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January 2009
How Not to Make a Short Film Online
by Roberta Marie Munroe
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Roberta Marie Munroe has many theories about this she has collected in the entertaining but bluntly honest manual How Not to Make a Short Film.  Munroe is as well qualified as anyone to guide a reader through the pitfalls of short filmmaking since she has significant credentials from both sides of the art form: as a programmer at Sundance, she has viewed more than 15,000 shorts and decided which ones would go on to festival glory, and as an award-winning filmmaker, she has directed two of her own shorts.
The Stanley Kubrick Archives Online
by Alison Castle (Editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Like his movies, which often ponder man’s dual nature, Stanley Kubrick was a man of contradictions. On the one hand, his obsessive control over his films, from development to marketing, made him the most enigmatic of directors — few filmmakers’ working methods were more mysterious, and the veil of secrecy that enshrouded many of his productions often led to wild rumors and speculation.
Pinewood Studios: 70 Years of Fabulous Filmmaking Online
by Morris Bright
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the 74 years since entrepreneur Charles Boot purchased England’s Heatherden Hall estate and transformed it into a massive production facility, Pinewood Studios has been the site of some of film history’s most impressive illusions. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus recreated the Himalayas on a soundstage; the 1978 Superman convinced the world once and for all a man could fly (with the help of a complicated front projection system), and production designer Ken Adam built a series of fantastic environments in which James Bond battled his foes. Today, the studio is still home to James Bond, along with new action heroes like Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, as well as the preferred facility for innovative directors like Tim Burton. 

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How Not to Make a Short Film
by Roberta Marie Munroe
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The accessibility of digital equipment and the increase of forums in which to present film and video work has created an explosion of short films in the last several years; in 2008, the Sundance Film Festival alone received 5,400 submissions.  Unfortunately, this glut of product has made it all the more difficult for filmmakers to reach audiences. In that same year at Sundance, only 84 (less than 2 percent) of the submitted shorts were selected for inclusion in the fest. The short film remains one of the most effective ways for filmmakers to attract attention, as well as funding for bigger projects, and in the age of Youtube and DVD, plenty of artists see the short form as its own fully realized medium. So how does one make a short that stands out amongst the tens of thousands of films being produced each year?

Roberta Marie Munroe has many theories about this she has collected in the entertaining but bluntly honest manual How Not to Make a Short Film.  Munroe is as well qualified as anyone to guide a reader through the pitfalls of short filmmaking since she has significant credentials from both sides of the art form: as a programmer at Sundance, she has viewed more than 15,000 shorts and decided which ones would go on to festival glory, and as an award-winning filmmaker, she has directed two of her own shorts. In How Not to Make a Short Film, Munroe shares her experiences and those of her peers so readers can learn from others’ mistakes, and the result is a valuable resource for anyone about to embark on a first short-film project.          

The book’s format is clear and concise as Munroe moves through the stages of filmmaking in order (writing, financing, collaborating with cast and crew, editing, distribution/festival play), using examples from both her own movies and those she admires to illustrate her points. As the title implies, this is less a how-to manual than a how-not-to manual; there is no guarantee one will make a great short film after reading Munroe’s book, but the odds of making an unwatchable one will greatly decrease. While most of the book consists of the author’s commentary, she also supplements her own observations with insights from a wide variety of film-industry professionals: accomplished filmmakers whose shorts have succeeded at festivals and elsewhere, executives at sales and distribution companies and craftspeople who provide a more specific perspective and focus. Through all, Munroe is brutally realistic about the things that can go wrong while making, marketing and distributing short films, and any reader who ignores her warnings does so at his or her peril. 

The downside to the author’s unflinching approach, however, is it sometimes crosses the line from pragmatism into cynicism. Sitting through thousands of shorts has given Munroe a strong critical eye, but it has also made her so unforgiving of anything smacking of the familiar her list of “don’ts” starts to seem excessively prohibitive at times. Throughout the volume, Munroe lists subjects and techniques she finds trite, and while there is undeniable validity to many of her assertions, after a while there are so many conventions designated as clichés readers following Munroe’s rules to the letter will find themselves in a state of creative paralysis. An appendix in which she lists the top 100 short filmmaking clichés is particularly unhelpful in this regard; while some of the clichés are dead-on and amusingly related, others have clearly been used in many successful and award-winning short films. Aspiring screenwriters would be best advised to take Munroe’s rules with a grain of salt since often the success of a film of any length depends not necessarily on having the freshest idea, but upon executing it in an inventive, original manner.

