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March 2008
High Definition Postproduction: Editing and Delivering HD Video Online
by Steven E. Browne
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

With a dozen broadcast formats and more than 50 production formats, high-definition video can be a complicated medium for beginners and professionals alike. The fact that there are two frame sizes, multiple frame rates and pervasive mislabeling of the formats and processes throughout the industry muddies the waters even further.
La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film Online
by Mikel J. Koven
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The Italian giallo film has had a massive influence on everything from Brian De Palma suspense pictures to ’80s slasher movies to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. Yet in America, this unusual hybrid of murder-mystery and horror flick is still relatively unknown.
Special Effects: The History and Technique Online
by Richard Rickitt
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Calling a book on special effects “definitive” is a risky proposition, given both the scope of the subject and the rapidly changing technology that renders most studies quickly out of date. That said, Richard Rickitt’s Special Effects: The History and Technique is as thorough an account as one could possibly desire — a lavishly illustrated and clearly written analysis of the art and science of special effects.

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High Definition Postproduction: Editing and Delivering HD Video
by Steven E. Browne
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

With a dozen broadcast formats and more than 50 production formats, high-definition video can be a complicated medium for beginners and professionals alike. The fact that there are two frame sizes, multiple frame rates and pervasive mislabeling of the formats and processes throughout the industry muddies the waters even further. Thankfully, veteran editor Steven E. Browne has created a thoughtful overview of the subject in High Definition Postproduction, which packs a surprisingly large amount of information into its 230 pages. The volume covers equipment, filmmaking practice and technological history in a clearly organized collection of well-illustrated chapters. Although the title refers to the final phase of filmmaking, High Definition Postproduction includes extensive passages on preparation and shooting that would be of value to craftspeople at every stage of the filmmaking process.

Browne begins the book by describing the different formats that make up the family of high definition, then moves on to explain how these formats are differentiated by frame size and rate, recording method, bit depth and compression. As a working film editor, Browne is especially astute in his discussion of how each of these is influenced by aesthetic considerations and budget, offering suggestions on how to shoot when the ultimate delivery requirements are unknown. The author also includes an analysis of the increasingly popular HDV format, explaining its differences from traditional high-def and the advantages of its use. For both HD and HDV, Browne covers framing and compositing, compression options, editing approaches and many other pertinent matters.

The book is a vital resource for filmmakers embarking on their first HD project, as Browne goes beyond discussions of technical minutiae to offer a great deal of practical advice, including tips on time management and set politics. He also touches on makeup, slating and sound recording, though he doesn’t go into great depth on these subjects beyond providing useful tips for high-def novices. Yet the volume is equally useful for more seasoned professionals, thanks to Browne’s handy reference charts on frame rates, broadcast standards and color sampling schemes.

Several detailed case studies of HD productions are also included, which illustrate the author’s concepts via practical examples. These behind-the-scenes examples range from short subjects and commercials to American Idol and HBO comedy specials, showing the wide range of HD applications. In the case studies, Browne supplies details about the postproduction workflow, including information about hardware and software, and the economic and artistic determinants that dictate the choices made at each stage of the show.

Throughout the book, Browne addresses topics of general concern as well as more particular problems. His sections on frame rates, for example, deal with common conversion issues and pulldown processes, but they also explore such matters as scrolling text and how its jitter can be affected by the choice of frame rate. In keeping with his thesis that post must be an organic extension of production, Browne exhibits a broad perspective that encompasses lens choice, recording media and camera equipment as well as more traditionally post-oriented concerns involving editing and color manipulation. All of these topics are discussed in language that is thorough but not overly dense or cumbersome.

Though the book is full of repetition of key ideas — some of which may seem obvious to the HD professional — the complexity of the subject matter justifies restating important points, and the chapter headings and subheadings are marked in a way that allows more savvy readers to skip over redundant sections. The book also contains dozens of illustrations that go a long way toward making difficult concepts accessible, and digressions into the history of video technology facilitate further understanding. The comprehensiveness of Browne’s approach insures that his book will stay relevant even as the quickly changing technology of high-def makes some of the details obsolete, as core principles will most likely remain intact no matter how rapidly the medium evolves. In any case, High Definition Postproduction is an excellent summing up of the choices available to high-def practitioners at this moment in time and would make a worthwhile addition to any filmmaker’s library.

