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April 2009
The Art of the Storyboard: A Filmmakers Introduction (2nd Edition) Online
by John Hart
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Representing a three-dimensional environment on a two-dimensional movie screen has always been a key challenge for filmmakers, and, by extension, representing that environment with movement in a still medium has been the difficult job of storyboard artists. In The Art of the Storyboard: A Filmmaker’s Introduction, illustrator and still-photographer John Hart explores the process by which moving images are planned out on paper, introducing readers to the core concepts of visual design that form the basis of every effective storyboard. 
Clearance and Copyright: Everything You Need to Know for Film and Television Online
by Michael C. Donaldson
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Independent filmmakers ignore legal considerations at their peril, but many postpone dealing with clearance, copyright and insurance because of financial limitations or simple ignorance. Unfortunately, this can lead to major headaches in the late stages of post-production when it quickly becomes apparent various rights issues have rendered a film undistributable. Thankfully, there is a compromise between spending thousands of dollars on attorney fees and pushing blindly forward with no attention to administrative detail: Michael C. Donaldson’s Clearance and Copyright: Everything You Need to Know for Film and Television, a comprehensive and beautifully organized guide to the legal side of independent film production. 
Samurai Films Online
by Roland Thorne
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Roland Thorne’s clear, efficient Samurai Films comes in; it is a highly readable crash course in samurai cinema that introduces the reader to the most important artists and works in the genre. The book begins with a bit of historical context in a chapter that explains the real-life origins of the samurai in Japanese culture.

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The Art of the Storyboard: A Filmmakers Introduction (2nd Edition)
by John Hart
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Representing a three-dimensional environment on a two-dimensional movie screen has always been a key challenge for filmmakers, and, by extension, representing that environment with movement in a still medium has been the difficult job of storyboard artists. In The Art of the Storyboard: A Filmmaker’s Introduction, illustrator and still-photographer John Hart explores the process by which moving images are planned out on paper, introducing readers to the core concepts of visual design that form the basis of every effective storyboard. His book is a serviceable starting point for those new to the art form, but in the end, it is maddeningly incomplete and uneven. The concrete descriptions of lighting principles, depth of field and figure drawing are counterbalanced by unexplained tangents and half-formed ideas, and Hart’s focus on hand-drawing at the expense of all other storyboard approaches — such as frequently used digital applications like FrameForge 3d — is disappointingly narrow.  

Hart begins with a brief history of storyboarding, seeing it as an outgrowth of the animation techniques pioneered by Windsor McCay, Walt Disney and other innovators of the cartoon form. He then moves on to an examination of the storyboard artist’s role as part of a collaborative crew before getting into the substance of the book, which is a step-by-step guide to creating dynamic storyboards. Hart explores a number of topics pertinent not only to storyboard artists, but also to directors, cinematographers and other members of the visual team. Light sources, montage, color and perspective, among many other subjects, are addressed. The author is quite good at describing these concepts in a comprehensible way for lay readers, and each chapter ends with practical tutorials readers can use to apply Hart’s principles.

A gifted visual artist himself, the author utilizes a unique but effective technique to illustrate many of his points. When he presents examples of composition, lighting and production design from classic movies, rather than employing production stills or frame enlargements, he includes his own drawings of the shots under discussion. This approach is a useful way of showing the relationship between hand-drawn sketches and cinematic imagery, provided the reader is already or becomes familiar with the films Hart mentions (something easy to do given the easy accessibility of those movies). The author also provides designs from productions on which he has worked, helpfully showing the evolution from script to basic stick-figure drawings to more detailed storyboards. These illustrations, along with a sampling of storyboards by other artists to provide additional perspectives on the art, are the book’s most valuable component — Hart’s generous supply of images clearly demonstrates key issues of perspective, tonality and anatomy to give the reader a solid foundation in aesthetic principles.

