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10 Films That Can Teach You Everything You Need To Know About Film-making

21 January 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by David Biggins


Filmmaking isn’t about just pointing a camera at talented actors. It’s a collaborative medium employing the use of sound, music, lighting, cinematography, mise-en-scene, editing, special effects and screenwriting.

Every now and then a filmmaker will use one of these filmmaking tools in a style so deft and so innovative, that it inspires, delights and influences all filmmakers that come after it. While not all of these films are equally influential, they each clearly illustrate at least one filmmaking practice that teaches us an invaluable lesson in how films are constructed.


1. Citizen Kane (1941)


What it can teach you about: Camera Movement, Camera Angles, Focus, Editing.

While most people enjoy Citizen Kane, many are left scratching their heads as to why it’s often considered to be the greatest film ever made. The reason is because Orson Welles broke all of the rules by placing the camera at never-before-seen angles, and moving it in strange and exciting new ways. He also made great use of a deep focus technique that keeps both foreground and background easily visible.

While the film may not have caused much of a stir in the nineteen-forties, it’s considered by many to be a pioneer of now commonly accepted filmmaking techniques.

Scene to examine: A young Kane is seen throwing snowballs on a picturesque winter’s day. Instead of cutting to another scene, Wells lets the action continue by pulling the camera inside and through a cabin window to reveal the parents discussing the boy’s future. As the camera follows the parents through the scene, Kane is always kept in the background; distant and unconsulted. It’s simple, ergonomic, and (for the time) revolutionary.


2. À bout de souffle (1960)


Watch it can teach you about: Editing, Causality.

Ignoring conventional rules of editing, Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle disorientated and thrilled its viewers with a fresh, stylistic look by introducing abrupt ‘jump cuts‘ to every other scene. Actors suddenly changed positions in their scenes and time seemed to fly forward in an instant as a result. American filmmakers took note, and started making their own films look quicker and edgier – helping to usher in an American “new wave” of filmmaking that still defines contemporary cinema.

Scene to examine: While Michel gives Patricia a lift in a newly stolen car, Godard snips away at the passage of time by heavily editing the scene. Time seems to literally ‘jump’ forward as cars and pedestrians vanish; however the conversation seems to still flow and make sense.


3. Dark Star (1974)

dark star

What it can teach you about: How to work on a limited budget, Set design.

Sounding cheap and looking cheaper (the alien is literally a beach ball), there’s still a lot that can be learned from John Carpenter’s classic science-fiction film. The project started life as a student film, but was ultimately upgraded to become Carpenter’s cinematic debut. Before Clerks, El Mariachi or The Blair Witch Project, Dark Star proved that Innovative camera angles and a witty script are all that’s required to make a good movie.

Scene to examine: The elevator scene in Dark Star is both laugh-out-loud funny and remarkably inventive. It might look like Dan O’Bannon (who’d later go on to write Alien) is inches from falling to his death, it’s actually just him lying on the floor with a piece of wood leaning against his feet (or hands, depending on his stage of peril).

Carpenter then ramps up the tension by having the elevator nearly crush Bannon – but it’s just a plastic board shot as a close up mixed with elevator sound effects. Ridiculously simple, but surprisingly effective.


4. Blow Out (1981)


What it can teach you about: Sound effects.

Blow Out’s lack of financial success has almost erased Brian De Palma’s thriller from the history books. Luckily, film aficionados continue to sing its praises (both narratively and technically). Blow Out delves into the filmmaking process itself, by following sound editor Jack Terri (John Travolta) as he stumbles across a murder that he accidentally records while scouting for sound effects. While it might owe a lot to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, it breaks new ground with its innovation.

Scene to examine: The scene where Travolta records the all important ‘blow out’, has a hypnotic quality. For almost five minutes, De Palma asks his audience to sit back and listen to their surroundings.

Travolta stands in the darkness, recording the wind rustle the trees at night-time. As he moves his microphone from a pair of bickering lovers, an odd chirping noise distracts him. The camera cuts back a good hundred meters, leaving Travolta way in the distance and revealing that the loud chirping noise is coming from a tiny frog.

