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July 2008
The Camera Assistants Manual (4th Edition) Online
by David E. Elkins, SOC
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

At first glance, the collection of charts, formulas and checklists that comprises a large percentage of David E. Elkins’ The Camera Assistant’s Manual might make it seem like just another version of the ASC’s American Cinematographer Manual.
Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher Online
by Irving Singer
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few directors, even those who write their own screenplays, have created as nakedly confessional a body of work as Ingmar Bergman. A filmmaker who regularly used friends, ex-lovers and ex-wives in his movies (often playing variations on roles they had played in the director’s off-screen life), and who lifted conversations and experiences from his own relationships right up until his final film Saraband, Bergman blurred the line between his life and his art like no other director. On at least one occasion, he even named his cinematic surrogate Bergman!
Motion Picture and Video Lighting Online
by Blain Brown
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

It’s hard to think of many instructional texts that cram more useful information into a more compact space than Blain Brown’s Motion Picture and Video Lighting (Second Edition), a primer on cinematography that manages to cover lighting history, aesthetics and equipment in under 250 pages.

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The Camera Assistants Manual (4th Edition)
by David E. Elkins, SOC
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

At first glance, the collection of charts, formulas and checklists that comprises a large percentage of David E. Elkins’ The Camera Assistant’s Manual might make it seem like just another version of the ASC’s American Cinematographer Manual — and a less up-to-date one at that. Yet while Elkins, a veteran camera operator and assistant with more than 100 credits to his name, clearly hopes that his book will be used as an on-set reference tool, closer inspection of the volume reveals that he’s equally interested in providing a detailed introduction to the profession for students and those just beginning to work in the camera department.

Elkins, who teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts, points out that although working as a loader or assistant is one of the key jobs on a film set, few film schools offer courses dealing directly with the specific duties and responsibilities of an AC. His book aims to fill the educational gap by clearly laying out, from preproduction through post, each task that the first or second AC must perform and the tools needed to perform it.

The book opens with a concise overview of cinematography basics before moving on to an excellent introduction to the hierarchy of a camera crew. This section describes the general skills and duties relevant to each position on the set, and from there Elkins moves to more detailed and in-depth chapters covering the responsibilities of the first and second camera assistants. The text is supplemented with illustrations that convey Elkins’ ideas, and the clarity with which he lays out the chronology of a film shoot is impressive — years of working and teaching have clearly allowed the author to hone his approach with military precision, and it’s hard to think of any assistant armed with the book’s checklists coming across a problem he or she would be unable to solve.

Unfortunately, the text is slightly redundant at times and a lot of Elkins’ advice is obvious, as when he constantly reminds readers not to forget supplies or arrive to the set underprepared. The repetition might be helpful, however, for students and beginning assistants to whom some of the concepts are brand new, and Elkins justifies his approach by arguing that repetition is a big part of being on a camera crew; technicians are constantly repeating information to one another in an attempt to keep details from being overlooked or forgotten. Throughout the book, the author stays attuned to the actual operations on a set beyond mere technical considerations; he stresses the interpersonal skills necessary to get and keep jobs and a chapter on troubleshooting is as much about keeping one’s cool as it is about specific mechanical problems.

In addition to the sections on individual crew positions and problem-solving, Elkins supplies a collection of illustrations of many popularly used cameras and magazines, paying far less attention to hi-def and other digital formats, which garner very few mentions of how this technology has altered the camera assistant’s role. This is certainly a manual geared toward craftspeople who work with celluloid, not digital, as a capture medium. The book concludes with several appendices that list different types of cameras, filters, stocks and accessories. There are also a number of useful charts and formulas to help camera assistants make calculations relating to exposure, running time and other pertinent issues.

Because the appendices are only valuable to a certain degree, given that new equipment and film stocks are always entering the marketplace (and existing tools are constantly being modified and improved upon), Elkins provides additional, more up-to-date information on his Web site, www.cameraassistantmanual.com, where readers can find more than 100 excellent links that cover every facet of a camera assistant’s duties — from grip and lighting equipment to job listings and professional organizations. The site also contains camera manuals and downloadable versions of the checklists, production forms and labels featured in the book. The checklists are especially useful for camera assistants who want to be sure they have all the equipment and expendables necessary for any given shoot.

