In yet another case of starting something, I’ve picked up “The DV Rebel’s Guide” An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap” from Amazon last week. In this book, former ILM artist and co-founder of the VFX company The Orphanage Stu Maschwitz covers how to make an action movie with the barest of budgets. It’s like a MacGyver Handbook For People With No Money.
On a scale of 1 to 100, where 100 is a Hollywood action film and 1 is some armchair pundit sitting at home who’s only filmmaking experience has been to try and organize a boycott against Captain Marvel, this book assumes that maybe you’re at about 20. Me, right now, I’m at about 2, which puts me uncomfortably closer to Boycott Boy than it really does to someone who could actually use this book. I have a powerful computer, a subscription to the whole Adobe Cloud Suite, and have been slowly purchasing whatever equipment I can where feasible. Right now, I have a green screen that came with an old software editing package, a frame to hang it from, a few tripods, my cell phone, and the Osmo Pocket 4K camera. What I lack is co-conspirators, a better camera, a script, and basically any ideas. Those are…eh…kind of big holes in the entire effort right there.
I am not sure if I’ve talked about this before, but there’s some kind of feeling in the back of my mind that if only I had the right setup, I could do something. What Maschwitz’s book is telling me is that there is no “right” setup. The book was written back in 2006, which was twelve forkin’ years ago. We barely had HD, nevermind 4K. Right now I could probably buy the gear Maschwitz referred to in this book on eBay for less than the price I paid for the Osmo Pocket. In that regard, I am pretty much overgeared, except that my camera doesn’t have any fancy features that I might need, like interchangeable lenses or advanced exposure settings.
But the book is a serious eye-opener even from the academic perspective, because written in 2006 and read in the climate of 2019, the technology has improved by leaps and bounds. My YouTube account is now pretty much just overviews, instruction, and tutorials on how to shoot digital video and render digital VFX. The things that an amateur like myself can accomplish with moderate effort and the right software is mindblowing, especially compared to what was possible in 2006. Although the book constantly errs on the side of creative solutions to what look like difficult problems, I feel that there’s a lot more leeway today for the aspiring filmmaker/VFX artist in making something that’s more than passable.
I have to take a small side trip to Tangent Town for a little rant. When I found this book mentioned on Twitter, I went and ordered it immediately. I was familiar with Maschwitz through his position at Red Giant, maker of several production-quality plug-ins for Adobe After Effects and because of his short movie Tank which had been painstakingly made using nothing but code. As I started reading this book on making an action movie with a barest of budgets, I couldn’t stop reminding myself that Maschwitz now works for Red Giant…whose software is high on my wish list, but is way too expensive for a hobbyist like me to hope to afford (even at their new yearly subscription price). In fact, obtaining After Effects is a barrier on its own; my Adobe CC subscription was running at about $60 per month (a recent deal cut that in half for the next year, but still…). There are “free” or lower-cost “alternatives”, but at the time the book was written, AE was pretty much the only game in town unless you had access to whatever Pentiums were in use in Hollywood. The ideas in the book might be timeless, but the “on the cheap” part has become significantly less cheap in the past 12 years.
Apropos of nothing, the point of the book is still relevant: even with whatever gear you have on hand, whatever help you have on hand, and whatever resources you can pool together, it is possible to create a movie that, while not anything that will outclass the Evil Unicron that is Disney, is way more doable than you might think. While the Red Giant software would go a long way towards helping flatten certain curves (or if nothing else serve as an opportunity to learn how to flatten certain curves in the absence of the opportunity to attend a school for it), it’s not necessary; maybe it would even hurt things if one believed such things to be necessary. In fact, these days it seems that there are way more outlets allowing for people to create amazing content with the barest of materials. I’ve seen entire films shot on cell phone cameras, and even the one-off VFX videos on YouTube show how anyone can create stellar stuff with a little direction. That’s what the book is about: finding ways to not rely on the shortest distance between two points and to come up with creative, low budget ways that look very much like big-budget solutions.