He began developing his style and process. For instance, he's fond of doing a lot of takes, not because he's obsessive about coverage but because he likes to create a sense of relaxation on the set so that "eventually it's not about the slate and 'action,' it's about it feeling the same when the camera's rolling and when it's not." But he also learned about how to deal with other, more experienced personalities who might not share his philosophies, like Morgan Freeman, who's so thorough and precise that he doesn't need a lot of shots at nailing a take -- and he knows it.

With "The Town," things changed a bit because Affleck was directing himself for the first time. He reached out again to his actor/director friends for guidance and was told across the board, "Shoot more coverage of yourself than you think you need. Don't be gallant."

And now "Argo," which Maltin noted had received this year's "Golden Tomato" award for most critically approved film of 2012 from Rotten Tomatoes, and has also gone on to win more Best Picture prizes from critics groups than any other film this year. Talk turned a bit more serious as Affleck noted, "This is the kind of film where I haven't run out of wanting to talk about it." He believes its a crucial conversation, what our relationship with Iran will be going forward and what the role of diplomats really is in this day and age, and he was excited to tackle those ideas as a filmmaker.

At the same time, Affleck is a father now, and he said that has a huge sway over his choices as an artist now. He wants his children to pick up a paper and not read tabloid nonsense about their father, but perhaps read something that makes them proud.

"This last seven years is something new and also incredibly rewarding," he said. "The central challenge of one's lifetime is trying to make good people and having kids makes it profoundly important to me to do work that I'm proud of."

With that, the stage was set for Matt Damon to present this year's Modern Master Award to his friend and collaborator. In a wonderful speech, Damon noted that all those years ago, watching movies at Somerville, he and Affleck and their friends (which included 'Gone Baby Gone' and 'The Town' screenwriter Aaron Stockard) would huddle up after a movie and have a little notes session in the parking lot. It was always immature and not all that enlightening.

"And then we'd get to Ben," Damon said, "who would have been quiet up until that point, uncharacteristically. He would say, 'Well, it didn't quite work for me. But had they done this and this and this at the beginning, what you could have done in the middle was have a scene where you did this, and then you could have had a great scene at the end where you could have done that.'"

It's just a skill that Affleck had, Damon said. Whether he was born with it or not, he had it when he was 14 and they started going to see movies together. "He could lift up the hood and take a look at the engine and get in there and take it apart and put it back together and the whole thing would run smoother," he said. "It's what made him such a great writing partner. He could problem solve. And so much of filmmaking is just that. He's made three fantastic movies, one better than the next. And one thing I've learned is you cannot make a great movie by accident. Anybody who makes a great movie is a great director. Period. He is undeniably two things: my very old friend and a very young master."

It was one of the better tributes I've seen at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, owed largely to the affable Affleck's storytelling panache (impressions of John Frankenheimer, Morgan Freeman and Warren Beatty were littered throughout a number of humorous anecdotes). And it was a positive stop on the circuit. For a few hours, the fact that he was unceremoniously passed over by his fellow directors didn't seem to matter. And at an intimate after-party following the tribute, Affleck seemed as positive as ever that his film has a chance to beat the odds and win Best Picture at the Oscars.

The first potential step on that road comes tonight at the PGA Awards. Whether he pulls it off or not, though, it's clear he's more grateful than anything to have made a tough transition in his career and found his way as an artist behind the camera.

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Kristopher Tapley has covered the film awards landscape for over a decade. He founded In Contention in 2005. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London and Variety. He begs you not to take any of this too seriously.