Focal Press
$34.95 (paperback)

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La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film
by Mikel J. Koven
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

The Italian giallo film has had a massive influence on everything from Brian De Palma suspense pictures to ’80s slasher movies to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. Yet in America, this unusual hybrid of murder-mystery and horror flick is still relatively unknown. Film scholar Mikel J. Koven sets out to give the subgenre its due in La Dolce Morte, a study that clearly and accessibly explores the history, influences and conventions of the giallo. Koven’s approach is to look at the giallo as a form of what he calls “vernacular cinema,” a tradition of movies whose popular appeal lies outside of the accepted realms of film art. In so doing, the author shows the aesthetic and cultural value of what is normally considered to be an exploitative genre.

Koven’s decision to define the giallo (plural: gialli) in the context of vernacular cinema is largely dictated by the fact that, as a genre, it was never created for movie reviewers or scholars. Like the Italian Westerns that were popular in the same era, gialli were made for mainstream, even lowbrow, audiences. Still, Koven finds a way to approach the films academically, in spite of their resistance to such an analysis. Whether by accident or design, gialli do have something to say about Italian culture, and Koven skillfully breaks the films down into their basic components. Like film noir, the giallo is more of a style or subgenre than a genre and thus is harder to define than more clearly circumscribed forms such as the Western or romantic comedy. Yet Koven does find certain characteristics that are evident across a large number of films, some of which are visual or technical and some of which are thematic.

On a cultural level, Koven finds that most gialli are ambivalent about changing technological and social mores in 1960s/1970s Italy — and in this sense they continue the exploration of modern decay that Federico Fellini began in La Dolce Vita in 1960. Like Fellini, gialli filmmakers viewed modern material and technological accoutrements (especially automobiles) with skepticism, and this skepticism often worked its way into the narratives of the movies. The same can be said of gialli’s somewhat conservative attitudes about sexual and ethnic differences; the killers are regularly defined as “other,” whether they be gay, foreign or outside the norms of society in some other way. Again, however, there’s an ambivalence here, as many of the heroes of gialli films are foreign as well (a common motif is the outsider from another country solving a murder that stumps local authorities).

The ambivalent stance taken by gialli filmmakers toward not only modernity and multiculturalism but also language and sexuality is expressed through their use of space, location and wardrobe. Koven refers to specific entries in the giallo cycle to illustrate how directors of the era used the form’s conventions to visually convey their ideas about European — and, in the case of Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, American — society. His book includes case studies of seminal gialli texts such as Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, but the volume is more valuable for the attention it pays to overlooked classics of the genre. Of particular interest is a discussion of Sergio Martino’s Torso, a film that laid the template for American slasher movies of the 1970s and ’80s.

One of the giallo’s defining traits is its propensity toward imaginative, graphic murder sequences, and Koven describes many of these in detail to determine what they say about both the characters on screen and the viewers watching them. The author notes that there’s a class commentary at work in many of the films, as bourgeois households find their antiques and décor turned against them — for example, a victim is impaled on a decorative wall spike in Opera, while a spiked glove is used to finish the job in Blood and Black Lace. This idea intersects nicely with Koven’s exploration of the giallo as a form of vernacular cinema for the proletariat, as the spectacle of the wealthy being done in by their own gratuitous indulgences surely holds some pleasure for the subgenre’s working- and middle-class audiences. In any case, it is the gory nature of the crimes in gialli films that places them in the horror genre, though as Koven notes, in most other ways they have more in common with mysteries (Koven devotes an entire chapter to the role of detectives in the films).

Koven clears up a number of other misconceptions about gialli films as well, such as the notion that their fetishistic display of beautiful women being dismembered makes them misogynistic. The author rightly points out that gialli are more misanthropic than misogynistic, as a survey of the films reveals that men are brutalized almost as often as women. Koven’s arguments on this and other topics are all articulate and convincing, though, ironically, the book’s one weakness is its failure to really develop the notion of the giallo as a vernacular genre. After establishing this as the book’s premise in early chapters, Koven abandons the idea in subsequent sections and never really follows through with a discussion on what constitutes vernacular cinema or how this notion is essential to an understanding of the giallo.

