Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics lives up to it’s subtitle, being an exhaustive 517-page compilation of film techniques and the language that describes directorial choices in film. The authors, Michael Rabiger of Columbia College Chicago and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier of Hunter College in New York City, have created an academic-but-not-stuffy guide for students who wish to explore the artistic choices of film.
The book it most closely reminds me of is Bordwell & Thompson’s Film Art: An Introduction, which also goes deep into the aesthetics of film. I think Bordwell & Thompson do a much better job of connecting film techniques to larger discussions of art aesthetics. That said, Rabiger & Hurbis-Cherrier far exceed Bordwell & Thompson when it comes to connecting film aesthetics to the practical concerns of actual filmmaking.
Directing is particularly good in emphasizing storytelling throughout. If, like me, you believe storytelling to be the paramount concern of all the people involved in a film, this is a welcome approach. In Directing, screenwriting, composition, shot selection and editing are all viewed through a storytelling lens. The chapter which breaks down several sequences from the film The King’s Speech in terms of story beats is especially good.
It’s been a while since I read Film Art, but I don’t believe it comes anywhere close to appreciating the contribution of actors to the tone and reception of a film. Directing does not make this mistake. It even contains a chapter on collaborating with actors which provides a great introduction to what may actually be the business that the majority of working directors concern themselves with most often.
What You Won’t Learn from this Book
While Directing seems to me to be a perfectly adequate book for introducing students who are new to talking about film to specialized vocabulary like ‘depth of field,’ ‘establishing shot’ and ‘L-cut,’ I wish it contained more practical information. What is a day in the life of a Hollywood director like? How does that compare to an independent film director? A TV documentary director?
Rather than create a narrative around carefully chosen examples, the authors cite so many films and filmmakers that it seems like it would take a lifetime to gather the relevant clips together, let alone watch them.
Worse than that, why in the year 2013 does a book about film techniques not come bundled with relevant movie clips? I imagine it has to do with the exorbitant licensing costs charged by the studios. This is a shame, and the book is greatly hampered by trying to explain things like editing and camera movement using only black and white screengrabs.
The Final Cut
Reading Directing will not turn you into a director. It will at least get you started, and provide the vocabulary needed to join the conversation. If you have the resources, I also recommend reading a good book in each subject — screenwriting, cinematography, editing, etc. It’s clear that the authors of Directing have done this, and in fact they provide an excellent bibliography which includes many of my favorites.
Of course nothing substitutes for actually being on a set and learning how directing works, er, directly. If you’re enrolling in a class that assigns this textbook, make sure it also includes some hands-on activities. It’s one thing to talk about filmmaking, and quite another thing to do it.