Filmmaking is a language, from story structure to camera angles to an editor choosing when to cut between those angles. These five books teach you how to speak that language and better understand how filmmakers use existing tools to manipulate your emotions and thrill you for hours, making you forget that a world exists outside of the screen.
Film Technique and Film Acting by V.I. Pudovkin
This is the 10 Commandments of filmmaking, the ultimate guide book on what makes good movies work and bad movies boring. Pudovkin explains why the different tools of cinema are necessary and what they need to contribute to the final product. A script is not a novel and needs to focus on what’s happening visually instead of emotionally. A character described as sad means nothing on screen, however, a character written as whipping tears out of their eyes relays that emotion visually. You understand what they’re feeling because you see what they’re doing and can relate. The camera allows the director to choose what the audience sees and when they see it. The editor chooses the sequence the audience sees those images and that sequence determines how the audience will feel.
Imagine the same situation edited two different ways: you see a person walking in the forest, see them scream and jump, then see a snake slithering on the ground. Compare that to seeing a snake slithering around on the forest then seeing a person walk into the area of the snake, then see the person scream and jump. The way a movie is edited defines the experience for the audience. This comparison of surprise vs. suspense will get covered further in Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut and Helen G. Scott
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
I remember a teacher once told me, in some class years ago, that there are no new stories. Every story we want to tell has already been told by Shakespeare in some form. Shakespeare himself probably felt the same way about Greek mythology. The truth is both a right in a sense because stories feature architypes and the “hero,” according to Joseph Campbell, is a character that always travels the same road and passes the same landmarks.
Whether you’re looking at Odysseus, Jesus, or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the story is moved along according to universal rules. Why are they universal? Because as humans with human psychology, we’re limited in the scope of our imagination. The narratives that interest us most, the ones that have the most resiliency such as religious stories and myths, connect with us on a subconscious level. This book is a roadmap into that subconscious.
Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
Every role in the filmmaking process is defined by one word: choices. In Making Movies, Sidney Lumet discloses all the different types of choices a director must make. From casting, to lens choice, to the ultimate acceptance that there’s no science to making an enjoyable picture. Reading this book opens your eyes to how a movie manipulates you with so many tools. The choice of colors, wardrobe, every camera movement are there to make you feel a certain way and keep you interested just a few minutes longer.
Sidney Lumet goes into detail about the effect some of the choices have on the audience such as quick cuts (showing something very quickly then showing something else) and wide lenses (wide lenses are characterized by slight distortion of perspective and deep focus). And yes, it’ll look better when you add the music.
Film Directing Shot by Shot by Steven D. Katz
Filmmaking is a craft and this is a text book on how to become a cinema craftsman. Why is it important for you to read as a member of the audience? Think about The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy discovers the man behind the curtain operating the wizard. If you know that person exists and still find yourself believing in the wizard then you just experienced the work of a true master. You have to know the rules to break them and watching the work of a top tier filmmaker makes you really think, “how did they do that?”
Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut and Helen G. Scott
Francois Truffaut, one of the most influential filmmakers in his own right, interviewed Alfred Hitchcock to learn how great movies are made from the master himself. Hitchcock doesn’t disappoint by explaining the difference between suspense and surprise and how to stretch time in a movie while making a sequence feel like it’s flying by. The example he gives is by telling the story of a situation two different ways. Imagine a man getting on a train, entering his cabin, riding for a bit before the cabin explodes. This is surprise. Now imagine seeing a person plant the bomb beforehand. This is suspense because you know the bomb is there and have an expectation of how the seen might turn out. You ask yourself when will the bomb go off? Will the passenger be in the cabin when it goes off or will he by some luck escape danger?
Watch for The Dirty Kind coming to Amazon Prime in 2019