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This past weekend I, my wife, and several of our friends (and a few new ones) set out to produce a short film in 48 hours. This was to be done in the name of the 48 Hour Film Project, which has a few specific stipulations but generally allows the production teams a large swath of creativity with which to perform their craft. This is the story of how it was done, some tips on where to spend your time, pitfalls to avoid, and most importantly, why you should always, always, always have a backup plan.

Always.


Pre-Production

In order to make the contest fair, 48 Hour's procedure is to hand out a specific genre to each group, forcing the teams to hold off on pre-production (including casting, location scouting, production design, and most importantly, writing) until the 48 hour time period begins. Without this constraint, you can of course feel free to do as much pre-production as you would like. But for now we'll assume you're doing the same, a completely gestated film in 48 hours.

Rule #1: Test your equipment thoroughly.

This is not the first 48 Hour film project we've done, and our very first one was fraught with delays precisely because we had not tested out much of our rented lighting kit (and its effects on our rented camera) before primary shooting began. This could've been avoided with a dry run the night before - although those experiences alone provided us with enough experience to avoid those issues in the future.

If you have not tested your equipment before the first principal shot, you have already failed.

Rule #2: Write tightly.

My own rule of thumb is to try to imagine what the movie would be like if it were 30 seconds long, then expanding it slowly to fill out the 4 minute minimum, and then filling in whatever gaps are necessary to complete the picture. The keys to tight writing are:

  • Limited locations. One is ideal, three is the maximum. You can always fake locations using still images, false exterior shots, and visual shorthand (a lab coat for a doctor's office.) People are very forgiving of location limitations; it should be the first thing cut from a bulging script.
  • Limited characters. Again, there should be no more than 3 main characters. They should be given the bulk of the screen time, the richest lines, and the most attention. Do not let minor characters (and the actors playing them) try to upsize their role. Audiences in short film screenings respond most strongly and memorably to a strong central performance (or performances) - not ensemble work.
  • Limited plot. In the classic parlance of Hollywood, you should be able to give your movie the "X meets Y" treatment. This harkens back to the 30 second movie - if you cannot successfully reduce your movie to one sentence or 30 seconds, your film's end result will directly suffer.

Another personal rule of thumb is the Looney Tunes rule: episodic elements are better than singular narrative elements. Simply put, having a film about a guy trying (unsuccessfully) to rob a bank repeatedly will be more successful than a singular heist taking place over the course of the film. This is just a general rule, of course, but the former has all of the advantages of tight writing, while the latter possibly imposes multiple locations, characters, and a sophisticated plot - all of which are no nos in the 48 hour filmmaker's world.

Rule #3: Have a backup idea in mind.

Anything can happen to preclude your first idea from coming around. One group I know planned an elaborate musical, only to have their whole day ruined by rain and traffic accidents. Instead they went out and shot a quickie western (western/musical being one of the few either-or genres offered) which was well-received, but not nearly as well-done as other entrants.

The best you can do is to simply plot another idea (the 30 second movie version.) Leave it on a notepad somewhere to come back to if your first idea falls through.


Shooting

Rule #4: Don't skimp on equipment.

We bought a Canon XH-A1 specifically for our film shoots (Courtney also uses it for wedding videography), and at $3,200, it was worth every penny: our film was head and shoulders above the rest in terms of technical quality. I recommend this camera specifically, of course, but the point is don't shoot on consumer products; splurge a little and rent something nice. The A1 rents for $260 a shooting day - not cheap, but it's coming down and this should be the one place where you're prepared to bite the economic bullet. Along the same lines, spending the extra $25 or $30 to upgrade a rented light kit or sound system almost always pays off in post. Many finely scripted projects go down in flames due to poor audio, poor lighting, and poor camera operation. Don't be that guy.

Rule #5: Get two good takes of every shot.

If you've written tightly, it should only take about 6-8 hours to shoot (possibly more if you have day/night shots, or additional travel time.) That means when you set up a scene, you need to make sure you get all of the material you need. Shoot every line of dialogue and important plotting shot twice - just in case. Shoot every transition and cutaway you can. Shoot as much b roll as you can. Along the same lines ...

Rule #6: Shoot your rehearsals.

The reason for this is simple: your rehearsal might be your best take. Even without, you might get a good cutaway or different angle that enhances editing. In normal film shooting (with its infinite calculation and planning), you normally shoot at about a 4:1 ratio - 4 minutes of shooting translates to 1 minute on film. In 48 hour world, it should be closer to 20:1 - always have your camera on when possible.

Rule #7: Be one scene ahead of yourself.

