Between the producers at Escape Plan Productions, we have participated in six 48 Hour Film Projects before, and in even more 24-hour film competitions (which let me tell you– are tough to pull off). Since 2001, the 48 Hour Film Project has been a wild and sleepless weekend where you and a team make a short film, all writing, shooting, editing and scoring must be completed in just 48 hours. On Friday night of the event, you are assigned a character, a prop, a line of dialogue, and a genre to work from and on Sunday evening you are expected to turn in a completed short film on time or else you will be disqualified. It’s a stressful weekend, but it’s also a ton of fun. Obviously you up against a lot of constraints, restrictions, and limitations (the biggest of which is, duh, time), but leveraging your problem-solving skills and coming up with creative solutions to every issue you come up against will inhibit some of your freshest thinking and actions. As Orson Welles said, “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.” We’ve made it into Austin’s Top 10 as well as taking home the awards for Best Cinematography and Best Use of Character (both for 2011’s The Walker). Based on our experiences navigating through the treacherous waters of pulling off shorts in a weekend with this competition (and never missing the deadline), we wanted to share our best tips for you and your team.
1. Have a plan.
Make sure you have everyone for your team set ahead of time, and make sure that you are selecting people to have on the team that you trust. It’s very important that everyone on the team knows what their role is (or what it could be) ahead of time so you’re all on the same page. Make sure you have access to every piece of equipment, prop, or media you will need, that batteries are charged or ready, and that someone will be assigned as collecting and organizing all the footage and audio, and if you’re really prepared, also backing it up. Don’t have anyone on the team just as miscellaneous crew. Assign roles, make sure they’re aware of your expectations and their responsibilities over the course of the weekend, and emphasize the importance of being flexible to them. For example, depending on who’s writing the script, one person might be better suited for the story you’re needing to tell than someone else– don’t promise or guarantee anything to anyone, but at the same time, make sure everyone’s on board, knows what to do, and is prepared as they possibly can be prior to kickoff on Friday night. Same goes with cast: try to get as many actors willing to act and on board for the weekend, but also make sure that most of them are on standby and not necessarily guaranteed a starring role or a role at all. That will come down to what the story calls for, but having all these pieces in place and keeping the line of communication on point is integral to your success as the team leader.
2. And have a backup plan.
Everything might fall apart. Crew or cast might get sick, have an excuse to not be able to make it, or have to leave early. It might be pouring rain all weekend or be over 100 degrees outside. Equipment could malfunction, major plot holes could become evident midway through production, or any plethora of small mistakes might crumble the plan you have in place. Keep calm and carry on. The show must go on. Have a backup plan for everything. In addition to you and the whole team being flexible about everything, being prepared with possible solutions to all these strange things that could pop up during production is important. Try to think of every possible thing that could go wrong and how you could effectively solve it. Or if you just don’t have the time, be willing to think on your feet. Things will inevitably go wrong, and it’s how you deal with these problems that demonstrate your true leadership.
3. Avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen.
Coming up with ideas for your short is one of the most exciting parts of the competition, and everyone on your team is going to want to be involved. This is great, but only to a certain extent. While you’ll be able to come up with some wild and inventive ideas and premises for your short in a group wide brainstorming session, letting everyone have a say in the actual screenwriting process is a recipe for an incredibly muddled script. We’ve always found it best to have an hour long brainstorming session that the whole team is invited to, and then the director and writer will decide on their favorite premise, and the writer or writers will complete the script alone, getting input from the director when necessary.
4. Don’t worry that much about the assigned elements.
Honestly, you can tell almost any kind of story with any genre you draw. You can always adapt your ideas based on structure, spirit, or specificities of the genre you chose, but don’t let it necessarily be a dictator for the emotional, dramatic, or interesting storyline that develops with your team. Last year, I drew “Thriller/Suspense” and took it in a dark-comedy kind of route with some sweetness thrown in while still maintaining the core ideas that make up “thriller/suspense”. Having an understand the basic components of your genre (or Googling them), mixed with some creativity, can allow you to churn out a short film that is a stand-alone success while still hitting the “genre” checkbox. And as far as the other elements (line of dialogue, character, prop), as long as you put some amount of thought into their creative, unique, and/or subtle placement in the script (and that they’re not just lazily “thrown in” in a really obvious way), you’re fine. I will say that it gets obnoxious at the screening events when you see film after film just blatantly tossing those elements into a scene where they make absolutely no sense or stand out like a sore thumb. Be smart and try to be clever. And at the end of the day, tell the story you want to tell.
5. Location, location, location!
One of the most overlooked but incredibly important aspects of a film is the production design. Obviously, you don’t have much time to build or decorate your sets in a 48 hour competition, and that’s why it’s so incredibly important to find a a great location beforehand that will act as it’s own character and can do all of your production design for you. It’s also always a good idea to nail down a great location before the competition starts, so that your writer will know what resources are available to the team and they can write around that, you don’t want to end up with a script about a haunted asylum and have no idea where you’re going to shoot it. Finally, while this isn’t a set rule, it’s usually a good idea to base your story around one or two locations. You don’t have a lot of run time to play with in the 48 hour competitions, and if you try to cram too much into your film, there’s a good chance your scenes won’t have room to breath. Also, company moves eat up a lot of time and it’s difficult to keep your momentum going across multiple locations.
6. Everything will probably take at least twice as long as you think it will.
As you are scheduling your 48 hours out, be very lenient with the amount of time you give everything. If your expectation is that writing the story will take 3 hours, allow your team 6. If shooting that short little scene down at the lake feels like it could be probably knocked out in a couple of hours, allow 4. And for the love of god, have someone start editing as soon as you finish filming the first shots or scene. Even if you think you’re quick with post-production, you’re either probably wrong on that or you could definitely use the extra time to fine-tune the subtle parts of your edit. And if you’re changing locations, allow at least an hour between those. So keep this in mind as well before you write that 6-scene script… everything takes forever, so be prepared.
7. Make sure you have the help you need.
Have production assistants. Have a producer. Have an assistant director, or a line producer. Even just one of these people on your team will help you tremendously, because really you will need all the help you can get. Have one person assigned specifically to getting all the paperwork ready. Make sure someone’s keeping the whole team fed, with enough water, and happy. Delegate tasks, and don’t micromanage. Trust your team, both creatively and organizationally, to get everything done and be a real leader that can oversee the big picture and the small details concurrently.
8. Have a backup edit ready early.
First off, it’s generally a good idea to have an editor start working as soon as you’re finished filming your first scene. Second, while you always think that you’ve got plenty of time to finish your cut, you’d be amazed at how, no matter what, almost every team is going to use every single minute they can spare polishing the film, and will often miss the deadline by mere minutes because they wanted to make a few more tweaks. This is why it’s a good idea to export a backup copy of your film as soon as you’ve got a cut ready that you consider watchable. This also gives you the added benefit of being able to have other team members watch the cut, check for any major errors and give an outside perspective. Remember that rendering your film, exporting it, and even just copying the file over onto a flash drive could potentially take long amounts of time, and even just doing a test-run on an earlier edit will be great for understanding what the timing will be like and managing that time.
Have fun and best of luck!