5 Books To Expand Your Skill Set as a Film Editor
As an editor there are actually a wide variety of places that your unique skill set can take you, as your career develops.
In this post I’ve brought together 5 different books that could help inspire and unlock a brand new creative avenue for you, within the multifaceted world of post-production.
If you’re an editor reading this who simply wants to add more depth to your understanding, rather than strings to your bow, I would recommend grabbing John Yorke’s excellent Into the Woods.
Although a book on screenwriting, it’s a masterful guide to ‘a Five-Act Journey into Story’ and will enhance your storytelling abilities no end.
Thanks go to Focal Press for sending me several of the books in this list for the purposes of this review.
Design For Motion by Austin Shaw
Author Austin Shaw is a Professor of Motion Media Design at Savannah college of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia.
In the 356 pages of Design for Motion, he has essentially compressed an entire curriculum in to a book, illustrated it with his students quite stunning work and then liberally peppered it throughout with short professional interviews with some of the industry’s brightest talent.
Do you have a favourite project?
True Detective. The director and the show runner were fantastic. I think it’s really proof that good work comes from good clients. Most designers can do amazing work. You just need to find the right brief and the right client, directing you in the right way. – Patrick Clair
As it’s written by a professor, it does have an educator’s tone about the writing in places, but the layout and progression of the information, helpfully builds upon the knowledge as you move through the book.
It’s also nice enough to look at that it would make a pretty decent gift for anyone with an interest in animation, design or motion graphics.
The ‘how to use this book page’ in the preface helps set you up for finding the right kind of information for your level of experience and knowledge. Along with the five-page detailed contents and Index at the back of the book.
Chapters 9-10 focus on image-making principles and cinematic conventions. Chapter 9 examines the core visual principles as they relate to Design for Motion. Chapter 10 covers the basic visual narrative tools such as cinematic vocabulary, thumbnail sketches and hand-drawn storyboards.
It is nice that the book is in a landscape format, which fits the format of the artwork much better than a portrait book. The size and pacing of the pages lets you drink in the imagery with ease.
That imagery is as varied and diverse as the imaginations of Shaw’s students, which is unbounded by the freedom inherent in motion design.
The early content focused on defining the terms of the industry might seem a bit pedantic to a film editor, who just wants to learn how to make stuff look good, but I’m sure is important to those in the know, in much the same way that editors would quibble over the nuances of bit depth, codecs and workflows.
My favourite thing about the book was reading all the Professional Perspectives interviews, from the talented creatives behind all the inspiring work you’ve seen and enjoyed over the years. I was surprised to learn that Patrick Clair was responsible for several of my ‘go-to’ references for motion design, such as True Detective, Halt and Catch Fire, the Stuxnet animation and more.
Patrick also directed the new HBO Westworld title sequence for series director Jonathan Nolan.
Chapters 9, 10 and 17 (on Type-Driven Design Boards) were most directly applicable to what I do as an editor. But whole book was an eye-opening tour into to the vast world of motion design. There really is no limit to what’s possible, only your (and your client’s!) imagination. Which is also as true of modern filmmaking.
It has been a while since I’ve engaged with an art-school type of approach to learning, so I had to re-engage a different part of my brain, but the book also includes numerous learning exercises to bring alive the teaching.
Motionographer also has a great interview with Austin about the book here.
In short, if you want to learn a lot about motion design and potentially take your career into a new direction, this is a really inspiring book to enjoy take your time over.
Into the Woods by John Yorke
The “forest”, then is an explosion of opposition, whether embodied as an inciting incident, or act turning point, or midpoint or crisis point or scene turning point, it is the primordial building block of all drama. And those blocks create the confrontation of something with its opposite.
When two opposites are juxtaposed correctly, an explosion occurs, and story comes alive. – P119, Into the Woods.
I first picked up a copy of Into The Woods by John Yorke when editor Eddie Hamilton recommended it in his Art of the Cut interview with Steve Hullfish, whilst discussing his edit of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
Storytelling is so key to day-to-day human interaction and communication and survival that if you’re interested in psychology, you’re automatically interested in storytelling. I get an enormous kick out of books about storytelling and the history of storytelling and the different ways of storytelling.
Eddie also recommended these books too, if you want to expand your library in a similar fashion.