Have your grips and gaffers prepare for the next scene while you shoot the current one. The most inefficient part of shooting a film on a time crunch is switching shot locations (even with the same primary location.) Relighting and scene preparation inevitably take time - but these are things that should be worked on on-the-fly, continuously, throughout the movie. Some timesaving tips during shooting:

  • Having one person constantly step in as a dialogue coach during shooting lulls to work with the actors on their lines for upcoming scenes. This reduces takes - and as an added bonus can give someone on the set a job who might not otherwise participate. You know, like your mom.
  • Along the same lines, explicitly giving out crew duties after each location will make scenes go faster. Don't simply say, "Okay, we're moving to the kitchen now." Say, "Paul, go prepare a fill light for the kitchen scene. Andrew, go work on your lines with Vanessa. Chris and Laura, go clean up the kitchen for the shot and get the prop trash bags ready. Brian, bring the camera in and let's find a good angle." Even the most disciplined crew will find themselves asking, "What should I be doing now?" Preemptively striking on this front will eliminate a lot of inefficiency.
  • This last tip is specifically for outdoor shoots: push in as tight as possible on every frame. This eliminates the need to match sun angles and shadows for most of the camerawork. You can also shoot wider for backup takes, but get as many tight shots as possible.

Rule #8: Shoot tightly.

This is just a variation of write tightly, but what it means to us is: get a picture in the can - any picture - then improve. Our philosophy is to shoot all of the major scenes first and then tack on one-liners, one-offs, and supplementary plot elements. This is a win-win: it keeps principal shooting tight and focused, and it allows the cast and crew to blow off any steam at the end (and possibly come up with a great off-the-cuff idea for the film.)


Post-Production

Rule #9: Your digital workflow must be rock solid.

If you're using analog post production techniques in this day and age on a 48 hour project, I cannot help you, and I suspect you don't really wish to be helped. For the rest of us, a digital workflow is the only way to go, and this has been, in the past (and yes, this past weekend) our Achilles' heel.

And it really doesn't have to be.

The most important step is to test a full workflow from import to export on previously shot footage at least a week before the contest. Do not assume anything will work the way you want it to. Even if you have a tested workflow, things may not work the exact same, but having a tested workflow (and having several troubleshoots beforehand) will save you hours of grief and teeth-gnashing.

This is the basic digital workflow:

  • Import footage onto hard drive. Some people simply use a scene detection algorithm, hit play and leave the computer to do the rest. We find it useful to do a bit of eyeball filtering during the import process, as it also allows us to number our scenes chronologically, offering a much easier editing process afterwards. However you choose to do it, there are three things you must be aware of: remaining hard drive space, clip size and scope, and any shooting glitches that can be corrected in post (low audio, overexposed shots, etc.)
  • Editing footage. Our new secret is to edit the footage as a series of mini-movies, using explicit scene breaks as points with which to edit projects. The classic computer rule applies: Save early, safe often. But also consider that the larger your project, the more room there is for a glitch or issue to flatline your entire workflow. By breaking it down into 3 or 4 manageable chunks, you limit the damage you can do with an ill-placed command or power outage.
  • Exporting footage. By all rights this should be a simple one or two-click process, but it invariably turns out to the be the largest kink in the hose. Ideally you will export to miniDV tape for this sort of project, and the best no-hassle program I have found for this is Sony Vegas. We have from time to time attempted to export in Adobe Premiere Pro (our non-linear editing program of choice) but it is proven itself to be a catastrophic failure - this weekend it managed not only to fail to render properly, but left our movie half-rendered and reeking of large sections tinted lime green. Our actual export workflow is now:
    Once you are finished editing, create a new 720x480 DV 24P project (48 Hour only accepts 4:3 DV output.) Copy your editing timeline to the new project, scale the (HDV) clips to frame (creating a letterboxed widescreen film.) Then export as an .AVI - this'll set you back about a gigabyte a minute, and about 2-3 minutes of rendering per minute of film. Then import this clip into a similar Sony Vegas project and print to tape.

The entire export process takes nearly an hour, and considering you still have to drive and drop off your finished product before the time limit, this means you must be completely done editing at least 2 and half to three hours before T-minus zero. This can certainly put a strain on your Sunday mornings.

Rule #10: Music makes the film.

I say this brashly, as I am chief composer on all of our movies, but I have seen the difference between good music, poor music, and no music, and it is staggering how much a lack of music can stifle a winning production - and how much good music can cover up a load of woes.