Beginning assistants will also benefit from Elkins’ final words about finding work and getting into the union, and his explanation of the distinction between union and nonunion shoots packs a lot of relevant information into a compact chapter. While the American Cinematographer Manual is far more comprehensive in its tables and diagrams, the first-person perspective Elkins offers makes his book a worthy addition to any camera assistant’s library.

Focal Press
Paperback, $50.95

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Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher
by Irving Singer
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few directors, even those who write their own screenplays, have created as nakedly confessional a body of work as Ingmar Bergman. A filmmaker who regularly used friends, ex-lovers and ex-wives in his movies (often playing variations on roles they had played in the director’s off-screen life), and who lifted conversations and experiences from his own relationships right up until his final film Saraband, Bergman blurred the line between his life and his art like no other director. On at least one occasion, he even named his cinematic surrogate Bergman!

At times, the autobiographical components of Bergman’s work have limited rather than illuminated the range of his talent, as has the tendency of critics to focus on a handful of classics (The Seventh Seal, Persona) at the expense of a career that included more than 50 films and dozens of stage and television productions. It doesn’t help that the more one knows about Bergman’s emotionally complicated childhood and love life, the more one tends to read such films as Scenes From a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander as coded messages. Rather than analyze the films on their own merits, the viewer is tempted to treat them like games in which the object is to match fictional people and events with their real-life counterparts.

In his new book Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher, MIT philosophy professor Irving Singer navigates this difficult terrain with successful results in spite of a somewhat rambling structure. Singer incorporates a great deal of background from Bergman’s life (with numerous quotations from the director himself), but only as long as it is relevant to a deeper understanding of the work. There’s no sense of gossip and the biographical information enriches the films rather than making them mundane. Although the book is critically sound and its arguments are well substantiated, it still manages to be intimate and subjective rather than dry and academic. The author completely ignores the usual organizing principles of most auteur studies, and thus the book isn’t structured on a film-by-film basis or even according to thematic subject or period — indeed, it barely has any structure at all.

Singer does divide his material into a loose trio of groupings: “Magic, Myth and the Return to Childhood,” “Religious Quandaries and the Nature of Love” and “Ambiguities of the Human Condition.” There’s also an epilogue and a prologue titled “General Observations,” which is an ironic heading given that the entire volume more or less falls under this definition. Singer jumps from film to film and subject to subject, ignoring some movies while returning over and over again to others. Readers seeking a conventional biography or a summation of Bergman’s preoccupations won’t get it here; what they will get is one thoughtful writer’s musings on Bergman’s work, his methods and what they mean. Singer’s approach can get a little maddening at times — he regularly skips to a new topic before it feels like the previous one has been fully explored.

Yet within this awkward structure are numerous insights into Bergman’s technique and obsessions that make it easy to forgive the book’s lack of organization. Singer is particularly incisive in his references to Bergman’s sound design, which he examines in relation to the director’s method of evoking, or subverting, reality. Bergman’s films are often strangely expressionistic and haunting in spite of the fact that their photography and production design are (aside from obvious exceptions such as Cries and Whispers) relatively naturalistic. Singer locates the source of the films’ dreamy poetry in the collision between realistic images and unrealistic aural effects; Bergman regularly strips away noises that other directors would leave in and amplify, giving his work a slightly ethereal quality even when it is rooted in everyday Swedish life. It’s a method that serves to isolate the director’s tormented protagonists, and Singer’s book is most valuable when it connects Bergman’s thematic concerns with his approach to music and sound effects, an area that has been less extensively covered by other books on Bergman’s work.

Singer also gives due attention to movies that have been largely neglected or obscured by Bergman’s more famous masterpieces. While Singer pays rightful homage to Smiles of a Summer Night and Persona, he devotes equal time to such pictures as The Magic Flute, a movie Singer sees as crucial in Bergman’s development as an artist. Throughout the book the author beautifully clarifies the connection between Bergman’s philosophy and his technique, explaining how Bergman conveys his feelings about human nature through the visual, aural and literary tools at his disposal. When discussing A Passion (known in America as The Passion of Anna), for example, Singer shows the way in which a slow zoom that allows its subject to go out of focus represents the emotional dissolution of the protagonist.

