Teaching the History of Film Craft (pt. 5)

Teaching the History of Film Craft:

Theorizing Craft

Fifth in a series of posts about teaching the history of below-the-line film artists (cinematographers, sound designers, etc.) and of screenwriting.

Part 1 introductory post
Part 2 scholarly books 
Part 3 video resources
Part 4 student research projects
Part 5 the theory of craft
Part 6 limitations
Part 7 Syllabi

One doesn't need a theoretical rationale for a class, but teaching about film craft has raised some important issues for me - issues that come back into my scholarship and that impact how I teach the subject.

To teach craft is to step back from the assumptions of film studies as an interpretive discipline. The differences between how film scholars describe things and how practitioners describe thins are sometimes fundamental. For instance, from every intro textbook on, "cinematography" for film scholars means camera movement, framing, and composition and "mise-en-scene" is the category which includes lighting. But for professional cinematographers working with in an industrial context, lighting is the job of cinematography first and foremost. Camera movements are almost always decided by the director (though how to execute them is for the cinematographer), whereas general framing and composition decisions may be a collaboration led by the director. So, to take seriously the perspective of craft practitioners is immediately to shift some terms and concepts.

I don't believe this means jettisoning the role of interpretation and theory in favor of adopting the practitioners perspective. I don't teach how-to courses in film craft but rather the history of craft. They're two different things, precisely because of the perspective that film studies offers. But there is something complicated and productive in the dialogue between the two perspectives.

There's a real advantage in stepping away from the focus on directorial choices. For instance, even film studies scholarship attuned to sound sometimes focus on directorial choices of sound - the juxtaposition of sound-image or the development of sonic motifs. These are important, of course, but there are so many other important aspects to sound design - the mixing of elements, the invocation of environment, the role of Foley and ADR, and the invocation of sonic space. It's not the discipline is ignorant of these - and there are some great sound studies scholars focusing on these very things. This scholarship in fact shows that once we take these craft decisions as the starting point, we look at films differently.

I call this the granularity of textual analysis. It's somewhere beneath the level of broad patterns but above the base line of technical rendering. After all, it's useful to a point to learn how a technological innovation led to fidelity in sound recording, but if every film afterward uses that innovation then it doesn't help illuminate a given text. Rather, we can look at the ways that practitioners activate the technology to aesthetic ends, but also how their aesthetic expression is a problem solving around the constraints of the technology.

This is an idea that I'm developing in my research, but it's also a principle in how I guide student engagement with the films. My students can be very knowledgeable about their medium, and I learn about sound technology or digital cameras or creative process from them. I think they feel a tension between the auteurist focus on the director and the execution-model of below-the-line work.


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