The tiny frog jumps into the water, but the sound of the water lapping over its body seems giant in comparison. Then a truly puzzling metallic sound excites and focuses Travolta; the noise isn’t explained in the scene and it’s only when re-watching do you notice that De Palma hasn’t only introduced a pivotal character in an unusual way – he’s also introduced a murder weapon.


5. Goodfellas (1990)

good fellas

What it can teach you about: How to use soundtracks to complement the action.

Martin Scorsese not only makes films about music (The Last Waltz, No Direction Home), music helps to make his films. He’s a real rock-and-roll director who’s able to combine music with cinematography in a way that enriches and empowers his moviemaking. The soundtrack for this gangster classic is immense. With nearly fifty songs that are said to reflect (however remotely) on-screen characters’ emotional states.

Scene to examine: A great example of Scorsese’s rock and roll direction comes as we watch Robert De Nero’s Jimmy “The Gent” stare at Ray Liotta’s embattled Morrie. The camera slowly zooms in on Jimmy while Cream’s psychedelic song Sunshine of Your Love harmoniously, starts playing.

It becomes clear that Jimmy’s thoughts have erratically bent towards murder when we hear the lyric “It’s getting near dawn, when lights close their tired eyes…”. It’s a masterful mix of powerful acting, directing and a great song choice.



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  • Ana

    Great post, thanks.

  • Dris

    His name is spelled Orson WELLES. Do not confuse with H.G. WELLS!!

  • Dris

    I see you deleted my critical comment. At least you corrected the mistakes so it was worth it. 🙂

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Ditto on the post, the part on Goodfellas that grabbed my attention was the Layla sequence, the camera moving in on Johnny “Roast Beef” and his wife all shot up in their Cadillac courtesy of Jimmy. Then transitioning to Frenchy in the garbage truck and finally to Frankie Carbone hanging on a meathook in a freezer truck. Kind of like Coppola using a baptism sequence with all this murder going on.

    • lauralee

      That’s a great one. My other favorite is when Ray Liotta is high on heroin, driving down the street, and looks up to see a helicopter. The music shrieks right there and you get an extra jolt of paranoia.

      • Iam_Spartacus

        Hi lauralee, another one is the camera zooms in on Ray taking a snort and the music breaks into Muddy Waters Mannish Boy. That whole movie has endless examples on how to use a soundtrack.

      • Unkle Amon

        Liotta is high on cocaine, not heroine.

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  • BT Theg

    Watching movies will give you a general idea, but not “teach you” how to make a film. Just like reading wikipedia about physics might give you a basic understanding, but you still aren’t going to be able to solve a physics problem. Still and always, the best way to learn something is to go to school.

    • Bob

      But there are plenty of examples of filmmakers nowadays who skipped that part. And cinema studies is only half as old as the medium itself. I think its fair to say that while watching films wont teach you to be a filmmaker, a blog and a book wont either. This is a do learn medium. Get your hands dirty.

      • John Stockton

        Agree totally. But I think watching films does teach you everything you need to know. It depends on how often you watch those films. I know for example that Spielberg watches “It’s a Wonderful Life” at least twice a year he said in an interview he makes a point of it. Some people watch films with the sound turned down to get a feel for the pase and style without the distractions of the soundtrack. Etc etc etc. Watch films and make films. Fuck film school that just gets you into a load of debt.

    • Leon Horka

      School is for suckers. Paul Thomas Anderson, Kubrick, Tarantino, Jodorowsky, Fellini, Bergman, Hitchcock, Buñuel, none of them went to film school.

      • zachlen

        Neither did Ken Russell. Not for all tastes but a genius. Just a look at THE MUSIC LOVERS and THE DEVILS will prove his artistry and sensibility.

        • Ale B

          He went to photography school

      • donreplies

        Well Tarkovsky did.

    • John Stockton

      Sorry but you’re wrong. Film school isn’t the B all and end
      all. Only about 50% of professionals working in the industry full time have a
      degree. Everyone else got there because they new someone and got their hands
      dirty. It’s sad that its not what you know but who you know, that’s just life.
      Still to be fair if you get the opportunity and your rubbish you don’t last
      long. You can go to school all day and all night but it teaches you very little
      you can’t learn yourself if properly motivated. Getting out there and actually
      making films is the only way to learn full stop. Don’t equate film making to
      Physics or math or English literature. The whole premise of ‘schooling’ is
      manufactured to support those educational main stays. A practical endeavour can
      only be mastered practically.

