Directors are an odd brew. We come at making a film from nearly every conceivable direction. Personally, I tend to think in the realm of dialogue and the verbal bi-play between actors. This is also a well-known tendency with director Kevin Smith, who all but ignores visual elements in his film in favor of a compulsive focus on dialogue and banter. Other directors, like Michael Bay, David Fincher, and Ang Lee make most of their choices for a film from a much more visually prioritized viewpoint. (And then you have wild card directors like Almost Famous’ Cameron Crowe, who uses music to inspire his films, finding rhythms both to the dialogue and the imagery in the strains of the melodies. But that’s a side-track that really doesn’t have anything to do with this review.)
Well, for all directors who find the visual component of filmmaking to be overwhelming and the expectations for dealing with a DP/cinematographer to be confusing, Jacqueline Frost has a new book which will be just the thing you need. Breaking down the sometimes arcane concepts found in the cinematographer’s lexicon, Ms. Frost manages to make these elements both understandable and actionable.
The overall comprehension of Cinematography for Directors is very high for most readers. She explains the terms you need to understand cinematography, from F/Stops and T/Stops to color palettes to the psychology of moving cameras. All of this and more is simplified for the director, especially for the director who doesn’t natively think in visual imagery for all the elements of a film. (Most directors can think of cool shots they want in a film, but few, like myself, automatically think visually of each and every shot in a film.)
With that said, there was one thing that tended to get into the way of comprehension: rote repetition. There were a number of places, where Ms. Frost would repeat nearly the exact same phrase verbatim from a previous paragraph or a previous page. Sort of like re-using the same footage in a film, re-using sentences (or the majority of sentences) in a book causes the human mind to immediately see an error, which distracts from the flow of the reading. (This is even more noticeable when Ms. Frost re-uses quotes from cinematographers. While she’ll use these quotes during different subjects that make sense, the re-using of them simply feels like an error. It would be better to omit the second use of these doppelganger quotes or simply use a different quote from another part of an interview that works for the latter example.)
Jacqueline Frost really delves deeply into the different elements of visual filmmaking. She first explains how a cinematographer and director work as a team throughout the pre-, production, and post-production process. From there, she goes on to what lenses will do to assist you in telling your story and how using visual references help the cinematographer and director get on the same page. Beyond that, she looks at choosing color palettes, different film-stock choices, lighting for genre, the aesthetics of movement, post production processes, and, finally, a look back at some of the great directorial and cinematographical pairings of the past and present. (Now, with that said, it should be brought up that this book is specifically aimed at the director who is planning to shoot in film. Now, with that said, most of its suggestions are really great for any type of filmmaker, whether film or digital. And, of course, now that so many low-budget filmmakers are going to 35mm lens adapters to get the feel of film on the budget of digital, the information in this book is even more appropriate for them than most digital filmmakers.)
Throughout the book, Ms. Frost uses insightful quotes from some of the top cinematographers of our day and age to show different viewpoints. This really helps you get a feel for some of the different viewpoints regarding look, lenses, and camera movement. For example, John Seale (Poseidon, Dreamcatcher, The Perfect Storm) loves using zoom lenses in his shooting, whereas Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, No Country For Old Men, Jarhead) tries to shoot on nothing but prime lenses. It’s great to see where their thought processes come from behind their choices. If you have never really paid attention to cinematographers in films, this book will be an eye opening revelation of just how much power and genius a good cinematographer can bring to a production. (You might find that you stop thinking as much about directors that inspire you as much as you might start thinking about director/cinematographer teams that inspire you!)
One thing that I really liked in this book is that, when they dealt with The Color Palette of Film, they had color representations of a variety of films, which showed some of the ‘looks’ the visual teams captured in those films. It’s very eye opening to see some of the effects they achieved in films like Traffic, Jarhead, and Alexander.
Despite all the great information that’s clearly defined in this book, there are a number of terms used in some of the quotes in this book that were not explained. Things like ‘clamshells’ and other items of physical equipment might not be understood by most readers. As such, it would have been nice if the author had included a glossary of terms in the back of the book to make it easier to understand some of these quotes.
The overall interest level of this book is really strong. Once I got into the rhythm of the information Ms. Frost is explaining, I found it really find it compelling. Further, it makes a director really want to attempt a very visually challenging film that will require you to get a cinematographer who can really help you push the envelope.
One thing that really helps you build your interest level if you’re not as familiar with the cinematographers that are quoted in the book is that, in the back, there is a listing of the cinematographers that are interviewed with a printout of their IMDB credits. When you look at cinematographers like Matthew Libatique who’ve straddled so many types of genres, it really augments the compelling factor of their quotes and their insights. (Libatique did Requiem for a Dream, Phone Booth, Gothika, The Fountain, The Number 23, and Iron Man, along with many others.)
Now, with that said, the book does take awhile to build steam at first. When I started, I felt like I was reading a textbook. This was further complicated by the fact that there was an inordinate number of quotes used in the first chapter of the book with not nearly as much authorial information to connect the quotes. (It’s sort of like a chocolate chip cookie when there are too many chips and not enough dough to bind them together.) I would have far preferred Ms. Frost to break down the concepts in the first chapter a little more thoroughly before including quotes from different sources. Fortunately, by the second chapter, the mix of information to quotes was much more even and the style of the book was really coming together, so there were very few areas that dragged down the interest of the book for me after that point.
With easy to navigate chapters and lots of information, this is definitely one of those books that you’ll re-read (or at least re-check) a number of times. For those who don’t know what to look for in a cinematographer or how to attract a talented one, this book will be an absolute God-send for helping you find the right person to help you make a visually compelling film.
While I wouldn’t mind the price being lowered a few bucks, the $29.99 price point is very reasonable for all the information that’s packed between the covers of this book. I would highly recommend that you just go ahead and buy this one.
My most recommended book for the new director who needs to learn to direct actors is John Badham and Craig Madderno’s book, I’ll Be In My Trailer: The Creative Wars Between Directors and Actors. Since it deals so well with the other half of the directorial puzzle—the visual look of the film—Cinematography for Directors is probably going to become my other constant recommendation for new directors. This is a book that deserves to be on every filmmaker’s shelf.