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.