How do you identify top TV director work?

Past Emmy winners discuss what makes a kudo-worthy episode

Watch an episode of TV drama or comedy. Then ask yourself: What did the director do?

In effect, this is what Emmy voters selecting their picks for top helmer on their ballots have to ask themselves. It isn’t as easy to determine as it may seem, since TV is widely held as a showrunner medium, in which the writing can count for much more than the direction. By definition, some would argue, a good episode is a well-written episode.

For insight into what makes a director worthy of an Emmy, it might be helpful to turn to a few who’ve won the statuette and glean what makes TV direction actually notable.

“Every good director will elevate the material on the page. His job is to elevate it visually, to give it the weight of an art form,” says director Rod Holcomb, an Emmy winner for “ER.” “In a way, it’s easier to determine with a show that you know very well as a viewer, and if you know the contours and the voice of the show, then you can more easily answer some key questions. Like, does the director make choices that have the maximum impact for the scene and the episode? Does the direction fully realize the potential inherent in the episode?”

Says Greg Yaitanes, 2008 Emmy-winning drama series director for “House”: “I have to be strongly affected emotionally. I’ve watched a hell of a lot of TV, so for something to stick with me, it needs to display great strength in both performances and visual style, since these are two areas in which the director plays a fundamental role. I don’t like flash for flash’s sake” — a sentiment echoed by every director contacted for this report — “but I need to be moved.”

Director Richard Shepard scored a 2007 Emmy for “Ugly Betty,” a show with more than its share of flash, so it’s not surprising that one of the qualities he looks for in a candidate is energy.

“What is that?” he asks. “I guess excitement, verve, surprise. An imaginative use of shot selection. Script is overwhelmingly important, especially for viewers and voters, which is why you never see a weakly scripted episode being nominated when it comes to directing.

“But the real reasons why I’ll remember an episode once I start filling out my ballot is because there was something beautiful or complex in the direction that really popped. And I think the main considerations must be the factors over which the director has the most control and input, and I look very closely for those — they would be interesting choices of locations, selection of extras and of dayplayers, and giving actors the space and conditions to deliver a great performance.”

Robert B. Weide contributed to the refreshed look of TV comedy, liberated from the three-camera/live audience setup, when he worked on the launch of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Yet even here, where the show’s radical visual style of a single camera — often handheld — suggested the strong hand of a director, the facts are otherwise.

“Our documentary style honestly came about through little more than Larry having difficulty memorizing a lot of pages of dialogue and our choice of going without a strictly worded script,” he says. “The form followed circumstances, which shows that you can’t always tell when watching a program where the look comes from. The pilot dictates it, for sure, but maybe the director has a hand. Or not.”

Weide agrees with Shepard that remembering episodes is key for voting: “With so many to choose from, I’ll tend to vote on memorable episodes. I’ll think something was nicely directed, and it may have had great shots in it. But was this the d.p.’s hand at work? Or maybe a producer’s? It can be hard to know, but if I see some innovation going on, that will affect me.”

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