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Book Review: Setting Up Your Scenes

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Richard Pepperman’s new book, Setting Up Your Scenes, is an intriguing tool for anyone interested in understanding the cinematography and staging of film scenes. Film is, as they say, a collaborative medium. Often, if just one component is missing, the final product turns out much like a fallen soufflé: decent, but not what it could have been. Many of us might cite the involvement of a particular actor, director or even screenwriter as important. We might even recognize the importance of set design. But one of the critical aspects of understanding how film impacts an audience comes from recognizing how each individual scene is constructed for a specific effect.

Pepperman has worked as a film editor for more than 40 years. He currently teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In this book, he explores the inner workings of some classic scenes, and uncovers some of the less obvious reasons for their greatness. Basically, what he strives to do is illustrate how critical it can be to have the proper juxtaposition of story, character, dialogue, text, subtext and setups (not to mention camera angle, editing, and more) in order to have a truly great scene, and consequently, a truly great film. He picks the scenes apart so that readers can understand how they were put together.

As Pepperman writes in the Introduction:

Filmmaking is a backward art form. Not as in “its place in history,” but in the lessons it provides the artist. There’s no better way to grasp – and appreciate – the required creative skills of the screenwriter, cinematographer, actor, editor, producer, director and all the many others in film’s collaborative process than to view a completed work. When all is done (and said) you can more easily “see” what went wrong, and right, and learn from both.

The films are a wide cross-section of popular successes and critical darlings, both American and foreign. From Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The French Connection, Rosemary’s Baby and Sophie’s Choice to Jean de Florette, The White Balloon, The Battle of Algiers and more, Pepperman’s choices are a wild array of films which cover six decades of film history. He has opted not to position them in any typical genre format; as we are instead examining individual scenes, rather than the overall story, he instead groups them according to the sort of emotional connection the filmmakers were attempting to achieve: dangers, delights, exploits, and attractions.

He then breaks the scenes down by what he calls the “indispensable elements.” These include the story – a brief synopsis of what is happening, and where the scene falls in context; the scene time – basically, the location, in running time, of the scene in the overall film; the setting, such as interior/exterior, day/night, etc. The book captures the scenes shot by shot, provides the relevant portion of the script, and allows the reader to see how the scene was constructed from the raw elements of the script into the final product.

Take, for example, the scene from Sophie’s Choice called “Choose.” The film itself is the tale of an aspiring writer living in post-World War II New York and the terrible secrets of his new friends. The scene Pepperman studies is one in which the audience learns that Sophie (played by Meryl Streep) had been forced by a cruel Nazi officer to choose between her children – one could go with her to freedom, and the other would go to a concentration camp. He tells her that if she doesn’t choose, “I’ll send them both over there.” As Pepperman notes, during the course of the scene the officer – who appears attractive and elegant – appears to flirt with Sophie, and there is the momentary illusion of a safe harbor, of sanctuary, which is then brutally destroyed by his subsequent behavior. He writes:

The flirtatiousness of the Officer suggests the possibility of “protection” for Sophie and her children.

The Officer walks away, but with dreadful irony, Sophie “encourages” him back to her. Take note of the change in the camera axis – on Sophie and her Daughter’s second Close-Up – to better “represent” the “look back” of the Officer. And! Look at the absolute horror on the face of the Daughter!

Note the “mocking” head nods of the Officer when he reacts to Sophie’s responses. This along with the “understated” tone – and unexpected quiet – makes the outcome all the more horrifying.

As the Daughter is carried off, Sophie’s mouth opens to scream; but she emits not a sound:

The “suffering” cries of her Daughter “play” across Sophie’s face.

Admittedly, the pictorial flow of the book can be a bit distracting, and the images are somewhat grainy at times, which detracts a little from their visual impact. Clearly, the book is designed primarily with filmmakers in mind. But it is also accessible to anyone with just an interest in understanding filmmaking and the construction not of a set but of the scene as a whole. In that reagard, it is an excellent introduction into how filmmakers strive to use a host of different tools to develop and establish their stories.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.

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  • Thanks for the informative and helpful review.