Books Movies

Tad’s Recommended Motion Picture and Cinematography Books

I finally got around to it. At every camera class I give at a studio or a school, some smart person always asks what books I would recommend to learn more about cinematography. Every time they do (which is every time, mind you), I think “Man, I need to get a list up on the interwebs.” So, here are my favorite film books. These are the ones I have found the most useful, and/or the ones I turn to again and again.

The links go to, but be sure to check local used bookstores if you have them, especially if you are in a college town (hello, Logos in Santa Cruz), or check your local library. Of course, if you do buy one from an link, I get like US$0.02 or something to spend on…more film books.

However you find them, here are some books (and a few videos) to get you started…

Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen by Steven D. Katz  – So, this is the one to read if you only read one of the books on this page. I am forever grateful to Peter Rubin for shoving this book at me when we started preproduction on Space Cowboys with the simple instructions: “Read the whole thing.” I did…more than once. I’m also glad to have had the opportunity to shove it at several junior  artists myself.

Film Directing: Cinematic Motion, Second Edition by Steven D. Katz – This companion to Shot by Shot goes into detail about staging and planning more complex shots (car towing rigs!). We used to call this “The Green Book” to differentiate it from Shot by Shot, because the first edition had a green cover. I haven’t gotten around to getting a copy of the new edition, so blue and green still sit next to each other on my shelf. Actually, it’s blue and blue and green. I have a loaner copy of Shot by Shot.

On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director by Alexander Mackendrick – This is a recent addition to the list and has been placed near the top because it’s so good. Alexander Mackendrick directed many of the classic Ealing comedies of the 1950s while in his native UK, and when he arrived in Hollywood he directed Sweet Smell of Success. Between the poor boxoffice for Sweet Smell and his difficulty working in the US studio system, Mackendrick took up teaching at CalArts, and this book is a record of his notes and handouts from years of teaching. Because it is the result of term after term of teaching and refinement, it is a very coherent and clear treatise on the subject.

 In the Blink of an Eye Revised 2nd Edition by Walter Murch – If you don’t know who Walter Murch is, go check out his IMDB page.  Go ahead, I’ll wait. Holy crap, right? This slim volume is required reading in many editing classes, and for good reason. Murch is as thoughtful as he is talented and has obviously been thinking about editing and the experience of watching films for a long time. He’s also an excellent writer. Seasoned editors and those new to iMovie will both get something out of this book. Actually, seasoned editors are sure to have already read it.

The Cutting Edge – The Magic of Movie Editing – OK, this is not a book, but since we’re talking about editing, I want to recommend this excellent documentary. Editors and directors talk about the power of the cut, what an editor does and why editing is such an important part of why films work. And yes, Walter Murch is here, too.  So is Thelma Schoonmaker…and you should probably know who she is too.

American Cinematographer Manual 9th Ed. Vol. I  by ASC Stephen H. Burum

American Cinematographer Manual 9th Ed. Vol. II  by ASC Stephen H. Burum

The official ASC Manual is awesome. If you want people to take you more seriously, have this on your desk at all times. If you want to actually be better at camerawork, you should actually read it. The link above is to the newest edition which has gotten so large that it’s been split into two volumes. I actually suggest getting a used copy of an older edition. I actually lucked into a used paperback copy of the seventh edition for US$15! I’ve never seen another paperback ASC Manual. The older editions are nice because they have less “cutting edge CGI” information in them. That “cutting edge CGI” information displaced an equal amount of useful regular cinematography information, and you can imagine how useful “cutting edge CGI” information from 1997 is today.

The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video (second Edition, revised) by Tom Schroeppel – So, don’t buy this on Amazon. Get it straight from the author for $9.95 on his website.  Typeset by the author himself with an honest-to-goodness typewriter and illustrated with simple hand drawn diagrams, this book is an excellent introduction to “how to shoot usable images on film, tape or other media” according to the preface. It is. Years before Dan Roam showed us the benefits of communication using simple drawings in The Back of the Napkin, Tom Schroeppel was showing us how it’s done in the Bare Bones Camera Course.

