The American Society of Cinematographers

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June 2008
The Art and Technique of Digital Color Correction Online
by Steve Hullfish
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the five years since online editor Steve Hullfish co-authored (with Jaime Fowler) Color Correction for Digital Video, the tools of digital color grading have undergone massive changes and expansion, with better and more numerous applications available at a fraction of earlier costs. Seeing the need for an update, Hullfish presents The Art and Technique of Digital Color Correction, a companion to his earlier volume that is likely to become the definitive text on the subject.
Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics Online
by Michael Rabiger
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the latest (fourth) edition of his textbook Directing, filmmaker and educator Michael Rabiger lays down the gauntlet right away. The second sentence of the introduction informs the reader that the book “will prepare you like no other for the methods, thought processes, feelings, and judgments that a director must use throughout the fascinating experience of creating a film.”
The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media
by Bruce Block
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

One of the great ironies of 21st-century media is that audiences devour more images at a faster rate — and on more varied platforms — than ever before, even though they’re not necessarily more visually astute than viewers from past decades. Unfortunately, this is true not only of consumers but of a shockingly large number of filmmakers as well, judging from the photographically mundane and closeup heavy visual strategies employed by many contemporary films and television programs.


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The Art and Technique of Digital Color Correction
by Steve Hullfish
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the five years since online editor Steve Hullfish co-authored (with Jaime Fowler) Color Correction for Digital Video, the tools of digital color grading have undergone massive changes and expansion, with better and more numerous applications available at a fraction of earlier costs. Seeing the need for an update, Hullfish presents The Art and Technique of Digital Color Correction, a companion to his earlier volume that is likely to become the definitive text on the subject. Sensibly organized, lavishly illustrated and varied in perspective, it’s a dense but highly readable summary of the current state of the art.  

Given the DIY revolution of recent years, Hullfish’s book is geared toward not only those whose primary field is color correction, but toward editors and other filmmakers who have been given access to the craft’s tools via recent advances in digital technology. The obvious potential problem with such an approach is that those with more experience in color timing might be bored if the author spends too much time orienting the uninitiated, while newcomers can be confused by new principles and language if they are not explained. Thankfully, Hullfish has come up with a simple but ingenious solution to the problem: Rather than place his glossary at the back of the book, he introduces definitions throughout the volume in sidebars, so that novices can quickly acclimate themselves while the more experienced colorists can move forward without stopping. There are also dozens of tips in the margins that help readers make the most of their grading software, and some nice asides that relate to lighting as well as to color.

Equally helpful is a DVD of clips included with the book; these clips can be imported into any color-correction application (I used Apple’s Color, formerly Silicon Color’s FinalTouch HD, to practice on them), and by following Hullfish’s instructions, readers can immediately see real-world examples of the techniques under discussion. In addition, the author describes strategies different colorists have for correcting the same images that the reader is working on, and the DVD includes the text of the discussions between Hullfish and these colorists as they worked on the exercises. This is immensely helpful for the beginning grader, as it makes abstract theoretical color concepts concrete and comprehensible.

The same can be said for the hundreds of well chosen and vivid illustrations, which convey the subtle distinctions between images that have had different types of color correction applied and show the direct correlation between adjustments made in the software and the final result seen on screen. The author also manages to pull off the difficult trick of teaching in a manner that is applicable to the many different color-grading applications on the market, without slipping into vagueness or generalizations. The book is filled with specific references to specific products and companies, which are always integrated into the overall discussion and are relevant whether one’s using Final Cut Pro’s color corrector for the laptop or a da Vinci 2K. Hullfish also mentions the strengths and deficiencies of many applications and plug-ins, making his book a useful preproduction resource as well as an essential postproduction manual, as editors and colorists can refer to the book for guidance when choosing the tools needed to realize their project.    

Though Hullfish has a strong, clear authorial voice, he broadens the perspective of his book by bringing in observations by professional colorists. Wherever applicable, interviews with expert technicians are inserted into the chapters, and there are plenty of useful insider hints and unique approaches in these conversations. As the book progresses, Hullfish relies more on case studies with the pros, and quotes cinematographers and directors in the process of establishing a common language that DPs and timers can use to communicate. This allows the author to shift emphasis to the “art” of his book’s title, as he goes beyond technical advice to examine both the creative aspect of color correction and the manner in which a project’s color palette is informed by collaboration.

