My buddies Dede (D2) and Curt have been trying to get me involved in the 48-Hour Film Project (hereafter 48HFP) for a while now. This was the first year I was able to participate. Not going to lie: I came out of the experience exhausted and ached in places that I’m not used to aching, but the experience was a hoot, and I highly recommend it to anyone (not in the video-making business) seeking to do something different with their free time. Let’s dive in!
You can find a decent summary of the 48HFP here. Go ahead and read, I’ll wait.
The important things to remember about such an event are:
- You don’t know what genre of film you are going to make until the day the competition begins.
- You can’t do any pre-writing, aside from maybe thinking about what kind(s) of stories you’d like to tell.
- Regardless of the genre, you need to have your team assembled well in advance. Film/video requires a large group of people with specialized areas of expertise (acting, directing, editing, lighting, makeup, oh yeah, and writing).
So on the day of the choosing, D2 and Curt, who had worked on 48HFP before, laid out a spread of snacks and beverages for the team to consume while batting around story ideas and collaboratively hacking out a script for a 4-7 minute film.
Day One: Writing
Come the day, Team Marvette 2018 received its choices by drawing them out of a hat. Each team gets up to three possible options, which were “luck of the draw” genres. If we didn’t like either one, we could have drawn again, but then we would have been stuck with that choice. Our first two draws were a comedy or “generation gap” story. The team didn’t really have any ideas on the second item, so the discussion turned to comedy…and despite some of the early thinking the group had done, the story we chose was inspired by a recent experience one of the team members had based on his appearance. Nope, I’m not going to tell you more than that. The screenings for the films will occur at Valencia Community College-East Campus next weekend. I will, however, take you through the process and show some photos from our team’s activities. When the film actually goes live, I’ll share the link.
Once the story was suggested, various gags were thrown out as things we could try. What was interesting to me was how the content was shaped by what was actually possible to film. As a fiction writer who just sees things in his head, budget and filmmaking realities are seldom considered because you can just make it happen on the page. Screen writing requires everything to be seen on the screen, which usually eliminates interior monologues, streams of consciousness, and long-winded descriptions of locations.
Another critical aspect of the film that had to be set up in advance was a location or locations. In our group’s case, the team members had reached out to individuals, companies, or organizations they knew with interesting places that could serve as locations for different types of stories, including a ranch (for a potential western), a brewery that had once been a warehouse, and an ultra-trendy coworking space. And, again, as the story was being written, the directors had to consider what sorts of scenes and shots they would or could make. In the end, given the nature of our story, we chose Orlando Brewing Company in an industrial section of downtown Orlando and the high-end coworking space in the Lake Nona medical village south of Orlando. The good news was that most of our story could be shot indoors. Another important location constraint was the thunderstorm-prone weather in Central Florida. We had to plan to shoot any exterior shots in the morning–quickly–to avoid likely rain and other weather problems such as the Florida heat.
Once locations were nailed down and some folks were talking about the general story plot, any preferred volunteer actors who were not already in the room were called to confirm their availability. Later in the evening, one of our lead actresses suddenly became unavailable due to a family emergency, which changed the nature of the script again.
The “writing” itself was interesting because it was very much a free-for-all, with D2 taking notes on easel pads to capture everything from our planned competition elements (we had to include a character with a specific name, a specific prop, and a specific line of dialogue) to our general story outline to any gags that we wanted to throw in at particular parts of the story.
Once the outline had been laid out, actual script-writing shifted to Curt, who was the fastest typist and who had written screenplays before. I was in the unaccustomed position of not sitting in front of the keyboard, but of contributing out loud with a group of others–extroverted writing!
As story ideas were thrown out, refined, or discarded, I realized how very ephemeral this sort of storytelling-by-committee process could be. Unless you had a gee-whiz great screenwriter who already had a “vision”–which would be likely in a smaller group, we had 13 people in the room during the writing session–you had to learn not to get too attached to anything you suggested. If I recall correctly, there’s only one specific line in the whole script that is 100% mine.
Despite the chaotic-sounding nature of the exercise, by 11:45 p.m. (we started at 7ish), we had a five-page script–one page for approximately each minute of film (“call time”)–and ended up with a total run time of 5 minutes, 55 seconds. The group dispersed to their homes, ready to face an assembly time of 8 a.m. the next morning. D2 and Curt worked out the “shooting script” (a script breakdown with numbered shots and rough camera direction, for both shooting AND editing purposes) until early in the morning (just past 3 a.m., per D2). I crashed at their house because otherwise I was looking at 45 minutes of driving each way. I slept on their couch and got maybe six hours of sleep. There endeth the first day.
