The ABCs of Film Directing notes

kuleshov-directingI finished reading Kuleshov’s The ABCs of Film Directing – which was never published in the US – and took notes on every section. The book is in Russian, but it has diagrams and animated pictures that you can refer to. I made sure to note some of these images in the notes. You can also use the book as a reference while you’re reading the notes because I noted page numbers of each section so you’ll at least be able to get a ‘clearer’ picture. Again some of you may know this info, but I’m posting it anyways – there’s some good info in there. Get both of the files below. I intend on posting more material and different kind of writings from Kuleshov and other well known film theorists.

The ABCs of Film Directing NOTES
The ABCs of Film Directing BOOK

Kuleshov on finding your style

I read an amazing passage from this book I’m currently reading, written by Lev Kuleshov. It’s in Russian but I felt the urge to translate it and share it with everyone. It’s very helpful in that he gives very good advice to young filmmakers about how to approach filmmaking and style. As it should be obvious by now, he makes a case that the content and story of whatever it is you are to turn into a filmic form dictates largely every element of a film. But, I’ll let the man tell this to you.

Frame as an element of visual style

kuleshovThe nature of a frame, the style of images in a film depends largely on the choice of angles. Light and tone of an image is of great importance also.

A correctly found iconic nature of the frame helps the director to properly convey to the audience the content.

At the same time, every director and cameraman, in selecting the shots, has a “signature” – a favorite style in finding and establishing shots and angles.

degaspushkinIf you’re familiar with the works of art (and you should know painters, otherwise you won’t be very good filmmakers), then you have no difficulty in distinguishing paintings of Isaac Levitan from Vasily Surikov, Degas from Vrubel and so on. Just as a well-read man immediately distinguishes the works of Pushkin from Nekrasov, Gogol from Gorky, Leo Tolstoy from Chekhov and so on. Works of artists and writers are distinguished from each other by content, themes, images, language, compositions and so on.

A true artist, his “handwriting (style)”, his artistic personality, is pronounced on the screen. Nobody confuses films of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Chaplin. No one confuses cinematographers like Moskvin, Kosmatov, Urusevsky.

The style of a painting, the director’s or cinematographer’s “handwriting” are determined by a number of components, from the choice of the topic, its resolution – the approach to working with an actor, the approach to musical formation of a film, the characteristic combinations of sound – all ending with the construction and assembly of the frame.

tolstoyGraphic (visual) interpretation of the film depends on the style of frames; for example, a film shot primarily in a medium shot, close-up, extreme close-up, with frequent or rare use of low or high angles shooting, bright colors, dark colors, in certain color combinations (color contrast), with movement, etc. .

Finding the frame is the result of understanding the important task of interpretation, themes, plot, and through a whole chain of tasks that define the film to be shot. Therefore, a certain nature of frames is mainly dependent on idea of the story, the director’s and cinematographer’s interpretation of the story.

eisensteinThat is why a bad director or cinematographer is the one who chooses in advance a particular style of approaching the work (in this case we are talking about the nature of the images, their style) A painter’s style is formed as a result of his deep work over the painting (Director-cameraman’s interpretation of the film’s tasks creates needed pictures), and the more correct the interpretation, the more truthful will be images and the more determined their nature.

Candid CameraWe say this to warn you – the young cameraman, director, film enthusiast – from seeking to, in advance (prematurely) work out for yourselves the manner of shooting, notionally to find your own style of shooting films. Such an attempt will not be successful. Think about the story, by all means, try to bring your ideas to the audience. Always think about the main thing required first – only that way you will gain your “signature” and your creative individuality. It will come gradually, as a result of great experience and hard work.

Thoughts on the style of a film’s images, isolated from the specific tasks for which it is necessary to select and define frames – are barren thoughts of an empty artist. Do not spend the gift of time on the development of a creative style for yourself – As a result you will get nothing but affectation.

Sea-WolfOld sailors walk with their feet wide apart, because they are used to walking on a constantly moving deck, golf shoes are worn as to not get wet in the damp grass. But a man dancing in sneakers and on this basis considers himself “elegant” is a deplorable spectacle. And it’s just as funny to look at a youngster who has never been at sea, who has read a lot of sea stories after which he begins to walk like a “Sea Wolf.” (If it doesn’t make sense, a sea wolf is essentially an old sailor (think of classic, Moby Dick like sailors)

Do not think about your style ahead of time, work hard, and your individual directorial style will come by itself.

David Cronenberg on filmmaking

cronenbergThe master of body horror himself. David Cronenberg talks about the choices and filmmaking decisions he’s made in A History of Violence. This is one of the first of a series, since he has recorded them for most of his films. Again, I try to include only filmmaking information — there’s quite a bit of dialogue from him on the motivations of the characters that I left out but I’m going to post some of them separately later on.