I suspect music's power is most directly tied to people's confusion over the film beforehand. They have almost no expectations about your film when it begins, and music is the most powerful shorthand for quickly telling the audience what kind of movie they're watching, and how they should be feeling at the start. Of course many strong movies don't rely on music, but without the advantage of any hint at the subject matter, the universal language of music can set the strongest tone.

It is for this reason that I recommend sticking to archetypal music whenever possible - light pop for comedy, piercing stingers for horror, synths for sci-fi, Miami Vice for cop movies. It is a lot easier to play with well-written genre conventions than to try to create new ones. And time means the easy road is always the best one.

Rule #11: Finish early.

This applies for pre-production, production, post, and submission. If there is a free minute, that is a wasted minute. A lot of production teams plan to utilize the whole 48 hours - these teams rarely finish on time, because delays to their plans are not met with the proper urgency and recalibration of the schedule required.

Our goal is to have pre-production done in 5 hours, sleep for 6, shoot in 8, import in 2, sleep for 6, and spend as much time needed to edit and compose. We have shifted from trying to simply be done to trying to be done (i.e. having an exported and ready to submit tape) by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. That leaves us a lot of time to tweak the music, audio effects, titles, color correction, and other post. It even gives us time to shoot a retake or record a voiceover.

One of the biggest roadblocks to this is the 8 hour shoot. Ideally you have enough padding, transitions, and plot to meet the 4 minute minimum. We've heard horror stories of people who shot for 10 or 12 hours and only had 2 or 3 minutes of footage because they didn't write tightly or, conversely, wrote too tightly (and plotted very thinly.) Part of this is experience - knowing exactly how many scenes it will take to fill 4 minutes is not an exact science - but part of it is maximizing your footage so that you have your core scenes and you have as much b roll and incidental footage as you need to tell a cogent tale.


Other Thoughts

Rule #12: Know your limitations.

The 8 hour shoot, for us, is a culmination of good planning, tight writing, and knowing your limitations. I've seen so many films that got a great location or a great gimmick (a western with real horses always gets praise) but didn't bother to sacrifice on some of the other fronts to make their one great thing work.

We always try to make our scene a domestic one, for both obvious reasons (getting permission to shoot is easy, and familiarity with the location is a plus), but also non-obvious ones: with a domestic location, you can take some of the more esoteric genres - sci-fi, or war film - and really play with cliches. You can also lower expectations on your film early, so if you have a big finale, or a sudden change of scenery, it has even more impact. In fact, if I could sum up a successful 48 hour film, it would be one that starts slow and finishes strong. (Even better is the film that starts strong, slows down dramatically, and then finishes strong. But that requires a lot of planning.)

Rule #13: Keep your eye on the prize.

The only golden rule we have is that whatever we came up with in pre-production is the story we're telling. Part of the challenge for us is ensuring that our cast can stick around long enough to play all of their roles - this weekend, a wedding dragged away one of our henchman, right as we finished his final scene. This becomes part of the planning process - the tighter you plan in the first 5 hours, the less hassle there is shooting the next day:

  • Don't change your script to suit other people who want a role (or worse, a bigger one.)
  • Don't do tangents until your core movie is shot - period.
  • Listen to ideas within a scene, but do not change the fundamental plot point of a scene - even if it means sacrificing a great gag or a cool shot. And don't worry, the shots will come anyway.
  • Always let everyone know how many scenes are left to shoot. Let everyone know if it is an actor's final scene, or if someone needs to leave soon - it keeps a cast and crew consisting mostly of your friends and relatives fairly serious.
  • Avoid all distractions. We worked on one film where the director was reading the newspaper while scenes were being set up. This is unacceptable; not only does it convey a sense of unimportance, but there's always something that can be planned for, a line reading that can be done, a shot to be framed. That film got done on time, but it was mediocre primarily due to a lack of directorial control.
  • Work hard in small bursts. Shoot for a nice 20:10 ratio - work hard for 20 minutes, then spend 10 minutes transitioning to the next scene (where people can have a laugh, make suggestions, and generally get loose.) Every minute above these two points is one less minute spent somewhere else. Determine for yourself quickly if those extra minutes are justified, and act accordingly to shut down wasted minutes.

Ultimately, making a movie in 2 days is more about proper planning in the early stages to ensure a tight and predictable process from shooting to submission. Obviously you can't prepare for everything, but the reality is that most filmmakers in these competitions don't plan for very much at all, and it shows. We've been guilty of it ourselves, but there's no reason for it. Tight writing and a efficient shooting are your two major allies. Without one or the other, failure is all but certain. I hope this advice has been helpful to you, and that budding filmmakers can take some of this advice and force themselves to get creative and gain some useful experience at the breakneck speed of 48 hours.

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