It may seem rather contrarian to turn to books to learn about cinema, but there’s wisdom to this approach. There remain so many different processes to be executed while making a film, and it can often feel rather intimidating to approach these fields. This holds especially true for new artists and professionals, who are at the beginning of their careers in the film industry. Reading books written by famous directors, scholars and professionals often proves to be helpful in these early days. It’s a source of tried and tested advice. Besides, nothing beats the opportunity to learn from individuals who have been influential in shaping one’s chosen field. Reading these texts also provides a creative way to form new ideas and find inspiration. Without further ado, we bring you a carefully curated list of the best books for filmmakers and film students that are essential reading.
1. Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson
If you’re interested in learning about the history of cinema, then Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson is an excellent book to read. This comprehensive guide will teach you everything you need to know about the origins and theory of film. It’s a dense read, but definitely worth your time if you want to become a more knowledgeable cinephile and an informed filmmaker. While the text occasionally leans towards an academic approach, its take on the basic concepts of cinema is wonderfully detailed and easy to grasp.
Visual learners will be delighted to know that the book utilizes enlarged stills to illustrate complex techniques. While it demands a fair bit of investment from the reader, the information provided is both interesting and insightful. Ultimately, it will absolutely help you appreciate the craft of filmmaking, while presenting a sound technical approach to the craft.
2. The 5 Cs of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques by Joseph V. Mascelli
Joseph V. Mascelli’s The Five Cs of Cinematography is a lengthy, yet rewarding, thesis that aims to educate the reader to visualize cinematic excellence and transfer it to film. Mascelli offers readers with a very detailed analysis of formal composition made up of five key areas — composition, continuity, camera angles, close-ups/cutting, and framing — all while maintaining clarity throughout.
Books on the fundamentals of any trade may be intimidating and tedious, especially if one is unfamiliar with technical jargon. Mascelli’s book, on the other hand, bills itself as being more than a text that simply tells you how to achieve certain tasks. It is, in fact, more of a manual for teaching oneself how to be an effective storyteller — something every film student should have on their shelf. While it may appear a little delayed in terms of more recent approaches, it maintains up with contemporary shooting methods while also imparting them with useful practicality through classic techniques.
3. Writing With Light by Vittorio Storaro
If there was ever an artist who knew the use of light in cinema like the back of their hand, it is probably Vittorio Storaro. The three-time Academy Award cinematographer’s work is populated with frames that evoke the stark contrast between light and shadow. Safe to say, he practically wrote the book on lighting in movies.
In this classic manual, he explains his philosophy and theory of color composition as it applies to cinematography. According to him, light is a visual craft whose language — the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of film — must be mastered by anyone who would call themselves a filmmaker. The text covers such topics as light sources; using colors in black-and-white photography; how colors affect our emotions; framing images through various geometric shapes, primary colors versus complementary colors for different effects and more. This book is a must-have for anyone interested in learning the techniques of cinema from one of film’s most accomplished masters.
4. In the Blink of An Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Murch
In the Blink of an Eye has been around for almost 30 years and is still considered one of the most important books on film editing today. The book offers insights on every stage of the editing process, from pre-production to post-production. It also offers a detailed approach to a wide range of topics such as continuity editing, montage theory, and sound design. It balances its theoretical approach with practical examples from Murch’s own films that demonstrate how he approaches specific problems in his own work. It really is an illuminating read that illustrates how good editing can enhance a film.
The book’s comparative analysis of various types of film footage is what makes this book so appealing. It’s also a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning more about movie production in general, since it contains the most comprehensive study of its kind.
5. The Techniques of Film Editing by Karel Reisz
The Techniques of Film Editing by Karel Reisz provides important technical insights into the practice of film editing. The books start with an introduction to the tools used in editing and then moves on to discuss how these tools are to be applied in real-life scenarios. Through the text, one can learn about how cutting between sequences can be done effectively and what factors need to be considered when doing it. The book also delves into the use of sound and music in film editing, as well as how to use the two effectively in order to create an immersive film experience.
It also sheds considerable light on how to use editing techniques in order to create films that have a distinct visual style, as well as how these techniques can help bring out the themes of certain films. Overall, this is a great resource for filmmakers who are interested in learning more about film editing and want an introduction into the subject matter.
6. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen by Michel Chion
I highly recommend Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen by Michel Chion to any filmmaker, audio engineer, or movie enthusiast. This dense but rewarding read covers all aspects of how sound is used in cinema from music and dialogue to creating offscreen space. The book also discusses how technological advances have changed the way we perceive sound in movies.
In its unprecedented examination of both technical aspects and aesthetic issues, Chion proposes that we hear many things with our eyes and see many things with our ears. He explores how music can be seen, or dialogue heard; why “the ear sees more than the eye”; and much more. The text has since been revised and expanded by Chion himself to include a discussion of new sound technologies and recent films. If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to understanding audio in film, this is an excellent book.
7. Poetics by Aristotle
Before there was cinema, there was theater. Before films gave us unity of plot and character, as well as a coherent structure for short narratives, classical drama was the go-to for learning about plot structure, character development and resolution. Many of the classic storytelling elements that we now take for granted were first discussed by Aristotle in Poetics. It outlines the fundamentals of story and how all great stories from books, to movies, to plays are constructed in similar ways.
The book also discusses why we watch films and what elements keep us coming back for more entertainment. One of the book’s many strengths is that it does not present a formula for writing, but rather provides guidelines and ideas on how to create more compelling stories. It also outlines plot devices from classical drama (hamartia, peripeteia, and anagnorisis) to use for emotionally rich stories. While the language used can be a tad abstruse, it is a valuable resource to get acquainted with. Poetics by Aristotle is a must-read for not just filmmakers, but anyone who enjoys the art of storytelling.
8. The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard & Edward Mabley
If you want to delve into the nitty gritty of screenwriting, then The Tools of Screenwriting is for you. This book covers everything that an aspiring screenwriter needs to be familiar with — character development, scene structure, plot development, and so on. It even has a chapter called “The Script Doctor”, which is basically what it sounds like: how to write your screenplay in a way that will make others think they wrote it themselves! Beginners especially stand to highly benefit from this book, as it teaches how one should approach writing their screenplay in a very organic manner. Cutting out all the jargon, it focuses only on the absolute essentials.
If you’ve already read books on filmmaking or watched movies all your life and are looking for a deeper understanding of how they’re made, this book is perfect for you. Not only does it elucidate everything to know about scriptwriting, it will also help you appreciate the structure of films in a whole new light; I highly recommend reading it.
9. The Art of Acting by Stella Adler
One of the most renowned theater and film instructors in history, Stella Adler’s teachings focus on realism and naturalism. Her acting techniques have been highly influential on both stage and screen performers, including the likes of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.
Adler’s book is filled with exercises and examples that will help you to understand how to approach playing different characters. She covers everything from character development to scene study, and provides insights into the minds of some of the greatest actors and filmmakers in history. The text is not only effective at assisting in preparation and character work for acting, but also provides advice about how to effectively direct and collaborate with actors during this process.
If you’re looking for a more in-depth look at Adler’s method of acting, I’d also recommend checking out Adler’s other book, Stella Adler on Acting. This book contains a series of lectures that Adler gave to students at New York University. It provides an even deeper exploration into her teachings on acting and cinema.
10. The Lee Strasberg Notes by Lola Cohen
The Lee Strasberg Notes provide an in-depth, detailed analysis of the techniques used by Strasberg to teach his students at The Actors Studio. Cohen was a former student of Strasberg. By using previously unreleased transcripts of his classes, she compiles and illuminates the details of Strasberg’s lessons on acting and directing. The book also provides some fantastic context about how Strasberg developed his renowned acting method. Furthermore, the text thoroughly examines various acting exercises and provides commentary on how to best use them in order to achieve an emotionally truthful performance.
This book is essential reading for any actor interested in creating authenticity in their performances. Strasberg’s teachings are some of the most widely used in the industry today. So, the book is definitely worth checking out if you want to learn more about acting from one of its central figures. In fact, this is not just limited to aspiring actors. The Lee Strasberg Notes is a must-read for any artist or scholar who wants to delve into the mind of one of the most influential acting teachers of our time.
