Tom Schroeppel: SRF Interview

You won't find Tom Schroeppel's face adorning the cover of Film Comment, Filmmaker, MovieMaker or any other film magazines that champion American cinema, yet, in his own way, Schroeppel has exerted a quiet influence on aspiring filmmakers in film schools across the country for the last twenty-five years. How? As the author of The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video, one of the simplest -- and by simplest, I mean best -- textbooks to cover the basics of motion picture production. When you get a copy of Bare Bones in your hands the first thing you realize is that Schroeppel's not kidding with the title. It starts with the brown (think: "paper bag") cover and block lettering. Open the book and you find text in double-spaced 12 point Courier font and simple hand-drawn images. The content is standard film/video textbook stuff, only it's distilled to its most essential, readable essence. It's like the film textbook equivalent of one of those incredible, out-of-nowhere independent films from the late 70s or early 80s. What it lacks in production values it more than makes up for in content and handmade charm. But don't take my word for it -- no less than Nestor Almendros called it "a marvel of clarity and conciseness."

In true "self-reliant" fashion, Schroeppel took the DIY route to publishing and distributing the book. What's unusual, though, are his sales, which are approaching 120,000 copies sold. When you stop to think about the number of student filmmakers that have learned about such basic concepts as "color temperature" or the "rule of thirds" from him, well, that's what I mean when I say quiet influence.

After I decided to use Bare Bones this fall for the production courses I'm teaching at Virginia Tech, I approached Tom about doing an interview. Happily, he agreed, and over the last few days we emailed back and forth about his 89 page/$8.95 wonder, and its sequel, Video Goals: Getting Results with Pictures and Sound.



How did The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video come about?

In the late 1970s I was pretty busy shooting and editing TV commercials and industrial sales films in Miami. During the same period I was traveling to Ecuador a couple times a year to train camerapersons at a small TV network there. One day as I was drawing on a Little Havana restaurant napkin to explain a setup to a client, 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 in a version I could give to clients.

I based the content of The Bare Bones Camera Course on what I was teaching in Ecuador. This is turn was based on what I had learned at the Army Motion Picture Photography School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. (I was an Army cameraman and later a Signal Corps officer.) Both environments required quick but thorough knowledge of basic camerawork.

The Army Motion Picture Photography School sounds fascinating. How did you get that assignment? Did you have an interest in motion pictures before you went?

In 1966 I was drafted after I dropped out of graduate school. I wanted to avoid the infantry, so I extended my enlistment from two to three years in order to qualify for motion picture training. For me, it was the most interesting thing the Army had to offer. I came from a family of avid amateur still and movie photographers, so making a living taking pictures was always in the back of my mind.

Is the school still around?

I'm pretty sure the school no longer exists, under that name anyway, although I'm sure the Army is still training photographers and doing a very good job of it. Army education has, in my opinion, two great things going for it: first, they assume you know absolutely nothing about the subject; secondly, they constantly verify that you thoroughly understand and can use what you're being taught. At the mopic school, our training started with silver halide crystals on a piece of film and ended up eight weeks later shooting dual-system sound with a 35mm Mitchell studio camera the size of a Volkswagen. Every day we would have a lecture, shoot assignments based on the lecture, then go back to the classroom and have the previous day's footage (which was processed overnight) critiqued by our teachers, then edit that footage and be critiqued again. I didn't realize it at the time but we were implementing the well-known quality-control cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act. So, returning to the book, how did you approach writing it?

Over the summer of 1979 I jotted down notes and drew stick figures and eventually put together the first version of the book, typing it on my IBM Selectric typewriter. My industry friends thought it was pretty good, so I had some copies printed and stapled and passed them around.

I started thinking about getting a real publisher to buy my book. To get more input, I placed a classified ad in the American Film Institute Education Newsletter, which went to film teachers; in the ad I offered a free copy of the final published version of my book in exchange for criticism of my rough draft. One hundred teachers asked for copies and 30 of them wrote back and said they wanted to use the book--even in its current stick figure form--as a textbook. I contracted with a local animation house to overdraw my stick figures with better art and had 1000 copies of the book printed, which I started selling to colleges.

Among students of film you're best known for your books, but those books are the result of a long career in film and video. Can you tell me about that work? I worked for many years out of Miami, primarily shooting and editing TV commercials for local, national and Latin American clients, plus a lot of industrials and training films. Later I did more writing and directing. My one foray onto the national stage was when I wrote, directed and shot more than 100 episodes of a syndicated children's magazine show called Kidsworld. What were, for you, the most memorable or creatively satisfying projects? I enjoyed Kidsworld because I was given a lot of independence in the production and I enjoyed working with kids. I made a documentary on my own in Peru called Cuzco...In the Valley of the Incas, which won some awards. The great majority of my work was in TV commercials, sales films and industrial training films. My corporate clients, especially, gave me a lot of creative leeway and most of the time I had fun.

