In this year's rather staid Oscar awards there was one clear upset, when Tom Hooper was crowned 'best director' for his work on the film The King's Speech. At least two of the other directors (David Fincher who directed The Social Network and Darren Aronofsky director of Black Swan) were considered more likely recipients. A sage Peter Bradshaw, speaking on The Guardian's review of the event, suggests that under the circumstances of the uncontroversial reception of Colin Firth's 'best actor' the question begged becomes "what we think a director does on a movie?"
The problem of directly assessing a director's input is that they aren't directly responsible for focussing the camera, lighting a shot, sewing the costumes or standing in the frame. A director is a prism of delegation, responsible only for making decisions and issuing commands. As I see it (from my ignorant perspective) the post-production end of film making is the most open. Either the director is the puppet master during production, simply handing over the material for a trusted editor to assemble, or, for some, direction is in the very act of assembly, precipitating a film from the chaotic results of an intuitive but unstructured production shoot.
My own, extremely limited experience of working on a film set was one in which the director had come up with a basic but fairly detailed conception for a predetermined, inflexible script. His role was as much one of decision maker, re-working, tweaking or abandoning ideas within his conceit intended for any given shot depending on time and resources available, with one eye always, tacitly, on the money.
The people on set were welcomed into a an atmosphere under a corporate assumption of professionalism. In the absence of using names everyone referred to one another as 'sir'. At the same time he recognised the greater burden of responsibility of principal actors and his close core of assistant director and director of photography with greater informality, suggesting trust rather than smug fraternity.
As film technicians are generally quite absolute in their intent (the cost is a comparatively straight algorithm of time, equipment and material) the successful outcome of a production rests on the director's management of the idea. In other words a successful production is one in which the director and the artists working with him assume the responsibility and flexibility to achieve the idea given the fluidity of a consensual artistic approach. That's a mouthful but it suggests that Peter Bradshaw is right to question others' disbelief in the apparent incongruity of an award for a good acting performance and the direction that has widwifed it to the screen.