How a photocopied, loosely stapled, and probably illegal reproduction of The Bare Bones Camera Guide inspired my creativity and fueled my film and video career.
I first became aware of the Bare Bones Film and Video Camera Course (PDF) while attending a nonprofit art school in 2006. The book had to be read for an introductory video production course I would be attending this quarter, and like most of my required reading, I bought my copy from the school's own bookstore.
To my surprise, when I asked for a copy from Bare Bones, I was not given a heavy, hard-bound behemoth, but a short stack of photocopied pages that were loosely stapled on the corner and still warm from the Xerox machine. This was my official textbook. It was also the basis for my understanding of filmmaking.
Whether my school was authorized to reproduce and sell this book in this makeshift fashion is at issue. However, the book itself has a tentative feel that almost begs to be photocopied. It's basically a zine. The first two editions of this book consist exclusively of two-line Courier types with twelve points and hand-drawn illustrations.
First published in 1982, the eighty-nine-page text is a short, comprehensive guide to understanding the basics of film and video photography. Bare Bones explains basic camera functions like film speed and depth of field, as well as basic concepts like composition and screen direction. For the nineteen-year-old who knew much more in my heart than in my head at the time, Bare Bones was crucial to my understanding of film and television. It was a catalyst. It was mood. It was the perfect start to my career as a creative professional.
As I write this post, I respectfully nod at this charmingly accessible text in all its forms, bootleg or otherwise. This is my ode to Bare Bones and its humble author, the late Tom Schroeppel.
The birth of bare bones
In 2006, Tom Schroeppel gave an interview with Self Reliant Film, a blog devoted to advancing independent film. In an interview he talks about the first idea for the book in the late 1970s.
At the time, Schroeppel was doing commercial work in Miami and occasionally traveled to Ecuador to train cameramen for a small television station in Quito. He described a meeting with a customer in Miami:
One day when I was drawing on a napkin in Little Havana to explain a setup to a customer, I realized that this was the same thing I had explained in Spanish the previous week in Quito. I decided to translate my training notes back into English and print them out in a version that I could give to my clients.
In the summer of 1979 he was putting together the first version of Bare Bones, collecting notes, drawing stick figure illustrations, and typing everything on his IBM Selectric typewriter. He shared this version with friends in the industry before delving into self-publishing.
Hoping to get some advice from instructors, he placed a classified ad in the American Film Institute's Education Newsletter:
In the ad, I offered a free copy of the final published version of my book for criticism of my rough draft. One hundred teachers asked for copies and thirty of them wrote back, saying they wanted to use the book – even in its current stick figure form – as a textbook.
As a result, Schroeppel took the plunge and started self-publishing by commissioning an improved version of his stick figure drawings from a local animation company. In the author's notes in the third edition of the book, he states that he wanted Bare Bones to stay self-published to ensure the text was accessible and affordable. He kept self-publishing until 2015 when he eventually passed the money on to Allworth Press, a relatively small group devoted to publishing practical and accessible resources for creative people.
The robust insight of the bare bones
What exactly does bare bones teach us? The short answer is a lot. Here is a brief overview of some of the topics and concepts that Schroeppel's text covers
How a camera works in the first place
The book first describes how light is perceived by the human eye and then explains that a camera is just an approximation of this process. Schroeppel covers basic concepts such as capturing an image on film and digital sensors and measuring color temperature. His explanation of exposure – in terms of film speed – is particularly useful in demystifying the correlation between lens length and aperture width.
The language of the film
Schroeppel's skilful explanations of common film and video terminology were perhaps my greatest insight from his work. It clarifies the fundamentals of photography such as camera angles and composition, and covers kinetic principles that are vital to both filming and editing, such as: B. Screen direction and camera movement. By masterfully portraying these concepts, Bare Bones became my introduction to the language of film.
Practical use of light
If film is essentially the capture of light, understanding lighting is certainly key. Schroeppel offers insights into working with natural light and setting up effective lighting configurations. He gives advice on lighting hypothetical film scenarios.
These are just some of the basics outlined in the book. With so much comprehensive information in such a concise text, it's no wonder Bare Bones remains relevant and useful to this day.
Tom Schroeppel – the author
In the same interview with Self Reliant Films, Schroeppel explains that his notes – which eventually went on to become Bare Bones – were essentially an interpretation of what he learned in the Army Motion Picture Photography School. After being drafted into the Army in 1966, he decided to extend his draft to qualify for film training.
For me it was the most interesting thing the army had to offer. I came from a family of avid amateur and film photographers, so photography was always in the back of my mind to make a living.
Tom Schroeppel enjoyed a successful freelance career, shooting and editing for commercial television clients in Miami, and eventually working with Kidsworld, a syndicated children's television magazine.
Schroeppel likes to talk about his Kidsworld experience. He tells Self Reliant that he had the privilege of writing, directing, and directing more than 100 episodes of the series, and that the show gave him a lot of creative freedom. I will add that on a cursory search of the internet, I am quite popular.
After the success of Bare Bones, Schroeppel wrote a follow-up entitled Video Goals: Achieving Results with Images and Sound. Video Goals continues the author's doctrine on accessibility and focuses on demystifying the entire production process.
The legacy of the bare bones
Shortly before his death in 2016, Tom Schroeppel donated forty cases of his famous textbook to the Hillsborough County Public School District. According to his family, Schröppel's ill health had to sell the book's publication rights. He still had hundreds of them, however, and wanted to make sure they were being used well.
To date, the book is used to teach students at hundreds of colleges across the country. The third edition of the book may have thrown the twelve-point courier type overboard, but it still contains the charmingly simple, hand-drawn illustrations that are symbolic of the earlier edition.
So if you're ever in a mentoring position and looking to pass the torch of filmmaking expertise to a beginner, The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video is the place for you. Maybe you light a light for tomorrow's greatest filmmaker.
Cover image via Georgetown Commons.