Just a few weeks ago I was talking to a group of filmmakers about how easy it was to learn how to push the buttons on the latest cameras and non-linear editors. It’s gotten so easy to manipulate the look of an image in post-production that we sometimes forget why we’d want to do that.
But it’s the totality of the storytelling that helps us to determine why we’d want to push those buttons – why we’d want a particular camera LUT, or use a plug-in for our editing programs, or why we’d want to create a particular visual effect. It is the story that we want to tell that always interests me and other passionate filmmakers. And it is that commitment to story that informed each chapter of my book, The Lean Forward Moment.
As a result, any list of material that I’d recommend for reading would have to include a cross-section of books on producing, directing, editing, sound, music, cinematography and production design. But, since my first love has always been editing, let me start with that and branch out from there.
Editing and Post Production
Everyone always talks about Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye as a seminal work on editing. But I have always preferred the later book The Conversations, by Michael Ondaatje, which contain a series of discussions with Murch about his life and his editing of the film The English Patient. You get a great view inside Murch’s head, how he broke apart story beats within the film, how he uses sound to shape the audience reaction to the film, and how he works with the director, Anthony Minghella.
There’s another book that helps me to get inside the editor’s mind – First Cut: Conversations With Film Editors by Gabriella Oldham. These are a series of interviews with editors and assistant editors, as divergent as documentary editors Geof Bartz, Tom Haneke, and Paul Barnes. We hear from editors as accomplished as Shelly Kahn, Carol Littleton, Paul Hirsch, Richie Marks and Donn Cambern. You’ll learn a tremendous amount from them, and I continually dive back into this book to refresh my editing energy.
I also love to explore the web sites for Art of the Guillotine and the accompanying podcast, The Cutting Room. Gordon Burkell is committed to the idea of the art of film editing (just take a look at the name of his site) and his interviews with professionals like Mary Jo Markey, Steve Rivkin, and Andy Weisblum are highlights of the podcast.
The American Cinema Editors have a great magazine that focuses almost completely on the aesthetics and politics of editing. In addition, the Motion Picture Editors Guild publishes the newly renamed Cinemontage with many interviews with top editors across a wide variety of budgets, genres and formats.
Another aspect of post production is sound. There are fewer books about this part of the process, but Tom Holman’s Sound For Film and Television is a great place to start. It is very technical, but talks about how we hear. And that makes it valuable.
The website Filmsound.org is also an amazing resource. The site publishes interviews with some of the top sound designers of today.
Andy Farnell’s Designing Sound has some good tips on how to get good production sound, as well as how to think about sound.
Perhaps one of the best books on sound for film comes from Vincent LoBrutto, who interviews a number of masters of the trade in Sound-On-Film: Interviews with Creators of Film Sound. This is a good companion volume to his book on film editing, Selected Takes, which interviews a good number of extremely talented film editors.
There is also a great chapter on Sound Design in Mick Hubris-Cherrier’s Voice & Vision, which describes the thought process for using sound effectively in film and video. Note that this book is also really great for all of the other crafts as well. William Whittington’s Sound Design and Science Fiction is also great, taking an entire genre and discussing how sound has turned it into an effective storytelling style.
There are two books that I likewise find myself returning to again and again to learn about the principles of cinematography and light. The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition by Gustavo Mercado approaches the world of cinematography through both a technical (how light works) and an aesthetic one. Bruce Block’s The Visual Story, Second Edition: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media, is a really in depth discussion of how color, shape and composition really affect us. Don’t worry, it’s not as academic as it might seem. It’s a great look into how audience reactions are created by what we shoot.
I also really like Blain Brown’s Cinematography Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers, Directors, and Videographers because it gets into both the ideas and the practicalities behind good cinematography.
The American Society of Cinematographers, in addition to their great magazine, also has two podcasts worth checking at their website: “American Cinematography” and “Conversations on Cinematography.”
Vincent LoBrutto has a few books devoted to production design, which are good companion volumes to his books of interviews with film editors and sound designers noted above. By Design is also a great interview book, hampered by the fact that it is out of date. With “worldbuilding” all the rage today, this book could benefit from an update. Still, it is a great work and well worth getting, along with LoBrutto’s more recent The Filmmaker’s Guide to Production Design.
