One of the best ways to learn filmmaking is to watch films. All filmmakers can learn from the classics – techniques, storytelling, and style. This post is about some of the best movies to learn filmmaking and how you can get the most out of them to build your filmmaking skills and enhance your filmmaking career.
The Value of Watching Movies and TV Shows
I’ve always believed that you can also learn a lot about filmmaking by reading books and articles and studying filmmaking courses, but at the same time, you need to watch the films of the best. It’s a film school in its own right – whether you are a film student, an aspiring filmmaker, or already in the industry.
Let’s face it – learning filmmaking isn’t an easy task. It takes time, hard work, and practical application to learn how to tell a story with moving images.
I suppose it’s good preparation for the grind of actual film production!
Although many filmmakers are obsessed with their equipment, it’s important to know that equipment doesn’t make you a better filmmaker.
The process behind the camera is much more important to the end result.
The best way to learn filmmaking is to deeply study the art and craft yourself. To learn the art of filmmaking, you need to see it in action. On set, in the editing room, and watching the films and movies of others.
By watching films and then taking them apart: see what works, what doesn’t, and try to figure out why.
Learning filmmaking by watching films is also a great way to get inspiration from others. In the film industry, people will assume that you know the film lexicon. Be prepared to say what is your favorite film, and why!
Filter Out the Junk
When watching movies to improve your filmmaking, it’s very important that you consciously decide what to watch and what not to watch.
Quentin Tarantino famously watched thousands of movies when he worked in the Video Archives movie store in Manhattan Beach, California. Of course, many of those films were trash movies, but that’s exactly the point. Tarantino made a conscious decision to watch film genres to learn the tropes and approach to filmmaking.
In this way, he learned in an amazing way more about how plot and dialog work in movies (he’d already been watching movies extensively at home, prior to starting at the store).
Unless you watch movies at high speed (a valid technique, sometimes), the fact is that watching movies takes time.
This makes it all the more important to have a hit list of movies and TV series you want to watch, perhaps organized by genre or director.
In addition to a notebook, which you should definitely keep, good lists that will make your overall movie and TV watching experience much more productive.
Where to Watch Good Movies
It’s a good idea to browse smart discussion forums like Reddit to specifically look for specific movies and TV shows.
And of course, you should talk to your friends and colleagues in the film world who can advise you on what’s worth watching.
Then there are the best movie review sites – especially IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Letterboxd and Metacritic are also worth a look.
If you’ve Amazon Prime or Netflix (or both), you should pay Flickmetrix a visit.
A great place to see the work of other filmmakers, including rising stars, is Vimeo. You’ll find a lot of interesting and experimental work there, as well as some mainstream projects. Whenever you have a spare ten minutes, why not hop over there to watch a short film?
If you get the chance to attend film festivals and actually listen to the filmmakers explaining their work and taking Q&A, don’t miss the opportunity.
Directors to Study
There are a huge number of wonderful film directors, of course, But here is a shortlist to be starting with:
- Martin Scorsese
- David Lynch
- Quentin Tarantino
- Kathryn Bigelow
- Steven Spielberg
- Andrei Tarkovsky
- Alfred Hitchcock
- Werner Herzog
- Jane Campion
- James Cameron
- Agnés Varda
- Christopher Nolan
How Filmmakers Watch Films
A good filmmaker watches films in a very different way than the average moviegoer. While a normal person watches a film, thinks about the film and the story, and forgets about the film the next day or week, a filmmaker takes in the film and thinks about it for a very long time.
Then they dissect it, analyze it, and come to their own conclusions about why certain shots were taken and why certain scenes were done.
Typically, filmmakers look for lessons and learning points in three key areas when they watch a film:
These are the guts of the filmmaking process.
We’ll discuss each of these areas below. However, the most important point is that a really good film excels in all three of the above areas.
This doesn’t happen by accident, but by design and the top-notch creative and artistic work of a team that often works over a long period of time.
Ultimately, each film reflects the unique signature of the director. Therefore, in addition to the above points, pay attention to the tone and flavor of the film, as this is an indication of the director’s working methods.
Cinematography is probably the one thing that the audience will immediately notice. It’s the film language – vocabulary, grammar, and syntax!
To sum up, good cinematography:
- Draws attention to important objects and themes in a scene.
- Emphasizes the tone and style of the film
- Creates a mood
- Sets a tone
- Tells a story
- Keeps the audience engaged
As you gain experience, you can begin to ask specific questions about the exact cinematographic techniques used in a particular film.
- What lens is used?
- How is the frame chosen?
- How does the movement of the camera contribute to the scene?
- What decision was made for the placement of the camera in a particular scene?
Some specific things to look for in terms of technical aspects are:
In filmmaking, there’s a distinction between story coverage and cinematographic coverage of a specific scene or sequence.
Coverage means that a director wants to shoot a scene from multiple angles so that he or she’s a variety of options when editing, as well as multiple options in terms of a range of shots and angles in the edit.
The idea is to make a scene as good as it can be, using multiple angles and shots to ensure that the story is told effectively.
This is especially important in dramatic scenes where we want to see the actors’ facial expressions and reactions.
Good directors and DOPs work closely together on this.
For feature films, coverage is usually considered at the storyboard and script stage. Then on set, it’s usually a matter of “blocking” the shots and rehearsing the actors before the actual lines.
Sometimes it turns out during the sifting of the day’s shots or even during editing that a scene needs to be more extensive. In this case, additional shots are taken. One of the biggest mistakes to avoid is filming too much.
The main reason for this is that it can lead to a lot of confusion. Not only on set but also during editing.
If you look closely at feature films and documentaries, you can quickly tell when too little footage has been shot.
A film that hasn’t been covered enough is characterized by the fact that it often doesn’t flow well.
