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November 2008
Film Directing Fundamentals: From Script to Screen Online
by Nicholas T. Proferes
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few of the many textbooks on film directing make the art as clear and accessible — while still addressing its complicated nature — as Nicholas T. Proferes’ Film Directing Fundamentals. 
Video Over IP: A Complete Guide to Understanding the Technology 2nd Ed.
by Wes Simpson
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the three years since Wes Simpson wrote the first edition of Video Over IP, the world of Internet Protocol networking has evolved in ways — and with a speed — hardly anyone could have foreseen.
You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story
by Richard Schickel and George Perry
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Although most of the major studios had their own house styles in the early days of Hollywood—MGM’s star-driven gloss, Paramount’s continental sophistication, etc.—only Warner Bros. retained its sensibility until well after the classical era.

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Film Directing Fundamentals: From Script to Screen
by Nicholas T. Proferes
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Few of the many textbooks on film directing make the art as clear and accessible — while still addressing its complicated nature — as Nicholas T. Proferes’ Film Directing Fundamentals. Although the reader may occasionally argue with individual elements of Proferes’ approach to staging and filming scenes, Proferes’ insights into the craft and the clarity with which he expresses them are extremely impressive and informative. A professor at Columbia University with a lengthy list of credits on his resume (director, cameraman, editor, producer), Proferes is a veteran academic with hands-on experience as a professional filmmaker — a combination that is evident on every page of his book and which allows him to present theories that have obvious applications to real-world directing situations.

Film Directing Fundamentals is evenly divided between analysis of great films and projects that enable the reader to put what has been learned from these films into practice. Proferes balances interpretive and creative learning perfectly, giving the reader the right tools in the right order. The book begins with a concise and well illustrated introduction to the grammar of the camera, covering concepts such as screen direction, shot size and other building blocks of basic film language. Proferes then goes on to explore the screenplay — how to interpret and stage it. One of his most useful conceits is the application of writing principles to the language of film; he breaks scenes from Notorious, 8½ and other classics down into the visual equivalent of sentences and paragraphs in order to teach the reader how they are constructed. This approach is particularly helpful for aspiring directors who come from the world of screenwriting, as it teaches how to make a smooth transition from thinking in words to thinking in pictures. 

After discussing lenses, composition and other concepts through close examination of a key scene from Notorious, Proferes provides a short screenplay and takes the reader through it shot by shot, allowing the learner, in a sense, to practice his own interpretive skills alongside the author. This experiment continues with a detailed consideration of an action scene from another unproduced script, as well as a lesson in shooting a more subtle dramatic sequence from yet another film. The chapters that put Proferes’ theories into action are superbly illustrated, with plenty of diagrams and storyboards to clarify his points. Proferes concludes the book by analyzing the directorial approaches behind several varied and acclaimed films, from the aforementioned Notorious to more recent releases like The Insider and Little Children. One might disagree with some of the author’s assessments (like his dismissal of Cary Grant’s introduction in Notorious as “weak and not dramatic”), but his overall way of getting the reader to think intelligently about visual design is valuable and unique. The films are well chosen and represent a variety of subjects and styles — there are movies from both independent and studio traditions, foreign titles, and films that eschew traditional dramatic structure (like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line).

Proferes’ diverse tastes are not necessarily reflected in the breadth — or lack of it — of his directorial philosophy. If there is a drawback —albeit it minor — to Film Directing Fundamentals, it is the author’s slight rigidity; his approach needs to be understood as one method of directing, not the method. He underplays the need for extensive coverage, for example, implying it is somehow incompatible with sophisticated visual design (a notion with which fans of Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill, among many other directors, could strongly argue). At another point, he argues against the notion actors’ blocking should motivate the framing rather than the other way around. Students would be well advised, therefore, to take some of Proferes’ assertions with a grain of salt and choose the techniques they find most applicable to their own tastes and sensibilities.

