BOOK REVIEW: “How to Shoot Movies Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot”
The best books about cinematography aren't necessarily about the art of cinematography. They're about getting all the other stuff out of the way so you can practice cinematography. This is the book that tells you what you didn't know--but need to know--about becoming a cinematographer.
By Art Adams | January 20, 2012
This book is not for everyone. If you don't eat, breathe and live cinematography... maybe you should read something else. Seriously. This book may not be for you. (But if it is... you'd better not miss it.)
A review of this book on Amazon.com says:
"If you're going into a career in the film industry, and will be working with cameras with the intention of working your way up to be a DP, this is the book for you. If you're doing limited-budget work, and wearing multiple hats (writer/director/cameraman, etc), this book won't serve you well. It's intended to those with big bucks, and most of the tips/suggestions/advice in the book primarily apply to those working on films with a budget of a million bucks or more... That said, plenty of the tips do apply to anyone working the camera for a production of any size, but there are far better resources available if you're doing what you do on a shoestring."
With all due respect to the author of this review, this is one of the dumbest things I've read in a long, long time.
I'm often laughed at by young filmmakers when I promote Hollywood methodologies for filmmaking. "We're indie filmmakers," they say. "We don't go for that Hollywood crap. We're going to do it our own way and be highly original and creative!"
I laugh right back at them. I know they're doomed. They're going to spend more time reinventing the wheel than actually using it to get anywhere. The production methodology invented in Hollywood over the last 100 years has made it one of the most efficient industries on the planet. It has to be: depending on the project you'll have anywhere from 10 to 100 people who have to come together 20, 30 or 40 times a day to make one shot happen, and they have to do that for anywhere from one day to six months at a time. It's controlled chaos, and it's a miracle that films get made at all.
But the only reason they get made is because of this Hollywood methodology.
Film students and aspiring indie filmmakers are frequently confused into thinking that the Hollywood method of filmmaking is solely responsible for making the dreck that appears on so many theater screens every year. WRONG. The Hollywood methodology is only about making the movie itself and has nothing to do with content. Content is separate. The methodology allows you to get the process out of the way so you can spend all your time creating.
I describe it like this:
Imagine buying a professional filmmaking machine that follows the Hollywood methodology. The pieces come separately, and as you pick the specific pieces you want to work with they know how to assemble themselves into a working machine. You can now spend all of your time creating cinematic history and zero time making the machine work.
A film that's not made under this method--which is most student films--are made by the amateur filmmaking machine. The parts for this machine don't know how to work together. They don't know how they fit in with other pieces, they don't know what to do when, and they spend all their time trying to make themselves into a functioning machine. This takes all their time and resources away from making a really cool movie.
One machine works because all the pieces know what to do and they can get on with creating whatever it is they want to create. The other machine can't function well enough to make anything, let alone anything that has a chance of being good.
Which machine would you prefer to be a part of? If you want to be part of the professional machine, buy this book.
There's a lot of money riding on productions, and it's very easy to waste a lot of money on failed production mechanisms. That's why it's very important to learn one process, the process that everyone knows, so you can stop worrying about process and simply start creating. For example, everyone in Hollywood knows that ten minutes after call the head of each department--the keys--are on set watching a blocking rehearsal with the actors. Once the blocking rehearsal is done (and this is just for blocking--no emotional stage directions given here, just figuring out where the actors will be and what the shots are) the actors and director go away and the set is lit and the camera placed. After that the actors and director come back, the scene is rehearsed for real, final tweaks are made, and the shots occur. IMMEDIATELY after that the crew and cast immediately move on to blocking for the next shot in the scene. Repeat until wrap.
This is one of the many, many, many seemingly little things that make movies possible. Not just Hollywood movies, but movies of any size. The smaller the budget the more important it is for everyone to know these filmmaking methodologies and to adhere to them. Otherwise you're just going to waste a lot of money.
This reviewer is correct: if you want to wear a lot of hats then this book isn't for you. This book is for those who know that the key positions on a film set are such complex jobs that it is possible to become a master at one of them and still be surprised on a daily basis. One can work ten, twenty, thirty years as a director, DP, production designer, editor, sound person, gaffer, key grip, etc. and still not see or experience everything there is to experience on a film set. Every day is a learning experience, no matter how many days you've spent on set before.
