offer direction at the rehearsal, limiting the amount of directing that will need to take place on the big day. She sees the rehearsal as “an opportunity to assess the situation and change possible variables.” To illustrate, she relates a story in which a pastor officiating the ceremony was an old family friend of the couple. Upon his direction to the bride to sit beside the groom on the front pew during the scripture readings, Morris said to herself, “Hmm … this man has no idea!” She discreetly pulled the bride aside for “clarification.” “So where is it that you’ll be sitting then?” she asked. The bride relayed the instructions, to which Morris replied with an alternate suggestion, that two seats be placed on the altar to make room for her flowing train, while reminding her that “ultimately, it’s her wedding day.” Sure enough, on the wedding day there were two seats on the altar. It’s in this way, posing suggestions and letting the couple decide how much direction to accept, that Morris realizes many of her ideas.

“Coaching is good,” she contends, in that it also “teaches couples that the camera isn’t so bad and that you really can be more natural when faced with an unnatural situation.” It’s an approach that works for Morris (below), but she’s quick to point out that others who are more aggressive in their direction can be just as effective. It all comes down to how smoothly you can pull off the command presence persona.

Rochelle Morris, Sauvignon Media Creations

“Some people are better at communicating directions without seeming like they are directing. It’s an art that’s intuitive for some and can be learned by others.” At the StillMotion Australia workshop in February, Morris saw this firsthand, observing how the participants interacted with the couples. “Most of them made the couples feel comfortable, and they did whatever was asked of them. But there were times when I would shake my head and feel for the couple.”

For Riggs, finding his directorial sweet spot is all about being observant. “Be aware of your surroundings at all times and notice the family dynamics,” he says. “Try your best to stay within the couples’ comfort zone. Understand how they are feeling on this big day and always be sensitive to that. Once you’ve established a rapport with the couple and their family, they will begin to grow comfortable and open up to the camera.” After you’ve tested the waters, “you will know how much you can and cannot direct the action to get what you want. If you’re not flexible to the circumstances, you’ll feel trapped and your creativity will be stifled. Learn to be flexible and work within your environment.”

All on the Same Team
Beyond being receptive to clients’ wants and needs, maintaining a positive relationship with other vendors involved helps tremendously as well, particularly if you can liaise prior to the wedding day. Take Paver, for example, who speaks to the wedding coordinator, photographer, and “anyone else involved in the shot that we want to get ahead of time. We ask if it’s OK with them if we place our camera here or there. It’s a plus on our part if we initiate and ask.”

Mayad Studios generally selects certain parts of the wedding day in which they will ask the couple to “execute the scene in a certain way.” For example, if they have a chance to shoot the couple just before the church ceremony, they usually “direct them how they’ll meet up,” Paver says. “So we’ll set up where the groom will stand and where the bride will be coming from. And we’ll tell them what will happen to just go with the flow, whatever emotions come in the moment.”

He asked one couple, whose guests were waiting outside the church with poppers and confetti, to make the scene more celebrative by running to the crowd, having the groom scoop up the bride in his arms, and kissing her. “They know we’re asking them to do this because it will look good in their video, and they trust us,” says Paver. “Outside we readied the crowd and told them to wait for our cue before they throw the confetti and poppers. It’s like setting up the scene, because this can have only one take.”

It helps that Mayad Studios has worked with some of these vendors on several weddings. “We’re working with planners who already know what we need, when they need to get out of the way, and so on. The more we get to work with the vendors, the more comfortable we get.”

Like any good player, Paver is willing to take one for the team, when needed. Say, for example, he really wants to get a clear shot of the bride standing behind the church door. “We would tell the planner to please clear the area when they are about to open the door, if possible. If they say that it’s not possible since it’s too windy and they need to control the veil or the gown, then we have to understand that.”

Or if the planner tells them they need to speed up their pictorials because they need to get to the church at 3 p.m., “then we should comply, because it’s their job to get everyone in the venue on time,” Paver says.

But when you don’t have a working history with a vendor, it’s that much more important that you inform them of what you need. “We can’t expect the photographer or planner to guess at what we need to do our job,” reminds Riggs. “To clearly communicate that, we need to have a clear vision of what we are putting together for the client and be aware of every element necessary to see that vision come to fruition.”

“As a courtesy,” adds Riggs, I always let the photographer know what I will need to get, but I always let them get their shots first. That way, they know I’m willing to work with them and I am more likely to get their cooperation when my turn comes. I don’t take a back seat to photographers, but I’m willing to ride shotgun.”

“It all depends on the photographer or planner, but, in most cases,” agrees O’Carroll (below), the other vendors are respectful in this way as well. “Photo-graphers almost always inform me of their running order and ask me if I’d like some moments with the couple,” which he gratefully declines. “Ireland’s top photographer likes to shoot with a Dedolight, but he always asks me if it’s OK and offers to turn it off at my say-so.”

Maurice O'Carroll, Velvetine Studios

In the rarer event that other vendors don’t cooperate, Riggs reminds himself that his priority is the couple, and he makes it clear to them what he needs to give them an amazing product. “If for some reason I’m not getting cooperation from the photographer to get what I need, I calmly and confidently let the couple know that I’ll need a few minutes to get my shots and ‘can we go ahead and get those out of the way now?’”

To Capture, Not Create
While planning ahead and having a vision in mind for the edit is helpful, Riggs knows that he is “there to capture the day, not create it,” and that if a shot just wasn’t meant to be, to let it go. “Be willing to forego a shot if it’s feeling forced,” he says. “The atmosphere of their day is more important than you and your shot. We are not making fully scripted movies here, so we do have to be flexible. This is, after all, a live event we’re capturing, not a scripted moment. There’s a time and a place for that style of shooting, but it isn’t generally on the wedding day, in my opinion.” One way to cover yourself, he offers as a tip, is to grab thoughtful B-roll throughout the day to help your story along.

Moudanidis (below), who demurs from directing the action in favor of a more organic approach to his wedding films, echoes Riggs’ warning. “The most I do is offer direction by taking advantage of, or enhancing, whatever is already happening in the scene. For example, getting people to move into nicer, more natural light, or asking a bride to stand in a particular way that enhances her figure. The only thing I’ve ever totally restaged is the exchange of wedding rings. For everything else,” he says, “if I don’t get it when it happens (shock! horror!), then it was never meant to be. There are plenty of other moments on a wedding day that can make for a good story.”

Evro Moudanidis, Moudanier Pictures

Above all, it’s having confidence in your role, and showing that confidence, that will go the farthest in helping you get your shots. Whether that means showing command presence or a less assertive approach, “beyond a doubt,” says Riggs, “what couples want to see is confidence. They want to know that you know more than they do about what needs to happen. Don’t ever shy away from that responsibility or you’ll lose their respect and as a result, their cooperation.”

Elizabeth Avery Merfeld ( is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.