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August 2009
The Big Picture: Filmmaking Lessons from a Life on the Set
by Tom Reilly
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Part how-to manual, part professional memoir, part filmmaking manifesto, Reilly’s concise volume illustrates Bertolucci’s thesis with dozens of concrete examples from a career spent working on crews with Gordon Willis, ASC; Carlo Di Palma, AIC; Woody Allen; Barbara Streisand and other filmmaking notables.
Fix It In Post: Solutions for Postproduction Problems
by Jack James
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The ever expanding array of digital postproduction options and software has created a sense that the old, fallback “we’ll fix it in post” is no longer a cliché; it is a viable reality for even the most budget-limited filmmaker.
Kazan on Directing
by Elia Kazan
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Elia Kazan would have been a legend even if he had never gone to Hollywood, thanks to his famous productions of Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and other landmarks of American theater.

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The Big Picture: Filmmaking Lessons from a Life on the Set
by Tom Reilly
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Director Bernardo Bertolucci once stated: “I still believe that the best possible school is the film set,” a quote that opens veteran assistant-director Tom Reilly’s engaging new book The Big Picture: Filmmaking Lessons from a Life on the Set. Part how-to manual, part professional memoir, part filmmaking manifesto, Reilly’s concise volume illustrates Bertolucci’s thesis with dozens of concrete examples from a career spent working on crews with Gordon Willis, ASC; Carlo Di Palma, AIC; Woody Allen; Barbara Streisand and other filmmaking notables. Reilly distills knowledge acquired over decades into a compact, entertaining collection of essays on everything from background players and the logistics of sex scenes to special effects and stunts. The result is a personal but universally implementable approach to production that draws on the practices of some of contemporary cinema’s most talented cinematographers and directors.

Beginning with a brief autobiographical sketch, Reilly explains his participation in the Directors Guild of America’s Assistant Director Training Program in the 1970s and then jumps into 50 concise, clearly labeled chapters that address issues of scheduling, budget, aesthetics, interpersonal skills and just about everything else that comes up on a film set. 

Initially, Reilly provides fairly routine observations (One early chapter is titled “If It’s Not in the Shot, It Doesn’t Matter.”), but before long, he delves beneath the surface to offer truly enlightening reflections on the art and craft of filmmaking. Drawing on his own experiences, he perfectly captures the delicate balance all filmmakers must maintain among art, money and time. The concepts are complex — as when Reilly explains the multitude of factors that influence whether or not to go into overtime or build a set or rehearse actors, but their expression is elegantly simple. The author’s use of straightforward but humorous language, combined with the clarity of his examples drawn from films with which most readers will be familiar, makes for an accessible and useful handbook.   

One of the pleasures of Reilly’s book is its smooth integration of practical, on-set tips with aesthetic insight; for all of his talk of meal penalties, budgets and strip boards, Reilly never loses sight of the ultimate goal: the lasting work of art all the administrative work generates on screen.  Some of the tome’s best passages are those in which Reilly refers to camera moves and compositions in films on which he has worked, such as those photographed by Willis and directed by Allen. Reilly fascinatingly describes the philosophy behind some of the long takes and minimalist lighting of Willis in Stardust Memories and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, providing abundant food for thought for cinematographers and directors looking for unique ways to plan their shots. Reilly also is adept at pointing out the subtle differences in style among his collaborators, from the mobile camera of Di Palma to the emphasis on portraiture of Sven Nykvist and the reliance on still photographic techniques of Willis. The book’s pages are filled with details about how the filmmakers achieved their effects. A section on dealing with the sun in the exterior-heavy A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is especially noteworthy. After reading Reilly’s insights, filmmakers will want to not only apply the lessons learned to their own work, but also to rush to a DVD player to revisit these cinematographers’ landmark films.

