Gustavo Mercado's The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition.
Who is it for?
Mercado's book can be used in a class introducing the basics of cinematography or filmmaking, but can work as a refresher for more advanced practitioners of the craft.
What does it cover?
The approach here is to break down the "standard shots" used in filmmaking, considering both the technical and aesthetic concepts behind the standard approach. Then, as counterpoint, examples of breaking these standard rules effectively are given and discussed. So, a typical chapter is titled "Medium Close Up."
How well does it work?
I recommend this book, but I think two problems interfere with how effective it can be in a classroom or for personal study. If the reader is informed of those two issues, it is well worth the read.
The first problem: Mercado is incorrect in the definition of certain shots, and a student comparing this to more standardized practice will be confused. (I find this really puzzling myself, and pulled out several cinematography textbooks for comparison.) The book's definition of a "Close Up" is generally considered a version of an "Extreme Close Up" in general cinematography textbooks, and this sets up an examination of each shot that is very closed (and a bit too narrow) in definition.
As an example, if we study this book's example of a "Medium Close Up" we read:
"The size of the subject in this medium close up requires that the top of the head is cropped to give him the proper amount of headroom."
Well, that's a bit confusing -- we crop into the head to give headroom?
More importantly, however, is that this proposed definition:
- the top of the frame cropped into the subject's head
- the bottom of the frame is shown at the shirt pocket of the subject
is often considered a Close Up, and many directors would consider a looser framing as a workable "Medium Close Up." For example, if you turn on a typical TV news program, you might see:
- the top of the frame just above the subject's head
- the bottom of the frame at the shirt pocket
Mercado doesn't address this very common news/documentary framing -- it doesn't exist in the book, implying it wouldn't be acceptable. I would be happier with a more open approach -- obviously "standard" shots expand out into variations, and that's fine. So Mercado's implied "here's the right way" becomes an issue. If this is an issue that can be discussed in a class (or in one's personal reading of the book) that will be fine. But it's written as if the shot examined in the book is a closed truth, rather than one example of many possibilities.
The second problem, in my view, is that book puts so much energy into the "breaking the rules" aspect of the discussion ... yet some of the examples are nearly identical to the shots discussed as standard. The framing of the "breaking the rules" shot under "Medium Close Up" is essentially identical to the main shot presented.
So ... what does Mercado say makes it "break the rules"? That it is used "by itself" rather than in a progression of shots toward a Close Up. This is a strange interpretation, and really focuses on editing choices rather than cinematography.
But ... you like it?
Yes, I think this is a good book, and worth the space on a filmmaker / film student's bookshelf. Take the definitions with a grain of salt (and learn from where you personally disagree, or from examples that differ). It places a system of shots at the heart of the study of cinematography, and serves as a good introduction to a key concept.
Read it in sequence with related books and form a bigger picture you can apply to your own practice.