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  • David Biggins

    Hi Theg. Thanks for the feedback. Perhaps “teach you” isn’t 100% accurate. I don’t mean to say that after watching these ten classics someone would be able to pick up a camera and direct like Orson Well!

    You’re quite right. Heading to a film school and learning techniques through theory and experience is a great way of becoming a filmmaker. I’d also encourage anyone who is interested in filmmaking to volunteer their time as a runner on local TV and film productions, so that they can learn the trade just from getting their hands dirty.

    Having said that; I hope that this list celebrates the subtleties of filmmaking and inspires people to learn more about the techniques behind great movie magic. I think that the greatest filmmakers are often the people who are well versed in cinema history. They’re people who understand what makes classic films so special.

    At the very least, I hope that this is a list of fantastic films that people can discover and enjoy.

  • SineSwiper

    Why is The King’s Speech not on this list? The director took a very strict approach to the Rule of Thirds, and it’s a textbook example of why it works.

    • lauralee

      It didn’t work though. At least not for me, or for several filmmaker friends of mine. I found it more distracting than anything. Just my opinion though.

      • Leon Horka

        What did you find distracting?

  • “How to use soundtracks to compliment the action.”

    You mean “complement” the action.

  • Ben Brahem Ziryab

    the claim that one can learn “everything” there is to know about filmmaking by watching 10 films is absurd. There is a world outside American cinema, you know?

  • 2up

    Brilliant editing and amazing use of different image making mediums in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers

  • Suffering through some of those choices may cause you to rethink your desire to make them at all:)

    I’ve got a better idea.

    The Good the Bad and the Ugly
    A Clockwork Orange
    Full Metal Jacket
    A Fish Called Wanda
    The Breakfast Club
    Say Anything
    Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

  • giallopudding

    Not so sure I’d use Adaptation as an example of the epitome of screenplay writing. It is an ingenious script, to be sure. But hardly a mainstream masterpiece. I’d choose Chinatown.

    • Joel Zachariah

      there will be blood ?

      • Luuk.vanRiel

        Hell yeah, the first half hour kind basically the entire movie) is cinematic perfection. No words just visual storytelling. Paul Thomas Anderson is really one of the greatest directors alive. He’s up there with Terrence Malick. I especially love how he made inherent vice. It’s really hypnotic and reminiscent of the time period. It’s also really amazing how well he made you experience the state of mind of the main character. The way things appear so confusing and chaotic.

  • Ale B

    In the matrix it is also interesting to notice the change of fabrics in the clothing they’re wearing both in the matrix as in the real world…in the real world they use soft natural clothing enhancing the fact that they are “earthy” and in the matrix the fabric is rigid and syntethic

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  • Adrian Brown

    Hell! Paris Texas, Cinemo Paradisimo, There will Be Blood, etc.

  • Chandradeep

    .Just include 8 1/2. It has everything you need to know about cinema. 🙂

    Frankly, This is hollywood material. I can never say that some 10 films can teach me everything I need to know about making. I believe no Fefe, Ingmar, Akira, Kubrick and Tarkovsky mean you basically don’t know a great deal. Get out of hollywood fever. There are many European films one can easily include instead of the above films. For eg:- for script – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois or Kind Hearts and Coronets could be mentioned. for lighting – Storaro’s Conformist or any Nykvist film could be there. for direction – the names I mentioned above. for how to use music – Bresson’s Pickpocket or for camera work and movement – Renoir’s The rules of the game

  • Ahmed

    All that The God Father part 3 taught me was to not make another sequel. And there are far better movies to learn from than the ones mentioned, such as El Mariachi, and Following.

    • Ahmed

      or Just simply read Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew. It’s got priceless advice.

  • Aljosa Ilic

    No Tarantino at all???

  • Jed Leland

    Berberian Sound Studios

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  • ttt

    on technical side i would add Stoker

  • fantail31

    There Will Be Blood, Apocalypse Now and pretty much anything that Hitchcock touched, bad and good.