The book’s utility as an introduction to film-production management is slightly hindered by its lack of illustrations; it would have been helpful for neophytes to actually see examples of some of the tools, such as strip boards and call sheets, that Reilly discusses. Given that this kind of information is readily available in other books and on the Internet, however, its omission is not a major drawback, especially since what Reilly does offer is a personal point of view one cannot find anywhere else. His first-hand accounts of Allen’s method of directing actors, or an effects crew lighting a stuntman on fire for F/X, are priceless glimpses behind the scenes that are incredibly inspiring in their descriptions of the processes by which pragmatic, on-set decisions lead to cinematic gold. A helpful glossary of film terms that concludes the book is icing on the cake.

The set may be the best school, as Bertolucci claimed, but Reilly’s instructive guide is the next best thing.

St. Martin’s Press
$25.95 hardcover

Fix It In Post: Solutions for Postproduction Problems
by Jack James
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The ever expanding array of digital postproduction options and software has created a sense that the old, fallback “we’ll fix it in post” is no longer a cliché; it is a viable reality for even the most budget-limited filmmaker. Applications such as Final Cut Studio, Shake and After Effects have brought sophisticated compositing, grading and compression technology to amateurs and professionals alike, theoretically giving anyone with a laptop and a FireWire drive the tools to create a product worthy of competing with studio blockbusters. Yet the limitations of digital postproduction and the line between what is possible for a price and what is prohibitively expensive are largely misunderstood; thankfully, Fix It In Post: Solutions For Postproduction Problems by Jack James is a user-friendly introduction to the post process that clearly summarizes what digital technology can do and how to do it.

Largely bypassing editing and visual effects (James correctly notes these subjects are vast enough to warrant their own volumes, of which there are many on the market.), Fix It In Post focuses on a wide variety of tools one can use to correct everything from lens distortion to audio, color and speed issues. James begins with a section on essential techniques, providing a summary of masking, keying, tracking and other practices that can solve the most basic (as well as some advanced) problems one comes across when handling footage in post. He goes on to present individual chapters in which he expounds upon those topics and offers step-by-step instructions for literally hundreds of post solutions. Format conversions, image stabilization, sound clean-up, digital artifacts and aliasing and many other issues are addressed in clear, concise language. Beginners with a basic knowledge of film and video will quickly grasp the author’s concepts, and more advanced readers can use the well organized chapter headings to quickly reference specific topics. The book contains a generous collection of illustrations that further clarify its points: hundreds of photos and diagrams supply concrete visual examples of the ways images and sounds can be manipulated in post.

Although Fix It In Post is intended as a general overview, James is quite detailed in his descriptions, an achievement all the more impressive given the application-agnostic approach of the volume. Rather than lean toward any particular software, the author writes his instructions so they can be used with any number of programs, with more precise, application-specific information available on the book’s Web site. James also leans toward solutions that are not highly costly to achieve and even provides helpful tips on how to use still-photography software in conjunction with digital video. This makes Fix It In Post an ideal book for students and independent filmmakers who want to utilize their software to its greatest potential but do not necessarily have a Benjamin Button-sized budget to pay for digital tools.

After working his way through a multitude of editorial, technical and compositional problems, James supplies basic strategies for digital-assets management, workflows and security and concludes with an indispensable collection of reference data, including tables of standard data resolutions, video characteristics, aspect ratios and common digital image and audio formats, information that nicely complements the book’s in-depth chapter on pull-downs, time-code troubleshooting and frame-rate conversion.

In the end, Fix It In Post’s greatest value is as a guide to what is possible — filmmakers who have wondered about whether or not a problem with focus or exposure or contrast can be adjusted in the telecine suite or on one’s desktop will find the answers here, along with the clear means by which to find remedies for these and other on-set gaffes. Contrary to popular belief, not everything can be “fixed in post” — and certainly not without spending thousands, or even millions, of dollars, but that which can be is likely to be found within the pages of this James book.

Focal Press
$39.95 paperback

Kazan on Directing
by Elia Kazan
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Elia Kazan would have been a legend even if he had never gone to Hollywood, thanks to his famous productions of Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and other landmarks of American theater. By the same token, he would have earned his place in history for On the Waterfront; East of Eden; America, America and many other films, regardless of his achievements on Broadway. He was rightly credited with the formulation of a new style of performance on both the stage and the screen, but Kazan was much more than simply an actor’s director; anyone who has ever seen the astonishingly elaborate long takes (all shot on location in New Orleans) in Panic In the Streets or the dense Cinemascope compositions of East of Eden and The Arrangement knows his eye for mise-en-scene was as sharp as his ear for dialogue.  Kazan’s monumental artistic achievements have often been overshadowed by his controversial testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s, which created such bitterness among many leftists in Hollywood that, to this day, Kazan is remembered more for naming names than for directing some of the most influential and emotionally devastating movies and plays of the 20th century.