Day Two: Shooting
As promised, by 8 a.m. Saturday morning, D2, Curt, and I (along with Curt’s nephew Morgan) were all on site at Orlando Brewing for the first location shoot. There, we met the technical crew, who were starting to unpack a dizzying number of padded cases, cables, equipment racks, and camera attachments.
Lacking previous experience with 48HFP, I was there to provide grunt labor (“grip” in movie parlance) and to absorb whatever wisdom the professionals had time or patience to share. Filmmaking is a mix of theater, which I’d done in high school, with television, which includes electronic gadgetry such as sound microphones as well as digital cameras. Just unpacking and establishing where and how the first shots would be handled took the better part of an hour.
Where filmmaking can get tedious for the creative writer is in the painstaking process of filming scenes. The creative writer will see the person walking down the street, will try to capture their mood, the environment, and other such details, and just write them down. Something as “simple” as shooting a man walking down the street can require three different “shots” to make for effective film-based storytelling. There will be a “master” shot, which is generally a wide view showing the entire action from a distance: the man walks down the street. However, thanks to over 100 years of film-based storytelling, there will be other shots included to make things more immediate: a dolly shot, with the camera mounted on an improvised cart (“dolly”) pointing up at the actor and rolling backwards to capture his motion as he’s walking down the sidewalk; then yet another shot or set of shots/closeups focusing just on the actor’s face so the audience can see his expression. Later on, the editing process, the director and editor will collaborate to decide which order the shots will appear and for how long. Other elements to be considered are the sounds heard on the street (ambient noise), the sound of the actor’s footsteps as he walks, background music to establish mood, if any, and a host of other audio layers to “sweeten” the picture creatively and technically. This type of “sweetening” can cover a host of problems or highlight artistry and unify all the scenes.
Editing is one of the truly crazy-making parts of the process because the editor must assemble the intended linear story the audience is expected to see based on a list of shots that are not always shot in the same order as they appear in the script. For example, in a typical feature-length film, as with 48HFP, all of the location-specific shots are done at once before shifting to the next location. This often means that the final story we see on the screen is shot out of order. To help the editor make sense of what the director actually shot on location or in studio/soundstage, a continuity person is kept on hand to track which shots are taken when (chronology is terribly important), and which “take” was the best.
Another crazy-making thing for the impatient creative person: often, a single scene will undergo many “takes” until the director sees what s/he wants. Any number of things can prevent a take from going as planned: the microphones might not be working; or the microphones might be working fine, but one of them is visible on the screen; or a take might be ruined by, train, plane, or automobile noise passing by–we got all three; or the actor might not be displaying the mood/expression the director thinks is appropriate to the scene; or the actor could flub a line–all those great things that make for “blooper reels” people see. Anyhow, my friend D2 was in charge of tracking continuity: comparing the script as shot, making notes of the timing, and also noting if one particular take was the best one.
We actually had two directors for our production: Mike worked all the camera and shooting activities. Curt mostly worked with the actors, handling storytelling, mood, “chemistry” (character personality interactions), and “blocking,” which is where the actors rehearse their actions on the set and how they’ll interact with any dialogue before actually committing anything to film.
During all this activity, I was holding ladders in place, moving equipment out into the street, hauling sandbags, or in one instance serving as a stopping marker so the actors driving a pickup would know where to stop. It made sense because a) I was expendable and b) I was wearing a garish orange Hawaiian shirt that the actors could see clearly. Much to my relief, despite a couple of takes, the actors never ran into me. On another occasion, I was made to lie down in the back of the pickup so I could help with the blocking of a scene. Yee ha!
Despite running a bit late, the group finished its outdoor shooting before the anticipated rains started. From that point on, it was all indoors, which was a great relief to the director, actors, and techies.
By a fortunate circumstance, we were able to shoot the film almost in the same order as the shooting script, which can be a blessing for the actors because they don’t have to be thinking about the story out of order. Of course working inside a converted warehouse had its own challenges (that was an understatement–D2 called it an “audio nightmare”). We were near the Amtrak line, so we got occasional train whistle noise. The afternoon thunderstorms really did kick in, and the rain on the corrugated metal roof made sound recording impossible. We broke for lunch, but not before the director decided to block the natural light coming through a skylight overhead by clamping a large piece of cardboard over it. We had an “indoor” location, but the variations of light made keeping a consistent look to the room difficult–also an understatement. With the skylight covered, the director could control the lighting better.