11. Hitchcock/Truffaut by Francis Truffaut
Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock/ Truffaut is an in-depth, detailed examination of the Master of Suspense’s work, featuring interviews with Hitchcock himself as well as his cast and crew. If you’re interested in learning more about Hitchcock’s process and techniques, this is the perfect place to start. Truffaut begins with an examination of Hitchcock’s early life and formative influences. He then delves into his early projects as well as recurrent themes and archetypes found in Hitchcock’s film. The most interesting part of the text is that it is not a hagiography for Alfred Hitchcock by any means. Rather, Truffaut critically examines the context, background and reception around each of his works, and leads the readers to new avenues of questioning.
As a result, one feels emboldened to draw their own lessons and find different interpretations of the text. A glorious example of criticism and film history, this book is a love letter to the two titular men’s shared love of cinema.
12. Notes on the Cinematographer by Robert Bresson
“The number of films that are patched up with music! People flood a film with music. They are preventing us from seeing that there is nothing in those images.”
Such are the poignant, sassy retorts that renowned French director Robert Bresson shares with us in Notes on the Cinematographer. The text is the very embodiment of his sparse, minimalist style, and almost resembles numbered journal entries. However, it provides insightful notes on acting, directing, and camera work, making this text an essential reference for anyone looking to make films that truly resonate with audiences.
The book is not only a great resource for those interested in the art of filmmaking, but also contains some interesting tidbits about Bresson’s life and career as well. It is crucial to remember that Bresson was an influential figure in French cinema in general, and French New Wave cinema in particular. Thus, the text also acts as a transcript of his life, contributions and opinions during these times. Through his experiences and notes about the projects he works on, we find many valuable lessons for aspiring filmmakers themselves.
13. Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
Making Movies is, without doubt, one of the most comprehensive books about acting, directing and filmmaking in general. This book offers insight into producing and directing from someone who has done both successfully for over 60 years. It’s also a must-read for filmmakers who want to understand all of the different aspects that go into making a movie.
In the first part of the book, Lumet discusses acting techniques that he has learned from working with some of the greatest actors in film history. In the second part, he talks about his experiences as a director on set and how he tackles problems during production. The third part explores issues relating to cinematography which includes topics such as camera placement, lighting effects and other technical considerations that go into making movies look spectacular.
The last section covers post-production, which includes topics like editing techniques and how they affect the story being told on screen. The cinematography section is especially insightful, as Lumet offers his thoughts on how to use light and camera placement to improve your shots. If you’re looking for a well-rounded overview of filmmaking, Making Movies should be at the top of your reading list.
14. Kazan on Directing by Elia Kazan
One of the most influential directors in Hollywood history, Kazan has directed some of the greatest films of the century, including A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. In this book, he shares his insights on directing with readers everywhere. It’s an invaluable resource for anyone interested in filmmaking or film studies. The text discusses his approach to acting and directing, as well as his experiences working on Broadway.
Even if you’re a seasoned filmmaker, but are looking for inspiration, this book is perfect for you. It’s filled with anecdotes and stories that show just how much passion goes into making great movies happen behind closed doors – even after they hit theaters around the world! Whether you’re new or experienced at filmmaking, On Directing by Elia Kazan has something for everyone who loves movies and wants more insight into why they love them so much.
15. Herzog on Herzog: Conversations with Paul Cronin, by Werner Herzog
Herzog on Herzog: Conversations with Paul Cronin goes through Herzog’s life and career, with input from the man himself. It offers great insight into his creative process, as well as some of the challenges he’s faced along the way. Painstakingly constructed from years and years of interviews, Cronin charts Herzog’s impressive, genre-defying career, one project at a time. While it goes without saying that the film offers remarkable insight on producing and directing films, it is, at heart, a book about cinema’s value. In one of his anecdotes, he recalls the challenges of working on Encounters at the End of the World in Antartica.
It is inspiring, for the lack of a better word, to read about the technical and artistic innovations that Herzog helmed during his time. If you’re looking for a comprehensive overview of one of cinema’s most enigmatic directors, this is the book for you.
Here we are, then! We know that new filmmakers and artists need all the resources they can get their hands on. Through our list of books that cover different areas of filmmaking, we hope to have provided you the tools through which you can further hone and experiment with your craft.
We’d like to thank the ever-wonderful Aadish Keluskar for providing us with this comprehensive list of books that cover everything a film student should know. Keluskar has helmed the critically acclaimed indie drama Kaul: The Calling in 2016. He has also worked on several notable films like Jaun Kahan, Bata Ae Dil and Tatpaschat.
Which of these books are you going to read next? Let us know in the comments below!
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.