5 Great Filmmaking Books For Film School Rejects

If you can’t afford or don’t have the time to attend film school there are lots of sources nowadays for filmmakers wishing to self-educate. Here’s a list of books that serve as a basic introduction to how to make a movie. They don’t cover the gamut of movie making, but will serve to get you started.

1. The Filmmaker’s Eye by Gustavo Mercado

If you don’t know what the rule of thirds is then this book is for you. Gustavo Mercado explains the basics of how to frame a shot when making a movie and goes through all the standard types of shot from close-up to extreme long shot. This is a great intro for aspiring filmmakers looking to learn the rules of cinematic composition.

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2. Cinematography by Blain Brown

A good book to read after you’ve gotten a grounding in composition from The Filmmaker’s Eye, Blain Brown’s book also covers shot types but ventures much further into quite a number of other areas including lighting, color and HD cinematography.

Anyone wanting to learn how to be a filmmaker will walk away from reading this book with an understanding of how to use a vectorscope to measure the chrominance (that’s color to the uninitiated) of a video signal, what color balancing is and how to do it, and many many other areas which can seem technically mind-boggling to beginners. It covers in 342 pages what would take months to learn in film school – well worth the investment.

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3. In The Blink Of An Eye by Walter Murch

Walter Murch has won 3 Oscars for his editing work on the classics Apocalypse Now and The English Patient.

Early on in this book on editing, Murch poses the question Why do edits work? when logically they shouldn’t as real life doesn’t cut between viewpoints. One incident which left a lasting impression on him occurred while he was editing a scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. At one point he suddenly realized that the moments he’d been feeling were right to cut all coincided with actor Gene Hackman blinking.

Merch felt this was a sign that Hackman was so deeply immersed into his role that he was actually thinking the thoughts of his character Harry Caul rather than just speaking his lines. Murch spent a great deal of time afterwards thinking about the physiological function of blinking, and he postulates in the book that it is perhaps the human brain’s way of cutting.

Murch nicely encapsulates the task of the editor in line with this idea on page 69:

“Your job is partly to anticipate, partly to control the audience. To give them what they want and/or what they need just before they have to “ask” for it – to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time […] I certainly don’t expect the audience to blink at every cut – the cut point should be a potential blink point.”

A great book – read it and you’ll never look at editing, or blinking for that matter, in quite the same way again.

In The Blink Of An Eyeamazon-button

4. Digital Filmmaking by Mike Figgis

Oscar-nominated director Mike Figgis, whose films include Leaving Las Vegas, wrote this very down-to-earth book on various aspects of digital filmmaking. It’s especially interesting what he has to say about lighting – how modern cameras are so good in low-light conditions that less lighting apparatus is required nowadays – but cinematic ‘convention’ means the old idea of lighting is often still clung on to.

He also shares some of the surprisingly simple household lights he’s used when filming, such as in this passage from page 74:

“I also carry the flashing LED lights that you can clip on to the back of bicycles. Of course, they have a red cover on them, but if you take the red cover off there’s just enough power in them to give the effect of, say, a neon light coming through a window. You gaffer-tape one on to a wall somewhere and you get a little red light keying into the face”

It also contains an interesting anecdote of the writer’s experience working with James Gandolfini on an episode of The Sopranos. Well worth the money. Anyone wanting to learn about film making in the digital age should read this.

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5. On Film-making by Alexander Mackendrick

British director Alexander Mackendrick made a name for himself in the 1950s with classics such as Whisky Galore, The Ladykillers and Sweet Smell Of Success, and was also an uncredited director on The Guns Of Navarone. Later in life he became dean of the California Institute Of Arts, and it was from his time there lecturing at the film college that this book came about.

This book on filmmaking, which has a foreword by Martin Scorsese, covers the process from writing up to production, but it’s the writing part that is especially enlightening to fledgling script writers. A good example is when Mackendrick describes the time, while working as a contract writer for a British studio early in his career, he was tasked with cutting down an overly long scene that was hindering the flow of the story:

Originally 25 pages, the first writer assigned to do a rewrite could only manage to get it down to 12. The scene involved a young wife who runs into an old flame while her husband is away. He offers to take her back to her apartment so she can collect a pair of skates she’d forgotten. Once in the apartment the old flame tries to seduce her, but gets rejected, which he takes with good grace. Below is Mackendrick’s wonderfully simple 1-page rewrite taken from page 163 of the book:


Mm-mm (negative inflection)


Mm-mm? (makes face questioning)

See looks at him. He looks back at her, and his expression becomes more serious.


Mmm-mm (quietly with tenderness)

The seducer accepts the rejection with good grace. He moves away, opens a closet, and after a moment returns to present her with the skates. He is amused but respectful.


Thank you (giving the words several meanings)

If you want to know how to make a film this book is great start. Check it out:

On Film-makingamazon-button

© Indie Sonar, 2013


  1. Great List about filmmaking books;thanks

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