That said, Munroe’s mission to demythologize the process of making short films is ultimately an admirable one, particularly since she offers positive advice for filmmakers more often than she deflates their ambitions. Throughout the book, she provides invaluable resources by pointing readers toward grants, filmmaking cooperatives and other sources of help and funding, and the book concludes with a lengthy compendium of film festivals, distributors and databases.

Its greatest strength, however, is Munroe’s ability to very clearly convey what turns festival programmers off and what makes them more likely to consider a submission.  Aside from artistic considerations, there is a lot of advice that will save filmmakers time and money (such as Munroe’s point making “nice” covers for DVDs is a waste, given because no programmer ever sees this material), and some excellent tips for making the most of a festival once one’s film is accepted.

Munroe’s dual role as filmmaker and programmer has given her a unique understanding of both the business and the art of short-film production, and it is a perspective with great value for anyone interested in working in the field.     

Hyperion
$13.95 paperback

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The Stanley Kubrick Archives
by Alison Castle (Editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Like his movies, which often ponder man’s dual nature, Stanley Kubrick was a man of contradictions. On the one hand, his obsessive control over his films, from development to marketing, made him the most enigmatic of directors — few filmmakers’ working methods were more mysterious, and the veil of secrecy that enshrouded many of his productions often led to wild rumors and speculation.

Yet Kubrick was also as meticulous about documenting his work as he was at creating it; over the course of his life, his English estate became a vast archive of stills, research materials and correspondence so voluminous it became the subject of its own documentary, 2008’s Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes. Kubrick’s personal papers became an instant holy grail for fans and scholars upon his death in 1999, and eventually his estate granted Taschen editor Alison Castle full access to them; the result was the publication, in 2005, of The Stanley Kubrick Archives, a $200 15-pound collection of the most fascinating of Castle’s discoveries.

The book’s release was a major event in Kubrick scholarship because it provided the most detailed and intimate account of the director’s modus operandi to date. Now Taschen has released a new “anniversary” (as in Taschen’s 25th) edition slightly reduced in size (12.9"x9.6", as opposed to the earlier version’s 16.2"x11.8" dimensions) and lacks the audio CD of a 1966 Kubrick interview and 70mm filmstrip from 2001 that were included in the original print run. The reduced size makes the typeface a bit tough to read, and collectors might miss the CD and movie frames, but the price reduction more than makes up for those shortcomings.

The first half of the book consists solely of gorgeous stills, with no cutlines or commentary, which take the reader through Kubrick’s career, film by film, in chronological order. The only exceptions are the director’s shorts and his debut feature, Fear and Desire, which he pulled from distribution; since Fear and the early shorts are the works with which readers are least likely to be familiar, it is a shame they were not included, but the frame grabs that are included all serve as stunning reminders of Kubrick’s pictorial eye and provide a superb tool for studying the director’s precise compositions. Some compensation for the omission of the early films at the beginning of the book’s second half occurs in a chapter that outlines Kubrick’s career in photography and his apprentice work in film.
The second half of The Stanley Kubrick Archives is titled “The Creative Process,” and it is sheer ecstasy for Kubrick fanatics. Beginning with the aforementioned section on the director’s early work and then moving on, like the first half of the tome, to address Kubrick’s output one film at a time, “The Creative Process” presents nearly 300 pages worth of artwork, production documents, interviews and commentaries by some of the world’s most astute Kubrick scholars. Each of the chapters begins with an essay that combines filmmaking history and analysis; taken collectively, these introductions by Gene Phillips, Rodney Hill and others comprise a superb critical biography of the director that outlines the making, release and reception of each of his films. The insights into the work itself are profound, particularly in the case of Hill’s piece on Eyes Wide Shut, perhaps the most unjustly maligned and misunderstood of Kubrick’s masterpieces. Several of the chapters also include interviews with Kubrick taken from the years in which the films under discussion were released, and many of those (such as a conversation from Le Monde about Full Metal Jacket) will be new to English-language readers.

The section on 2001 includes additional articles and perspectives (including pieces on the music and effects and fascinating excerpts from the June 1968 issue of American Cinematographer) and an appendix contains additional commentaries addressing Kubrick’s life and career as a whole. The writings are all well chosen and illuminating, but what really makes The Stanley Kubrick Archives an essential purchase is the wealth of rare archival material. The text in each chapter is illustrated with an abundance of production documentation (including script pages, notes and conceptual artwork) and hundreds of gorgeous stills. The photographs not only offer an astonishing glimpse of the master at work on the set, but also provide tantalizing glimpses of scenes shot for films like The Killing and Eyes Wide Shut but never made it to the final cut.