Less impressive is Hart’s tendency to theorize about various filmmakers’ methods without producing any evidence or research to support his assumptions; he makes dozens of references to directors like Federico Fellini, John Ford, Buster Keaton and others and writes that they “probably” worked in certain ways, or that it was “unlikely” they worked in others. The author’s vague descriptions of these artists’ approaches are not very useful, and the lack of precision is annoying because a little research could probably have uncovered whether or not the directors to which Hart alludes did or did not use storyboards in the ways he describes. He also has a somewhat mysterious habit of referring to contemporary films such as Number 23 without explaining their relevance to the topic at hand and makes other references that are completely nonsensical (For reasons known only to the author, he includes a mention of the color film Day for Night in a section on black-and-white, cryptically asserting Francois Truffaut’s film “could have had just as much impact if it had been shot in black and white.”). To make matters worse, the book contains a number of minor but sloppy errors (Hart consistently misspells Martin Scorsese’s name, for example, and erroneously refers to Mystic Pizza director Donald Petrie as “Ronald.”). For a book on a discipline that requires specificity and detail, The Art of the Storyboard is disappointingly slapdash.

It is also a bit antiquated in its approach as Hart clings religiously to a hand-drawn method of storyboarding at the expense of new innovations in software, like FrameForge and After Effects (two applications that are not even mentioned in Hart’s text). Although a late chapter on animatics pays lip service to digital pre-visualization techniques — again, in a maddeningly vague manner, most of The Art of the Storyboard is designed to reinforce Hart’s questionable claim that “even with the current digital revolution, the weapon of choice for previz of the working film script is still pencil on paper.” On this level, the book has some value; filmmakers who lack a background in painting or sketching will find Hart’s lessons quite helpful as an introductory look at these concepts. Ultimately, however, the book is incomplete when compared with a volume like Mark Simon’s Storyboards: Motion in Art, which goes beyond the basics to include detailed information on the business and technology of storyboarding, along with more varied examples and interviews. Hart’s volume has intermittent uses, but Simon’s book remains the definitive text on the subject.

Focal Press
$26.95 paperback

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Clearance and Copyright: Everything You Need to Know for Film and Television
by Michael C. Donaldson
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Independent filmmakers ignore legal considerations at their peril, but many postpone dealing with clearance, copyright and insurance because of financial limitations or simple ignorance. Unfortunately, this can lead to major headaches in the late stages of post-production when it quickly becomes apparent various rights issues have rendered a film undistributable. Thankfully, there is a compromise between spending thousands of dollars on attorney fees and pushing blindly forward with no attention to administrative detail: Michael C. Donaldson’s Clearance and Copyright: Everything You Need to Know for Film and Television, a comprehensive and beautifully organized guide to the legal side of independent film production. Donaldson, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer with decades of experience, has consolidated the most vital components of copyright law into one dense but easily readable volume that can save filmmakers time, money and no small amount of sanity.

The book begins with a concise history of copyright law that serves as a useful foundation for what follows —  a clear but complete examination of each way in which copyright protection affects filmmakers. One of the most useful passages is a lengthy section on fair use that demystifies a very murky area, particularly for documentarians; using specific, detailed examples from widely known films such as Kirby Dick’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, Donaldson draws clear lines between what is acceptable and what is prohibited when utilizing other artists’ clips, music or likenesses. He also covers difficult topics like parody and public domain, in language that is easily understood by legal novices. The accessibility of Donaldson’s style is not an obstacle to depth, however; he goes well beyond the obvious in his examples, covering situations both common and unusual in his effort to arm filmmakers with all the legal weapons they need.

As its full title suggests, Donaldson’s book addresses every stage of the filmmaking process, from the acquisition and creation of an underlying property to production agreements and E&O insurance.  Not all of the information will be necessary for all filmmakers, but Donaldson’s clearly labeled sections and straightforward structure make it easy for readers to immediately find the most pertinent chapters. That said, anyone embarking on a first film would be wise to read the book from cover to cover because Donaldson packs his text with tips about key matters of clearance (especially relating to music, onscreen talent and locations) that will be news to beginning producers.  Many filmmakers have brought their completed films to festivals only to find missing signatures or inappropriate uses of trademarks have rendered their movies unreleasable  —  a careful reading of Donaldson’s dos and don’ts is insurance against such catastrophes.

While the author quickly asserts his book is no substitute for actual legal counsel, he does supply enough documentation to save cash-strapped filmmakers many billable hours with attorneys. Each chapter features sample agreements that relate to the topic under discussion, with notes about what various steps of the contracts really mean (The forms are also available via download from the book’s Web site.). In addition to the many boilerplate contracts that appear throughout the text, Donaldson provides dozens of resources for everything from casting to distribution and insurance; his book goes beyond the presentation of legal theories and concepts to give the reader concrete tools for putting those theories into action. There are lists of music-clearance companies, attorneys, stock-footage libraries and many other vital services and databases, making Clearance and Copyright an immensely valuable, all-in-one reference.  

