Photocopy Film School: An Ode to the Bare Bones Camera Course
How a photocopied, loosely stapled, and likely illegal reproduction of The Bare Bones Camera Guide inspired my creativity and jumpstarted my film and video career.
I first became aware of The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video (PDF) while attending a for-profit art school in 2006. The book was required reading for an introductory video production class I’d be taking that quarter, and like most of my required reading, I purchased my copy from the school’s own bookstore.
Much to my surprise, upon requesting a copy of Bare Bones, I wasn’t handed a heavy, hardbound behemoth, but rather a short stack of photocopied pages, loosely stapled at the corner and still warm from the Xerox machine. This was my official textbook. It was also the foundation of my understanding of filmmaking.
Whether or not my school was authorized to reproduce and sell this book in this makeshift manner is up for debate. That said, the book itself has a makeshift feel that just about begs to be photocopied. It’s basically a zine; the first two editions of this book are comprised entirely of double-spaced, twelve-point Courier type 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 tidily explains basic camera functions, such as film speed and depth of field, as well as fundamental concepts like composition and screen direction. For nineteen-year-old me, then knowing much more in my heart than my head, Bare Bones was pivotal to my understanding of film and television. It was a catalyst. It was vibe. It was the perfect start to my career as a creative professional.
By writing this post, I now give a respectful nod to this charmingly accessible text in all its forms, bootleg or other. This is my ode to Bare Bones and its unassuming author, the late Tom Schroeppel.
The Birth of Bare Bones
In 2006, Tom Schroeppel gave an interview to Self Reliant Film, a blog dedicated to championing independent film. In the interview, he tells of first coming up with the idea for the book in the late 1970s.
At the time, Schroeppel was busy with commercial work in Miami and occasionally traveling to Ecuador to train camerapersons for a small television network in Quito. He described a meeting with a client in Miami:
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.
In the summer of 1979, he compiled what would become the first version of Bare Bones, gathering notes, drawing stick-figure illustrations, and typing everything on his IBM Selectric typewriter. He shared this version with industry friends before moving on to explore self-publishing.
Hoping to solicit some advice from instructors in the field, he placed a classified ad in the American Film Institute Education Newsletter:
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 thirty of them wrote back and said they wanted to use the book — even in its current stick figure form — as a textbook.
As a result, Schroeppel took the leap and began self-publishing, commissioning an improved version of his stick-figure drawings from a local animation house. In the author’s notes found in the book’s third edition, he explains that he wanted Bare Bones to remain self-published, ensuring that the text would be accessible and affordable. He continued self-publishing until 2015, when he ultimately passed the buck to Allworth Press, a relatively small group dedicated to publishing practical and accessible resources for creative professionals.
The Robust Insight of Bare Bones
So, what exactly does Bare Bones teach us? The short answer is a lot. Here’s a quick tour of just a few of the topics and concepts Schroeppel’s text covers
How a Camera Even Works
The book begins by describing how light is perceived by the human eye, then goes on to explain that a camera is simply an approximation of this process. Schroeppel covers basic concepts, such as how an image is captured on both film and digital sensors, as well as how color temperature is measured. His explanation of exposure — as it relates to film speed — is particularly useful, demystifying the correlation between lens length and aperture width.
The Language of Film
Schroeppel’s adept explanations of common film and video terminology was perhaps my biggest takeaway from his work. He clarifies photography basics, such as camera angle and composition, and covers kinetic principles vital to both filming and editing, such as screen direction and camera movement. By masterfully laying out these concepts, Bare Bones became my introduction to the language of film.
Practical Use of Light
If film is essentially the capture of light, then understanding lighting is surely key. Schroeppel provides insight into working with natural light and building effective lighting setups. He goes on to provide advice on lighting hypothetical filming scenarios.
Those are just a few of the basics illustrated in the book. With so much comprehensive information packed into such a concise text, it’s no wonder that Bare Bones remains relevant and useful to this day.
Tom Schroeppel — the Author
In that same interview with Self Reliant Films, Schroeppel explains that his notes — what eventually became Bare Bones — were essentially an interpretation of what he had learned in the Army Motion Picture Photography School. Having been drafted into the Army in 1966, he opted to extend his enlistment 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.
Tom Schroeppel went on to enjoy a prolific freelance career, shooting and editing for commercial television clients in Miami and eventually working with Kidsworld, a syndicated children’s television magazine.
Schroeppel speaks fondly of his Kidsworld experience. He tells Self Reliant that he had the privilege of writing, directing, and shooting more than 100 episodes of the series, noting that the show lent him a lot of creative freedom. I will add that, upon a cursory search of the internet, I’m quite endeared.
Following the success of Bare Bones, Schroeppel penned a follow-up titled Video Goals: Getting Results with Pictures and Sound. Continuing the author’s doctrine of accessibility, Video Goals focuses on demystifying the overall production process.
The Legacy of Bare Bones
Shortly before his passing in 2016, Tom Schroeppel donated forty cases of his famed textbook to the Hillsborough County Public School District. According to his family, Schroeppel’s failing health required him to sell the book’s publishing rights. However, he still had hundreds of copies son hand and wanted to be sure they were put to good use.
To this day, the book is used to teach students in hundreds of colleges across the country. The third edition of the book may have ditched the twelve-point Courier type, but it still features the charmingly simple, hand-drawn illustrations emblematic of its earlier edition.
So, if you ever find yourself in a position of mentorship, and would like to pass the torch of filmmaking know-how to a novice youth, look no further than The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video. You might just spark a light in tomorrow’s greatest filmmaker.
Cover image via Georgetown Commons.