The Book That Changed My Life
I was born in 1955. I loved movies as a kid and by around 1967 or so I was already thinking about wanting to make my own. I’d even started writing my own scripts. But cinema studies and film production was still very new. In Los Angeles, one of the colleges, U.C.L.A., had started a film school, but even then it was pretty ramshackle. There were only a few published books on the subject back then. Most were on film theory, written my English professors turned film analysts. I didn’t understand what they were talking about then and I still don’t. There was one book for college film school students, but it looked pretty worthless. I found a copy recently in a used book store and my 13 year-old assessment of the book was pretty right-on.
Then in 1973 a new book came out — Richard L. Bare’s The Film Director. This was one of the very first books to come out that dealt with filmmaking. And it was written by a working film and television director, best known for directing every episode of the cinematic-breakthrough series Petticoat Junction. Even though his breakdown of how to shoot a scene in master shots, mediums and close-ups was fairly basic, he made it simple and easy through extensive use of photographs.
My parents gave it to me for Christmas. I don’t know how many hours I spent going over the pages again and again and again. However, aside from all the information on the page and little details on how various directors worked, the most impactful element of the book were it’s many, many pages filled with behind-the-scenes photographs of directors at work.
Reading interviews with directors, they would talk always about how their use of the camera and their favorite shots. But to finally see the photos of the directors behind the cameras and lining up shots through the viewfinders, I suddenly started to think that the directors operated their own cameras. I’d also read at this time interviews with Stanley Kubrick and Richard Lester about how they always operated a camera.
It was in that moment in my developing life that I made the decision that it would not be enough to write my own scripts, and produce and direct my own films — I would also have to learn to become the cameraman.
I dived head first into learning photography, cameras, lenses, film types, the effect of light, both natural and artificial. From that moment on, whenever I was watching a movie I was simultaneously studying it’s cinematography, the placement of the camera, the elevation of the lens from the ground, what direction the lighting was coming from.
About this time Universal Television was shooting a pilot TV movie in St. Louis called Lucas Tanner, starring David Hartman, written and produced by Jerry McNeely, and directed by Richard Donner, who went on from there to direct The Omen, then Superman. My high school best friend and fellow photographer Mike Newmann and I hung out taking photos and observing the filming.
On the second day of shooting, we got to a location and only McNeely and Donner were there. They started talking to us and after a few moments McNeely commented to me, “Man, you really know a lot about this stuff.”
“Well, I’ve been reading this great book by Richard L. Bare on film directing.”
“Dick wrote a book?”
Then Donner chimed in, “He should read it sometime.”
I later learned that while a few directors can operate their own camera, they are a very few. Most film directors hire really great cinematographers because the directors themselves don’t know where to put a camera or how to achieve a shot or how to use light. Most directors who started out as writers can describe and visualize a scene in words, but achieving it with a camera is a different language entirely.
I can honestly say that because of this book and how it pointed me towards cameras and learning how to use them until they became second nature, I have been lucky enough to have made my living for the past three decades as a TV news cameraman.
Still, when I look through the pages of the book, some of which I’ve photographed and provided here for you, I still would like to shoot something with one of these great cameras, like the Arriflex IIC featured in the above picture next to Dennis Hopper, or the Mitchell BNC and Worrall Mount geared pan head being used in the photo on the facing page next to director Stanley Kramer.
I know everything is digital these days, and I am fully a part of it, both in my professional life and in my independent filmmaking life, but these classic cameras, big and bulky and unwieldy as they are, are still beautiful to me, and are the epitome of how classic movie making was done.