The American Society of Cinematographers

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January 2010
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography Online
by Mitchell Zuckoff
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Film critic Pauline Kael once referred to Robert Altman’s Nashville as “an orgy for movie-lovers,” and Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is an orgy for Altman lovers. The work began as an attempt by Altman to author a book on filmmaking with journalist Mitchell Zuckoff, who spent hours interviewing the director about every aspect of his craft. When Altman died in 2006 after completing Prairie Home Companion, Zuckoff decided to expand the project into a comprehensive oral biography that would integrate the existing Altman material with interviews of more than a hundred friends, relatives and collaborators.
Produce Your Own Damn Movie! Online
by Lloyd Kaufman and Ashley Wren Collins
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

New York filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman has been writing, directing and producing independent films since the early 1970s, when he and Yale classmate Oliver Stone collaborated on the low-budget romps The Battle of Love’s Return and Sugar Cookies. Through his production company, Troma, Kaufman has distributed films by major directors, including Brian De Palma, Sam Fuller, and Dario Argento, as well as movies featuring early appearances by Kevin Costner, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Jill Clayburgh and a multitude of other actors. To most of Troma’s fans, however, Kaufman is known as the auteur behind some of the most outrageous and enjoyable exploitation films of all time: the environmentally conscious splatter-fests The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, the Shakespearean parody Tromeo and Juliet and, most recently, Poultrygeist, a musical satire that takes on both limousine liberals and fast-food conglomerates.
Dollies, Cranes & Camera Heads Online
by Michael G. Uva
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Michael G. Uva’s Dollies, Cranes & Camera Heads is the veteran key grip’s latest book, following his Focal Press tomes The Grip Book and Uva’s Rigging Guide for Studio & Location. Like those publications, it draws on the author’s decades of experience to pack a bounty of useful information into a relatively small package. The book’s 359 pages contain detailed specifications for more than 100 cranes, dollies, accessories and remote, fluid and gear heads, with photos, graphs and Web-site information for further research. Uva frames these entries with an introduction and a selection of valuable “tricks of the trade” taken from The Grip Book, making this a great one-stop source for grips, best boys and other members of the camera department.

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Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
by Mitchell Zuckoff
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Film critic Pauline Kael once referred to Robert Altman’s Nashville as “an orgy for movie-lovers,” and Robert Altman: The Oral Biography is an orgy for Altman lovers. The work began as an attempt by Altman to author a book on filmmaking with journalist Mitchell Zuckoff, who spent hours interviewing the director about every aspect of his craft. When Altman died in 2006 after completing Prairie Home Companion, Zuckoff decided to expand the project into a comprehensive oral biography that would integrate the existing Altman material with interviews of more than a hundred friends, relatives and collaborators. The end result is something far grander than Altman originally intended — not merely a treatise on filmmaking, but an epic portrait of a true Hollywood iconoclast and his times. In tracking the ups and downs of Altman’s career, Zuckoff tells the larger story of post-classical Hollywood, concentrating on one of the industry’s most accomplished artists.

The first several chapters of the book focus on Altman’s upbringing in Kansas City, Mo., where he was born in 1925. Zuckoff interviews siblings, cousins, ex-wives and children to paint a picture of the filmmaker’s first several decades. After a stint as an air bomber during World War II, Altman got into directing via industrial films and helmed his first feature, The Delinquents, in 1955. The movie got the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who hired Altman to direct several television shows – the way the young filmmaker made his living for almost 10 years. The lengthy chapters on Altman’s television career offer a tantalizing look at the evolution of a master director, as Altman learned his trade cranking out hundreds of hours of television during the medium’s golden age; even at that point, he showed a talent for capturing authentic behavior on screen, as well as a penchant for infuriating executives and financiers.

The interviews with Altman and his colleagues about his television years are packed with fascinating anecdotes and valuable descriptions of some of his less-known work for the small seen; what makes Zuckoff’s book especially impressive, however, is his ability to unearth new information about far more famous Altman projects. After a couple of ambitious but commercially unsuccessful features (Countdown and That Cold Day in the Park), Altman hit pay dirt with the service comedy M*A*S*H in 1971. A massive critical and economic success, the film laid the groundwork for many of Altman’s masterpieces to come in its ensemble format, overlapping dialogue and focus on digressions and behavior at the expense of plot. Zuckoff interviews virtually all of the key actors in the film, as well as studio executives, Altman’s agent, and key crew members, to give a thorough account of the movie’s production and reception. Most of the participants are quite candid, and the narrative Zuckoff creates is detailed, honest and spectacularly entertaining.

