Make a Google search with ‘Best Books on Filmmaking’ and you are flooded with links to similar suggestions; ‘Save the Cat’ [an absolutely terrible book], ‘Shot by Shot’, ‘Five Cs of Cinematography’, etc. As helpful as some of these books can be, referring to them will only help you become a better technician. They will help you answer the WHATs and the HOWs of filmmaking, not necessarily the WHYs. For that, you need to arm yourself with multidisciplinary sources to draw inspirations from and funnel it through the craft of your choice.
So these 10 books are my recommendations that are not filmmaking books but can be of great help to add multiple dimensions to your craft.
1) The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker
It’s a style guide; a set of standards or rules for the writing, formatting and design of a literary work, be it academic or creative. It discusses the principles of good writing such as the arc of coherence, word choices, sentence structures, etc. in both an engaging and insightful manner.
Why read this? – Screenwriters don’t have the same liberty as novelists to indulge in prose spanning pages after pages describing how a raindrop hits the leaf of a tulip. Yet, they must paint an evocatively vivid picture of the same event for the readers. That requires writing with a certain focus and brevity. Sentences must flow from one to another creating best dramatic arc maintaining the mood of the narrative. Sometimes, it is better to convey the mood and pace of the story through sentence structures. A combat scene can be full of staccato sentences whereas a dreamy sequence can be of lengthy prose. The options are endless. This book will introduce you to all of those options. Then it is all up to you how you use them.
2) The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
This is not a scriptwriting guide even though it has acquired the reputation of one. It is a borderline ethnographic comparative study of myths across many cultures describing how they all share many common elements which ultimately leads to an archetype.
Why read this? – Mythologies – Greek, Hindu, Islamic, etc. – those are still prevalent today are the stories that survived and evolved successfully over thousands of years. This book will help you understand why those stories work which can then help you in your own storytelling endeavour.
3) Poetics by Aristotle
Written around 2300 years before filmmaking was invented, ‘Poetics’ is a philosophical treatise that focuses on dramatic and literary theory in western culture – mostly Greek.
Why read this? – Every single screenwriting book is a direct rip off of this book. All modern screenwriting concepts are discussed in this book in the context of Greek dramas [comedy and tragedy]. The three-act structure inculcated by Hollywood screenwriting gurus is a dumbed down version of three acts suggested by Aristotle – Pity, Fear and Catharsis which have specific structural meaning than some arbitrary act number. It is a small book that requires minimum monetary investment but provides the maximum outcome.
4) Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art by Paul Rand
This book is a collection of essays on graphic design, Rand’s design philosophy and commercial design in general. It has very little text but is filled with visual examples like posters and logotypes. Yet, every page is meant to be read.
Why read this? – Graphic design is a discipline that is focused on solving the problems of visual communication. Each individual image must communicate ideas or themes innovatively while making it clear enough to be understood by a large number of people. Cinema is also a medium of visual communication. The principles of graphic design transfer easily over to filmmaking. So understanding the aesthetical reasoning that goes into making a graphic design choice can arm you with better options in designing shots for your film.
5) Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton
This book is all about types and typography. It presents the concepts of typography in a clear and concise way with a brief historical and theoretical introduction.
Why read this? – A typographer while designing let’s say a book, must decide what font to use, the size of the header text vs. the body text, the leading, what grid to use, etc. Accompany each question with a ‘Why’. Only after addressing those questions you get that beautifully designed book where everything from the font size to the margins feels just right. As in the case with the previous book, the principles of typography can also be transferred to filmmaking in designing a series of shots. The book will help you understand how much precision and thoughts a typographer puts in her design that a filmmaker can and should also put. It will help you break the false notion that “filmmaking is instinctive”.
6) The Park Bench by Christophe Chabouté
The Park Bench is a slice of life graphic novel filled with thousands of beautiful black and white inked illustrations and with no dialogue.
Why read this? – Precisely for the reason that it has no dialogue. With most of the cinema turning into talking photographs, this graphic novel reminds us how pictures speak a thousand words. Studying this graphic novel will help you engage in and understand the workings of pure visual storytelling.
7) Indian Music in Performance by Neil Sorrell and Ram Narayan
This is a great introductory guide to Hindustani classical music and to the basic music theory through the works of Ram Narayan. You’ll get the introduction to some of the Indian musical instruments and the relationship among them during a performance.
Why read this? – Classical music is a direct way to ground your stories sonically to our Indian roots. It is important for a filmmaker, I believe, not only to understand at least the basics of this musical form but to allow yourself to see the possibilities of using it as a storytelling device. In addition, it helps build a basic vocabulary for a director to talk to her composer in the same language instead of only giving out references and say “Thoda funky music chahiye” [whatever that means].
8) A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics by Sheldon Pollock [Editor]
Rasa is at the centre of any visual, musical, or performing arts. This book is a collection of essays on the evolution of Rasas; Indian thoughts, rhetoric, etc. Although the book is edited and presented by a scholar for the scholars, it is still comprehensive enough to study the philosophy of Indian aesthetics.
Why read this? – This book will help you a great deal to build an eye for any artistic work so that you can extract greater pleasure out of it. It will help you watch cinema, as I like to say, beyond entertainment. However, it isn’t an easy book to read. It requires work and supplementary readings.
9) Yugant by Iravati Karve
This book is a series of essays on principal characters of Mahabharata. Karve examines the context, motivation and morality of those characters from an anthropological perspective. It is quite an insightful read.
Why read this? – For the sheer understanding of how a story that you think is so straightforward can take a whole new turn just by looking at it from a different perspective. As a storyteller, you need to be aware of all the perspectives from which a story could be told and what that each perspective achieves through its telling so that you can anchor on one and tell the best possible story you can tell.
10) Social Psychology by Robert A. Baron
It’s an academic book for psychology undergraduates. It introduces concepts like cognitive biases, attitude towards individuals, behaviour, etc. and how they apply in our day to day life. The book has enough examples from the popular culture to support the theoretical text which makes it quite an engaging read.
Why read this? – Being a filmmaker and a storyteller means that you must understand the functioning of both an individual and of society at a deeper level. Ultimately, we all are telling human stories. Understanding of social psychology helps in creating a believable universe for a story with unique characters. It also helps in managing the set better.