Again, the team was doing “master” shots which showed the entire scene, then a series of closeups for each actor or sometimes even for individual actions, all from differing angles to provide complete coverage of a scene and to suit the director’s aesthetic sensibilities. And after running through a long, hot afternoon delivering the same lines over and over, additional “bloopers” were inevitable.
By 4:30 we’d finished shooting at Orlando Brewing. We were not done, however, as we then had to pack up all the equipment, restore the brewery’s back room to its original condition/appearance, and then haul everything down to Lake Nona for the last set of location shots. A beer would’ve been nice, but we were still working, so that would have to wait.
Thankfully, the final shooting location was indoors and well air conditioned. After schlepping all the stuff inside, we only had, perhaps, five or six shots in the shooting script. However, as I was learning, that’s like saying there is “only” a couple quarters left in a football game. Arriving around 5:30 p.m., we would not finish until around 11 that night. One person I must add here because she deserves recognition is Diana, who was responsible for buying food to keep the standing army (15-20 of us) fed through breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She managed it all while maintaining a cheerful disposition through what must have been a very busy day. Diana was also our unofficial Set Nurse, and her son Nick is also a graduating Nurse, so we had SAFETY covered! Note to any aspiring directors: make certain you have a “Diana” with you when you’re shooting. A hungry crew is a grumpy crew!
Where Orlando Brewing had more of a grungy, industrial look to it, the GuideWell coworking location had much more of a sleek, funky aesthetic, which suited the needs of the other shots in the script. This time we were shooting a bit “out of order,” as we were shooting the other side of conversations filmed earlier at the other site. Still, our final (“martini”) shot was filmed here, and most of the crew was on hand to watch as we achieved our goal of shooting a full five-page script in a day.
After all the scenes were shot, I helped (again) clear out and pack up the equipment, then drove back to D2 and Curt’s to pick up the stuff I’d left there before heading home. Phase three occurs in the editing suite, which I’m told was a small room not conducive to a lot of people…plus, they really didn’t need me asking questions under a time crunch when I had nothing to contribute. This, however, was where the disparate bits of film shot during the day were assembled into the cohesive story created Friday night. The shots were actually saved on digital media storage drives, not film; but the individual drives were still called “reels” or “rolls.” We delivered our first “roll” to the editor as we were completing principal photography at the first location–this allowed editing to occur concurrently with filming, which was critical for getting things done on time.
In addition to selecting the best “takes,” the editor and directors also had to work in audio tracks, such as the dialogue, ambient sounds of the differing set locations, and any music to which they had the rerecording rights. The location ambient sounds were captured by everyone being “quiet on the set” while the sound engineer patiently recorded any air conditioning, vehicle, or other machinery noises generated in the background. Dialogue was captured through a mix of clip-on (Lavalier) microphones worn by the actors and “boom” microphones held overhead during the filming. The editing room is also where special effects and film credits are added. For what it’s worth, I do not appear IN the film at all; however, I believe I’ll be included in the writing staff and, possibly, the technical crew in some capacity.
All of this was to be finished by 7 p.m. Sunday night. That gave the editors 30 minutes to drive to Valencia Community College to deliver the movie by 7:30 p.m. It’s nuts. I had Curt, D2, and Mike (our Director of Photography) review this post before going live with it, and Mike had the following to add about the editing process:
You may want to offer him a glimpse into the edit such as how the location sound sweetening took much longer to fix than anticipated due to the noise of a working warehouse, the massive amounts of releases and other paperwork required for music and location rights. As well as the nervousness of getting in on time, making hard choices to leave some things out in the interest of getting done, and the mad dash to turn it in. Our actual drop dead time was 7:30pm and I arrived at the school at 7:03pm.
I have no idea how D2 and Curt were still awake on so little sleep, but they were checking in on Facebook in addition to assembling the film. The experience was indeed fascinating, and it gave me a whole new appreciation for movie “magic.” Yes, it’s very much like seeing sausages made, but it’s an art form all its own, akin to theater, but with electronics and camera trickery thrown in. It’s a lot of work, regardless of how long the production takes. Maybe next time I’ll consider being on the screen, just to do something different. Meanwhile, stay tuned. You can find my technical communication lessons from filmmaking here. I’ll post the link to the film as soon as it’s available!