Okay, this next one’s an obvious recommendation. But that’s for a reason – it tells us so much of what a good screenwriter thinks about as he plies his craft. William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade is a classic memoir and inside look inside this great screenwriter’s head. In the same way, Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, is a view into how this great director of actors (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, 12 Angry Men and many many others) worked with his amazing talent to bring memorable stories to screen. Goldman’s book is told from his point of view of a writer, but it gives a ton of valuable tips about directing films as well.
Some people would recommend Robert Rodriguez’ Rebel Without A Crew for a look at how to make a movie underground style. But for the sheer enjoyment of watching a super intelligent director talk about his craft, I’d recommend Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut’s engaging series of interviews with the classic mystery and suspense director. His discussion of the difference between surprise and suspense is worth the purchase price alone.
Laurent Tirard’s Moviemakers' Master Class: Private Lessons from the World's Foremost Directors is a great series of interviews with some top filmmakers worldwide. Tirard asks some of the best questions of each of them, and you’ll learn a lot.
The DGA Quarterly is the magazine of the Directors Guild of America and, as such, continually interviews people from many fields – film, television, directors and first AD’s, and much much more. I always learn from their articles. A hidden secret is their amazing Visual History archive of interviews with international directors.
Because the job of the producer spans every single other job, it’s difficult to separate this category out. How a producer recognizes good material and shapes it in the development, pre-production, production and post-production processes requires a knowledge of every phase of the filmmaking journey. So, you could probably read every single book on this list, watch and listen to every podcast, and surf every web site.
However, Dorothy Fadiman and Tony Levelle’s Producing with Passion: Making Films That Change the World is a great start. Though it focuses more on documentary filmmaking, (as does Megan Cunningham’s excellent The Art of the Documentary: Ten Conversations with Leading Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, and Producers) there is much to be gleaned about filmmaking of all stripes from this.
There are two podcasts that I turn to that do the same thing. Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment is a constant source of knowledge for me. Rarely does an interviewer tell me something about a film that I’ve worked on that I don’t already know. Mitchell’s interaction with a variety of film and television makers often does that.
David Chen’s /filmcast, while occasionally infuriating, does the same thing. Each episode picks apart one film from three or four different critics – all of whom love film and, especially, the genres of science fiction, horror and suspense. Occasionally, Chen interviews a director as well. His two shows with Edgar Wright were film schools in and of themselves.
The Art of Watching Films and General Filmmaking
Many of the podcasts that I like bridge all of the crafts. The Digital Production Buzz features Larry Jordan and Michael Horton interviewing four or five experts every week who discuss issues from prep to production to post and distribution. It sometimes spins off into highly technical discussions (as befits a podcast run by one of the top Final Cut Pro trainers in the United States today), but they have increasingly been interviewing filmmakers, and there is much to be taken away from every show. I may be prejudiced, since I appear on the show from time to time, but this is well worth checking out.
Kanen Flowers’ That Post Show (which, truth in advertising, I also often appear on) is ostensibly a show about post production, but Flowers’ interest in much more about the art of filmmaking, and the guests and shows tend to reflect that.
The British Academy of Film and Television Arts has a great podcast called Big Questions, which is part of their very thorough site BAFTA Guru, a series of interviews – in print, audio and video – with a wide variety of filmmakers. The content ranges from actors to directors to editors, and covers all of the ground between.
Pete Chatmon and Anthony Artis do a podcast called The Double Down Film Show, which has been going for several years now and features interviews with filmmakers, editors (I was interviewed once about storytelling), actresses, showrunners and a host more. Artis, the author of the nuts and bolts filmmaking book, The Shut Up and Shoot Freelance Video Guide and Chatmon know how to interview their guests, because they are filmmakers themselves.
Indie Film Nation also has a podcast that has interviewed some talented, lesser known, indie filmmakers from all over the world. There are often great gems in them that help me to think about the “why I would want to push that button” question.
As you can see, there are literally hundreds of resources for you out there. The books, magazines, podcasts and websites that I’ve listed here are just a small sample of the material that is available to you – if you’re seriously interested in how to improve the stories you tell. Please, as you find additional valuable resources, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, the email for my other book The Film Editing Room Handbook. And, while you’re at it, keep making great films!