Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book reviews - Cinematic Storytelling, A Shot in the Dark

Here are my thoughts on a few books I've recently read. Starting with one I've had in my Amazon shopping cart for a long time and almost bought several times...

Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know

 by Jennifer Van Sijll
I can't say I completely recommend it, at least not until after reading more informative books about directing and cinematic composition such as Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen
Film Directing: Cinematic Motion, both by Steven D Katz and The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition by Gustavo Mercado. 

It seems to be part of a series of books published by Michael Wiese Productions all made in the "widescreen" format, I think trying to cash in on the HD craze. The layout of these books is similar to the 16:9 HD aspect ratio, and the books are designed to be visually appealing, but seem to be very sparse on information. There's a lot of blank white space, and what few words there are suffer from a stiffly formulaic presentation loaded with pointless repetition. Each page only features a few brief paragraphs and feels like it could have been developed a lot more. And then to waste more space, each chapter pointlessly lists the credits for each movie mentioned in that chapter - what's the point of that? I wouldn't mind it if it seemed the actual descriptions of the cinematic conventions themselves -- the meat and potatoes of the book - were more fully presented first, but it seems the credits listing eats up valuable space that should have been devoted to more fully developed discussion of those conventions.

I'm not completely panning the book... it IS a good brief introduction to "100 cinematic conventions every filmmaker should know". But that's all it is. To make an analogy, it's like a book that lists 100 great ingredients with very brief notes as to how each tastes and what kind of dish it can be used in, but has no recipes in it. The books mentioned above have those recipes... they go into great detail about staging and blocking and how to arrange actors and scene elements for various effects. The information in those books is presented in such a way that you come out with coherent understanding of how to set up certain types of scenes. 

Once you have a grounding in that kind of detailed info, then a book like Cinematic Storytelling is a good addition... some additional ingredients to add to your dishes once you know how to cook them. But that listing of ingredients does no good until you know some recipes.

A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Video Lighting on (Almost) No Budget 

by Jay Holben

I recently learned that one of my highest recommended books about lighting - 
Matters of Light & Depth by Ross Lowell - has been chosen as a textbook and as a result the price has skyrocketed. In a recent review, I panned Motion Picture and Video Lighting, Second Edition by Blain Brown as being pretty useless for anyone setting up a stopmotion studio. So in an effort to find another book I can recommend in lieu of Matters of Light and Depth, I ordered a newly-published (jan of this year) book that sounded good. And it does not disappoint one bit!! Like Matters, it goes into the properties of light - both hard and soft light, and how they're created and what kind of effects can be achieved with each. Lots of great example pics, and also a great bonus - a section on do-it-yourself electrical wiring, I especially like this, as I've dine some bodgering of light fixtures myself, guided only by Nick Hilligoss' advice, and now thanks to Jay Holben's excellent electrical teaching, I have a pretty decent understanding of the relevant considerations when doing this sort of thing. It's all about the AMPS... he'll tell you why and give you simple conversions to figure out just how much amperage you need when selecting cords and other electrical components. 

In fact, his coverage of lighting in general is very thorough... but there were still a couple of ideas covered in the Lowell book that aren't here... namely off the top of my head Lowell mentioned an important concept from old Hollywood techniques calling for the separation of subject and background so that you have complete control over each without it affecting the other. Ah, but what can you do? This is an excellent book and gets my highest recommendation!! And in fact I'm just about to be the first to review it on Amazon. 


Shelley Noble said...

Love this! And LOVE you're new swell recommendation scroll in the sidebar. It's an amazing resource to have your curated list like that. Far better than any film class could be.

Your whole site is actually fantastic now. I can't believe how cool all the features you've chosen to add, and how clean and appealing they look.

Darkmatters said...

Ironic that you comment on that ?Amazon widget today... right after I get an email from they stating that as an Illinois resident I can no longer use their affiliate program (which you have to do to be able to use the nifty scrolling widget). The whole reason I signed up as an Amazon affiliate was so I could use that damn little widget, and now maybe a month later they tell me that due to new Illinois tax laws they're forced to cast off all Illinois affiliates!!

Oh well... I was really wanting to have a simpler book list anyway that could link directly to my reviews rather than just to Amazon. Plus I suspect that widget slows down my blog for anyone with a slow modem. I have it until May 15 I think, then it's kaput!!

JON said...

Your book recommendations are really helpful to a noob like myself. Your blog is a great resource!

Anonymous said...

Hey Strider, I know how to do a shallow DOF effect if you ever can't get it in camera.

It entails a circular cookie filter in post software (mattes). You matte out everything but what you want to keep in focus, and then you composite in the same shot with a gaussian blur filter applied. The result will be soft focus except in that circle. You can change the amount of blending (feathering) on the "circle of focus" so it looks more like a real soft focus and not a post effect. Maybe not useful for us DSLR shooters, but it would come in handy for someone who animates with a video camera given its infinite depth of field.

France said...

Thank you for this blog. That all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something that eye opening and important. You clearly know so much about the subject, you’ve covered so many bases. Great stuff that comes from the internet. Again, thank you for this blog.

Damien said...

Handy reviews, thankyou!

"Matters of Light & Depth" is one of the best books I've ever read on photography. And, I think that what it teaches applies equally to cinematography.
It's made me think more consciously about light, and helped me understand the underlying reasons why I like a certain look, or a scene or composition appeals.

I thought "Cinematic storytelling" was pretty good, but in hindsight, there are far better books out there -- such as those by Steven D. Katz.