Six books to help hone your DIY movie making skills

Photography & Video
Six books to help hone your DIY movie making skills

This month’s theme on Make: Online has been DIY Movie Making, and we’ve seen all sorts of excellent projects like a scanner movie , a round-up of DIY special effects, and an excellent iPhone stabilizer. Projects are great, but it never hurts to have some concrete knowledge as well, so I bought six movie making books sight unseen. Check out my impressions after the jump.


Lights, Camera, Action!: Making Movies and TV from the Inside Out
by Lisa O’Brien
This book was a disappointment. It’s a children’s book, but that doesn’t mean it has to be terrible. The allegedly informative sidebars contain vocabulary such as “set” and “cast,” and it covers some important topics like what a screenplay is and what film school is like. Unfortunately, the focus seems to be on the acting side rather than teaching kids amateur filmmaking techniques. Basically, the book educates kids on the Hollywood movie making scene without getting them any closer to making their own movies. Sad!


The Complete Guide to Low-Budget Feature Filmmaking
by Josh Becker
The first sixty pages of this book focuses on hammering out a workable script. This makes sense: not only is this conducive to making movies on your own, script-fu could help you succeed if you try your hand at professional movies. Then, after a brief section on raising money, we get into the meat of the book: pre-production, production, and post-production.

The book has few pictures and focuses on providing as much information as possible on the standard Hollywood terminology and techniques. Who is the director of photography? What is color timing? How do you scout out a location? All of this is valuable information, as long as your interest is in emulating the Hollywood model.

So, who is this guy to tell us how to make movies? Becker has directed nine episodes of Xena and has lesser production roles on other projects. He claims to have produced four films you’ve never heard, but points out quite fairly that while not impressive by Hollywood standards, his credits are very good compared to the writers of your typical movie making book.

One major problem I had was that Becker is fixated on the old school of producing movies. His idea of “low budget filmmaking” is something requiring all your relatives to take out second mortgages. If you’re not shooting on 35mm, Becker claims, you better not expect your project to be played anywhere except the director’s living room. While written relatively recently (2005), the book misses out on all the wonderful ways in which modern amateur filmmaking has bypassed Hollywood. YouTube? Hello? Like many moviemaking books, the assumption is that you’re trying to break into Hollywood with your project. While disappointing in some ways, it still packs a ton of information by a guy who has worked in the industry.


Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player
by Robert Rodriguez
This book is written in diary form, following the adventures of Rodriguez as he shoots El Mariachi, an awesome low-budget action movie that catapulted him to Hollywood success. What is notable about this title is how it contrasts with the Becker book. Rather than jamming in all the lingo in like a college textbook, Rodriguez lives it. He describes everything about Mariachi, from scouting the locations to getting his brother to strum some musical thoughts into a tape recorder. The most unsettling segment comes at the beginning, when Rodriguez describes the horrid medical experiments he underwent to raise money for his movie.

The writing is vastly entertaining and informative, and comes across as totally genuine. In one entry, he talks about a scene where his blood squib board stops working, so a double covers for the actor so the actor can detonate his own squibs! In the movie, everyone gets shot in the torso because they had only a weight-lifting belt to protect the actors from the squibs. Rodriguez’s camera crane was a stepladder and his dolly was a wheelchair borrowed from a neighborhood hospital. Anecdotes like that are likely to be familiar to anyone making their own flick on a shoestring. There is some name-dropping like when Rodriguez meets famous Hollywood personalities, but it simply adds color to what is a fascinating read and doesn’t come across as being fake or self-aggrandizing.

Rodriguez concludes with his “ten-minute filmmaking course” where he gives some quick tips on filming one’s own movie. It’s practical stuff like being one’s own director of photography or ad-libbing technique. His biggest piece of advice, and this is mirrored in his diary entries, is that you can save a bunch of money by planning carefully and working quickly. Why does it take six months to film a 90-minute movie? Lack of planning, Rodriguez says.

While it was light on concrete detail, this book was my favorite of the bunch because Rodriguez just encourages the reader to go for it. Forget trying to mimic Hollywood — do your own thing!


Directing the Story: Professional Storytelling and Storyboarding Techniques for Live Action and Animation
By Francis Glebas

The book is weighty and dense and resembles an actual college textbook, which it might very well be. It consists of two sections: The first is a storyboarding lesson that details the techniques and professional tradecraft surrounding storyboarding, or drawing out each scene before it’s shot.

Here’s where the this section might help you. Remember how Rodriguez stressed careful planning? He knew how he was going to edit every scene before it was shot, saving him tons of money and time. Storyboarding would totally help with this.

Part two of the book covers the work of the director. None of the other books I reviewed covered this quite the same way. There’s directorial lore like how to angle shots for dramatic effect, light and shadow, and tips on storytelling. It has a chapter on “how to direct the eyes” through composing awesome shots, how cool is that? The author’s main schtick is storyboarding and he continues to use storyboards to illustrate his points. I definitely recommend this book for sheer density of information.


Movie Making Course: Principles, Practice, and Techniques: The Ultimate Guide for the Aspiring Filmmaker
by Chris Patmore

You know you can’t trust a book on making films when its first page tantalizes you with being able to hang out with Hollywood megastars. This thin, glossy book has a soundbite description of Hollywood-style filmmaking. For instance, the “Choosing Your Crew” section is five paragraphs long and has brief descriptions of the various crew positions like Grip and Production Assistant.

However, the second half of the book has a section that has a modicum of value by having easy filmmaking projects, for instance, a 15-second cellphone film. I could see an aspiring filmmaker having a hard time starting a project because an excess of ambition or not being able to think of a realistically small project.

It’s not that this book is awful, it has concrete information — just not enough of it. A denser, thicker book that goes into greater detail on every topic would be far more valuable. In particular, an expanded section of project suggestions would be very useful for people starting out. Unfortunately, this book isn’t it.


The Power Filmmaking Kit: Make Your Professional Movie on a Next-to-Nothing Budget
by Jason J. Tomaric

This book positions itself as the only book you need to make a DIY movie and it actually delivers! Like many movie making books, it runs through the process chronologically, developing the script to budgeting to buying insurance, scouting locations, auditioning, and so on, all through postproduction. Unlike some of the other books reviewed here, The Power Filmmaking Kit jams tons of information into each section, and while it relates the Hollywood way of doing something, it also describes a super low-budget way of doing it too. For instance, in the section on dollies, Tomaric suggests mounting skateboard wheels on plywood if you don’t want to rent one.

Tomaric calls his book a “kit” because it includes a DVD with some tutorials and also some contracts and forms one would need to make a movie. This book is awesome because it literally is the only book you need to make a movie. Sure, some of the other books I reviewed have their strong suits: Rodriguez’s inspiring anecdotes can’t be matched, and Glebas’s storyboarding lore is top notch. However, those books don’t attempt to cover every single aspect of making a movie from a zero-budget perspective, and this one does.

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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