Technical Literature in Focus: “Motion Picture Design” by Hans-Jörg Kapp

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Book review: Motion Picture Design, by Hans-Jörg Kapp | © Photo: freepik

How does a film succeed in triggering an inner echo in its audience and getting under the skin? And how can this effect be described? In his new book “Motion Picture Design”, Hans-Jörg Kapp presents a fundamental work on these two questions that opens up new horizons for professionals and laymen alike.

Whether director or writer, whether with a vision or an idea: films begin in the mind. And they end up in the mind, the viewer’s mind. On the way in between, from the filmmaker as sender and the audience as recipient, there are a myriad of hurdles to overcome for any cinematic work.

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© Foto: Hanser Verlag
Book tip

Motion Picture Design: film technology, image design and emotional impact

Hans-Jörg Kapp’s book examines how people perceive films in order to be able to determine as precisely as possible why and how film sequences emotionalize the audience. At the same time, practical tips for the work on the set also show ways and means that allow the production of cinematically high-quality films beyond the blockbuster cinema.

Rating: ★★★★★
EAN: 9783446442962
ISBN: 978-3-446-44296-2
Publisher: Hanser Fachbuch

Reading sample: Motion Picture Design: film technique, image design and emotional impact

More than the sum of its parts

Asked why some films become more than the sum of their parts, etching themselves deeply into the collective memory of a generation, while other films with the same goal fail grandly, replied Carlo Varini (cinematographer of “Subway” and “Intoxication of the Deep”, directed by Luc Besson), that this always happens when a film is based on “magically everything is in harmony”.

The individual cinematic and design elements required for such a miracle of unity are numerous. And known. Good films are more than the sum of their parts.

The realization that it is not only a matter of film technique, visual elements, talent and emotions, but that other factors such as psychology and emotions on the part of the viewer also determine the success of a film work, is almost as old as cinematography.

Nevertheless, as Hans-Jörg Kapp rightly points out in his textbook “Motion Picture Design”, discussions about the sense or nonsense of design tools often lack a well-founded catalogue of arguments for design decisions. This combined with a lack of in-depth knowledge about how films are physiologically (and psychologically) perceived by people.

Ambitious filmmakers of today know almost everything about film technology, much about dramaturgy and storytelling, even more about digital production methods, but in comparison hardly anything about the way people see and feel films!

Conversely, a scientifically founded, practice-oriented examination of the mechanics of human perception leads not only on the film set – where in-depth discussions can often only take place with difficulty due to hierarchies and time pressure – to better, because clearly justified and thus comprehensible or criticizable and correctable decisions, to better communication and ultimately to increased motivation of all those involved in the production process of a film work.

In order to be able to design well, it is indispensable that an intensive examination of design takes place.
Hans-Jörg Kapp

In addition, experience has taught us that success in the film business in the medium and long term is usually only achieved by those who are able to replace chance with error. You can learn from mistakes. Not by chance! Lucky punches are not a business model. “Motion Picture Design” provides indispensable expertise in this regard.

Films begin in the head and end in the head

Hans-Jörg Kapp – Professor of Direction and Dramaturgy at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hanover – begins his new reference book by noting that the terminology required for a well-founded discussion of design decisions is too often still seen as a low priority. If there is also a lack of understanding of the mechanisms of perception, the effect and success of a feature film are left to chance.

Knapp wants to change this with his book. His reference book on film design pushes and prods its readership, quite lovingly and always with respect, but also fearlessly and persistently, into a zone where one’s own ego, disguised as many years of experience and gut feeling, can no longer be used alone to conceal gaps in one’s knowledge.

“Motion Picture Design” builds on a triad with its structure: the book devotes a chapter to each of the seven relevant cinematic design parameters from the author’s point of view.
  1. Area
  2. Room
  3. Figures and objects
  4. Light and colour
  5. Move
  6. visual shocks
  7. Rhythm

The structure of the chapters is always the same. This clever trick of guiding the reader makes orientation much easier:

First, the respective mechanics of human perception are always explained. One should not be put off by impressive chapter titles such as “Indicators of Figure and Object Perception” or “The Stimulus Dynamics of the Orientation Reflex”: The associated aha effects alone are worth the read! Especially since this reference book is free of academic cloud grips, and thus easy to understand even for newcomers to the subject.

After the basics of perceptual mechanics for the respective design area, detailed explanations of the means of film language applicable and/or recommended for this area follow in each chapter. This is explained in a simple and comprehensible way, always including a conclusive explanation of image design codes such as camera shake or panning.

Successful cinema calls up in a relaxed and precise way precisely those cognitive patterns that are necessary for the emotional experience of a sequence.
Hans-Jörg Kapp

Each chapter on the parameters of cinematic design is rounded off by the author illustrating his explanations with unpretentious scene analyses. Among them, refreshingly, are numerous works from recent film history.

Inputs and tips, but no patent remedies

Hans-Jörg Kapp wants to fathom with his reference book “Motion Picture Design” how (quote) “films get under your skin”. It speaks well for the author and his work that he neither lectures the reader nor tries to convince him of a recipe for success. His book is therefore not a key to successful films, but no more and no less than a key box for clever minds, which has it all.

Since Pierre Kandorfer’s “Lehrbuch der Filmgestaltung” (Textbook of Film Design) from 1974 (!), no textbook from Germany has dared to decipher the fascinating power of the moving image in such a practical way.

Admittedly, reading and reflecting on just over 550 pages of the book – supplemented by additional digital material – is not something that can be done between two visits to the hairdresser. But there is no reason to do so.

This book is just as suitable as holiday reading for the interested film aficionado as it is as a long-term companion or as a decision-making aid for filmmakers on partial questions and as a basic work for committed film students.

At the same time, and here we come full circle to the realization of cinematographer Carlo Varini after 49 films as chief cinematographer, the book indirectly makes clear through its breadth and its richness of content that a film that gets under your skin is nothing other than a … – small miracle due to the amount of clever decisions required for it.

The only pity, but probably a conscious decision, is the very sober, not to say conservative layout with book cover in retro-look. This innovative content does not deserve this analogue impression! Precisely because it has the potential to influence wider circles of the creative industries – game designers, for example!

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

Kristian Widmer
About Kristian Widmer 21 Articles
Kristian Widmer ist Mitglied der Schweizer Filmakademie. Der promovierte Jurist und Inhaber eines MBA der Universität St. Gallen HSG war langjähriger CEO der 1947 gegründeten und mit einem Academy Award™ ausgezeichneten Condor Films AG.

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