A film or documentary that wasn’t covered enough often looks like it was thrown together quickly, and the camera was often in the wrong place.
If a scene isn’t adequately covered during filming, it can be much more difficult to edit it together.
Framings, Angles, and Camera Movements
Closely related to the question of the scope of the film and the story is the choice of framing, angles, and camera movement in a scene.
- Which camera angle is best for a particular scene?
- Is it better to shoot closer or farther away?
- Is a certain angle more interesting than another?
- How does this shot contribute to the storytelling?
All of these questions are important – and they reflect the cinematographer’s and director’s approach to the film and the story.
Some films are filmed in a very specific way. For example, Sergio Leone’s film “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” is famous for its extensive use of wide-angle lenses that bring the viewer close to the action while revealing much about the background and landscape.
The angle depends on the filmmaker’s needs and is usually determined from scene to scene.
The camera angle can also be used to influence the mood of the moment, for example by using low angles to suggest that one character is more powerful than the other characters.
Camera movement is often used to build tension by bringing the camera closer to the characters. It can also be used to reveal information.
A well-placed cut or camera movement can have a very powerful effect on the audience in a dramatic scene.
Editing and Post Production
There’s an old saying among filmmakers: “Movies are made in the editing room”.
That’s certainly true for documentaries, but feature films are probably really made in the screenwriting process.
The great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky claimed that no one can call himself a film director who’s not also actively involved in screenwriting.
However you look at this debate, one thing is certain: excellent editing is a hallmark of excellent films – whether they’re feature films or non-fiction films.
To analyze a film, it’s important to identify where and why a shot was cut.
- Why was this shot cut so soon after another?
- Could the shot have been held longer?
- Is it more effective to stay with a long shot or switch to a close-up?
- Does the editing take the audience on a journey?
- Do we build tension or relieve it?
I’d advise you to do this exercise in combination with reading the wonderful book “In the Blink of an Eye” by Walter Murch on first-class film editing.
Good storytelling is the linchpin of filmmaking and directing. You can learn it better by watching movies and TV, but ultimately it needs to be practiced in the real world by actually making movies and telling stories.
When you watch movies, keep the story in mind and pay attention to the different techniques used to bring the story to life.
Often it’s small details that are easy to overlook, but make all the difference in quality.
When watching a movie, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the story told in the right way? Is it too slow? Too fast?
- Is there a clear story arc?
- Are the characters interesting? How are they developed over the course of the story?
- Is there a moral to the story?
- How is the tension built? Are we told directly about the suspense, or is it revealed to the audience through hints and clues?
- What’s the goal of the characters?
- How are the characters motivated to get what they want?
- What’s the pacing like? Is everything happening too fast? Too slow?
Try to break it down into smaller, more manageable parts:
- What’s the premise?
- What’s the conflict?
- What’s the journey?
- Is there a twist?
- Is it believable?
- How is the story told?
- How is the audience involved?
The truth is that almost any story that can be told has probably already been told. What’s infinite variation is the form in which stories are told, storytelling.
Every self-respecting director brings a unique approach to the material, no matter how tight the film’s script.
So pay attention not only to the story being told but how it’s being told. How is the dialog used? What’s the rhythm of the story? Is there a change in genre or style?
The way a director approaches a story is one of the best ways to learn filmmaking.
Famed Hollywood director Steven Spielberg is said to have once been asked the three secrets of filmmaking and replied, “Structure. Structure. And structure.“
The right balance, the right tension, the right flow, and the right transitions between scenes and sequences are at the heart of a good film.
You can learn a lot about the two kinds of structure that really matter to filmmakers by watching their films. Principle:
- Structure in storytelling
- Structure in cinematography and editing – for example, recurring motifs.
If you examine a film for its structure, you’ll be able to see the director’s fingerprints in the film.
How does the director use structure to build tension? What’re the different plot points in a film? How are they used? How are the characters developed through the structure? In what ways is the structure of the film similar to or different from other films?
The answers to the questions about a film’s theme are usually found in the film itself.
However, there are some general guidelines and questions that will help you figure out the theme:
- What’s the movie about?
- What’s the film trying to say?
- How is the topic introduced?
- Are there specific lines of dialog that hint at the theme?
- Is the theme reflected in the images?
- Is the theme reflected in the music?
- How is the theme developed over the course of the film?
The theme is the meaning that the filmmaker wants to express with his film.
Sometimes this is expressed as the theme of a film being the reason why the film was made in the first place.
If storytelling is the heart of a film, then performance is the soul of the film.
There’s nothing more effective than giving an actor something to sink their teeth into, but the reality is that’s not an easy process.
The most important thing a director can do for his or her actors is to help them understand the motivations for a character and then find a way to express them authentically and believably.
As you gain experience, you’ll understand that a great performance is the result of a number of factors, including:
- Great writing
- The actual performance
But probably the most important factor is the collaboration between actor and director. Each tries to achieve the “scene goals.
Watching movies in VR
One of the disadvantages of watching movies on a TV screen or a computer monitor is that it’s easy to get distracted. Watching movies for film education is all about taking a close look at the movie!
This is part of the magic of watching films in a cinema – you get true immersion.
If you have a VR (virtual reality) headset like the Oculus Quest 2, it’s a great way to watch movies on it. You can either use the Amazon Prime or Netflix apps, or there are movie apps like BigScreen. Or you can use Virtual Desktop and similar apps to stream from your computer to the VR headset.
The effect is amazing – it’s as close to a movie theater experience as you can get at home unless you have an extremely expensive stereo system.
The Martin Scorsese List
Legendary Hollywood director Martin Scorsese has created a list of 125 films that every aspiring filmmaker should see.
There’s hardly a better first place to compile your master list of must-see and must-learn-from films.