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April 2011
Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction Online
by Cathy Whitlock
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Cathy Whitlock’s Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction is the kind of volume that sends movie lovers into a blissful reverie recalling the images of dozens of old favorites while compiling a bucket list of unseen classics yet to be devoured.
Making Kodak Film: The Illustrated Story of State-of-the-Art Photographic Film Manufacturing
by Robert L. Shanebrook
Reviewed by Richard P. Crudo, ASC

For years cinematographers have been railing about the complexity of new imaging technologies as compared to the traditional photochemical process. After reading Robert L. Shanebrook’s new book, I trust many of us will be reassessing that position — and will be doing it with an avowed sense of awe toward a medium that has been our beloved mainstay for more that 120 years.
A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Lighting on (Almost) No Budget
by Jay Holben
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

As digital technology has gotten cheaper and more accessible, a conundrum has emerged for aspiring filmmakers: although the cameras themselves keep dropping in price and increasing in quality, a considerable outlay of cash is still needed to rent or acquire the lights and equipment necessary to bring decent production values to any project. Or so it is assumed. In fact, as Jay Holben’s A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Lighting on (Almost) No Budget demonstrates, there is no excuse for sacrificing great lighting on even the most bare-bones production. 

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Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction
by Cathy Whitlock
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Cathy Whitlock’s Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction is the kind of volume that sends movie lovers into a blissful reverie recalling the images of dozens of old favorites while compiling a bucket list of unseen classics yet to be devoured. A decade-by-decade survey of production design in Hollywood, Whitlock’s lavishly illustrated coffee-table book guides the reader through many of the most indelible sets and locations in film history and gives credit where credit is due — with biographies of myriad designers and art and set directors. Yet Designs on Film does something more: by examining the evolution of one particular discipline, the author provides a compelling history of Hollywood trends and genres, from the pioneering techniques of silent cinema to the digital realm of Avatar.

Working in collaboration with the Art Directors Guild, Whitlock (a journalist and interior designer by trade) has assembled a remarkable compendium of designs, anecdotes, biographies and photographs. The author begins with introductory chapters that explain the (often overlapping) functions of the production designer and art and set directors and pay tribute to a few key figures (such as William Cameron Menzies, whose work on Gone with the Wind is credited with establishing the very position of “production designer”). From there, Whitlock gets into the meat of the book, providing a thoughtful and entertaining history of production design that demonstrates the ways shifting audience tastes and evolving technology and genres shaped the profession throughout the 20th century. The nightmare of the Great Depression, for example, motivates a national desire to escape that is fulfilled by the opulent, upscale designs of 1930s classics like Grand Hotel (designed by Cedric Gibbons) and Holiday (Stephen Goosson). The complex nature of post-World War II society, on the other hand, gives way to the rise of film noir in movies such as Laura (Lyle Wheeler and Leland Fuller) and to suburban satires like Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Carroll Clark and Albert S. D’Agostino).

These are just brief representative examples, for at no point does Whitlock oversimplify to the extent that she defines a decade by any one particular tendency. Each decade gets its own chapter, and each chapter covers significant films, designers and movements, from the widescreen epics of the 1950s to the new blockbusters of the ’70s and the effects-driven films of the new millennium. As one might expect from a book produced in conjunction with the Art Directors Guild, Designs on Film is jammed with gorgeous illustrations from the Guild’s archives: there are hundreds of beautiful stills and designs that provide instant inspiration and aesthetic pleasure for any filmmaker or movie buff. What is surprising about Designs on Film is the level of scholarly acumen that accompanies the images: Whitlock’s insights about the films and their contexts are consistently original and enlightening, as when she explores the way the ’90s were characterized by shifting definitions of genre in films like Saving Private Ryan (Thomas E. Sanders), Unforgiven (Henry Bumstead) and L.A. Confidential (Jeannine Oppewall). Thankfully, Whitlock avoids the tiresome and familiar arguments about certain periods (like the 1930s or early 1970s) representing “golden ages” and demonstrates the rich and varied quality of Hollywood cinema in every decade.

