In this podcast we speak with Stu Maschwitz, author of The DV Rebels’ Guide. Maschwitz is one of the founders of The Orphange and has a been a huge proponent of bringing desktop tools such as After Effects to the high end post market. We also get his thoughts about the current compositing software market.
Stu Maschwitz is one of the founders of vfx studio The Orphanage, with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Founded in 1999, The Orphanage has created visual effects for more than two dozen major films including such blockbusters as Superman Returns (Warner Bros.), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Disney), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Warner Bros), Sin City (Dimension) and The Day After Tomorrow (Fox). At fxguide, we’ve been big fans of Stu Maschwitz and his Prolost blog.
While we love working high end visual effects and have all worked on big budget films or commercials, we’ve also done our own pet creative projects on the side and had to deal with the reality of smaller budgets. So we were really interested in diving into his new book “The DV Rebels’ Guide – An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap” and it doesn’t disappoint.
Before considering any of the content in the book, what is great about reading it is that it has a conversational feel — its as though you’re sitting around having a discussion with Stu. This approach was something he felt strongly about. “I gave them a couple of sample chapters in various states of completion when I first approached them,” says Maschwitz. “My writing style was always a part of the package. I think Peachpit was more than happy to loosen things up a bit with this book. The tough sell was the rounded corners!”
While the book covers many concepts that will admittedly be familiar to artists working on visual effects or who went to film school, its such an enjoyable read of tales in the trenches that you stick around for the nuggets of knowledge. It walks you through DV Rebel filmmaking — from pre-production, to shooting, to effects, to editing and onlining.
The book starts out by breaking down what makes a production look high end or have production values. Using La Femme Nikita as his mechansim, Maschwitz breaks apart the kitchen scene, effectively pointing out that while the sequence “oozes production value” it is actually something quite doable to pull off for the DV Rebel. By breaking it down shot by shot, he clearly points out the critical need for planning.
He also points out the other quality cues in a film such as composition, depth of field, sound quality, and lighting. Its a great opening chapter because it breaks down the barriers and foreshadows how he’s gonna help you make your film have these qualities:
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.
Of course, the first step in successful filmaking is planning and that’s how Maschwitz dives into the project. Storyboarding is essential and he points out that you don’t need to be an incredibly talent storyboard artist to get the job done. Sure — it helps to be one or have a storyboarding friend — but the important thing is to plan out the shot sequences. As he points out, Google Sketch Up is actually a great storyboarding tool.
The storyboarding process is critical, as this helps both think about telling the story, but also in scheduling the shoot and the order in which to shoot things. If you’re on a budget, you can’t afford to waste time moving locations or making decisions on set. This especially holds true if you’re shooting run and gun without asking permission.
He walks through approaches for making sure filmmakers end up with attractive imagery — from framing, to low budget steadicam-style rigs, to dollies, and lighting rigs. Thoughout the book, he tosses in useful tips and anecdotes that are useful for any aspiring or current DV Rebel. He is careful to both push the boundries for shooting under the gun as rebel, stealing shots here and there. Yet at the same time he cautions readers to not be overzealous regarding this and break all the rules. Its a fine line to walk. One great tip he dishes out is “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.
From a visual effects perspective, he’s careful not to try and back users into a corner by relying too much on vfx. However, using visual effects to replace the background of shot so it looks as though its shot in a different city or another country is something that makes sense to the DV rebel. The pitfalls of keying on DV are examined — and why you want to avoid it. Yet it is a necessary task for the DV rebel, so Maschwitz walks through some shooting techniques to help you get the most out of your DV keys. For the rebel, it fits in with the demands of geurilla shooting and small budgets — including finding the nearest large blue or green building to use as a backdrop instead of renting your own green screens.
I’ve always been a huge fan of practical visual effects — and in camera visual effects. I ponder the days of matte painting on glass when the vfx crew actually had to expose the negative twice to get the visual effect down. Nowawadays we have it so easy — or should I say safe? That’s why I find Maschwitz’ discussion of forced perspective miniatures so great. He uses a model helicopter to demonstrate forced perspective and while he admits that you can’t use this appraoch all the time, when you can it can lead to tremdous savings of time and budget. When I first had a director who wanted to approach a vfx shot that way — it was so great.
The finishing section has a ton of great tips, even if you’re not working with DV material or your own project. Maschwitz is a huge fan of using After Effects to finish your project — including the online. The plusses and minuses of this approach is really an interesting discussion. My first thoughts regarding this was admiteddly “are you crazy Stu?” Yet after reading his Prolost blog and the ensuing discussions, I have to say that it makes sense in lot of situations.
A dvd is included with the book that contains several cool After Effects “goodies” that make life much better in After Effects. These includa a the DV Rebel colour corrector that was created using .jsx — this actually formed the basis of the Magic Bullet colorista plugin that was recently introduced.
All in all, if you couldn’t tell, I’m a fan of his book. Its interesting, because quite frankly I found I knew a lot of the information covered in the book. It’s the film school 101 information such as framing, composition, lenses, etc. Yet at the same time, the style of writing and storytelling kept me captivated enough to reward me with some nice “ah ha” moments dealing with shooting as well as finishing with DV footage. For someone interested in getting the most out of your small budget independent film — in other words, the DV Rebel — this books for you. And those of you who aren’t — I’ll bet you’d pick up a few tricks along the way.