Before I went off to film school, I bought two filmmaking ‘handbooks’ to bone up on film production, Independent Feature Film Production by Gregory Goodell and The Filmmaker’s Handbook by Steven Ascher and Edward Pincus. I’ll admit, last week is the first time I’ve read through them since high school — and I don’t remember dipping into them for anything while I was in college. So what good are they? Having some film production experience under my belt now, I decided to re-read them and see just how useful and accurate they are.


The Filmmaker’s Handbook bills itself as “A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age”. It comes pretty close. Encyclopedic in scope (breadth over depth), it provides a great overview of the technical aspects of filmmaking. By technical aspects, I mean crew-oriented rather than above-the-line or writer/producer/actor/director-oriented. This is not a disparagement. I’m a happy camera assistant myself right now.

I would recommend the book highly to anyone interested in working with either cameras, lights, sound or editing, but who isn’t sure of what. You’ll get enough vocabulary and basic information to start to dive into the deeper study of each specific craft. (Sometimes you might even get better background than specific craft books. The discussion of f-stops vs. t-stops in this book was clearer and more concise than in The Camera Assistant’s Manual.)

While this book does cover all the bases, those interested in making their own movies — right away — should think about other books, producer-oriented guides like the one below or down-and-dirty guides like Digital Filmmaking 101. Producing and distribution rate a scant 30 pages in The Filmmaker’s Handbook and handy basic legal forms like location agreements and use of image releases are nowhere to be seen.

Low-budgeteers can also safely avoid. While this book covers the rudiments of video, the digital revolution has left it in the dust. It was published in 1999, when the Canon XL1 was just hitting the market. The prosumer DV world has exploded since then. Thankfully, there are many good resources for shooting on digital video.


In a way, these books are highly complementary. Where the above skimps on producer-oriented information, Independent Feature Film Production soars. This “complete guide from concept through distribution” can be avoided by those who know they only want to be involved during one phase of a film. But if you’re making your own movie, you’ve gotta know how to see it through. While there are plenty of books that are only about the single subject of raising money, making a budget, scheduling etc. — all well worth reading — it doesn’t hurt a green producer to get the big picture first.

From the title alone, you know the subject of the book. Independent Feature Film Production. Those who are looking to get into Hollywood Studio work, make shorts or shoot on video need not apply. Beyond those limitations, though, it does very well. Producers of all shapes and sizes should be familiar with the information herein, from a long chapter on financing, through developing a screenplay, securing story rights, selecting a director, budgeting, information about the various production departments on a standard film, casting, post-production and a healthy final section on distribution and marketing.

Making the Movie Tip
The Filmmaker’s Handbook lacks the sort of handy tips such as the one found on pp. 234-35 of Independent Film Production:

It is wise to schedule a simple shot as the first thing you shoot on the first day, one that you will undoubtedly be able to print on the first or second take, such as an actor sitting by a fountain or entering a building. If you print the first take and movie on, you are sending a message to the crew that the first take matters, that you aren’t going to shoot more than one unless it’s necessary. This helps to keep everyone on their toes.

Got all that? It’s all written in a very straight-forward way with examples from well-known films generously seeded throughout. This can give the (false) impression that every movie is a big success (the odds say otherwise), but I say err on the side of encouragement. The book also includes practical tips (see the tip box) and paperwork. The Appendix includes two sample budgets (one for a $500,000 film and one for a $4.6M film) that may be worth the cover price alone to filmmakers who aren’t spreadsheet wizards.

Summary

Both of these handbooks are overdue for a new edition. Although they are only six and seven years old, respectively, with the rise of HD(V) a major medium and DVD as the hot home distribution method, they are clearly missing some key information.

Still, they both contain a wealth of information and are cheaper than taking classes and less pressure and coffee-making than being an intern. If you need an overview or a refresher, start here.