Saturday, December 8, 2007

Review: The DV Rebel's Guide

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The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap.

Author: Stu Maschwitz

Are you a DV Rebel? You might be if you know your way around a camera, NLE1, Adobe After Effects, or any of the million CG programs out there. Or perhaps you've made, or were involved in making, a short film or low-budget feature. If so, you are a DV Rebel--and the DV Rebel's Guide is just what you've been looking for to make your next project even better.

The Guide is for anyone with a passion for good filmmaking, and the drive to learn and improve the final product. As Maschwitz puts it:
"It's for anyone whose cinematic ambitions extend beyond the self-imposed restrictions of standard indie fare. If the story about which you are passionate involves exotic locations, visual spectacle, weather, Kung Fu, or any other stuff that makes movies better than plays, then welcome to the book that won't try to talk you off the ledge."

Just because you don't have a big budget doesn't mean you can't make the film you want. Maschwitz says he hopes some of what you read in the book will make you "throw down the book immediately and go try it out." He was right. In fact, I constantly found myself thinking, Yes! That's what I do, or Holy shit! I never thought of that.

Rather than limiting your film to one location, shying away from interesting shots, or avoiding special and visual effects like the plague, Maschwitz encourages you to trust yourself to make the film only you can make. And The Guide has the tools to help. Included in the arsenal he provides are: where to find affordable and convincing prop guns (and how to make them appear to be fired); how to effectively light your set with lights from your local hardware chain; and how to dolly, slide, and steady your camera for under $100. In return, he asks that you don't skimp on three things: The camera ("for the Rebel, HD is an option; 24p is a must.")2, a professional NLE, and Adobe After Effects. Four things if you include Photoshop.

Indeed Maschwitz's approach is "postproduction heavy," but that doesn't mean he advocates a fix-it-in-post style. In fact, it's the opposite. Postproduction begins during pre-production. The key to his approach is production value, "that nebulous quality that makes a film feel big." By using the resources at hand to their fullest, and acknowledging your limitations, you can make a film that appears you spent a lot more that you actually did. "[Y]ou won't be making Terminator 2 -- but if you stretch and strain and get really creative, maybe you can make The Terminator."

Also notable is Maschwitz's writing style. He addresses his audience as peers, in a friendly style that strives to motivate Rebels to make better films. He's indeed one of us, a Rebel. Barnes and Nobel is filled with filmmaking books that either dig so deep into a subject that it scares away most potential readers, or are so general you have to be a complete newbie to get anything from them3. But the DV Rebel's guide speaks directly to DV Rebels, and tells them exactly what they need to know about the craft. Sure, he could have written 300 more pages or separated the chapters into different volumes, completely dumping his brain onto paper, but that's not what The Guide is about. It's about getting out there to make films; not merely reading about it.

The book covers planning and storyboarding, shooting, effects, editing, and mastering--providing information essential to maximizing production value and keeping the recorded image as pristine as possible. Most of the chapter called Onlining4 digs deep into After Effects. The color correction section alone could make a newbie's head explode, but as a DV Rebel, I was exhilarated. I felt the book was written at my level of experience, filling many holes in my knowledge, but not spoon-feeding me stuff I already knew.

The Guide also comes with a companion DVD. The video portion has a short film called The Last Birthday Card that Maschwitz wrote and directed. It's a true Rebel project, and he uses clips as examples throughout the book. In addition to the film itself, there is a version with commentary, and an FX breakdown. The commentary is great. I do wish, however, that he included more in the FX breakdown. There were two major FX sequences in the film, a helicopter and a car crash, but the featurette only covers the helicopter shots.

Also included on the DVD are some Rebel tools for post-production. You'll find some nifty After Effects scripts, including a palette that will make you crave a cigarette when you're finished playing with it. OMG!

There are a couple of topics I wish he had expanded on further. Sound and lighting are, to me, the most neglected elements in low-budget films. Maschwitz does cover both of them, offering pointers, but I would have loved to see more detail on both. Of course, he admits he's no sound expert and doesn't want to come off sounding like one. I can accept that. And his pointers, dos and don'ts, are specific and direct in true Rebel fashion.

Lighting is covered in a little more detail, offering some great advice. But lighting is one aspect I feel needs more than just pointers; I feel the foundation should be laid out, even for Rebels. I've seen too many films where the lighting showed the DP's lack of experience. And nothing takes me out of a movie faster than when something doesn't look right.

But these are minor quibbles. I found The DV Rebel's Guide extremely informative in nearly every aspect of filmmaking. More than that, Maschwitz's love of the craft shines through on every page, which made me want to get out and make a great movie.

About the Author:


From the back cover: Stu Maschwitz is a commercial director and cofounder and CTO of The Orphanage, a San Francisco-based visual effects and film production company. Maschwitz spent five years as a visual effects artist at George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and went on to create the award-winning Magic Bullet software, used in his 1999 short film The Last Birthday Card. Made with the very first DV camera for a budget of around $5000, Birthday Card shocked viewers with its high production value and killer effects.


Maschwits also publishes a blog called ProLost, and hosts a forum as a companion for the DV Rebel's Guide called The Rebel Cafe.

1 NLE stands for Non-linear editor. The most popular professional NLEs are Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, and Avid.

2 The Canon HV20 is the first consumer-level camera (under $1000) that shoots 24p (with some tweaking when capturing). It doesn't have all the bells and whistles of prosumer cameras, but it has become increasingly popular--and seriously pimped out. More about the HV20 in future posts.

3 There are a lot of other good books on filmmaking. But sometimes it gets frustrating to sift through the mediocrity to find a gem.

4 Onlining is a term I'd never heard until reading the book. Maschwitz defines it as: "...a noun and a verb that refers to the process of creating the final, high quality version of your film."