To be fair, the author himself acknowledges there are many different ways of shooting any given scene and advises readers to trust their own intuitions. He also, within his specifically defined way of directing films, provides an undeniably comprehensive primer on the craft. In addition to the many exercises and examples that increase the reader’s visual literacy, Proferes addresses the less tangible aspects of directing that have more to do with psychology and managerial skills than aesthetics — his chapters on working with actors and the crew, for example, reflect his decades of experience with such matters. Ultimately, however, it is his enthusiasm that recommends Film Directing Fundamentals; his book is thoughtful, rigorous and educational, and what separates it from similar volumes is its passion. Proferes’ love of cinema is palpable, particularly in the detailed breakdowns of Notorious, The Truman Show and , and the result is that what could have been a dry textbook becomes an entertaining read that imparts its wisdom so entertainingly the learning rarely feels like work. Like the directors he admires, Proferes makes complex, profound ideas entertaining and accessible.    

Focal Press
$34.95 paperback

Online Online Exclusive
Video Over IP: A Complete Guide to Understanding the Technology 2nd Ed.
by Wes Simpson
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In the three years since Wes Simpson wrote the first edition of Video Over IP, the world of Internet Protocol networking has evolved in ways — and with a speed — hardly anyone could have foreseen. The massive popularity of YouTube, the growth of peer-to-peer file sharing, the exponential increase in hi-def TV sets and programming and the installation of IPTV systems in millions of homes are just a few of the new developments that make a thorough understanding of video transport essential for practitioners in a wide array of disciplines. Film and videomakers, networking professionals and corporate executives looking to take advantage of Web-based teleconferencing will all benefit from this revised edition of Simpson’s tome, which brings his previous work up to date for an age of increased broadband usage and digital filmmaking tools and distribution. The seemingly endless variety of approaches and compression formats makes transferring video over a network seem nearly unfathomable at first, but Video Over IP is a comprehensive guide that makes video transport understandable without ignoring its complexity.

Simpson, who writes the “Video Networking” column for TV Technology magazine and has been working in the telecommunications field for decades, brings a broad understanding of video and audio delivery to his book. It begins with detailed explanations of numerous purposes for delivering video over networks, from the obvious entertainment functions (satellite, cable and Internet television, YouTube, etc.) to less sexy but equally vital applications such as telemedicine, online education and narrowcasting for businesses that wish to employ networks for corporate training and shareholder conferences. Simpson moves on to meticulous examinations of the many uses and tools of IP technology, clearly and carefully conveying which approaches are best suited for which jobs. He also addresses issues such as content ownership and security, administrative and creative considerations.

Simpson organizes his material in a way that makes the book both an essential reference tool for IP professionals and a relatively accessible introduction for beginners. Filmmakers whose knowledge of Internet streaming and compression might be a bit incomplete, or readers from other disciplines who need to determine the best way of delivering video and audio for Web or corporate use, will initially be a bit overwhelmed; the complexity of the technology and the multiplicity of ways in which video can be transferred over a network are daunting. It doesn’t take long to get acclimated, however, thanks to the author’s skillful use of analogies to clarify difficult concepts. Simpson also employs dozens of diagrams and charts that complement the text and provide quick, useful comparisons for readers trying to navigate the complicated terrain of video over IP; his tables listing advantages and disadvantages of various formats and methods are particularly valuable. He concludes each chapter with clear, concise summaries, as well as checklists that the reader can apply to his specific goals. (These checklists are repeated in an appendix at the end of the book, for maximum ease in determining a workflow for one’s project.)

In several chapters, the author offers further clarification with case studies that offer real-world examples of his concepts put into practice, from IPTV networks to innovative security systems. An inevitable amount of repetition results from Simpson addressing each of his topics from multiple practical and theoretical perspectives. Yet this repetition will be welcome to readers who are new to the world of Internet video, and more advanced practitioners will find it easy to skip over the passages they find redundant. Each chapter is divided into easily navigable blocks of text and illustrations that make it simple to find specific information on individual topics, so readers can focus on passages most germane to their work; video professionals, networking administrators and support staff, and investors and managers all have different priorities. Simpson’s approach serves them all well without forcing the reader to slog through irrelevant material. The overall structure of the book is similarly efficient in that Simpson has organized more basic, introductory material (like historical overviews of video transport and IP technology) into self-contained chapters more experienced readers can skip entirely. He also provides a thorough glossary at the end of the book for those who find even the introductory sections difficult and jargon-heavy. The result is a book equally valid for beginners and experts, a volume that seems destined to become the standard text on preparing, compressing and delivering video over networks.   