Jan De Bont on filmmaking + Kuleshov effect origins

jan de bontLast week it was Renny Harlin, now it’s Jan De Bont; it’s a two for two in action director commentaries. It’s great listening to all these different directors talk about cinema and illuminate us about their craft. Jan De Bont’s insight into action filmmaking and filming technicals was a treat for me. It’s especially nice to listen to this one because De Bont was also a cinematographer before he made Speed – so he throws some information on how he shot a few scenes in order to keep the energy going by using various camera tricks.


Also I’ve cut out this segment from a Soviet documentary on the Kuleshov effect, where the man himself – Lev Kuleshov talks about the origins of this discovery and its need for cinema.

Film Technique notes


As promised, I’m posting the notes I took while reading this wonderful book on cinematic language. It was published in 1958, however a lot of the theories mentioned in the book were developed by Pudovkin and Kuleshov in the 20’s. The notes I took are quite dense, however I still urge everyone who is truly serious about making films to read the actual book. I have learned so much, it’s a Pandora’s Box of cinematic language. Next up I’m taking on the writings of either Kuleshov or Andre Bazin – both have affected the language of cinema to a great extent.


“The most influential book I read at that time was Pudovkin’s Film Technique. It is a very simple unpretentious book that illuminates rather than embroiders. It certainly makes it clear that film cutting is the one and only aspect of films that is unique and unrelated to any other art form. I found this book much more important than the complex writings of Eisenstein.” – Stanley Kubrick


“Learn that movie!”


One of my biggest inspirations is John McTiernan. I think it’s become obvious through how I constantly mention him. Here’s a video in which McTiernan talks a bit about how he approached learning filmmaking. Actually, it’s an expansion of the quote.

I went about it like it was reverse engineering. I knew that I had to go and learn what a movie was, not just my experience of going and watching a movie. So I went and sat in Truffaut’s Day for Night, watched it for three days straight, eight hours at a time and memorized it shot-for-shot. I got past the story, all the original and secondary experience, so I could study what it was that I was really watching. Film is really sort of a chain that’s really linear. Yet when it’s all strung together, it just sort of feels like an experience. It takes quite a while to be able to deconstruct that experience to figure out what you really saw.

Skip to 4th minute

What he used to make me memorize was the shots. He’d say, “Ok, learn that movie!” – by learn that movie he meant; you sit down with a bunch of pile of paper and pencils and write – shot for shot – the movie from memory. I learned a bunch of movies that way. I learned 8 1/2 that way which is a very complex film. I learned Clockwork Orange…His notion was that if you really wanna become a filmmaker, you have to get that conversant. You have to be able to carry that much in your mind. If you want to be a world class musician, instrumentalist player of something; piano, or violin or something. You’d have dozens maybe hundreds of scores, you’d have hours of music in your mind! You’d never need to look at the piece of paper, all those hours would be in your mind! And you couldn’t possibly be good enough unless you had done enough work to put all that music in your mind. So that you would just be able to sit down and call up note for note some piece of Mozart or one of the classics of your profession. And his notion with me – because the way he put it he just said “You have eyes, so you better learn to use them”. Instead of thinking of movies as print – which is the way they’re always approached; a pile of paper. It’s always the events and the words that will be spoken. Instead of thinking of movies that way, he made me learn to think of movies as a chain of images where you would fashion the entire chain of images. Just like a music student could hold a concerto in his mind, you should hold the movie in your mind; the images – nevermind the words, the images – “Where is the camera for that shot. What kind of lens was it? What was the camera doing?” – on every shot, on every one of – well most movies have about a thousand shots.

Renny Harlin on filmmaking

harlinThe Finnish director who filled the directing shoes on the second Die Hard — and fit the shoes quite well, mind you — talks about filmmaking. It’s always a joy for me when I listen to all these commentaries and the commentator is a delightful surprise because of how much insight or illumination is being provided into the craft of filmmaking by the given person. Renny Harlin is a wonderful commentator. I’ve split the commentary into two parts – part 2 of which will be posted later. This one tackles all the pieces of information of it that dealt with the technical and in general, filmmaking advice. The second part is a nice collection of Harlin’s thoughts on action films.

Enjoy, and learn, and if you like it – comment.



Arthur Cantrill discusses Dziga Vertov


“Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into the visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.”

Here I’ve put together a comp of Arthur Cantrill’s commentary for A Man with a Movie Camera (later I’m going to do one with Yuri Tsivian’s comments)

Dziga Vertov was one of the first pioneers of montage and cinematic language in general, along with Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kuleshov. This is a screen-specific video along with Cantrill’s insights into the philosophy of Vertov and his theoretical writings.

Vertov’s theories have largely inspired the French Cinéma vérité documentary movement, but not limited to.

If you have not seen A Man with a Movie Camera you can watch it below with The Cinematic Orchestra score


Color: Vol. 1

For those who haven’t yet read my analysis of color and the look of films, you can check it here

What I’ve got here is the first of many visual image compilations of color in films. Color isn’t just a grade – it’s the color of production design, costumes, lighting and sometimes a color grade all together. Here’s one that’s got a lot of bluish grey palette in films. I will be doing one on various other hues and combinations. Click the image for the high resolution version.