Anyway, back to the book in question – Into the Woods. Here is what Eddie had to say about it in Steve’s interview:
It is not a long book but it is a BRILLIANT book. So many light bulbs went off as I was reading it. And it’s only a few hundred pages compared to some of the storytelling books, which are 700-800 pages… He has articulated in the book how a hero’s journey changes from beginning to end better than any other book I’ve read and every editor should read it. It is just brilliant. And re-read it constantly because it will keep your storytelling skills really sharp. – Eddie Hamilton
I’ve read a few screenplay/story structure books in my time but I have to say John Yorke’s was one of the most engaging and easily readable.
It’s focus isn’t on ‘have your inciting incident on page 5 and make sure the dog survives’ but rather it’s an analysis of storytelling itself, and how that plays out in modern TV and film.
This makes for a much more useful investment of your time. You’ll come away with ideas and concepts to apply to your next edit.
In an industry full of so called script gurus and snake oil salesmen, at last there’s a book about story that treats writers like grown ups.
This isn’t about providing us with an ABC of story or telling us how to write a script by numbers. It’s an intelligent evaluation into the very nature of storytelling and is the best book on the subject I’ve read. Quite brilliant. – Tony Jordan, creator/writer of Life on Mars
The Amazon Editorial Reviews section provides a vast run down of acclaim from a huge list of writers and screenwriters, all of whom recommend reading it even though they would normally approach ‘yet another’ screenwriting book with a healthy amount of jaded cynicism.
One anecdote from the book that stuck with me (although I don’t know why!), and that applies to all creatives in all industries, is that after you’ve ridden the success of a previous project for some time you might do well to bring yourself down to earth by remembering that it might actually have been a success despite your involvement.
If you want one single solid read on storytelling, structure, plot, and what makes for compelling drama and you want to make it all the way through that book, read John Yorke’s Into the Woods.
As a quick aside, another great screenwriting resource for film editors is screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s $90 Masterclass. Check out this previous in-depth review for more details!
Production Pipeline Fundamentals for Film and Games by Renee Dunlop
Renee Dunlop’s Production Pipeline Fundamentals for Film and Games is pretty much a one of a kind book that covers a fairly niche topic!
That’s one of the great things about publishers like Focal Press who give us the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals that we would otherwise never have access to.
Pipeline developers are the dark matter that holds the constellation of artists and technicians together. Without them, even non-technical staff would be forced to take on coding tasks, files would proliferate unmanageably and production schedules would spiral out of control. In short, pipeline developers are the unsung heroes of the digital entertainment industry: while they shoulder some of the most difficult tasks, they are rarely noticed until something breaks.
Each chapter of the book covers a core concept such as Asset Creation, Data Management, Asset Management, Systems Infrastructure, Software for a Studio Environment and so on. These are addressed both from a film perspective and a games perspective, with the different and diverging methodologies compared and contrasted for maximum learning.
Established artists looking to transfer from film to games also need to understand how production pipelines differ between the two industries. Although game cinematics are similar to film, in-game models have strict polygon and texture budgets, while the complexity of in-game animations and effects is limited by the need to render every frame in a fractions of a second.
Why would an editor want to read this book?
Well, if you want to advance your career into the world of post production in a different realm than pure editorial, then this book will give you many helpful entry points to consider, whilst building on your understanding of the wider context.
For example, the idea of a naming convention for accurately managing your assets might seem simple enough. And when you’re working in a smaller team or post-house it may well be.
But as soon as you move into a larger studio environment the dark art of real data-management is a whole other ball-game. The book dives into the nuances of a flat vs deep structure, push vs pull workflows and virtual/internal naming conventions. And that’s just for deciding what the files should be called and how they should be arranged.
The sidebar tips and suggestions from industry professionals like Hannes Ricklefs – Global Head of Pipeline at MPC’s film division or Mark Streatfield – Production Technology Supervisor at Animal Logic are another rare opportunity to learn from experienced practitioners.
Hopefully it’s obvious that this is a deeply technical book, but the writing style is still clear and easy to follow, with the technical explanations being more than adequate. It’s probably not the kind of book a student would want to read, but if you’ve been working in either industry for at least a short period, the content will be more readily accessible.
Who else should read this book?
If you are someone who has some of these advanced technical and organisational skills but isn’t yet in the film or games industry, and would like to be, Production Pipeline Fundamentals will be a huge boost in making that leap.
It is after all, the places where dreams are made. (and really well managed behind the scenes!)
The VES Handbook of Visual Effects 2nd Edition
At 1099 pages this is a massive book, and it weighs an absolute ton. Well, 6 pounds/2.72 kg to be exact. But overall it’s not that easy to lift with one hand.
