Stu Maschwitz (pictured left with Orphanage co-founder Jonathan Rothbart) has managed to crystallise the zeitgeist of the modern low-budget filmmaker with his book The DV Rebel’s Guide: An ALL-DIGITAL approach to making killer action movies on the cheap. Cheap, high quality digital video cameras and accessible software for desktop machines means that if you’ve ever dreamed of making a movie, the tools are at your disposal to create something that–perhaps for the first time–rivals Hollywood.
Having access to the tools is only the first step, knowing what to do with them is the key, and this is where Stu Maschwitz steps in. A veteran visual effects supervisor and director and one of the founders of The Orphanage, a vfx company based in California, and who previously worked at Industrial Light and Magic, Stu knows what he’s doing. Luckily for you and me, he has a great no-nonsense approach and reading his book is an absolute must before starting your next action blockbuster filmed on a budget.
Your book, The DV Rebel’s Guide, seems to have galvanised a community of like-minded people, interested in low-budget, high production value film-making. Do you think your book was released at exactly the right time to catch the current zeitgeist?
I hope so! The timing of the book was mostly based on my feeling that a critical mass of knowledge and techniques had come together in my head. I don’t think its unrelated that this coincided with a boom in microbudget film production.
What inspired you to become a film-maker and specialise in visual effects?
Like many people in my age group, it was Star Wars.
What prompted you to start The Orphanage?
Myself, Jon Rothbart and Scott Stewart met at ILM, where we were all using low-cost, off-the-shelf computers to do work that a couple of years prior would have been the exclusive domain of $50,000 SGI workstations. That combined with the advent of mini DV cameras signaled to us that our dream of having our own film production house was suddenly within reach.
Do you apply your DV Rebel approach to the bigger budget jobs that you direct or supervise through The Orphanage?
Absolutely! If you look on The Orphanage’s commercial productions site you can see the Toshiba HDDVD spot that I mention in the book. This is a spot that required a ton of DV Rebel ingenuity to pull off with only a one-day shoot and week of post.
How important have Apple been in the rise of the low-budget film-maker?
Very! Final Cut was a revolution. Apple’s ability to create the experience of a turnkey solution is unique. Having said that, Adobe is also a key player, although the thing they could learn from Apple is to aim for the needs of the high-end user — the others will follow.
Why is After Effects your weapon of choice for all aspects of digital video post-production? What does it offer that other solutions don’t?
After Effects is the one Adobe video application that follows Apple’s rule of “build it for the pros” better than even Apple does. It’s the cheapest and possibly the most broadly capable compositing system available. Most DV Rebels are comfortable in their NLE, and because of the timeline, it’s relatively easy to transition from working in an NLE to AE. You can start slow and build your way up to complex visual effects or even onlining your entire film. So you can get on the After Effects escalator at the ground floor, but once you’re on it, you can see that it goes straight to the top, and that’s unique.
You’re well known for your colour correction tools, Colorista and Magic Bullet. What made you decide that the built-in tools in After Effects and Final Cut could be improved upon?
When you immerse yourself in the world of color correction, you quickly learn that there are standards that are followed by all the high-end systems like Da Vinci, Lustre, iQ, etc. These standards allow colorists to quickly and sure-footedly move through a lot of shots in a short time. Yet for some reason, not a single NLE or compositing system ships with a color corrector that mimics this simple functionality. Colorista was born out of my desire to have an industry-standard color correction tool that would work the same in Final Cut, After Effects, Premiere, Motion and Avid. And Magic Bullet is just all about bringing the sex.
How hands-on are you with the development of the software?
Very. Although I don’t write any code, I develop all the algorithms and UI designs. But I couldn’t do it without the amazing engineers at Red Giant Software. They are geniuses at doing what I mean rather than what I say.
What is the appeal of low-budget film-making? Does it have any advantages over productions with larger budgets?
Look at Robert Rodriguez. He keeps his budgets below a certain number because it allows him to maintain control. The less you spend, the more freedom you have — and that seems to be true at every budget level.
What are the downsides?
Truly the only downside of working inexpensively is not being able to treat your crew as well as you’d like. It’s no big deal for a filmmaker to accept the creative limitations of a budget — in fact, it’s usually a good thing. But if you look at the modest budgets of some of my smaller projects, you’ll see nothing but restaurant and grocery receipts. Showing some love to your crew goes a long way.
Why do you think the Canon HV20 has gripped the imaginations of low-budget film-makers and got people like yourself and the Pixel Corps excited?
Magic numbers: 1920×1080 24p for less than US$1,000. It is officially the No More Excuses camera.
Are camera manufacturers seeing DV Rebels as a valid market and tailoring their cameras accordingly? What would you like to see offered to make the ideal camera?
Some are — for example JVC has LCD display flipping built-in to one of their cameras, acknowledging that people will be using it with 35mm lens adapters like the G-35 Pro or the Redrock M2. Panasonic deserves a ton of credit for making the first 24p consumer camera, but they refuse to build monitor flipping in, and seem to be on a bit of a crusade with P2. Personally I hope that more manufacturers do what the Red team are doing, and offer lightly-compressed raw data recording. As much as I love the HVX200, it records several minutes of barely-HD video on a $900 P2 card, while the Red prototypes record several hours of 4k on a $900 hard drive.
Do you see the internet as the natural outlet for low-budget film-makers, or should they be aiming for theatrical releases where possible?
I’m hardly a distribution genius, but I think we’re just seeing the very beginnings of the podcasting phenomenon. Apple TV puts your podcast one click away from the season finale of Lost. Awesome.
How important is the DV Rebel community?
It’s great, and it’s exceeded my wildest dreams. The forums at rebelsguide.com/forms are a thriving, active community, and it’s just so fricking cool to see people help each other get their films made.
The DV Rebel approach emphasises ingenuity. What surprises have the DV Rebel community come up with?
Recently one of the forum posters improved greatly on my pro-free blood-hit recipe and posted an instructional video online. That was when I said to myself “it’s working.” People are magnifying the teachings of the book.