The same can be said for the remainder of the book, in which Zuckoff moves through Altman’s career in chronological order, documenting the high points (Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park), the low (O.C. and Stiggs, Ready to Wear) and the many films that were underappreciated at the time of their release but have now become classics (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, 3 Women). Just about every celebrity who worked closely with Altman is interviewed here: P.T. Anderson (who served as Altman’s backup director on Prairie Home Companion), Warren Beatty, James Caan, Cher, Julie Christie, Elliot Gould, Sally Kellerman, Paul Newman and Tim Robbins are just the tip of the iceberg. Zuckoff assembles multiple perspectives into a compelling narrative that is layered and provocative. Altman was once quoted as saying, “I don’t think anybody remembers the truth, the facts. You remember impressions,” and the actors at whom Altman pointed his camera share many vivid impressions here.     

Unfortunately, Zuckoff is not very attentive to the insights of non-performing colleagues; the majority of information regarding visual style and technique comes from Altman himself, without complementary quotes from cinematographers or other collaborators behind the camera, unless those collaborators also happen to be relatives (like Altman’s sons, who have worked on his films in various capacities). Indeed, it is a testament to both the breadth of Altman’s talent and the entertainment value of Zuckoff’s book that at 560 pages, it seems too short. Some of Altman’s more modest works, like Streamers and Fool for Love, are disappointingly brushed over in only a few paragraphs, and late television productions such as Gun and Tanner on Tanner are almost completely ignored. These are exceptions to the rule, however; for the most part, Zuckoff masterfully explores Altman’s work at its most intimate (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) as well as its most expansive (A Wedding, Short Cuts), and he extracts insights from the interviewees they probably did not even know they had until they were prompted for them.

Like Altman, Zuckoff clearly possesses an insatiable curiosity, and that curiosity has led him to write a book as funny, sweeping and involving as any Altman masterpiece.           

Alfred A. Knopf
$35.00 hardcover


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Produce Your Own Damn Movie!
by Lloyd Kaufman and Ashley Wren Collins
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

New York filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman has been writing, directing and producing independent films since the early 1970s, when he and Yale classmate Oliver Stone collaborated on the low-budget romps The Battle of Love’s Return and Sugar Cookies. Through his production company, Troma, Kaufman has distributed films by major directors, including Brian De Palma, Sam Fuller, and Dario Argento, as well as movies featuring early appearances by Kevin Costner, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Jill Clayburgh and a multitude of other actors. To most of Troma’s fans, however, Kaufman is known as the auteur behind some of the most outrageous and enjoyable exploitation films of all time: the environmentally conscious splatter-fests The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, the Shakespearean parody Tromeo and Juliet and, most recently, Poultrygeist, a musical satire that takes on both limousine liberals and fast-food conglomerates.

Kaufman is a true original, a filmmaker who has used the freedom of low budgets and disreputable genres to express subversive political views and provide gobs of gore and gratuitous nudity. He is an educated, erudite man who serves as the chairman of the Independent Film & Television Alliance while also making some of the most vulgar films of all time, and he is a director admired by the likes of Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino but who struggles to get his films into video stores. All of these facets are on full display in Kaufman’s latest book, the delightful and extremely informative Produce Your Own Damn Movie!. As someone who has survived in the business of independent filmmaking through numerous ups and downs, Kaufman has a unique point of view: his experiences range from production-managing big studio films in the 1970s to riding the VHS wave of the 1980s to distributing movies online in today’s digital revolution, and he comments on all of these phases with great wit in his book.

Kaufman’s tome is a companion piece to his earlier volumes, Make Your Own Damn Movie! and Direct Your Own Damn Movie!, but it is no mere retread. In fact, given its breadth of subject matter, it is, arguably, Kaufman’s best book yet. He takes the reader through the process of making an independent film with chapters that focus on financing, location shooting, music, distribution and other topics, and he presents his information in a deceptively conversational style. His book is often laugh-out-loud hilarious — how many filmmaking manuals can you say that about? — yet the content is serious and valuable, often teaching by the author’s telling anecdotes about fiascos on his sets and illustrating how to make movies by explaining what not to do. This makes for a read that is far less dry and more accessible than one might expect, but Kaufman does not skimp on the details; there are many useful tips, and the fact they are transmitted in such an entertaining manner helps the reader to absorb the material without feeling like it is homework. In fact, Kaufman’s voice is so funny Produce Your Own Damn Movie! is worth reading for its entertainment value alone, regardless of whether or not one wants to make a film.