Nevertheless, even if La Dolce Morte falls short of its own goal, the things it does accomplish make it a significant contribution to horror film scholarship. Given the paucity of thoughtful writing on gialli films, Koven’s well-organized catalog of the subgenre’s characteristics makes his book a valuable reference tool as well as an incisive critical study. In addition to breaking down the components of infamous murder set pieces, Koven discusses the role of legend and folklore in gialli films, the surprisingly consistent style of wardrobe favored by its killers and its roots in Western crime fiction. As a book on so-called vernacular cinema, La Dolce Morte is a bit incomplete, but as an introductory guide to an overlooked subgenre, it fills a longstanding void in English-language film criticism.

The Scarecrow Press
$40.00 (paperback)

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Special Effects: The History and Technique
by Richard Rickitt
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Calling a book on special effects “definitive” is a risky proposition, given both the scope of the subject and the rapidly changing technology that renders most studies quickly out of date. That said, Richard Rickitt’s Special Effects: The History and Technique is as thorough an account as one could possibly desire — a lavishly illustrated and clearly written analysis of the art and science of special effects. As an effects artist who has also written a book on creature design and published his work in various film magazines, Rickitt combines an insider’s viewpoint with a journalist’s rigor to create a volume that will likely be a standard text for years to come.

The first chapter contains a general summary of the history of special effects from Edison to the present. While much of this content will already be familiar to filmmakers and special effects enthusiasts, Rickitt’s information is well organized, and he does a nice job of going beyond established accounts of film history to reference artists and films that have largely been ignored. He also illustrates his premises with a well-chosen collection of stills and frame enlargements, an approach that continues throughout the book and makes even difficult concepts easy to grasp. Interspersed among the historical survey and illustrations are sidebars in which Rickitt provides brief but informative biographies of noted technicians, scientists and artists who were instrumental in the evolution of special effects.

The most fascinating aspect of Rickitt’s introductory chapter is his explanation of how many of the techniques used in modern special effects already existed in the silent era, albeit in a primitive form, and how many filmmakers already saw the potential that would become realized by digital technology decades later. German director Paul Wegener, who made significant use of matte effects in his work, envisioned the development of a synthetic cinema in which all the elements in the frame would be artificial — his dream for this kind of filmmaking began in 1916. In concise language, Rickitt explores the path that brought the dreams of Wegener and his fellow pioneers to reality through the advent of motion control, CGI and other technologies. His historical overview also extends beyond the areas traditionally referred to as special effects to address such technologies as widescreen formats and color processes, providing a solid context for the material that follows.

The remainder of the book addresses various special effects techniques in depth, with explanations of opticals, models, matte painting, animation and practical effects, including makeup work. As the topics get more elaborate so do the illustrations, which move beyond stills to include detailed diagrams, graphs and equations that make even the driest technical concepts come to life. The combination of accessibility and detail is truly impressive and makes Special Effects essential reading for students of special effects as well as cinematography, editing and direction. Rickitt’s writing has breadth, substance and clarity, thanks to his expertise on the subject matter and his multilayered approach toward expressing it. He is especially adept at explaining theories and concepts by detailing their execution in specific films. Classics such as Frankenstein and Vertigo are discussed along with contemporary milestones such as The Terminator and The Lord of the Rings franchises. Rickitt also includes “landmark film” sidebars that not only analyze the effects in seminal works but give credit to the innovators who made them possible (an essay on Citizen Kane, for example, devotes as much attention to optical effects master Linwood Dunn as it does to Orson Welles).

In addition to his sections on visual effects work, Rickitt devotes a chapter to sound design and editing, thus addressing a huge component of effects work that is often left out of books on the subject. Indeed, it is difficult to think of an aspect related to special effects that is not touched upon in the tome’s 384 pages. Rickitt’s work is distinguished by his integration of effects work into the entire filmmaking process. As a working professional, he knows how FX techniques intersect with performance, set construction, stunts and other crafts, and he never loses sight of the overall picture no matter how specific his focus. The $75 price tag is admittedly hefty, but it is somewhat justified by the fact that Special Effects is really several books in one: a history of film technology, a study of influential filmmakers in the 20th century and a how-to manual for aspiring effects artists. Beginning filmmakers will probably benefit most from Rickitt’s wide-ranging approach, as most industry veterans will already be well acquainted with the tools and methods the author describes. Yet the comprehensiveness of the volume, as well as some useful appendices (including a list of landmark works and an indispensable glossary of effects terms) makes it a valuable reference guide even for the seasoned professional.

Billboard Books
384 pages
$75.00 hardcover

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