As Hullfish points out (and as the wide-ranging structure of his book illustrates), there are as many approaches to color grading as there are men and women who practice the craft, and the number of methods increases exponentially depending on the specific combination of craftspeople. The Art and Technique of Digital Color Correction’s demystification of the tools and strategies of color timing makes it the perfect guide for professionals hoping to hone their own philosophies and working methods.

Focal Press
$49.95 paperback

Online Online Exclusive
Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics
by Michael Rabiger
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the latest (fourth) edition of his textbook Directing, filmmaker and educator Michael Rabiger lays down the gauntlet right away. The second sentence of the introduction informs the reader that the book “will prepare you like no other for the methods, thought processes, feelings, and judgments that a director must use throughout the fascinating experience of creating a film.” A bold claim, to be sure, especially given some of the excellent recent volumes, such as Gil Bettman’s First Time Director, that are already devoted to the subject. Yet for the most part, Rabiger makes good on his promise, bringing readers a comprehensive introduction to directing that focuses heavily on the interpersonal and organizational aspects of the craft. Well aware that excellent technical manuals exist (and are constantly being updated) for those seeking instruction in camerawork, editing and digital innovations, Rabiger spends less time on technology than he does on the more intangible, but undeniably vital social and managerial skills necessary for any working director.

The book is particularly concerned with the art of screen acting and how a director can extract truthful work from the film’s performers. Although Rabiger organizes his material in sections devoted to clearly defined stages of filmmaking (writing, preproduction, production, etc.), observations about acting and actors permeate the majority of chapters. To some readers this might seem like overkill, but it’s tough to argue with Rabiger’s claim that good performances can disguise other mistakes that are likely to be made by a first-time director, or with his argument that acting is a discipline sorely underemphasized in most film schools. In any case, Rabiger integrates his discussions of performance with articulate, accessible summaries of each step in the directing process. He also provides concise chapters on fields such as film production management and production design that, while not technically part of the director’s job description, will likely overlap with his or her duties on low-budget or student productions.

Rabiger stuffs his book with references to other filmmakers’ working methods and to movies that illustrate his concepts, and his utilization of cinema history to clarify his points is extremely effective. Although the author lights the obligatory candles to Orson Welles, Sergei Eisenstein and Ingmar Bergman, he also moves beyond these already extensively written about masters to use examples from Mike Figgis, David Lynch and Lars von Trier, among other modern-day mavericks. The breadth of references serves two purposes: It brings theoretical and technical concepts to life by associating them with contemporary films, and it allows Rabiger to use examples that students and independent filmmakers can plausibly apply to their own work. Without the infrastructure of a 1940s studio at one’s disposal, for example, it’s a little tough to replicate some of the innovations of Citizen Kane — but anyone with a digital video camera and a laptop can work in the idiom of Lynch’s Inland Empire or Figgis’ Timecode.

Directing relies heavily on projects and exercises that allow readers to practically apply Rabiger’s theories, making the book well suited for classroom use. The projects’ integration into the book’s overall structure can be a bit irritating, however, depending on the reader’s point of view; occasionally, Rabiger seems to be putting the cart before the horse, placing exercises in blocking, lighting and editing before the section on writing and story development, for example. Whether one responds to this approach depends on individual sensibility — for those who like to methodically plan each step of a process before jumping into a project, Rabiger’s seemingly haphazard organization will be frustrating, but less cautious filmmakers who prefer to learn by doing will probably prefer the author’s unorthodox approach. (And anyone who has actually made a film can back up Rabiger’s claim that the only real way to learn is to dive in and do it.) Besides, Rabiger’s extraordinarily detailed tables of content that appear at the beginning of each section allow readers to create their own course of study by tackling the topics and exercises in whichever order they prefer.