The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques by Joseph V. Mascelli – An oldie, but a goodie. I have a much older edition (US$12 used at Moe’s Books), and it’s basically the same as the current edition. Spoiler! The Five C’s are: Camera Angles, Continuity, Cutting, Close-ups, and Composition, and this book covers them really well. The examples are a bit dated and get the point across.  The Five C’s makes a good companion to Shot by Shot and In the Blink of an Eye for beginners or folks who want a refresher.

The Big Picture: Filmmaking Lessons from a Life on the Set by Tom A. Reilly – Like In the Blink of an Eye, this is a relatively short book from the hand of an experienced professional. Go ahead, go look at Thomas A. Reiley’s IMDB page. He’s served as Assistant Director to many notable directors, but works most often with Woody Allen. Unlike In the Blink of an Eye, The Big Picture does not take any detours into theory. It’s all business and full of practical tips, all of which are illustrated with often-amusing anecdotes from Reilly’s decades on the set. It’s one of the better “What I wish I’d known when I started in the business” books I’ve read. I checked it out from the library, and by page 10, I knew I needed to buy a copy.

Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure: Inside Tips from the Writer of ALIEN, TOTAL RECALL and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD by Dan O’Bannon – Dan O’Bannon presents an overview of screenplay structure, but also just plain story structure. And, remarkably, he starts by quickly reviewing the most influential schools of screenplay structure from Aristotle to Robert McKee. Even if you dive into any of the dozens (hundreds?) of other screenwriting books, start with this one. If you only read one, read this one. It also helps that O’Bannon is a good writer.

The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb – If you have any interest in being part of the film industry or making your own films, read this book. I mean it. It’s a detailed look into the process, problems and pain of making the world’s first blockbuster.  Gottlieb served as both writer and actor on the production and was on hand for everything that went right, but mostly wrong on Martha’s Vinyard in 1974. It’s also a quick read and very entertaining.

The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film by J. W. Rinzler – Lucasfilm gave Rinzler unprecedented access to all of the records and data associated with the production of the original Star Wars, including many interviews conducted with the cast and crew during production that had never been published. What he crafted from this material is a thorough account of the often exhausting process of bringing George Lucas’ crazy idea to the screen. After reading this book, I better understood what George meant when he said that “Star Wars nearly killed” him.

Make Your Own Damn Movie!: Secrets of a Renegade Director By Lloyd Kaufman – So, Lloyd Kaufman has helped make more movies than almost anyone (think Roger Corman), mostly through Troma Entertainment. He’s a master of getting movies made for no budget and in this book, he encourages you to do the same…right now….go! This is an entertaining book, but is NSFW. Remember, Llloyd made Toxic Avenger. This book is rated R.

Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player by Robert Rodriguez – A fascinating look at making El Mariachi for nearly nothing. Rodriguez is clearly on a mission to share what worked for him and what didn’t and to help equip you to make your own movie. Be sure to listen to Rodriguez’s commentary on each of the movies in his Mexico Trilogy (El Mariachi / Desperado / Once Upon A Time In Mexico and also watch the 10 Minute Film School shorts for each one. Inspiring and useful.

The DV Rebel’s Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap by Stu Maschwitz – With Rodriguez’s blessing, Stu takes many of the lessons of Rebel Without a Crew into the digital age.  After Effects, Premiere and Final Cut Pro  allow low-budget film makers to produce more and better looking shots than they ever could have before, and Stu outlines many ways to do so. There are general rules of thumb and detailed recipes to follow. Some of the information has been made obsolete by advances in that same digital technology, but Stu has digital updates on to the book available online. Since publishing The DV Rebel’s Guide, Stu has created the Prolost Blog where he continues to provide tools and inspiration for filmmakers and photographers. Read the blog, but start with this book.

The Evil Dead Companion by Bill WarrenLike Rebel Without a Crew, The Evil Dead Companion walks you through the trials and triumphs of making a feature film without any money. The bulk of the book deals with making The Evil Dead, the first film in the trilogy. And that’s fine, because those stories are the best and most useful. Don’t worry, there is also information about Evil Dead 2  and Army of Darkness, but the really inspiring stuff happened on the first film, and it’s all here in gory detail.