This kind of simple but powerful visual expression is the core of Bergman’s talent, and in Irving Singer the director has found a writer with a corollary talent for expressing critical ideas with clarity and concision. The result is a volume that has an academic’s rigor of thought without academic jargon — a book that Bergman himself might have appreciated for the way it makes complex concepts accessible.

The book, as Singer acknowledges in the text, is not a starting point for considering Bergman and his output; readers unfamiliar with the director’s work will have a hard time engaging with the author’s free-form structure, and there are too many films missing from the discussion for Cinematic Philosopher to be considered the first or last word on Bergman’s career. Instead, it’s a companion piece best utilized in conjunction with other publications such as Bergman’s own memoirs and Birgitta Steene’s definitive Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide as well as the films themselves. Much has been written about Ingmar Bergman in the 50-plus years since Smiles of a Summer Night made him an international celebrity, and his death in 2007 has sparked a renewed interest in his work. Ingmar Bergman: Cinematic Philosopher proves that the director’s films still have plenty of new secrets to reveal and is a worthy addition to the field of Bergman scholarship.

The MIT Press
Hardcover, $24.95

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Motion Picture and Video Lighting
by Blain Brown
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

It’s hard to think of many instructional texts that cram more useful information into a more compact space than Blain Brown’s Motion Picture and Video Lighting (Second Edition), a primer on cinematography that manages to cover lighting history, aesthetics and equipment in under 250 pages. Brown, a director of photography who teaches at the Los Angeles Film School, provides a nearly perfect balance of all the components that comprise a full understanding of the art and craft of cinematography (and, as the title implies, digital videography as well). Both a valuable technical reference and a comprehensive overview of lighting theory, it’s as close to a definitive work on the subject as one is likely to find.

Brown begins with a brief but detailed history of film lighting as it metamorphosed from the silent era to the days of Kino Flo and LED panel lights, then moves into an illustration-rich (the book contains hundreds of gorgeous stills) catalog of the types of lighting sources a contemporary camera crew is likely to use. Brown is clear and concise when it comes to explaining the properties of each light and the scenarios in which specific units would most likely be employed. He also offers vital troubleshooting and safety tips.

After introducing the reader to the cinematographer’s tools, the author explores how to use them in a superb chapter on lighting fundamentals. This section addresses all the topics one might expect — color control, separation, exposure — and demonstrates a variety of lighting scenarios via stills and diagrams. Like other chapters in the book, it examines how images are read and interpreted by the eye. Where Brown is particularly insightful is in his linkage of these technical, aesthetic and theoretical considerations to more practical ones; he moves beyond the basics to address the ways in which shooting schedules and other variables intersect with technology and art to determine how a scene should be lit.

This all-inclusive approach extends throughout the book, which moves deftly between pragmatic, artistic and technological issues as well as broad generalizations and specific shooting scenarios. After introducing readers to basic philosophies of light and color, Brown offers numerous examples of how these philosophies have been put into practice, noting everything from low-budget images cobbled together in ordinary living rooms to larger set pieces on films such as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and The Brothers Grimm. In each instance, Brown distills extremely complex ideas to their essence through a combination of text, diagrams and still photography; a passage on a massive lighting setup for X-Men is particularly fascinating.

The bulk of the book follows Brown’s established pattern of introducing fundamentals and theory before moving on to detailed practical applications, whether the topic is color temperature, depth of field or exposure. He also dedicates a great deal of time to electrical concerns and the tools of lighting control and diffusion, eventually pulling these topics together in a chapter on set operations and the roles of everyone on a camera crew. Finally, the author wraps his book up with information on various lamps and sockets and how unorthodox situations (like shooting underwater, with a green/blue screen or exposing for macrophotography) create their own distinctive technical issues.

There isn’t a wasted page here, and Brown brings his material up to date with a detailed consideration of the unique challenges created by shooting on high-definition, DV and standard-definition video (in addition to this chapter, he also intersperses comments on the differences between celluloid and digital media throughout the book). As if that weren’t enough, Motion Picture and Video Lighting is accompanied by a terrific DVD that contains hours of lighting demos, interviews, on-set footage and visual illustrations of concepts introduced in the text. An appendix containing such useful information as international plug-and-socket types, tips for operating brute arcs and typical lighting orders for low- and big-budget films (the latter example is taken from Mr. & Mrs. Smith) finishes off a volume that deserves to earn a place in every young cinematographer’s library.

Focal Press
Paperback, $44.95

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