Although this edition of Directing isn’t much longer in terms of page count than previous editions, it does pack a lot more information between its covers, particularly in its updates on how digital technology has impacted the field, both aesthetically and financially. Rabiger has taken the information found in prior editions and skillfully condensed it, while making space for the new material by moving some content to the book’s Web site. The Web site contains checklists and project assessment forms that are useful for the novice and the veteran alike, though the book itself is definitely weighted toward the beginning director. Most of Rabiger’s lessons — the result of decades of mentoring student filmmakers — will be old news for readers who have actually made films, but for those about to embark on their debut short or feature, however, Directing offers a thorough manual that keeps one from having to learn everything the hard way.

Focal Press
$49.95 paperback

Online Online Exclusive
The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media
by Bruce Block
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

One of the great ironies of 21st-century media is that audiences devour more images at a faster rate — and on more varied platforms — than ever before, even though they’re not necessarily more visually astute than viewers from past decades. Unfortunately, this is true not only of consumers but of a shockingly large number of filmmakers as well, judging from the photographically mundane and closeup heavy visual strategies employed by many contemporary films and television programs.

Producer and USC professor Bruce Block is certainly aware of the problem, and the second edition of his book, The Visual Story, is a welcome overview of cinematic language that addresses the necessity for a well thought out visual structure to go along with the narrative structure of any film (as well as any TV show, video game or commercial). Block doesn’t offer paradigms or templates — as the author notes, if there were a formula for creating great movies then anyone could create them by simply learning the rules — but a clearly defined set of principles that expand the reader’s visual literacy. His book is a sort of Elements of Style for filmmakers, and any screenwriter, director or cinematographer with a point of view will find a great deal of creative inspiration in The Visual Story’s guide to the fundamentals of the craft.

Block breaks the image down into its basic visual components, then goes into detail about how each can be utilized both individually and in concert with one another. He devotes generously illustrated and clearly organized chapters to each of the following categories: space, line/shape, tone, color, movement and rhythm. Then he incorporates them into a fascinating section on visual structure and storytelling. Although the author delves into specific, complex concepts, nearly everything he discusses can be traced back to a core relationship between affinity and contrast. As Block sees it, figuring out when to employ affinity — whether between colors, types of lighting or shapes within the frame — and contrast is the key to the filmmaker’s craft. It’s what creates intensity or calm on the screen, which then seeps into the audience’s nervous system. With language that avoids academic jargon in favor of terms accessible to all readers, the author applies this concept to each of the basic visual components, showing how different types of lenses, movements and color combinations have the capacity to be soothing, jarring or something in between.

Block is adept at employing drawings and stills to convey abstract ideas to the reader; his use of illustrations is especially helpful when exploring issues related to perspective and editing. At its best, The Visual Story achieves the author’s goal of erasing the boundary between theory and practice, offering many concrete examples of how and why certain visual principles work. Each chapter is packed with frame grabs from famous films across a wide variety of genres and periods, with an unerring eye for moments within individual movies — from Touch of Evil and Cries and Whispers to Sin City and Punch-Drunk Love — that crystallize complex visual concepts. Some readers might be disappointed that Block doesn’t take his premises a step further by explaining exactly what sorts of color palettes, depth-of-field strategies and lighting setups generate specific emotions or meanings. Yet for anyone who embraces cinema in all its variety, Block’s sensibility is liberating rather than limited; he acknowledges that any one technique can be used to produce multiple and sometimes opposing effects, and his thesis is that each filmmaker must apply the basic visual components in a manner that makes sense to him or her.

To aid in this endeavor, Block ends each chapter with examples from famous films that illustrate his points and show how different filmmakers utilize the techniques effectively. He beautifully sums up the ways in which Alan Pakula and Gordon Willis, ASC, generate claustrophobia in Klute and The Parallax View, for example, and how The Sixth Sense uses color to represent death. Again, Block obliterates the line between theory and practice, and the final chapter of his book (appropriately titled “Practice, Not Theory”) demonstrates how visual structure can be employed in formats that include documentaries, video games and sitcoms as well as various genres of feature film. The Visual Story makes the very convincing argument that all of these media require precise, motivated visual designs in order to be effective — and that having a point to make or a story to tell is only half the battle. Filmmakers armed with Block’s highly readable and essential volume will find themselves well prepared for the second half.

Focal Press
$34.95 paperback