The American Society of Cinematographers

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May 2008
Akira Kurosawa: Interviews Online
by Bert Cardullo (editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the University Press of Mississippi’s ongoing “Conversations with Filmmakers” series, editor Bert Cardullo has unearthed exchanges in which the normally evasive director provides insight into his work and methods.
Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s Online
by Scott Higgins
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few recent books of film history have been as timely as Scott Higgins’ Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow, a comprehensive study of Technicolor that addresses the format from technical, financial and creative viewpoints. 
The Videomaker Guide to Video Production (Fourth Edition) Online
by the Editors of Videomaker Magazine
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

For more than 20 years, Videomaker magazine has covered the field of video production, following the craft throughout an era in which it transformed itself from a specialized practice using expensive tools into an art form accessible to anyone with a camcorder and a laptop.

Book Reviews
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Akira Kurosawa: Interviews
by Bert Cardullo (editor)
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

When Donald Richie, one of the West’s foremost critics of Japanese movies, asked Akira Kurosawa to comment on one of his films, the director replied, “If I could have said it in words, I would have — then I wouldn’t have needed to make the picture.” Indeed, Kurosawa’s own account of his life in the cinema, Something Like an Autobiography, probably has fewer details about his directorial process than that of any other filmmaker’s memoir. Such a reluctance to comment on his work might make Kurosawa seem like a perverse choice for inclusion in the University Press of Mississippi’s ongoing “Conversations with Filmmakers” series, but editor Bert Cardullo has unearthed exchanges in which the normally evasive director provides insight into his work and methods. In addition, Cardullo’s emphasis on interviews that address historical issues relating to Japanese art and culture gives Akira Kurosawa: Interviews the broadest scope of any book in the series. 

Cardullo is the scholar behind previous collections of interviews with Federico Fellini, Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray, and he brings his usual flair for contextualization to this book on Kurosawa. Above all, Kurosawa was a master synthesizer of forms: a Japanese director whose influences included Western literature and genre films; a storyteller whose period pieces felt contemporary and whose contemporary films were steeped in tradition; and an innovator who felt that the greatest tragedy of modern-day culture was its lack of respect for the past. Cardullo sums up these complexities and contradictions in his concise introduction, and supplements the essay with a chronology and filmography, in addition to his own lengthy interview with Kurosawa.

The issues that Cardullo raises are explored in the interviews that follow, thanks in part to his selection of pieces by journalists who insert their own commentaries into the conversations. True to his statements regarding self-disclosure, Kurosawa is at times a difficult interview, and some of his responses come across as rehearsed, stock answers (especially when they’re repeated numerous times across multiple interviews). Yet if there is a common thread among the pieces included in this book, it’s that the interviewers themselves are adept at extrapolating revelations about Kurosawa from his own answers, even when those answers are terse or superficial. The majority of the selections are from serious film journals such as Film Comment, Film Quarterly and Sight & Sound, whose writers are more than happy to comment on Kurosawa’s cinema and even, in some cases, argue with him about its meaning.

Even the more casual pieces in the volume, such as the informal conversation between Donald Richie and Kurosawa from 1960, are characterized by analysis and historical detail. The only real exception to this consistency is Lillian Ross’ 1981 profile for The New Yorker, which is both the collection’s longest piece and the most superficial: An account of Kurosawa’s visit to New York, it spends more time on name-dropping and descriptions of what the director ate than it does on a serious consideration of his work.

The overall arc of the interviews generates a rich chronology of Japanese film industry practices throughout the post-WWII period, and Kurosawa’s transformation from a successful studio director to a maverick working outside the system offer further insight into the system’s commercial and artistic shifts over time. This intersection of Kurosawa’s career and the business at large — which includes the international market as well as Japan after 1980’s Kagemusha — gives Akira Kurosawa: Interviews a range of material that goes beyond an ordinary auteur study. It also makes the book an essential complement to Kurosawa’s autobiography, which was written relatively early in his professional life.

Well over half of this new collection is devoted to conversations with Kurosawa in 1980 and after, which serves two valuable purposes: The first is that it fills the void left by Kurosawa’s own incomplete memoir; the second is that it takes advantage of the fact that as the director got older (and as his success waned and he needed to work harder to promote his films), he became more willing to publicly discuss his work.

