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December 2011
Conversations with Cinematographers Online
by David A. Ellis
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Several excellent collections of interviews with directors of photography are available in the marketplace, including Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato’s now classic Masters of Light and Vincent LoBrutto’s equally essential Principal Photography. Yet the emphasis in these and other tomes has largely been on American cinematographers, with occasional detours to recognize Europeans who have worked in Hollywood. David A. Ellis’ Conversations with Cinematographers is a welcome addition to the literature in that it focuses exclusively on British cameramen. 
Filming the Fantastic (2nd Edition)  Online
by Mark Sawicki
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Visual effects are obviously more central to the filmmaking process than ever, but many of the publications on the subject have been prohibitively insular; there’s a plethora of material available on specific techniques and software, but a comprehensive, fully integrated study of how effects work in conjunction with cinematography, writing, and directing has been hard to find. Luckily that void has been filled by Mark Sawicki’s revised and updated edition of Filming the Fantastic: A Guide to Visual Effects Cinematography

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Conversations with Cinematographers
by David A. Ellis
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Several excellent collections of interviews with directors of photography are available in the marketplace, including Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato’s now classic Masters of Light and Vincent LoBrutto’s equally essential Principal Photography. Yet the emphasis in these and other tomes has largely been on American cinematographers, with occasional detours to recognize Europeans who have worked in Hollywood. David A. Ellis’ Conversations with Cinematographers is a welcome addition to the literature in that it focuses exclusively on British cameramen. As a contributor to British Cinematographer magazine, Ellis has had access to some of the best practitioners of the craft, from legends including Jack Cardiff, ASC, BSC, and Gilbert Taylor, BSC, to contemporary masters like Anthony Dod Mantle, BSC, DFF. In his new book, Ellis collects many of his interactions with these filmmakers and pays tribute to their considerable accomplishments.

Right away, it must be admitted that for all of its strengths (of which there are many), Conversations with Cinematographers is not quite as substantial as some of the aforementioned works in the same genre. For better or worse, the book is a breezy, entertaining read that is heavy on anecdote and light on serious technical information. The one exception to this rule is the chapter on Chris Menges, ASC, BSC, which reprints three in-depth conversations from American Cinematographer and British Cinematographer (Menges was unavailable for a new interview with Ellis because of his work schedule on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.). The three pieces, one each by Mark-Hope Jones, Bob Fisher and Ron Prince, delve into the cinematographer’s work and process with a level of detail and insight that is largely lacking in the rest of the volume, which tends to the “what was so-and-so like to work with?” style of entertainment reportage.

That said, when the “so-and-sos” include the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Richard Burton and The Beatles, fond remembrances and anecdotes provide their own substantial rewards. Readers seeking technical tips are better off looking elsewhere, but fans and historians interested in an entertaining, highly accessible overview of 20th (and, to a lesser degree, 21st) century cinematography will find many sections of this book to be pure pleasure. In each case, Ellis touches on key entries in his subject’s filmography without shortchanging lesser known pictures; in fact, one of his greatest strengths is his knowledge of the more obscure corners of cinematographers’ careers.

Ellis is also quite adept at making connections among his subjects; many of the directors of photography interviewed in this volume have worked together, either on different units on the same films or in situations in which they worked as operators or focus pullers on each other’s movies. Throughout the book, certain key films and figures reoccur, from A Hard Day’s Night and David Lean to Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock and The Empire Strikes Back; the result is a sort of informal history of the British film industry. The careers span the early days of the “quota quickies” to the digital age, and reading the interviews gives the reader a colorful and illuminating look at changes in the craft and business of cinematography throughout that period.   

This larger perspective is further expanded in chapters such as the one on Freddie Francis, BSC, which contains not only an interview with Francis, but also interviews with collaborators such as focus puller and operator Gordon Hayman. It is in sections like this that the full value of Ellis’s book is most prominently on display — at its best, Conversations with Cinematographers is far greater than the sum of its parts as its multitude of points of view cumulatively explore not only individual cinematographers’ careers, but also the joys and agonies of an entire profession and art form. The book is also a superb reference tool as each interview is accompanied by a comprehensive and accurate filmography. Refusing to rely on readily available but unreliable Internet tools like Wikipedia and IMDb, Ellis has thoroughly studied his subjects’ careers to provide authoritative credits, credits that serve not only as resources for scholarly research, but also as suggestions for DVD rentals that will supply countless hours of entertainment and inspiration. Such inspiration is plentiful in Ellis’ book itself — the infectious joy with which his interviewees speak about their work is impossible to resist and makes Conversations with Cinematographers a valuable addition to any filmmaker’s library.   