For this, the third edition of the book, Donaldson has added new material on costumes and characters, trademarks and international copyright; he has also made revisions throughout the publication to reflect recent changes in all areas of entertainment law. The book concludes with a glossary, table of cases referenced in the text and an index of films and television shows mentioned in the sample cases. The fact many of the samples are cases Donaldson actually worked on as a lawyer gives his book an insider’s authority as well as clarity, yet the scope is far broader than that of the author’s firsthand experience.  Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Clearance and Copyright lives up to its “Everything You Need to Know” subtitle and belongs on the shelf of anyone involved in the business of content creation.

Silman-James Press
$26.95 paperback

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Samurai Films
by Roland Thorne
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

From the early days of filmed kabuki plays in the 1920s to recent gems like The Hidden Blade and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi, Japanese samurai films have won devotion from audiences, thanks to their combination of moral inquiry and visceral action. In the best samurai movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Kihachi Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin, the simple pleasures of mainstream adventure movies merge with irony and complex characterizations to create a mythology as rich and satisfying as that of the Hollywood Western. Yet for many American viewers, the cultural obstacles to fully appreciating samurai films are significant. Without a proper understanding of Japanese history and storytelling traditions, the pleasures of classics such as The 47 Ronin and Kagemusha can be elusive.

This is where Roland Thorne’s clear, efficient Samurai Films comes in; it is a highly readable crash course in samurai cinema that introduces the reader to the most important artists and works in the genre. The book begins with a bit of historical context in a chapter that explains the real-life origins of the samurai in Japanese culture. This introduction is extremely helpful for Western film fans who will come to movies like Samurai Banner and Kagemusha with a much greater sense of clarity after reading Thorne’s summary of samurai history and terminology — knowledge Kurosawa and other filmmakers take for granted but which has made some of their films difficult for Western viewers. Interestingly, Thorne points out the very classification of “samurai film” is an invention of Western film critics and is barely used in Japan.  

The complicated Japanese method of categorizing films (which are grouped into period and non-period movies and then classified according to a large selection of sub-genres) makes it difficult to precisely define the samurai film, but Thorne does so by revealing a common theme. As he sees it, a samurai film is not necessarily a movie about swordplay; rather it is about what goes on behind the swordplay — specifically, samurai films deal with the question of what it means to be a warrior and focus on the warrior’s journey of discovery. After noting a couple of key conflicts and motifs (such as the use of nature and Japanese artistic traditions in samurai films), Thorne goes on to brief considerations of noteworthy directors (including Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki) and stars (Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai and Shintaro Katsu). He then discusses the influence of the samurai genre on world cinema, from American Westerns to more recent works by George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch.       

Thorne then reverses direction and starts from the beginning again, taking the reader through each decade of samurai cinema by reviewing a representative sample of films. The 1950s, for example, include essays on classics like Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, and subsequent chapters cover the masterpieces of samurai genre from the 1960s to the present day. Each chapter also includes a brief foreword in which the author addresses the conditions of the Japanese film industry in each decade, pointing out how economic factors allowed certain directors to thrive and develop the genre’s conventions. For every film, Thorne provides detailed cast and crew listings along with synopses and analysis, and his choices are highly accessible, both aesthetically and practically. The films are not only enjoyable and easily understood (particularly with the help of the author’s commentary) entry points into the world of samurai cinema, but they also are readily available on DVD. While this approach causes Thorne to ignore some significant films (as he freely admits in his introduction), it adds to the book’s value for newcomers to the genre who will find it easier to comprehend Thorne’s insights by applying them to movies they can actually see.

It is to these newcomers Samurai Films will be most useful because the reviews of individual films are relatively superficial — there is nowhere near the rigorous thematic analysis or attention to visual language one finds in Stephen Prince’s writings on Kurosawa, for example, or on the Criterion DVD commentary tracks for many of the movies Thorne references. Yet the book might also be of value to more learned Japanese film scholars as a reference tool, given its efficient organization of key works and their credits according to decade. The volume’s format — a pleasingly compact 159-page paperback — necessarily makes it a starting point rather than the final world on samurai movies, but given the limited space, it covers a lot of ground and includes some vivid color stills. During his review of Yojimbo, Thorne notes the movie is the perfect place to start if one has never seen a samurai film. The same could be said of this book.

Kamera Books
$16.95 paperback

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