The interviews are also weighted toward films that have not been as widely discussed as such classics as Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. While these movies are indeed addressed, equally thorough attention is given to lesser-known works such as Dodesukaden and Dersu Uzala, an approach that makes this collection seem fresh in spite of the many Kurosawa books already on the shelves. The final pieces in the book, interviews conducted during the twilight of Kurosawa’s career by Cardullo himself and Kinema’s Fred Marshall, beautifully sum up the director’s influences and enduring love for cinema. Like the book itself, they serve as an affectionate and thought-provoking epitaph for a master filmmaker.

University Press of Mississippi
$20.00 paperback, $50.00 hardcover

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Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s
by Scott Higgins
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few recent books of film history have been as timely as Scott Higgins’ Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow, a comprehensive study of Technicolor that addresses the format from technical, financial and creative viewpoints. Although three-strip, dye-transfer Technicolor has been largely absent from the industry for decades, the issues raised by the format are significant in this age of digital-color grading. Higgins’ description of the process by which filmmakers figured out how to showcase and then integrate Technicolor into the existing film language parallels the challenges faced by today’s cinematographers as the digital intermediate gains ever greater prominence. Yet for all its contemporary relevance, Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow is, first and foremost, a well researched, consistently compelling narrative of Hollywood in the 1930s. While the book focuses mostly on cinematography and the challenges of adapting black-and-white practices to Technicolor’s very different demands, the author also explores how other filmmaking disciplines — such as production design and makeup — had to evolve in order to make color a viable mode of expression.

Higgins begins the book with a brief but informative overview of color cinematography before the birth of three-strip Technicolor. He then moves into a scholarly discussion of the format’s pioneers, including such figures as Technicolor president Herbert Kalmus and his ex-wife Natalie, who, as head of Technicolor’s Color Advisory Service, had enormous influence over early uses of the form — though many artists, David O. Selznick among them, fought her somewhat limited theory of “color consciousness.”

In addition to discussing the role of the Kalmuses and the various economic determinants that influenced Technicolor’s development, Higgins provides a history of cinematographers’ varied initial reaction to the technology. In 1936, a series of surprisingly hostile articles in American Cinematographer attacked color photography for debasing the monochromatic art of film, much as several years earlier many filmmakers lamented the limitations imposed by sound recording. Higgins quotes these essays and supplements them with the more forward-thinking observations made at that time by cameramen such as James Wong Howe, ASC, who studied the properties of color photography to realize their potential for artistic expression.

One of the most riveting aspects of Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow is the way in which Higgins collects these perspectives from the period and shows how the craftsmen of the time created techniques and innovations that we now take for granted. In particular, Howe’s insights find practical solutions to the contradiction inherent in color photography  — that it theoretically offers greater expressive opportunities than black-and-white but requires more control — which are as applicable to cameramen today as they were in 1937.

The value of Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow is that it serves as both a broad historical overview of a format and as an incisive analysis of how color works in specific films. As soon as Technicolor became a viable format for feature film work, cinematographers were faced with a rather daunting conundrum: The classical studio style required a certain amount of invisibility, yet the expense associated with Technicolor meant that the technology needed to be showcased on some level. Higgins traces the evolution of Hollywood’s approach to this problem by dissecting the color strategies of several significant films, including Becky Sharp (the first three-strip Technicolor feature), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (a masterpiece of unobtrusive color design) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (in which the bold and elaborate palette guides the viewer’s eye throughout the picture). Higgins’ ability to divide a movie’s color design into its various components and explain what the colors mean intellectually, emotionally and technically is truly impressive, and his analyses are so thorough that they make one realize just how neglected the role of color is in most film scholarship.   

