Review: The Filmmaker’s Handbook, 3rd Edition

My earlier post on the 3rd edition of The Filmmaker’s Handbook was written in anticipation of receiving it. Now I’ve got it in hand, and had a chance to look it over.

A lot of people simply want to learn from a review whether or not they should own a book or not. If that’s why you’re reading, the answer is that, generally speaking, if you are a novice-to-intermediate filmmaker, this is an essential book.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are some quickly-jotted observations:

There are lots of changes, but few surprises. And that’s probably a good thing. There’s only one new chapter, at the beginning, which lays out basic questions that filmmakers should consider before beginning their work. Aside from that, the changes are all revisions. The biggest change, because it’s something of a philosophical shift, is that the chapters on Video now take precedence over the chapters on Film. And, of course, the video chapters have been (predictably) overhauled and expanded. The film chapters have largely gone (predictably) untouched.

It’s still essential. I don’t know of any single technical manual related to filmmaking that collects so much information in one place. None of its chapters can compete with my favorite books on sound, lighting, etc. but this is a great place for novices to begin and it’s a great single reference book for the rest of us, particularly on the things that won’t change as quickly as video (sound, lighting, film).

It’s already starting to become obsolete. Steven Ascher notes this in the preface: “Right now, the pace of change in video and computer technology is so rapid, some things in this book could be dated before you get to the end of this sentence.” There is a small, one sentence mention of the Red Camera (bottom of p. 34). I expect there will be more on 4K and RAW imaging in later editions.

There will be new editions, and probably sooner than later. The cover of this edition conspicuously notes that this not the “3rd Edition”, but instead the “2008 Edition.” Aside from noting that, well, it’s still 2007, I have to imagine that this is a hint that we’ll see this tome updated more regularly. And it is a tome.

Readability is reduced. The Handbook has been such a staple of film education because of its (relative) readability. Ascher and Pincus do a fine job of making complex technical concepts understandable for novices. But as the book has grown (see below) it has sacrificed some of its readability. There is simply so much stuff in this new edition that it can be a little difficult to navigate through it to find what you need. Luckily the index is above-average for this type of book.

It’s big. Really big. I remember a film professor of mine once waxing nostalgic about how the precursor to the first edition of The Filmmaker’s Handbook was a small pocket-sized book by Ed Pincus called Guide to Filmmaking. That book, my professor argued, was superior in some ways to editions of The Filmmaker’s Handbook because you could stash it in your back pocket while you filmed. He had a point. This is a “handbook” in name only — it has 830 pages and weighs nearly 3 pounds! (Here’s a similarly sized work of fiction, as a point of comparison.) I wouldn’t recommend eliminating anything, but I do wonder if perhaps the next edition shouldn’t be called The Filmmaker’s Desk Reference.

In sum, while this isn’t my favorite film book, if you are new to filmmaking, or if you are beyond the basics but need a single desk (or on-set) reference for tons of technical stuff, this is probably about the best $16.50 you could spend.

3 Responses to “Review: The Filmmaker’s Handbook, 3rd Edition”

  1. Tom Says:

    The Ulysses link made me laugh pretty hard. I can only assume you are speaking of DP as your former film professor, now one of my favorites – both for his very practical tidbits of wisdom, and for his more scattered ramblings (my favorite from last semester: A bear doesn’t know trigonometry!).

  2. ex-lion-tamer Says:

    I’m wondering what essential books you would recommend on lighting, sound, editing? I’m trying to put together a reading list for self study. Thanks!

  3. Paul Says:

    Ex-lion-tamer –

    Click on the “SRF store” link immediately below the banner at the top of this page. You don’t have to buy anything from Amazon, but that will give you a good sense of my recommendations. If you’re new to this stuff, the DV Magazine books on lighting (by Jackman) and sound (by Rose) are a GREAT place to start.

    Hope this helps.