If you want to wear a lot of hats, well, good luck to you. There are a lot of people who are able to do this, although they usually fall into a certain number of categories: director/editors, director/writers, line producer/ADs, and a couple of others. Most people, though, learn at some point that filmmaking is a collaborative process, that each job on a film is endlessly complex, and that a film is actually stronger for having a lot of really experienced people doing each of their individual jobs. The auteur theory, where the director is responsible for everything, is complete bullshit. Watch any successful director's movies and you'll see a repeating list of DPs, production designers, editors, ADs, camera operators, makeup people, etc. One person may guide it all, but one person almost never does it all. Or, if they do, they rarely do it well.
If you are serious about getting into the camera department and working toward being a DP, this is the book for you. It has about as much information in it as you can get about being a working DP without taking a course from the author (who, by the way, teaches at California State University, Long Beach). All the things that you didn't know that you need to know are in this book, and you need to know them all before you can even think of crafting the look of a feature film. Such things include:
-Do's and don'ts when working with directors
-How to interview for a job; or, more importantly, how NOT to interview for a job
-Set politics: what to say, and what not to say, to members of other departments; who to talk to about what; how not to inadvertently "call someone out" on set and turn them and their department against you
-Everything you can do to prepare for a project as a DP
-How to read a script as a DP
-Technical issues you need to know about related to film and digital
-Camera department crew structure: who does what, and when
-The realities of being a second camera assistant, first camera assistant, operator and DP
-How to construct a dolly move that tells a story without tying yourself into a pretzel
-How small mistakes can very quickly turn into large mistakes, and how to avoid the small mistakes
-Mastering the 180 degree line
-The fundamental tools of lighting
-The fundamental reasons we light things
...and on, and on, and on.
The author, Jack Anderson, was one of my early mentors. I first met him when he shot a short film for a fellow student at Loyola Marymount University in the mid-80s. He was in the process of transitioning professionally from camera assistant to operator while building his DP reel. I worked with him on several features following film school, most of them very low budget, and I received a tremendous education by constantly making mistakes and having Jack correct me.
Jack was, by that time, the walking definition of the grizzled union cameraman with a heart. He'd seen it all--and in Hollywood that's saying quite a lot--and whenever I'd screw up he'd calmly take me aside, very respectfully point out how incredibly, insanely stupid I'd been, illustrate how what I'd done could have had disastrous consequences for every department on the show, and explain that on some projects I'd be carrying my pink slip to my car rather than having a furtive conversation with him on the corner of the set. He had a knack for very respectfully and constructively ripping one's ego apart and then putting it back together in a way that said "I still have hope for you, don't do it again." And most of the time I didn't.
That tone, that spirit of "There are a million pitfalls awaiting you and I want to spare you as many as possible while helping you fulfill your dreams," is present on every page in this book. He even comes out and says it: "I want you to learn from my mistakes so that you can go and make your own more interesting and unique mistakes."
The couple of years I spent periodically working with Jack and his crews were amazingly formative times for me. I went from "know-nothing 20-something film student" to a surprisingly effective crew member in a relatively short period of time. I never became the kind of assistant that Jack had been as I only did it for about five years before my back told me that it was time to move on to more creative pursuits (I weighed 120 lbs. and did some bad things to my body by carrying lots of heavy equipment around), but the kind of DP I've become is largely attributable to the foundation he, and a few others, helped me build early on.
So if you do want to be a jack of all trades/master of none and work only on very small, non-professional and intimate movie projects with your friends, DO NOT BUY AND READ THIS BOOK. Stay away. Don't even think of wandering near it in a bookstore. In fact, avoid any bookstores where this book might be present. Maybe you should avoid the Internet, through which this book is for sale. It is not for you.
On the other hand, if you live and breath cinematography and recognize that its pursuit and practice is something to which you could easily devote the rest of your life, you need to start here. Nowhere is there a more practical and down-to-earth guide for those who want to break into the camera department and learn the craft of cinematography. Short of actually working on a production with a seasoned DP from start to finish, this is a great education as to what it's REALLY like to be a cinematographer.
It's all the stuff they should have taught you in film school but didn't. The creative part is easy. It's all the other stuff around it that's hard. This book is about dealing with all that other stuff, and it's one of the most valuable books an emerging cinematographer can read.
Paperback: Shooting Movies Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot: Becoming a Cinematographer
eBook: Shooting Movies Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot: Becoming a Cinematographer
Art Adams is a DP who tries to learn from the mistakes of others when he's not learning from his own. His website is at www.artadamsdp.com.
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