Build your own filmmaking encyclopedia with these trusted production manuals, handbooks, and guides.
Not every piece of knowledge is conveniently found online. Sure you can go through hundreds of pages and videos and find the information you need, or you can just open a book that has everything you need to know, easily organized and readily available. Here are my favorite filmmaking manuals, and why I enjoy each of them for their wealth of knowledge.
Sure, these books may often sit on the shelf out of sight out of mind, but when you need that instant piece of information, this is the filmmaking encyclopedia you should have on hand. These aren’t so much “fun” reads as much as the direct knowledge you need at 2am when you are trying to finish an export.
If you are looking for more entertainment style filmmaking books, I’d certainly recommend the likes of Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew, Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, or even Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace’s Creativity Inc.
The list below is far more technical and informational, more akin to textbooks, handbooks, and manuals. That said, the amount of knowledge in this collection of books is immense. From lighting to lensing, editing to VFX, here are some of my favorite filmmaking reads to reference.
The Best Directing, Cinematography, and Lighting Books
American Cinematographer Manual
My tenth edition (red) of the American Cinematographer Manual is already “out of date”, but this is easily one of the most referenced books on my shelf.
The manual covers just about everything you need to know about cinematography. Cameras (both film and digital), lensing, imaging, lighting, metering, stabilization, and so much more. It covers the whole gamut of the cinematographer’s responsibilities, tips and tricks for shooting, and even terminology and safety on set.
The newly released eleventh edition (green) has added updated sections on IMAX and large-format cinematography, updates to ASC color decision, ACES color workflow, color science behind modern lighting, as well as updates to previous chapters.
Arguably, the most helpful parts of the book are the image breakdowns and charts. This covers everything from properly loading film into various canisters for cameras to depth of field tables and focal length conversion charts. This is why this often dubbed “Filmmaker’s Bible” is packaged to fit in your camera bag for reference on set.
In college I made the switch to study Radio, Television, and Film. Before that I was a theater kid. I started acting, then got into directing, production, lighting, set construction, and everything else. I thought about doing theater in college and that’s where I was introduced to the Backstage Handbook.
This is an illustrated almanac full of helpful and technical information. While it’s written for stagehands, this handbook is absolutely packed with information that helps any type of creator, maker, or DIY person. It includes drawings of all sorts of tools and gear used by grips, gaffers, lighting technicians, and set carpenters.
There are measurement charts, electrical tips, chapters on knots and rope integrity, material lists, and guides on conversions. I’ve checked this handbook when building props or set pieces, setting up lights, or choosing the proper type of wood for a project.
Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook
Way more than just fundamentals, the Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook is packed with information on set roles and responsibilities, light packages, the various types of lights and their outputs, electrical rigging, and more. It also greatly explains lighting methods and how to prep your lighting packages in pre-production.
This one was also worth upgrading as Harry C. Box continues to add the latest in lighting and technology advances light LED fixtures and new consoles and controllers.
The Grip Book
This book definitely has the most wear and tear and I’ve had to even hold the cover down with some gaff tape. It is also packed with dad jokes and quizzes which is right up my alley. The Grip Book illustrations are really well done, but the set photos are where this book really shines. Not only do you see how things are used on set, there are tons of grip tricks showing you things like leveling dolly tracks and set etiquette do’s and don’ts.
This manual certainly jumps around to various topics with a really loose structure, but the nuggets you read are the real value here. Written from experience, Michael G. Uva definitely is a pro who imparts incredibly helpful knowledge.
Fun fact, I reference the camera carts and grip carts in this book while I was building my DIY cart and mobile workstation.
Film Directing Shot by Shot
In terms of directing, Film Directing Shot by Shot is a solid book for those just getting started in the director’s chair. You’ll learn about everything from storyboarding to staging and shot composition.
The foundational knowledge is where this book shines, but it does show it’s age as you get into the post-production process. It’s just a good book in terms of reference when you are trying to figure out a shot with the proper meaning you are trying to convey.
The Cine Lens Manual
This is the newest book added to the library. There is an insane amount of information in this first edition, and it took absolute years to put together. It’s also one of the only hardback books on this list.
This manual is thick and packed with both technical and artistic details found in all sorts of types of glass. There is a ton of history, technical detail, and film references for you to watch and see films shot on particular glass. For my full review of this book, you can check out my review on PremiumBeat.
The Best Post-Production Books
Throughout my professional career, I’ve most often found myself in the editors role. I don’t know if it’s a technical skill I just have, or if it’s more of the creative storytelling and willingness to keep cutting and shortening everything. But a majority of the work I’ve done is as a video editor for commercials, documentary films, streaming and news.
Nothing has changed more in my lifetime than the entire editing process. Yes AVID is still the standard on massive scale projects, but in college I was still splicing film and learning non-linear editing at the same time. Now you can edit on your freaking phone. Mobile is not yet the best workflow, but it will only get better.
I am not attached to any editing program. They have all seem to come and go in popularity. I’m currently editing projects in either Premiere Pro or DaVinci Resolve. Most of the time it is decided by type of project I’m working on. If there is a colorist involved or Blackmagic RAW files, Resolve is easily the best way to go. If you are needing motion graphics or working with an After Effects artist or Illustrator, Premiere tends to work best. If I am the one responsible for graphics, I have no shame in admitting that 90% of my projects just use SuperMOGRT.
So when it comes to editing, there aren’t as many active and up to date manuals unless you really are working in an AVID pipeline. That said, there is still one book I’d gladly recommend to every editor at every skill level…
In The Blink of an Eye
Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye is often considered THE book on editing. Rightfully so. Murch is an Academy Award-winning editor and sound designer behind legendary films like Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, and Cold Mountain. The book references his work and is taken from a lecture he gave in 1988. The books second edition includes updates to the world of digital editing.
It’s also a relatively quick read compared to the manuals on this list, but it’s very approachable and practical. From cuts to misdirection and methods, you’ll walk away with a bunch of tips you can actively start using or better understand how you’ve been editing and the reasoning behind your cuts.
Color Correction Handbook
Alexis Van Hurkman has saved my butt more times than I can count. The Color Correction Handbook is not only a must-have for colorists, I’d also suggest every video editor and cinematographer take a dive into this book to further their understanding of color science and how color can be manipulated in post.
I would never consider myself a colorist, but I’ve been able to use these techniques to elevate my footage to a much higher degree. From understanding scopes to tricks with masking and the much-needed color match techniques, this handbook is absolutely jam-packed with information.
VES Handbook of Visual Effects
As little as I’d consider myself a colorist, I know for a fact I would never consider myself a VFX artist. It’s a skill I just certainly have never mastered, but I do have a much better understanding of the entire process. When I find myself in a producer role more often times than anything creative, I’ve needed to have a full understanding of our production pipeline.
The VES Handbook of Visual Effects has given me a ton of insight into workflows and procedures. I may not always be able to walk the walk, but I can always talk the talk with VFX artists and know what they’d need from me in terms or assets or time.
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