The VES Handbook on Visual Effects 2nd Edition is however true to it’s subtitle as an essential encyclopaedia for “Industry Standard VFX Practices and Procedures.”
The second edition came out in 2014 and was expanded to include these topics:
- On-set stereography
- The Academy Color Encoding System (ACES)
- Whether to shoot or convert to 3D
- Virtual productions
- Editorial workflow in an animated feature
- 3D matte painting
- General geometry instancing
But to be honest, there probably isn’t a topic on VFX that isn’t included in the book and with “fifty new contributors sharing their best methods, tips, tricks, and shortcuts earned through decades of trial and error and real-world, hands-on experience” you’re going to be able to trust the calibre of the information in hand.
As an example, here’s a quote from the section covering the nitty gritty of VFX Editorial, from David Tanaka, whose credits include Planet of the Apes, Star Wars Episode 1, Forest Gump and Jurassic Park.
The second requirement for a visual effects facility is an exact copy of the sequence being turned over. This is achieved with a “consolidation” from the picture editor’s editing system that copies all media files associated with the sequence, including picture, sound and visual effects renders. With these files, the visual effects facility can look at the cut exactly as it is seen by the picture editor. This allows the facility’s visual effects editor access to all the metadata found on the count sheets that is needed when requesting scans from the cutting room. The consolidation also allows the visual effects facility’s VFX editor to deconstruct the precomps created by the cutting room’s VFX Editor, thereby, in turn, allowing him or her to pass the line-up information to the artists.
If you want to get a further taster of what it’s like to read through this mammoth book then download these free sample chapters from the VES Handbook companion site.
- Chapter 2 Camera Angle Projection
- Chapter 3 Triangulation as a Method of Recording Camera Data
- Chapter 5 3D Stereoscopic Digital Intermediate Workflow
- Chapter 6 Image Compression/File Formats for Post Production
- Chapter 7 Digital Hair and Fur
In many ways if you were a visual effects uber geek, I could imagine that it would be quite entertaining, not to mention enlightening, to read through the whole thing. But for the more casual reader it’s much more likely that you might dip into a topic here and there.
To see a complete list of every topic covered in the book click here. It’s a very long list!
It’s nice that some historical information is provided too, offering a window into the legendary creators of some of cinema’s earliest visual effects and procedures. For example, the ideas behind the ‘bullet time effect’ from The Matrix, has it’s roots in those ‘does a horse lift all it’s legs when it runs’ camera arrays.
To conclude this review if you want to get into visual effects in film, animation or games in any serious way, you can’t go wrong with a copy of this on your book shelf.
It truly is an astounding work of detail, insight and technique.
Compositing Visual Effects in After Effects by Lee Lanier
Of all the books in this list Compositing Visual Effects in After Effects is the most practical for any editor looking to add another string to their bow in the edit suite.
The book is designed to deliver step-by-step guidance on how to achieve some fairly advanced compositing techniques in After Effects, and comes with 2.8GB of downloadable project files and practice assets to help you learn how to do so.
Similar to a video tutorial course that you might get on Lynda.com the book covers essential techniques, including:
- Rotoscoping and masking
- Matchmoving and motion tracking
- Keying green screen
- Working in the 3D environment and integrating 3D render passes
- Particle simulation
- Color grading and distressing
- Expressions and project management
The book isn’t necessarily the kind tha you would ‘read’ but more ‘study’, with tips and tricks galore on handling difficult compositing scenarios (badly shot green screen, for example) and will quickly get you up to speed on working with mattes, roto-ing tricky shots and combining renders passes from a 3D package. Among other things like working with 3D particle systems, camera tracking and grading and a whole lot more.
In Chapter 2, we discussed the creation of alpha transparency through the application of chroma key tools and custom mattes that shifted information between channels. Although these techniques are useful in many visual effects situations, there are other approaches that are commonly used. These include masking and rotoscoping.
Lee’s writing approach is pretty ‘no-nonsense’ and his explanations of the key parameters in several core After Effects compositing tools, and how to put them to good use, is short on fluff and strong on easy to follow instructions.
Each chapter contains several ‘mini-tutorials’ as you go along with a long final tutorial to round out each section.
The book sets out not to be a comprehensive guide to every aspect of After Effects, but a time-saving training manual based on decades of experience in compositing VFX.
If roto, clean up, compositing and visual effects work is something you find yourself doing more and more of, then this book will give you the expert back up you need to deliver better looking results.