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies by Martin Scorsese – This book is good, but the series is even better, because Marty talks to you and shows you what he’s talking about. The series came out on DVD in 2000 and is out of print. If you can find it, get it! If you watch the series, have a pad, pen and remote nearby, because Marty rattles off titles faster than you can write, and they are all worth noting and watching. That is one place where the book is especially useful as it has a complete list of all the films. If you really want to know what’s going on on the screen and how it resonates with an audience, watch/read/absorb this. Plus Marty’s passion for film is infectious and he knows his sh*t.

 Visions of Light – What Cutting Edge does for editing, Visions of Light does for lighting. It’s also another one to watch with a notepad handy. Dozens of the worlds greatest cinematographers discuss their work and the work of other cinematographers who have inspired them. This one’s also becoming hard to find, so it you see a used copy someplace, grab it.

 Cinematographer Style – Another excellent documentary on lighting, this time taking a look at different cinematographers and the way they approach lighting and how they got started. These are personal stories about becoming enchanted with film and finding your way into making them. This makes a great double-feature with Visions of Light.

Production Design and Art Direction by Peter Ettedgui – Part of the excellent Screencraft series of books, this large-format book covers a different cinematographer’s work in each chapter. It provides a great overview of not only each artist’s changing work over time, but also the varied and distinct styles of each when compared to the others.  It’s out of print and hard to find but is a really gorgeous and well made book.

Storaro: Writing with Light by Vittorio Storaro  –  This one is really expensive. It’s a textbook/memoir by one of the greatest cinematographers ever to have lit a set, and is an amazing resource for anyone who lights scenes for a living or wants to light their own photographic or CG work better. Every studio library should have a copy at least!

What have I missed? Add a comment to let me know!

7 comments on “Tad’s Recommended Motion Picture and Cinematography Books

  1. Kar McBride

    You might want to add “Cinematography: Theory and Practice” by Brown. It is used as a textbook at many of the major film schools and is published in many languages (I’ve seen my fellow students with copies in Italian, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin and Turkish). I studied cinematography at AFI Conservatory and there it is often referred to as “the bible.” It’s a required book there.

    • I just looked at it on Amazon (you can “look inside”) and will check it out from the library this week for a thorough look through. It looks great! Thanks for the tip, Karen!

  2. Hey Tad, I had no idea that you had an active blog going.

    I’m looking forward to looking it over and since I saw this topic I thought I would ask you if you had an opinion on these dvd’s that a buddy/co-worker had mentioned to me. I watched the sample videos and have to say that they talked about some theories that I was a bit surprised by but at the same time I’m not sure that I’m $69.99 curious.

    “Hot Moves: The Science Of Awesome”

    • I have the original Hollywood Camera Work DVDs and they are useful, but a bit boring. While showing off camera moves with Poser people in 3D works well, it’s not very snazzy. Of course, that’s coming from the guy whose ILM animatics used Poser people to show camera moves in 3D 🙂

      I agree that I’m curious about the new DVD, but not $69.99 curious. I think I’m more like $29.99 curious. I’m also dubious of claims like “…he realized that all “Hot” moves basically use a combination of four techniques, Grid Theory, Stacked Moves, Angle On A Path, and Roll.”

      Feels a bit Tony Robins to me.

      • Yeah I agree, I’ve been looking around to see if my local library actually can order it. However you brought up something that I had never heard about. Such as “Grid Therory” I have both the Steve Katz books and sadly haven’t made it through either of them…is grid therory something that is talked about much in live action? I honestly had never heard that term before.

  3. Alex Espigares

    If some of your students are interested in a more guerrilla like approach to film making I’d also recommend “Make your own damn movie” by Lloyd Kaufman. Don’t be fooled by the title! The book does contain a lot of useful advice for the low to no budget filmmaker.
    It’s less about the technicalities of film making but more about planning and anticipating problems that could end up costing you a lot of money if you are not prepared. Plus it is filled with funny anecdotes.

    • Thanks for reminding me about this book, Alex! I read it when it first came out and loved it. It definitely belongs on this list!

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