Like Clockwork

Last year's winning team offers tips on surviving the 48-Hour Film Project


First, take equal parts tears, panic, hard work and Red Bull. Then, add them to the pressure cooker that is the PRI Productions 48-Hour Film Project, set the timer and pray. If, at the end of the two days, your movie hasn’t imploded, what you end up with is far greater than the sum of its parts.

This June marks the seventh year for the project in Jacksonville, one of 117 cities around the world set to participate.

Here are the rules: All teams meet at one location at the same time. No one is allowed to have any material already written or shot. Out of a hat, each team draws a film genre, such as horror, romance, sci-fi or mystery. Every film must incorporate a few key details that are revealed at the meeting. Last year’s teams met at The Jacksonville Landing, where they learned the mandatory elements: eggs, a character named Claire who worked at a hotel and the phrase “I better not see this on Facebook.”

After everything is assigned, the teams scramble to be the winner. They have exactly 48 hours to show back up at the same spot with their final product.

Last year’s winning entry was the silent film “Nora,” about a man who tries to recreate memories from his marriage with a robot version of his dead wife. The short film managed to capture a great deal of emotional depth in a small amount of time and went on to the competition's national level in Los Angeles.

“It’s like running a marathon,” said Joel Russo, writer and editor of “Nora.” “You think you can’t make it and then you look back after you’re done and can’t believe how far you’ve come.”

This summer, many will take on the challenge of the 48-Hour Film Project, but only teams with organization and determination will succeed. The team that created “Nora” shared its formula for success:


1. Brainstorm

You can’t control what genre you pull, but you can be prepared. Remember that you can’t have any material pre-written or filmed. Sit down with your team beforehand to discuss each genre. Don’t get too attached to one idea: It might not work within the criteria parameters.

“Plan to have your plan screwed,” Russo said.

Keep it flexible. Try to create a story that will be adaptable to several genres at once.


2. Assign Roles and Stick to Them

“It keeps the fighting down. Everyone has a moment of ‘I’m going to kill everyone on this team and burn the house down,’ ” said the film’s writer, Andrew Langenbach.

Know the strengths of each team member and allocate responsibility accordingly. When everyone knows his or her role, the process of making a film in such a short amount of time becomes more fluid and efficient.

“Let the people on your team who are good at something be good at it,” said Tim Driscoll, who played the main character in “Nora.”

Sounds simple enough, but this is a common pitfall among new teams.

Langenbach, a veteran of the project who participated in several teams over the years, said that everyone naturally wants to take the lead, which only results in problems. When everyone is the director, nothing gets done.

“We assembled people who we knew could do certain things,” Driscoll said. “It’s important to know what your skill sets are and throw your ego out before you film.”


3. Practice

Once you have your team assembled, start filming something. Shoot footage using different angles or camera set-up. Have the actors run through a scene to test sound quality.

“I would strongly encourage practicing something,” Driscoll said. “Take a day to shoot something, anything, to know what your strengths are ahead of time.”


4. Keep It Simple

“If you can’t tell the story without dialogue, it’s too complicated,” Russo said.

Remember, there is a limited timeframe to realize the film. Driscoll said that being successful is all about mitigating the things that can go wrong. Keep the plot clear and straightforward. Shoot as few scenes as possible to get your story across to the audience.


5. Assess What You Have

Tell a story with what you have and about something with which you’re familiar. If you only have a hand-held camera, shoot a story that works with that equipment. If you only have a tri-pod, don’t write scenes that require a dolly.

“Write about what you know instead of what you can imagine,” Driscoll said.

If you can tell a story that's closer to your own experiences, it will come off as more authentic and moving. What do you have immediate access to? If you don’t have access to an empty bank setting, don’t write in a bank robbery. If your team is made up of teenagers or 20somethings, try to focus on characters in the same age range, as opposed to older ones. It’s about finding that balance between story and execution.

“[48-Hour Film Project] is not the right the right time to try to be high-concept,” Russo said.


6. Focus on the Goal

The goal for every team will be different. For the “Nora” team, the objective was always the story. If someone on the team wanted to make a decision, the team had to make sure it was in line with the goal.

“If I can’t defend what I’m doing in terms of the story, I lose. If you can’t express your gut instinct, we can’t go on it,” Driscoll said.

Everyone on the “Nora” team agreed that story mattered above all else. To make the best movie they could and win the Jacksonville contest, ideas and details were sacrificed to make sure the story was as strong as possible.

When you take ego out of the equation, you can get your hands dirty,” Russo said.


7. Take a Breather

The stress will conquer you if you let it. Don’t be afraid to take a break, but keep it short. In “Nora,” Driscoll played opposite his own wife and acted out many scenes that were emotional for both of them. At one point, he had been crying in front of the camera for hours. After Driscoll was tapped out of saline, he called a time-out. A short break will replenish your creativity and stamina so you can see the project through.

“Everyone has a breaking point,” Russo said. “Respect that.”


8. Be Realistic

“Constantly be open-minded. Pay attention to the story, pay attention to yourself,” Driscoll said.

Your film will never be finished. It will never be perfect. It will never be flawless. There will always be that scene, that line, that shot you wanted to include but couldn’t. Accept it. Langenbach said that part of what it means to take on this challenge is to have honest expectations. His teammates agreed.

“You don’t have time to second-guess yourself in 48 hours,” Russo said.


9. Stay Away from Sound

A film will live and die by its sound quality. The “Nora” team solved this issue by making a silent film. They were lucky enough to know a talented musician who was able to provide them with a soundtrack. If you have to shoot dialogue, do it inside, where you have a better ability to control interference. Historically, sound is the biggest issue teams have. If your beautiful-looking film sounds cheap or low quality, that's all the audience will remember.

“It’s all about what you hear first and see second,” Driscoll said.


10. Leave Time for Editing

The essential thing to keep in mind? Save time at the end for editing. Give your editor plenty of lead time and have that person edit during filming. That way, there isn’t a backlog of material that can’t get edited by deadline. This process worked well for other teams that Langenbach worked with in the past. But there's always that one team that doesn’t take this into account.

“The saddest thing to see is that, without fail, there is always that one dude that comes running down with their film after the deadline,” Langenback said.

One of the tactics the “Nora” team used to avoid this was to lie to their editor about the deadline, he'd be done in ample time before the clock ran out — though they don’t recommend blatant misrepresentation as a sure-fire way to win.

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