Focal Press
$53.95 paperback

You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story
by Richard Schickel and George Perry
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Although most of the major studios had their own house styles in the early days of Hollywood—MGM’s star-driven gloss, Paramount’s continental sophistication, etc.—only Warner Bros. retained its sensibility until well after the classical era. The combination of social commentary and kinetic, violent action that characterized early Warner classics starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart continued with Bonnie and Clyde in the 1960s and the Dirty Harry saga in the 1970s and was still going strong with The Departed in 2006. Although most of the studios lost their personalities at around the time government regulation divested them of their theater chains in the 1940s, many lines can be traced through Warner Bros. productions across the decades: the “women’s pictures” of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford became Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and White Oleander; the gritty realism of Elia Kazan paved the way for Martin Scorsese, and the dark vision of the Western hero in The Searchers got even darker in Unforgiven and Wyatt Earp.

Whether this kind of consistency was random coincidence, grand plan or (most likely) something in between is difficult to say, but exploring the studio’s heritage and legacy has never been easier or more enjoyable than it is in You Must Remember This, Richard Schickel and George Perry’s lavishly illustrated and meticulous account of the studio from the silent era to last year’s Sweeney Todd (a co-production with DreamWorks Studios). Granted full access to the Warner Bros. archives, Schickel and Perry have created a feast for the cinephile’s eyes, heart and mind, a loving tribute to a great studio and its output over the course of 85 years. The book is divided more or less according to decade, with each author contributing his own half to each chapter. The result is the studio’s entire history can be seen from two different but equally valid perspectives—perspectives that will remind film buffs of dozens of movies and filmmakers they adore and introduce novices to a wealth of great films and personalities.

Each chapter begins with Schickel, the more idiosyncratic and analytical of the authors. His is a personal history of the studio, with plenty of evaluative judgments and sharp observations. Schickel clearly loves Warner Bros. above all other studios, but his narrative style is far from fawning or superficial; in each chapter, he discusses key works and careers with razor-sharp critical acumen. In the process, he makes some surprising but convincing cases for previously neglected films, such as producer/director Victor Saville’s final gem, The Silver Chalice (a film maligned by Perry in his section). Chalice, an early CinemaScope production, has long been saddled with a poor reputation, thanks to star Paul Newman’s vocal criticisms, but Schickel accurately points out the film was a visual marvel, with an innovative use of the widescreen format few filmmakers have rivaled in years since. Some of Schickel’s other assertions (such as his unsubstantiated claim the Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd cartoon What’s Opera, Doc? is, “by common consent, the greatest short cartoon of all time”) are a bit odd, and his occasional downgrading of classics such as The Searchers is sure to rankle some film buffs. But one of the delights of You Must Remember This is its ability to inspire both passionate agreement and passionate argument in equal measures.

The second half of each chapter, written by Perry, differs slightly from Schickel’s approach of using a continuous narrative of each decade. Perry offers a collection of sidebars on key movements, figures and films. He provides brief but informative biographies of the studio’s greatest directors and stars and production histories of seminal works. He broadens the scope of the volume by giving year-by-year timelines, with key historical events for each era. Perry lacks Schickel’s originality of thought, but he does a terrific job of situating the story of Warner Bros. within the story of Hollywood as a whole — and of then contextualizing that story within 20th century American history. 

Both men’s sections are supplemented with gorgeous color photos from the Warner Bros. archives; there are hundreds of production stills, one-sheets and other promotional materials that bring the studio’s history to vivid life. You Must Remember This serves as both a handsome coffee-table volume the reader can dip into and out of at leisure and as a compelling narrative that rewards close reading. Clint Eastwood’s foreword indicates this book, a companion piece to Schickel’s five-hour PBS documentary on the studio, only covers a portion of the great films to come out of Warner Bros. since it was founded in 1923. Yet with its equal attention to popular landmarks (Casablanca, Rebel Without a Cause, Dirty Harry, etc.) and less well known but terrific films such as Baby Face and Black Legion, this book covers a lot of ground — and provides both great suggestions for DVD rentals and the context with which to appreciate them.  

Running Press
$50 Hardcover