Along these lines, another useful aspect of The Stanley Kubrick Archives is a chapter focusing on unrealized projects like Napoleon and The Aryan Papers, as well as Kubrick’s original conception for A.I. This section, along with a detailed and immensely valuable chronology written by biographer Vincent Lobrutto, contradicts the impression some might have of Kubrick as a director who took long breaks between projects; although years might have separated his films’ release dates, he was constantly, rigorously working.

If there remains any doubt Kubrick is one of the giants of the cinema of the 20th century cinema, The Stanley Kubrick Archives should dispel it, both through the revelations contained in the director’s own words and in the observations offered by his collaborators and critics. Castle has indicated it would take dozens of books to fully excavate the director’s materials, but her selection of what to include here is impeccable.

Taschen
$70 hardcover     

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Pinewood Studios: 70 Years of Fabulous Filmmaking
by Morris Bright
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the 74 years since entrepreneur Charles Boot purchased England’s Heatherden Hall estate and transformed it into a massive production facility, Pinewood Studios has been the site of some of film history’s most impressive illusions. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus recreated the Himalayas on a soundstage; the 1978 Superman convinced the world once and for all a man could fly (with the help of a complicated front projection system), and production designer Ken Adam built a series of fantastic environments in which James Bond battled his foes. Today, the studio is still home to James Bond, along with new action heroes like Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, as well as the preferred facility for innovative directors like Tim Burton. 

Burton contributes an enthusiastic introduction to Morris Bright’s Pinewood Studios: 70 Years of Fabulous Filmmaking, a lavishly illustrated but somewhat superficial account of Pinewood’s evolution. Bright’s fondness for the studio is clearly evident, but if there is much drama in Pinewood’s history, he has not managed to find it; the conflicts among filmmakers, executives and staff are all relatively minor, and there is not much thoughtful, critical analysis of the films themselves. Bright begins with the birth of the studio in the 1930s, when Boot joined forces with millionaire J. Arthur Rank, whose Rank Organization would become an international production and distribution powerhouse. He then moves on to an essentially chronological history of the studio (with some overlap in chapters on specific film series and personalities) that follows the quota quickies of the 1930s, the government-commissioned war films of the 1940s, the successful comedies (particularly the Doctor and Carry On franchises) of the 1950s and 1960s and the large-scale spectacles that came to characterize later decades at Pinewood.  
Throughout the book, Bright supplements his tale with interviews and profiles of key figures, many of whom (such as producer and editor Hugh Stewart and actor Kenneth More) have been largely overlooked.

Pinewood Studios suffers by comparison to similar volumes, such as Richard Jewell’s RKO Story and Richard Schickel and George Perry’s recent Warner Bros. tome You Must Remember This, although not entirely a result of shortcomings on Bright’s part. The problem is Pinewood simply does not have the same kind of rich historical narrative; its corporate lineage consists of a series of amiable but bland executives, and aside from a couple of franchises like Bond and the Carry On series, there is simply not much consistency over the decades. To exacerbate the problem, throughout much of its existence, the studio has essentially been a for-hire rental facility, without the rich traditions or continuity of many of the Hollywood majors. The reader is, therefore, left with a somewhat disjointed, episodic collection of anecdotes rather than a compelling work of film history.

Although the author explores some films and artists in depth, many passages are little more than annotated lists with little context or detail, and at times serious cineastes will be baffled by Bright’s emphasis. Even British readers familiar with the heyday of comedian Norman Wisdom, for example, will likely wonder if he really merits an entire chapter, whereas Stanley Kubrick (who recreated Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket and New York exteriors for Eyes Wide Shut at Pinewood) gets only a few sentences.

Yet as a coffeetable book with which to dip in and out, the volume has undeniable merit, largely thanks to hundreds of stunning illustrations. Color stills abound, and the production and publicity photographs for everything from Dirk Bogarde comedies to Bond sequels and science-fiction epics like the Alien series are a delight for any movie fan. The book also features plenty of interesting insider tidbits relating to famous productions like Batman and Superman, and aficionados of particular movies and filmmakers can easily jump around to the sections that interest them (one advantage of the lack of narrative spine). 

Best of all, the dozens of sidebar interviews and profiles give a voice to many anonymous technicians who worked behind the scenes throughout Pinewood’s history without gaining the notoriety of David Lean, Carol Reed or some other, more famous practitioners of their craft who have come to represent Pinewood in the minds of film buffs. One wishes Bright had been able to explore their work in a little more depth (Again, it is hard to avoid comparisons with Schickel and Perry’s Warner Bros. volume, which balanced history with analysis more successfully.), but Bright’s tribute to Pinewood and its people is heartfelt and broad in its scope. The book is for casual browsing rather than serious reflection or study, but on those terms, its pleasures are considerable.  

Carroll & Brown Publishers
$76 hardcover

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