The DV Rebel’s Guide is currently the best how-to-guide for making films on a budget. It supercedes the former low-rent filmmaking guide, Rick Schmidt’s Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices, and his followup Extreme DV. This new fantastic manual written by Stu Maschwitz, a co-founder of the maverick special effects company The Orphanage, focuses exactly where budget filmmakers should be. Forget about film, and all its needs. Instead embrace inexpensive HD video and off-the-shelf professional software, like After Effects. This guide rightfully assumes that more than half of your cinematic effort will take place in front of a computer — even on a film without special effects. The good news is that an HD camera and full software suite are tools within reach of a dedicated amateur.
Rebel’s doesn’t cover important artistic issues like gaining self-confidence in your film idea, raising money, fine tuning scripts and honing your hustling skills because these are covered in other books (especially in What They Don’t Teach You at Film School). What Rebel’s Guide does cover in practical depth is the technical aspects of making a quality film for as little money as possible. Even better, it’s aimed at an action film, which most budget guides shy from.
The advice is pithy, spot on, practical, honest, and communicated extremely clearly. It uses lots of photo stills in the book and comes with its own DVD of examples. It very smartly assumes that if you are making a film, you have a Netflix account and will point you to specific example scenes in other films on DVD. And since half of filmmaking is now the work of software, the DVD also includes tutorials and helpful scripts for After Effects. It feels like a workshop lead by someone whose made a few films that look fantastic but cost almost nothing, and that is what it is.
One important point Maschwitz emphasizes: The cheap tricks and rebel attitude he promotes in this book are not only for beginners and starving artists, but are used by the pros when they can. This is another way of saying that, as in other media, the line between the tools and techniques available to amateurs and professionals has been drastically blurred. With skill and moxie, a “used car” budget, and the tools and techniques described in this very fine book, you (the You on the cover of Time!) can make a film qualified for theatrical release.
The DV Rebel’s Guide
2006, 360 pages
Available from Amazon
I don’t think many people realize how often “stolen” shots wind up in big-budget productions. Many famous commercial directors have their own small 35mm camera packages for augmenting their million-dollar shoots. In my days at Industrial Light & Magic, I worked on a Pepsi commercial where shots nabbed without permits out of the back of a van were intercut with state-of-the-art visual effects.
Grip Alfred Wentzel pushes camera operator Sunel Haasbroek, wielding a Silicone Imaging camera, for the film Spoon. Photo provided by the film’s directors, Sharlto Copely and Simon Hansen.
The Pickup Truck Loophole
I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV, but I do remember one bit of legal advice that I’ve put to use a few times. Most cities, including Los Angeles, have a definition of what kind of shooting requires a permit. If you want to shoot on public streets or sidewalks, you will need a permit if you “put down sticks,” which is to say, set up a tripod. As soon as you plop a piece of gear on city property, they want you to go legit with the paperwork.
One popular workaround for this is to eschew the sticks and shoot handheld. Reasonable, but not always conducive to the production value we’re trying to exude. A much cooler solution is to set up your tripod in the back of a pickup truck. This is an amazing trick because it give you both a tripod and a dolly. You can actually drive down the street and get a real classy tracking shot following your talent, all without asking permission.
Time is your greatest advantage over the Hollywood big boys. If they want it to rain, they rent rain towers at hundreds of dollars per day and make it rain on the day they need it to. A week later it rains for real and they lose a day or move to a cover set. You just wait for the rain and shoot on that day — and your free rain looks way better than their million-dollar rain! The DV Rebel melts down time and re-forms it into production value.
What’s amazing about filling a room with smoke is that in person it seems so stupid and obvious. But look through your viewfinder and something magical happens. Through your camera, you don’t see smoke. You just see a scene that looks more like a movie. Smoke is one of those dirty tricks that really works. It makes things seem larger than life. It gives your images depth. It gives light a physical presence in your film. And perhaps surprisingly, smoke can actually light your scene for you.
When the fire alarm goes off, that’s just about the right amount of smoke to enhance your production value.
Watch that scene now. It’s a solid scene, very well directed with a flair that would later become Besson’s trademark.
You could never shoot this scene.
But now watch it again, and try this: Don’t watch the scene, watch the individual shots. Pause the DVD on each one, and ask yourself this question: Could I create this shot? This less-than-two-second little snippet in time? Could I figure out a way to shoot that with my little DV camera?
The answer is yes (or it will be after you finish this book) for all but maybe a few of the most pyrotechnic-intensive shots. No single shot in the scene is so elaborate that you couldn’t dream up a way to create it. And if you can create the shots, you can create the scene.
When the actor showed up promptly at two in the morning and we were exactly on schedule and ready for him to work, I realized that while we may be rebellious about many things (we had, after all, broken into the building in which we were shooting a gunfight scene using realistic looking plastic guns!), the schedule of the shoot day is not one of them. You own your cast and crew the respect of their time, and you’ll make a much better movie if get all your shots in the can before the sun comes up.
Be a Rebel, Not a Jerk
If you’re going to be impacting people’s lives by blocking traffic or lighting assorted things on fire, get permission. But if you aren’t hurting anyone, then make your movie by any means necessary.
The DV Rebel cannot pass a glass elevator, or an open-air escalator, or a tire swing, without pondering how it might be used to create a smooth establishing shot. I once made a dolly shot in an airport by resting my camera on the rail of a moving pedestrian walkway. If you can ride it, it’s a dolly. If you can ride it up and down, it’s a crane.