In addition to his own tales of producing woes and triumphs, Kaufman incorporates sidebars by other noted producers and directors in which they share their own stories. Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Avi Lerner and Ernest Dickerson, ASC, are just some of the industry professionals who provide observations, and their insights complement Kaufman’s writing nicely, giving the book a diverse range of perspectives. The upshot is Produce Your Own Damn Movie! is valuable regardless of what kind of film one wants to make — whether you are interested in idiosyncratic horror fare, art-house character studies or bigger-budget prestige pictures, you will find interviews here that apply to your area of interest. There are also sections on topics like tax incentives and rebates that are relevant to every producer, regardless of the budget or genre, and Kaufman pulls off a remarkable balance in his narration: he is totally blunt about how hard independent filmmaking is, yet he still conveys an infectious enthusiasm that makes the reader want to run out and pick up a camera.  It is hard to think of another book that is simultaneously so honest and so inspiring; the fact that it is also smart, hilarious and informative makes Produce Your Own Damn Movie! a real treasure.     
    
Focal Press
$19.95 paperback



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Dollies, Cranes & Camera Heads
by Michael G. Uva
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Michael G. Uva’s Dollies, Cranes & Camera Heads is the veteran key grip’s latest book, following his Focal Press tomes The Grip Book and Uva’s Rigging Guide for Studio & Location. Like those publications, it draws on the author’s decades of experience to pack a bounty of useful information into a relatively small package. The book’s 359 pages contain detailed specifications for more than 100 cranes, dollies, accessories and remote, fluid and gear heads, with photos, graphs and Web-site information for further research. Uva frames these entries with an introduction and a selection of valuable “tricks of the trade” taken from The Grip Book, making this a great one-stop source for grips, best boys and other members of the camera department.

The book opens with an introduction that provides a series of helpful definitions and some tips on the advantages and disadvantages of various pieces of equipment. Some of this information is fairly basic and designed more for students and amateur filmmakers than professionals. The work includes a brief glossary, an essay by filmmaker Ron Dexter on operating a camera using cranes and dollies and extended sections on specific types of camera stabilizers from sandbags to Steadicams. Uva wraps his introduction up with some theory on the ways stabilizing systems work and the ways to get the most out of them. Although this section of the book could have used another pass from an editor because there are more than a few spelling and grammatical errors, its core concepts will be helpful to beginning camera operators and directors of photography.

From the introduction, Uva moves on to the bulk of the book, presenting an invaluable reference guide to the market’s most prevalent cranes, dollies and heads, as well as myriad accessories. For each piece of equipment, the book lists elevation measurements, weight limits for flooring, the dimensions of the equipment, what the equipment can carry and at what weight, along with many other essential specifications. Uva also provides mailing addresses, phone numbers and Web sites for the companies that make and sell the equipment; this information is included in the entries themselves as well as in a handy separate reference section devoted to manufacturers. The book is exceptionally thorough and well illustrated, with multiple still photographs, sketches and tables for each entry, along with precise explanations of the reasons certain pieces of equipment are well suited to particular tasks.

The book presents its figures in both metric and standard measurements and includes sections on motion-control mounts and aerial-photography equipment. The information is straightforward and elegantly laid out on the page, making the book a handy tool for everyone from those who choose the equipment to those who purchase it to those who operate it. The organization of material occasionally seems haphazard, but the book’s table of contents and index make it relatively easy to access information quickly, and the collection of Web links and phone numbers is indispensable. Uva’s personal tips gleaned from years on set will be of service not only to novice operators and grips, but also to aspiring directors thinking about how to utilize dollies, cranes and other stabilizers to creatively frame their shots. More experienced filmmakers can skip the book’s more subjective sections and tips but will find the hundreds of pages on individual tools to be of immense value. In short, keeping a copy of Michael Uva’s Dollies, Cranes & Camera Heads close at hand during both prep and production is a good way to be sure of finding the correct tool for the needs of each shoot.          

Independent Cinema Technology and Videos
$50.95 paperback


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