Scarecrow Press
$55.00 hardcover

Online Online Exclusive
Filming the Fantastic (2nd Edition)
by Mark Sawicki
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Visual effects are obviously more central to the filmmaking process than ever, but many of the publications on the subject have been prohibitively insular; there’s a plethora of material available on specific techniques and software, but a comprehensive, fully integrated study of how effects work in conjunction with cinematography, writing, and directing has been hard to find. Luckily that void has been filled by Mark Sawicki’s revised and updated edition of Filming the Fantastic: A Guide to Visual Effects Cinematography. It’s a remarkable volume, a book that describes how to achieve specific effects in precise detail without ever losing sight of the big picture – more than a manual on effects cinematography, Filming the Fantastic is a treatise on using effects as an expressive storytelling tool.

Sawicki begins his book with a fairly extensive overview of special effects history, as well as an introduction to lighting and composition principles. His thorough discussions of lenses, film formats, exposure and forced perspective are instructive for all beginning filmmakers regardless of the applications to special effects work, and more advanced cinematographers and directors will find value in the author's ability to recontextualize old information as it relates to contemporary digital technology. Subsequent chapters on crafts such as matte painting, motion control, and stop motion photography provide further insight, and Sawicki strikes a perfect balance in the accessibility of his writing: it's advanced enough to keep seasoned filmmakers from getting bored, but a series of meticulous illustrations make difficult concepts digestible for the neophyte.

Such neophytes might initially wonder why the author spends so much time on old-fashioned technologies that are theoretically obsolete in the digital age, but Sawicki quickly reveals the value of integrating old-school techniques with cutting edge tools. Given that many readers will be students or independent filmmakers with limited resources, Sawicki stresses approaches that are easily achievable on a budget: in the chapter on stop motion, for example, he provides a superb lesson in how to make a monster using elements available at the local hardware store, and then explains how one would composite this rubber model into a background using digital chroma key software. Even those effects technicians who plan to build monsters from scratch in the digital realm will find Sawicki's tutorials in stop motion, front and rear projection, and matte painting useful, as he clearly and concisely explains how their principles apply to CGI software.

This kind of all-inclusive methodology continues throughout the tome, with Sawicki stressing easily implemented approaches to visual effects. One of his primary concerns is teaching readers how to avoid relying on the old adage "we'll fix it in post"; instead, he places emphasis on techniques that allow filmmakers to create their effects on set and in camera whenever possible, using digital postproduction tools to complement physical effects rather than replace them. Indeed, perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Filming the Fantastic is the author's continuing insistence on using effects as a fully integrated storytelling tool. To that end, the book includes extensive chapters on digital cameras (special effects aside, the volume is worth reading simply for its discussions of DSLRs, the RED, and Alexa), camera movement, and color. There are also dozens of examples from classic films as well as movies on which Sawicki worked as an effects technician that further elucidate the concepts.

All of this provides a rock solid foundation for the book's extensive sections on blue and green screen, motion tracking, miniatures and computer graphics. Sawicki delves into all of these subjects in great depth and with exceptional clarity, supplying workflows and pipelines that take the reader through effects creation step by step. Some of the examples are from big-budget studio movies, but there's also a terrific chapter entitled "So You Don't Have a Million Dollars" that explains how to achieve effects on a budget, with useful tips for shooting elements on video that can be incorporated into film composites. Sawicki even finds ways to apply the lessons from big-budget extravaganzas like The Matrix, Sin City, and The Lord of the Rings to more modestly budgeted projects by utilizing old-fashioned planning and sweat equity, and he finds time for passages on set etiquette and the importance of performance in special effects work. Ultimately, the author's message is that an effects cinematographer has to "adapt, improvise, and overcome”; readers will find it easier to do all three after absorbing the lessons of Filming the Fantastic.

Focal Press
$44.95

Online Online Exclusive