How Apple's iBooks Textbooks Could Revolutionize Film Education

Textbooks on an iPad

Yesterday, Apple introduced a new education initiative focused around the iPad. iBooks 2 now supports media rich textbooks, and iBooks Author, a new free Mac app, allows anyone to create glossy ebooks to be sold through their iBookstore. It occurred to me, looking over the company’s press materials, that “textbook” is a stodgy word that doesn’t really cover the kinds of books filmmakers and students really need. iBooks 2 and iBooks Author could completely change the landscape of film education.

In When the Shooting Stops … The Cutting Beings: A Film Editor’s Story by Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen, something weird happens in the fourth chapter. While explaining the immeasurable contributions of Soviet silent filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin, the authors devote six pages of text to describing the Odessa steps massacre in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

The mob is bounding the steps in panic; they seem hardly able to grab each step ahead of them fast enough. Sometimes the camera moves alongside, sometimes it lets them pass. We see the flight from various angles; the pace of the cutting generates an awesome sense of fear. A glimpse of the white-jacketed soldiers moving down the steps in a rigid line, rifles braced, their long stark shadows advancing ahead of them. A volley is fired.

There is certainly some value to the editorializing Rosenblum and Karen bring to the table, like that bit about the editing generating “an awesome sense of fear.” Overall, however, it seems like it would be better to conserve pages and the reader’s time by sticking to analysis and letting the film speak for itself.

And that’s when I realized that in 1979, when the book was published, it wasn’t easy to get one’s hands on a copy of Potemkin, let alone have the ability to shuttle right into the Odessa bedlam. Today we have digital media coming out our ears. Not every film is universally accessible, but we’re getting there. Thanks to home video, streaming services and even the clipification of great works, students of cinema can assemble a fortress of knowledge in almost no time at all.

But does unfettered access to cinematic history mean that new generations are educating themselves? I think there is a stop-gap here; students may have access but they can’t always connect the dots between what is taught and what is viewed. Worse, it’s almost impossible to filter through the noise of web search, tagging, fan-edits and other information-age problems.

A search for “that famous Russian steps scene” might bring you to Eisentein’s sequence, but in what context? Similarly, getting one’s hand on a disc of Potemkin would allow for a full screening, but how does one disseminate the importance of the scene? Again, what is the context?

I’d like to stop for a moment here and clarify what I mean when I say film education. I do not mean “people who go to film school.” Anyone with an interest in the subject and the patience to approach it from an academic standpoint can be a student of cinema.

Famously, the French New Wave filmmakers learned cinema by gobbling up anything that was playing on a screen near them. In his personal letters, a young François Truffaut is seen writing his dear friend Robert Lachenay with updates of the piles of movies he was consuming. That was film education for at least the first half of the medium’s existence.

But times change. Not every city has a repertory or arthouse theater, and those that exist are having a rough go competing with the cacophonous offerings at multiplexes. It’s far more expensive today than it ever has been to go and see a single film, let alone a dozen in a week. As video rental stores shut down across the country, the discovery process is becoming ever more strained and streamlined.

In this digital era, it’s important to meet students where they are, on their devices. Younger audiences still go to the theater, but they have no problem watching films on ever-shrinking screens, like televisions, tablets and phones.

I’ll never forget Stephen Fry’s closing remark in his 2010 Time Magazine piece on the iPad:

One melancholy thought occurs as my fingers glide and flow over the surface of this astonishing object: Douglas Adams is not alive to see the closest thing to his Hitchhiker’s Guide that humankind has yet devised.

He is referring not to Adams’s novel, but the device described within it, a small computer with the words “Don’t Panic” on the front that contains all of the knowledge in the universe. When accessed, it contains not only explicative text but graphics, videos and interactive demonstrations. Fry got it so right: that’s the iPad.

In the context of learning film, authors have found innovative ways to illustrate the finer points of cinema on paper, but no film education is complete without extensive screenings. iBooks Author makes it simple to incorporate video into a piece. If When the Shooting Stops were released today on an iPad, the six page description of the Odessa steps could have been replaced with a clip of the actual sequence. Perhaps photos of each cut in the sequence (or most of them since there are 157 per the book’s authors) could have been arranged in a gallery, each with an explanation of its intellectual significance.

There are many rules in filmmaking, some of them seemingly esoteric until you actually put them to the test. Take something like the 180-degree rule which is usually explained with a birds-eye view illustration of a film set. It is very difficult to introduce this concept to students. No matter how many times you explain the overarching concept, it is worthless until a student sees it in action; they must see a scene done properly and one done improperly. Even then, it isn’t until one begins shooting and editing films that the concept really solidifies and becomes second-nature.

If a book could embed not only videos, but exercises on how to apply these high-level filmmaking ideas, it would cut through some of the toughest stumbling blocks of learning cinema. Imagine being able to read about the 180-degree rule, then seeing it play out in a scene. Then you could even be given a group of shots to quickly assemble into a scene right on your iPad. It’s a very different process than sitting through clips in a classroom, then firing up an editing application and getting started on a test project.

There are countless examples worth exploring, but here are some filmmaking concepts that could benefit from this kind of interactivity:

  • How to load a film camera.
  • The basics of matching action in editing.
  • How to arrange lights for specific effects.
  • Scene breakdowns.
  • Embedded screenplay examples.
  • Comparison of written screenplay to finished scene.
  • Scenes from films in discussion.

Apple didn’t invent embedded media in ebooks, and their newest software even has some controversial aspects to it. Still, they make the prevailing media tablet of the moment and are positioned to reach a wider audience than any other company. There is no reason that filmmakers and movie lovers can’t benefit from these new tools, which will hopefully only get better. One day, I hope, a student will be able to send a film, either in its entirety or in clips, to their television while they follow along to a lesson on their iPad.

But we’re just getting started. Let’s see where this goes.