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Book Review: 101 Things I Learned In Film School by Neil Landau with Matthew Frederick

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Whether you’re an aspiring filmmaker or simply interested in how films are made – and what makes them work – there’s little doubt you’ll find something of value in Neil Landau’s 101 Things I Learned in Film School.

Landau, who’s written and produced for Universal Pictures, Disney, Columbia Pictures and 20th Century, has gathered together 101 short insights into virtually every aspect of filmmaking, from definitions of industry terms to tips on scripting, lighting, and camera angles. Each ‘lesson’ is less than a page, and each is accompanied by a line drawing courtesy of Matthew Frederick.

As a general introduction to the mysteries of film, virtually every tidbit is of some value. Landau knows that a single page with a few short paragraphs can’t provide a complete overview of complex topics – those interested in a career in the industry will still want to attend film school – but he’s not trying to be either exhaustive or conclusive. Instead, topics are presented in a way intended to stimulate thought. It’s a “think about …” approach, providing enough background for the average film enthusiast to chew on, but deliberately leading to additional questions intended to intrigue enthusiasts who’ll want to explore certain topics in greater detail.

Given Landau’s background, it’s not surprising that the majority of the lessons included here are geared to scriptwriting, with an emphasis on plotting and pacing. Landau provides some fascinating insight into how stories are constructed for film – lessons equally applicable to novelists, particularly those with an eye on eventual adaptation. But he also includes valuable tidbits about lighting, camera angles, and the business side of making a movie, from shoot scheduling to the perils of working with animals and children.

Frederick’s drawings are a bit of a hit-and-miss proposition. While some help to illuminate subjects under discussion, others seem little more than filler. (Illustrations of how films are plotted based on acts and timelines provide valuable visual reference – think PowerPoint — but rather unconvincing line drawings of television characters to emphasize the point that rarely do scripts work in multiple formats (stage, sitcom, and movies) don’t really add value.

There’s no particular organization to 101 Things, but given its length and brevity, that’s actually an advantage – rather than breaking topics down into specialized sections, Landau provides a bit of background on almost every aspect of getting a film made, from pitching and idea to the final edits that result in a finished product. And it’s all in easily digestible chunks, so regardless of the area one might be most interested in – from scriptwriting to acting to directing – there’s value here for virtually everyone.

101 Things I Learned in Film School is a fascinating glimpse into the craft and business of making movies – something that touches all of us in one way or another. And it’s a whole lot cheaper than tuition!

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