The best of the book’s chapters devoted to a single film is a masterful study of 1939’s Gone With the Wind, a release that synthesized all of the Technicolor innovations that preceded it and added several new ones, thanks to improved film stocks and new filters. The latest equipment allowed cinematographer Ernest Haller, ASC, and his collaborators to bring new subtlety to facial modeling and intimate character scenes, while also achieving powerful effects in the movie’s more spectacular sequences. Higgins pays attention to every nuance of Wind’s photography, from its control over highlight and shadow to its use of colored lights to express emotion. After this assessment, the author moves onto an insightful consideration of the parallels between Technicolor’s development in the 1930s and the rise of digital intermediates in the present day, with particularly cogent observations about groundbreaking films such as Pleasantville and The Aviator.  

The book’s only weakness is its relative paucity of color illustrations. The majority of stills are in black-and-white, which makes their inclusion seem pointless. Ultimately this is not a fatal flaw, given that most of the movies Higgins cites are readily available on DVD (though, as the author himself points out, this is far from an ideal format in which to study the nuances of Technicolor). In any case, the author’s skillful integration of film history, aesthetic analysis and technical information overcome any shortcomings and make Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow an essential volume for anyone interested in how the use of color shapes the films that we make and see.

University of Texas Press
$24.95 paper, $55.00 hardcover

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The Videomaker Guide to Video Production (Fourth Edition)
by the Editors of Videomaker Magazine
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

For more than 20 years, Videomaker magazine has covered the field of video production, following the craft throughout an era in which it transformed itself from a specialized practice using expensive tools into an art form accessible to anyone with a camcorder and a laptop. The Videomaker Guide to Video Production is a wide-ranging compendium of articles culled from the magazine that have been updated to reflect the latest changes in video technology — most notably HDV, Internet distribution and low-cost editing and DVD-authoring systems — while also addressing the issues that remain constant, such as budgeting, scheduling, lighting and working with actors. While some of the collection’s pieces are a bit rudimentary and repetitive, the book’s easy-to-navigate structure and scope of subject matter make it worth a look, particularly for those new to the field.

After brief opening remarks by Videomaker’s publisher and editor, the book presents 69 chapters that survey nearly every aspect of video production. The essays are organized into seven sections that focus on gear, preproduction, production, post, television and Internet distribution, and DVD authoring. The specificity of the titles and the detailed table of contents make it a breeze for readers to immediately access any given topic. There is a lot of repetition among the pieces, but readers will most likely dip in and out of chapters rather than read the book from beginning to end. In any case, the redundancy is a forgivable byproduct of the editors’ decision to include such a large number of narrowly focused articles. As one might expect from a publication with multiple contributors, individual chapters vary greatly in terms of insight and quality: Some are nearly useless for all but the most inexperienced videographer, while others — such as a section by Bernard Wilkie on easily achievable special effects — provide concrete, easily executable suggestions.

As is characteristic of most books published by Focal Press, the illustrations are excellent and numerous. Each chapter contains an ample supply of diagrams, charts and still photographs that clarify concepts that often lean toward the dry or theoretical. The variety of illustrations is as impressive as the range of subjects under discussion, and the editors have chosen visual corollaries to the articles that are simultaneously accessible and detailed. In fact, the images often provide the complexity that the articles are lacking, for the book’s major drawback is that its breadth is not matched by its depth. The essays are all brief (most run only a few pages, including illustrations) and tend toward stating the obvious. Readers with experience in video production will already be familiar with the basic concepts contained within, making the volume more suitable for novices than for the kinds of specialists to whom many of Focal Press’ publications are ordinarily marketed.

Beginners will likely find The Videomaker Guide to Video Production to be a helpful introduction to core principles, and even seasoned video professionals might find value in it as a well-organized reference guide. The upside of the tome’s brief chapters is that the contents make it easy to jump right to a specific subject without wasting time paging back and forth. Some of those subjects, such as the distinctions between various compression formats, are addressed in detail; the book contains a useful glossary as well. The constantly expanding distribution opportunities for video (several of which are touched upon in the book) have led to more aspiring artisans entering the fray, and neophytes who feel overwhelmed by the technology can easily grasp its basic components by perusing the Videomaker Guide’s pages. At best, however, the book is a starting point rather than the comprehensive guide its title suggests. Anyone truly serious about mounting a video production will need to look elsewhere for the technical and practical information needed to embark on such an endeavor.

Focal Press
$24.95 paperback

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