The promise of Paul Dudbridge’s Making Your First Blockbuster initially seems dubious, or at best unlikely. A book about making a blockbuster, targeted at filmmakers who aren’t likely to be busting blocks any time soon. But while this title might be a touch misleading, its contents are not.
Dudbridge’s title rather implies his attitude and relationship with the reader: he does not talk down or condescend, but rather presents his information as though the reader were a colleague in the craft as opposed to a guileless beginner. You might not be making your first blockbuster yet, but this book is offering you the information to get there, with the assumption you are fully capable of doing so.
Before considering the book more closely, exactly what Dudbridge means by blockbuster should be defined. Rather than the likes of Jaws or Star Wars – as he mentions – Dudbridge uses the term more generally to refer to mainstream, action-oriented cinema. This can function on any budget, and he is quick to describe or explain any new concept introduced.
Someone with experience in filmmaking will not find the book laconic, however – Dudbridge is concise in introducing new concepts, preferring to spend time detailing examples and practical applications of these ideas. This is where Making Your First Blockbuster is at its most essential.
Rather than explain cinema, or describe only the effect of certain techniques or abilities, Dudbridge constantly applies this knowledge to the filmmaking directly. One way he does this is referencing to existing films. High quality image inserts (and a selection of colour plates) offer visual context for what is an inherently visual medium; exactly what Dudbridge means by the key light, fill light, and backlight might seem obscure to an amateur, but a captioned image is quick to elucidate the what might be lost in wordy description.
The films Dudbridge references are also either well-seen classics, or contemporary hits – this ensures that the scenes and moments he references should be known to a good deal of his audience, again aiding in the elucidation of his advice. But more than an analyst of cinema, Dudbridge is a practitioner. A such, his advice often goes further than theory and refers to personal experience.
While anecdotal reports may be a little less universal, these provide flavour, as well as the kind of insight generally lacking in books focused exclusively on concepts and theory of filmmaking. Most enlightening are his recollections of rookie errors: framing an explosion too wide; shooting a car chase too close; almost dropping a prop gun while visiting a very real bank.
These brief snapshots offer genuine, applicable direction for filmmakers, and help ensure that such easy mistakes can be sidestepped. Dudbridge writes that this is the book he wished he could have read at 18 – that much is clear. The text is structured just as a film is constructed: it begins with guidance on scriptwriting, and ends with the finalisation of sound.
Dudbridge’s intent is to offer some illumination at every step of the process, though his personal talents are reflected in this weighting. While scriptwriting is – as agreed upon by the book itself – a crucial element of the filmmaking process, Dudbridge’s writing on the matter is relatively surface-level. His advice is certainly useful, especially for newcomers, but doesn’t delve beyond simple ideas of character motivation and basic script structure.
Moving onto producing in the second chapter, there is again a sense of an outline lacking in close or personal insight. But as Dudbridge moves onto casting, acting, and the process of filming itself, he reveals his quality. Here his own varied experiences in cinema inform his writing, and a combination of technical detail and practical knowledge permit a relatively concise and consistently direct breakdown of the filmmaking process.
Perhaps most relevant to the book’s title is later still, at which point Dudbridge discusses stunts and effects work. This focus sets this work away from others of a similar ilk – rather than assume a low-budget filmmaker has no ability or inclination for complex effects work, Dudbridge presents an extensive and detailed overview of the field.
While this book is by no means a sole guide for visual or special effects, it considers the various legal, technical, and (importantly) artistic obstacles that might present themselves to those attempting to make explosive cinema. That last point should be emphasised – while the technical and practical are always forefront in Making Your First Blockbuster, Dudbridge never loses sight of the artform in his explanations.
Every technical trick or technique is always grounded (or perhaps elevated) by its artistic and storytelling purpose; it is not only what a thing is or how to do it, but what it means in a film. Much like George Lucas said, ‘a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.’