48HFS 004: Directing Short Films

Writer-director Tian Ye talks about directing short films.

Writer-director Tian Ye is a rising star in Chinese cinema. A graduate of Beijing Normal University, he also studied directing at UCLA. He first garnered international attention in 2014 for his short film Rice Wine, which paved the way for his debut feature When Love Blossoms «花事如期», which premiered in 2018. We ask him about what to look for in an idea, how to use your time effectively during production and how to know when to fight for your creative vision.

The following is part of a special series we’re doing in the run-up to the 2019 48-Hour Film School in Shanghai (August 31-September 1) and Beijing (September 7-8). Check the bottom of this page for details on how you can sign up to be a part of the action.

EastIndie: Is being a director really the best job in the world?

Tian Ye: For me personally being a director is a great occupation, though it requires a lot of dedication. It’s very competitive in this line of work. I see it more as a lifestyle rather than a job.

EI: As a director, what do you usually look for in an idea or a story?

TY: If the story touches you, then it’s a story worth working on. With ideas, it depends on whether the idea excites you.

EI: What’s the most challenging part of your job as a director?

TY: Getting financed to get your movie made.

EI: How can you ensure you’re using your time efficiently and effectively as a director during production?

TY: Plan ahead. Pre-production is the key to increased efficiency on set. Draw storyboards and organize the shot list and share them with your crew, so everyone knows what scene you’re shooting and what you’ll be shooting next. Also, rehearse on set, during camera and light set up.

You always want to look for ideas that are better than yours.

EI: How important is storyboarding to your process?

TY: Storyboarding is where you pre-visualize your ideas. Even if you know by heart how you want to shoot something, it’s still a good idea to have a storyboard. It’s a much more precise tool to communicate your vision to your crew with.

EI: How do you approach constructing or composing a scene? Where do you start?

TY: When I get a scene, the first thing to do is analyze the script. What is each character’s intention or goal? What is their fear and what is at stake? You then want to set the tone for the scene, [depending on] whether it’s a suspenseful moment in the story, a moment of reconciliation, or a moment comic relief. Once you have an idea of what you want and how you want it. You should communicate your ideas with your DP and production designer–though sometimes it’s better to hear their ideas first. You always want to look for ideas that are better than yours.

EI: Is there any relationship which you think is more important than others for a director during production?

TY: A film set can be chaotic—everything is happening at the same time. Everyone has questions for the director. But, as a director, the most important job for you on set is to direct actors. Always work closely with your actors. They’re vulnerable and they need your attention. If your actors start to look for confirmation from your DP or even the makeup artist, then you know you’re in trouble.

EI: What steps do you usually go through with your actors when preparing to shoot a scene?

TY: Do a table read of the scene with the actors and listen to their thoughts about the characters. If you have the opportunity, it’s a good idea to take your actors and do blocking and rehearsal on location prior to the shoot. If, for whatever reason, you don’t have the luxury to block the scene before the shoot, then you’ll have to block it on set. You have to make sure the scene comes to life before you shoot it.

Sometimes it’s better to say, “I’m not sure. What do you think?” rather than to pretend you know everything.

EI: How can make sure you successfully communicate your vision as a director to the rest of your cast and crew?

TY: Listen to what other people have to say and be honest when you speak. Sometimes it’s better to say, “I’m not sure. What do you think?” rather than to pretend you know everything.

EI: Lastly, how do you decide when to fight to your vision and when to accept trade-offs on a project?

TY: Always fight for your vision. But there are times you just have to live with the reality. In the end what’s most important is getting your film made. You don’t want to jeopardize the whole because of details.

The Shanghai 48-Hour Film School will take place on Saturday, August 31 & Sunday, September 1 at Shanghai Filmspace, 3/F 102 South Xiangyang Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai / 上海市徐汇区襄阳南路102号3层. For details and registration, click here.

The Beijing 48-Hour Film School will take place on Saturday, September 7 & Sunday, September 8 (venue TBC). For details and registration, click here.


Michael Thede

Michael Thede

Founder & Contributor

Michael Thede is a Canadian writer and editor. He studied Film & Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and is a graduate of the Writing for Film & TV program at Vancouver Film School. He is currently based in Shanghai, where he is also the founder and organizer of the Shanghai Screenwriters Workshop. WeChat: michaelthede78

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