Overviews of this sort are often vulnerable to criticisms regarding the films that have been omitted or ignored, and Designs on Film is no exception. Many readers with a passion for the subject will be angry over the absence of certain personal favorites, particularly since the tome (perhaps inevitably) places a heavy emphasis on spectacle at the expense of the more subtle production design. For example, there is no mention of major figure Santo Loquasto (Woody Allen’s primary designer since Radio Days), whose work is every bit as expressive of character and theme as the artists in this book but is generally less ostentatious. There is also a tendency with some genres to stick only to the usual suspects; the few references to horror, in particular, are disappointingly unadventurous. Of course, complaining about oversights and exclusions in a book like this is part of the fun, like grumbling about the movies left out of the Oscar nominations every year. If the only complaint one can level at a book is it leaves the reader wanting more, that is obviously a good problem to have, and the fact is that the scope of Designs on Film is both exceptionally broad and deep. It is valuable reading, not only for production designers, directors and cinematographers, but also for anyone who wants a history of American cinema that refuses to rest on the conventional wisdom.

It Books
$75.00 hardcover

Online Online Exclusive
Making Kodak Film: The Illustrated Story of State-of-the-Art Photographic Film Manufacturing
by Robert L. Shanebrook
Reviewed by Richard P. Crudo, ASC

For years cinematographers have been railing about the complexity of new imaging technologies as compared to the traditional photochemical process. After reading Robert L. Shanebrook’s new book, I trust many of us will be reassessing that position — and will be doing it with an avowed sense of awe toward a medium that has been our beloved mainstay for more that 120 years.

A graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology and a 35-year veteran of the Eastman Kodak Company (where he served for more than two decades as Worldwide Product Manager for Kodak Professional Films), Shanebrook brings to us a privileged insider’s view of the fascinating and enormously involved procedures that lead to the creation of still- and motion-picture negative stocks. Bolstered by a trove of previously unseen photos, this self-published volume provides easily absorbed information of great interest to both amateurs and professionals. Because of its essential nature as a technical manual, it is not a breezy read, but that in no way detracts from its value. More to the point, Shanebrook has done a great service for cinematographers by codifying information that might otherwise have become lost to the ages. When the sad day arrives when negative film will no longer be manufactured as an originating medium, we will at least have this comprehensive document to look back on and say, “That’s how it was done!”

As the central thesis of this book, which explains the way an army of technicians manages to get the camel through the eye of the needle. Shanebrook lays out the map in concise terms and delivers a number of astonishing discoveries.

Consider this: The imaging area of today’s color-negative stocks has a minimum of eight light-sensitive layers and six or more non-imaging layers, combined for a total m thickness equal to half the diameter of a human hair. Each unique layer — made up of water, gelatin, silver, oily organic chemicals, reactive chemicals, dyes and microscopic crystals — must record the light that strikes the film’s surface for a fraction of a second and then simulate the way the human eye would actually see the image. The process that brings all these elements together takes place in total darkness and under conditions of strictest cleanliness. That process includes preparation of the chemicals, growing the microscopic crystals and coating the emulsion on literally miles of plastic sheeting, as well as cutting, spooling and packaging. And after the finished product has been exposed and developed, the film must be designed to remain stable for many decades!

To guard against industrial espionage, Eastman Kodak has, from the very beginning, compartmentalized the knowledge that leads to the formulation of its vaunted emulsions. No individual or small group of individuals has ever been allowed to keep the entire equation within reach. Even reverse engineering is futile. But without giving away any trade secrets, Shanebrook manages to pull back the covers on what until now has been an inscrutable riddle. At a time when digital technology continues its struggle to match the varied advantages of film, it is somewhat reassuring to learn that creating a negative is every bit as challenging a pursuit.

While those of us who have spent a lifetime around the camera know what to expect when we make an exposure, a few minutes poking around this book will ensure readers will never look at a strip of film the same way again. The ultimate question it raises, as always, is the most basic one: How can something so complicated to make be so simple to use?

Digital manufacturers would be smart to take a hint from that line of thinking. Maybe then they will have a chance at delivering a technology that will still be vital 120 years from now.