Thankfully, the critical tide seems to be shifting in Kazan’s favor. Recent years have seen superb DVD special editions of many of his films, with thoughtful commentaries (The track by James Ursini and Alain Silver on Panic in the Streets is particularly essential.), and fine critical studies by Richard Schickel, Brian Neve and others. (A new documentary by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones is also in the works.)  Best of all, we now have Kazan’s working methods described in his own words in Kazan on Directing, a compilation of writings assembled by editor Robert Cornfield.  Kazan was never stingy with his opinions or commentary; before his death in 2003, he participated in several interview books and wrote his own massive — and massively entertaining — autobiography.  Yet Cornfield has managed to unearth much rarely seen material and has organized it in such a way that Kazan on Directing seems destined to become a required text in university film and drama courses. It is a delightful overview of a remarkable career and one of the most honest accounts of the stage and film director’s craft ever published.           

Prefatory remarks by Scorsese and John Lahr provide a context for what follows.  Lahr succinctly summarizes Kazan’s significance as the first real auteur of American theater and the man who brought psychological realism to American movie screens, whereas Scorsese provides a more personal, passionate appreciation. From there, Cornfield arranges the text in three major sections: Kazan’s notes on plays, his notes on films and a chapter titled “Pleasures of Directing,” drawn from text Kazan wrote for a book on directing he did not complete. The first two sections are drawn from Kazan’s notebooks, which in and of themselves are revelatory; play by play and movie by movie, we learn exactly what Kazan was thinking at the time of conception and see the ways he visualized his themes. Cornfield goes far beyond the notebooks, however, to provide excerpts from correspondence, quotations from reviews of the time and his own editorial commentary on Kazan’s career and relationships. Whether one agrees with Cornfield’s judgments of individual films — fans of East of Eden and A Face in the Crowd are sure to be surprised and alarmed by the editor’s dismissive assessments, the connective tissue he provides helpfully charts Kazan’s evolution as an artist.

Throughout the book, Cornfield selects material vast in its scope yet precise in detail; everything from interoffice memos about censorship problems to set diagrams to diary entries is included, and all of it reveals Kazan to be a man of passion, intelligence and ego. The breadth of selections reveals Kazan in all his manifestations — amateur psychologist, businessman, dramatist, showman and technician, all the things one needs to be to successfully direct. Kazan elaborates on these and other issues in the book’s final section, which begins with the text of “On What Makes a Director,” an address he delivered at Wesleyan University in 1973. This lecture is both quite accurate and a little intimidating in its insistence on the vast array of skills needed to direct, skills Kazan explores in further depth in the rest of the book, which is culled from his incomplete work-in-progress The Pleasures of Directing. Cornfield supplements Kazan’s writings on the technical and psychological duties of a filmmaker with excerpts from the director’s previously published writings and interviews. The upshot is an entertaining, personal and superbly informative treatise on directing.

Cornfield wraps things up with an excellent afterword in which he sums up Kazan’s career and its significance; his analysis in this section is so penetrating it makes one want to immediately reread the preceding chapters with the new perspective. A detailed chronology and bibliography follow, bringing Kazan on Directing to just over 300 pages. Thanks to Cornfield’s judicious editing work, there is surprisingly little repetition in those pages. Instead, the book is densely packed with information and insight, all of which is conveyed with the same energy Kazan brought to his most explosive productions. Kazan prided himself on those moments in his plays and films when he achieved a sort of emotional honesty. That honesty is just as evident in this book, often amusingly so, as in the presentation of Kazan fiercely arguing the benefits of involvement with one’s leading lady.  There is no higher praise.           

Knopf
$30 hardcover