Your website claims you've sold 117,000 copies of Bare Bones. I don't know much about the publishing business, much less self-publishing, but that sounds like a heck of a lot. Can you talk a little bit about self-publishing and self-distributing the book? Who uses it? How did you first market the book?

First of all, the 117,000 number refers to both of my books: The Bare Bones Camera Course and Video Goals. As of today, July 12, 2006, I've sold about 104,000 Bare Bones books and about 14,000 Video Goals. Over the course of the 27 years Bare Bones has been in print, that comes out to an average of 3851 books a year. I sold a lot fewer in the early years and I sell a lot more now. My main customers are colleges; I've sold to more than 400 so far. Lately I've started to sell books to secondary schools, as they get into video instruction and production.

I submitted The Bare Bones Camera Course to every publisher I could find and no one wanted it. It was too short, too simple, not marketable. Then I found a book, How To Get Happily Published, by Judith Appelbaum and Nancy Evans, which I enthusiastically recommend to any would-be author. The second half of this book discusses self-publication. The basic idea is that if you have a niche book, know your market and are willing to invest in book printing, advertising, and order fullfillment, then self-publishing can be a good thing.

The first few years I mailed flyers to the chairpersons of film departments listed in a published guide to colleges that teach film. I reproduced some of the book pages and included favorable quotes from the teachers who were already using The Bare Bones Camera Course. Lately, I haven't advertised at all; with so many copies of my book floating around, word of mouth seems to be working well.

When I picked up Bare Bones for the first time I was impressed with the blurb on the back cover from one of my all-time favorite cinematographers, the late Nestor Almendros. How did that come about?

A good friend and fellow editor in Miami, Julio Roldán, worked with Nestor Almendros in Cuba and was still in touch with him. At Julio's urging, I wrote Mr. Almendros a fan letter and sent him a copy of my book. He wrote me back, praising The Bare Bones Camera Course, and later graciously gave me permission to use his quote, translated into English, on the back of the book.

Your second book, Video Goals: Getting Results with Pictures and Sound seems to overlap some of the same concepts as the first. I like Video Goals, but I am curious why you made it a separate book instead of simply expanding Bare Bones?

Video Goals contains information I used in various talks over the years. I first thought of adding this information to The Bare Bones Camera Course, but teachers said they preferred keeping the first book as simple and basic as possible. So I decided to make a separate book dealing with the overall production process as I experienced it. Since production includes camerawork, I had to provide some information that overlapped with The Bare Bones Camera Course.

One of the most charming aspects of both books are the drawings used to illustrate concepts of framing and cutting. At first, their rudimentary nature was a turn-off, but I then I gradually grew to like them. Aside from obviously keeping down the costs of printing the book, I realized that because they aren't actual photographs of real people and places -- that is, because they don't represent a specific reality -- the drawings allow you to focus on the conceptual points you're making about, say, the rule of thirds. Had you thought about this, or was it just a practical matter?

I wish I was that smart, but I'm not! I originally wanted to hire actors, rent a stage and shoot stills for all my illustrations, but I didn't have the money. So, as I mentioned earlier, I worked with an animator friend to have my original stick figures overdrawn. Since, I've been told by people who design books that drawings are probably the best way to teach principles of photography, because they contain no extraneous details. The other advantage is that, unlike photos, drawings aren't so dated. If I'd used 1979 actors and cameras, I would have had to reshoot all the illustrations several times over the years.

[Click here to see one of Tom's original drawings from 1979.]

As for the text, do you still revise using a typewriter?

My IBM Selectric died some years ago, so I've made the few revisions in the book on my computer, using a Courier font.

Through your books you've played a role in the education of countless filmmakers. Have any of them ever contacted you? From time to time individuals write to thank me for The Bare Bones Camera Course. It's always nice to know that something you've created has helped another person in some way.

Do you have any words of wisdom that you'd like to share with filmmakers -- beginning or advanced -- that might know you through your books and that are reading this? It all comes down to your audience. Know your audience, then make your movie for your audience. Also, don't be afraid to ask for criticism, because it will always help you; even if some idiot says your work is terrible, you will have learned that you're not reaching the idiots out there, which is probably a good thing.