Self-published
$29.95 paperback

www.makingkodakfilm.com
A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Lighting on (Almost) No Budget
by Jay Holben
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

As digital technology has gotten cheaper and more accessible, a conundrum has emerged for aspiring filmmakers: although the cameras themselves keep dropping in price and increasing in quality, a considerable outlay of cash is still needed to rent or acquire the lights and equipment necessary to bring decent production values to any project. Or so it is assumed. In fact, as Jay Holben’s A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Lighting on (Almost) No Budget demonstrates, there is no excuse for sacrificing great lighting on even the most bare-bones production. Holben, who has written and edited for American Cinematographer and DV while shooting commercials, music videos and narrative and documentary features, has a seemingly infinite knowledge of how to get great images with limited resources, and his new book on the subject is destined to become a staple in film schools and a mandatory reference volume on budding cinematographers’ shelves.

Given that there are dozens (if not hundreds) of perfectly fine introductory lighting textbooks on the shelves, it is fair to ask whether a new tome on the subject is really necessary. The answer, in the case of A Shot in the Dark, is an unequivocal yes. What separates Holben’s work from his predecessors is a theoretical perspective that is detailed and comprehensive yet completely accessible. Whereas most texts of this sort emphasize the pure mechanics of three-point lighting and other basic concepts, Holben approaches the craft from a more philosophical viewpoint. He delves deeply into the nature of light and the ways we respond to it physically and emotionally, providing a thorough understanding of the ways light works and the ways it can be manipulated. The upshot is Holben teaches the reader how to light a scene organically, from the inside out, rather than relying on schematic, by-the-numbers, rules that, ironically, often have little relevance in terms of practical applications on set.

This does not mean A Shot in the Dark ignores basic lighting and exposure principles, however; to the contrary, it contains some of the clearest and most detailed examinations of core cinematography fundamentals to be found in print. In addition to his writing and shooting credits, Holben has extensive experience as a lecturer, and his book combines the hard-earned knowledge of a working director of photography with a teacher’s ability to articulate complicated ideas. The first half of A Shot in the Dark is devoted to basics such as color, exposure and electricity and is a terrific summation of everything a filmmaker needs to know about light and its properties. Aside from using clean, concise language, Holben employs hundreds of photographs and diagrams to beautifully illustrate his points, and he always remembers to relate even the most abstract theoretical concepts to real-world lighting situations.

After he has laid the groundwork, Holben moves on to the business of the second half of the book, which is to give the reader step-by-step instructions in building inexpensive rigs and tools for low-budget lighting. These chapters, which include sections on soft lights, tungsten and fluorescent fixtures, LEDs, dimmers and other tools, are invaluable. The instructions on how to build cheap lighting fixtures and accessories are ingenious, practical and completely achievable, even by a novice, thanks to Holben’s meticulous instructions and illustrations — he makes the act of constructing sophisticated lights and rigs easier and clearer than putting together a department-store bookshelf. One nice touch is Holben’s tendency to give the reader multiple options: throughout the text, he will often offer advice on how to achieve an effect if the cinematographer has a certain amount of money, but then offer low or no-budget alternatives. The result is the book has value for directors of photography across a range of budgets, not just guerilla filmmakers working in the digital realm. (Although Holben’s writing is geared toward high-def and digital photography, the concepts are easily applicable to celluloid work.)

All of this material is laid out in an exceptionally well thought out design that makes A Shot in the Dark as beautiful as it is informative. Text, illustrations and sidebars that contain relevant digressions all share the page in a complementary fashion that allows the reader to quickly access specific information — there is none of the excessive flipping around one has to do in books in which the information and photos are scattered throughout the text in a disjointed manner. The amount of material Holben packs into his 282 pages is remarkable — the book has a dual function of serving as both an instructional manual on building do-it-yourself lighting and an all-inclusive primer on cinematography fundamentals. (For beginning filmmakers, the chapter on basic lighting techniques alone is worth the purchase price.) The book accomplishes both missions brilliantly. With straightforward, user-friendly language, A Shot in the Dark gives low-budget filmmakers all the tools they need to turn their ideas into art.

Course Technology
$44.99 paperback