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  • Writer's pictureJohn Hansel

Cleveland 48 Hour Film Project: Survival Guide

Some fellow filmmakers and I decided to take on the Cleveland 48 Hour Film Project. If you haven't heard of it before, it's a yearly film contest in major cities across the globe where you are challenged with creating a 7-minute, narrative-driven short based on a genre picked out of a hat. From start to finish you are only given 48 hours to complete the film.

This includes everything from coming up with a story, scriptwriting dialog, shooting the scenes, editing, eating, sleeping, buying props, breaking props, rebuying props, and generally running into every unforeseen problem possible. And to make things even more difficult, there are certain requirements attached to the filmmaking. You have to incorporate a given character, a prop, and line of dialog that must all be included in your film. This guarantees that everyone is truly working on a story from scratch.

If you're looking to push yourself, then I strongly recommend getting out of your comfort zone and trying this! The cherry on top is that the 48 Hour Film Project hosts screenings of all the shorts in a movie theater, so you get to go see your work on the big screen! It's a really awesome feeling to see your camera work projected in an actual theater. You do have to pay $10 for each ticket (unless you use one of the two complimentary tickets given to each team after signing up) but it's totally worth it to experience watching everyone's movies together, knowing that we all just went through a painful yet extremely satisfying process. You're also supporting the 48HFP organization, and local filmmaking in general.

After my first experience, I thought it would be helpful to provide some words of wisdom for surviving the brutal task of producing a movie from thin air in 48 hours (which you can view at the bottom of this post)!


Recruit your team early and assign clear roles

Getting a small team together to do this project might not seem too tough. You may even have people tell you that it sounds fun and they WANT to join in. But be very careful who you actually decide to include and make sure they understand what they're signing up for. You're essentially asking someone to give up their entire weekend to work insanely hard at shooting a short movie with little to no sleep for two days without pay. Make sure you have team members that are committed and ready to hustle. Thankfully our team was dedicated and focused, which allowed us to get through the weekend.

Another important point is to make sure everyone is assigned a role in advance. The person with the main vision for the story should be the Director. He or she will need to have an idea of what they want the film to look like without compromising it for anyone else's vision, all while keeping the project moving forward smoothly. Other roles to consider are the Director of Photography (camera person), Editor, Grip/Lighting, PA (runner/person in charge of meals), maybe even Producer/Production Manager (log the best takes, check off shot list, look for continuity, etc.) and a DIT/Data Wrangler (in charge of offloading, labeling, and keeping track of all the media) position if you have crew to spare. You don’t want to be in the middle of the project and have anyone butting heads about roles. Roles need to be sorted out and understood before production day. There is no time for tension during a project like this. Also, don’t forget you’ll need actors that are good in front of the camera to star in your movie!


Develop your story

After we drew our genres on Friday, everyone on our crew met at our team leader's apartment around 7:30pm. We sat down together in his living room and just started throwing ideas out. This might sound corny, but it was a great display of pure, unfiltered creative collaboration that I feel like I haven't been a part of in a long time. Everyone had great ideas, but once we heard someone suggest a certain premise, we all knew that was the short we were going to make. And off we went!

We opened WriterDuet, a screenwriting web app, and starting typing away. Everyone was suggesting characters, locations, lines of dialog, motivations, plot points—you name it. Our team worked until around 2:30 am, fueled only by chips, caffeine, adrenaline, and Truly hard seltzers. Finally, we had our story arc, dialog, and acting locations and were ready to roll at 8 am (less than 6 hours from that point). It was a lot of work but I definitely recommend locking your story and screenplay before going to sleep the first night so you can be set to go the next day.


Go with your gut

This might sound like a "no duh" statement, but time is seriously against you during these 48 hours. Every single minute counts from the time you leave the genre drawing all the way until you turn in your film. And almost everything is going to Murphy's Law on you any chance it gets. The sun might begin to go down faster than you anticipated. An actor might take more time than you thought getting their line right. A neighbor's rototiller might start interfering with the audio. You get it.

But you don't have time to dwell on those facts. You need to adapt, go with your instincts, trust yourself and your crew, and just roll with it! You don't have time to do a ton of different takes on a 48-hour timeline. Once you have a solid performance from the actors and are happy enough, have confidence and move on! It will save time and eliminate having more takes than you need while editing.


Finish shooting by the end of the first day

While it’s not always possible, try your best to wrap up all of your shooting on that first day. This will allow everyone to focus on editing the project the following morning. If you manage time well and stay on track, this should be an attainable goal.

We were still shooting at a busy gas station on Sunday morning until around 11am and had barely made a dent in the edit yet. Our confidence level was a lot higher than the actual amount of time we had left. The point I’m essentially stressing is to make sure you are realistic about managing time. If you're shooting well into the morning the project is due, you may not have enough time to finish. Be realistic rather than overly ambitious.


Make sure someone is editing while you’re shooting

It’s important to be as efficient as possible to get your project done in a timely manner, so crew members should be active even if they aren't directly involved in shooting a scene. One team member should be solely focused on editing. Once you are done with shooting a scene, he or she should be transferring the footage and laying it out on a timeline. Like I said above, if you have enough crew members, it's a great idea to have someone act as a DIT (Digital Image Technician), which organizes, manages, and backs up footage, generally taking charge of all the media. Doing this establishes a single point of contact for all media and helps the director(s) know where to find certain scenes and takes. Another team member should act as a PA, available to run to the store for a prop, to pick up food, and to make sure people don't walk through shots if out in public.

One thing that set us back during our editing was media management. We recorded video and audio separately, across multiple cards, and were also formatting the cards every day. We didn't use Plural Eyes, a video/audio syncing program, so a lot of time was wasted trying to sync footage. It was a lesson on how to better manage and keep track of files across multiple cards for future projects.


Dedicate day three to editing and final touches

Again, it’s critical to make sure you have enough time to edit your project. This includes everything from literally editing it together, to color correction and grading, to audio editing, adding music and SFX, graphics and titles, and whatever else needs to get done! The project is due at 7:30 pm on that Sunday, so that time also includes exporting, throwing the project on a jump drive, and driving to the drop-off location. If you haven't picked up on my recurring theme yet, time is the biggest thing against your team, so don't let it get the best of you!


Don't forget to feed and hydrate the crew

Even with zero budget for this project, it’s critical to provide food, snacks, and water for your crew. Pizza isn’t fancy but it’s an affordable and cheap option to feed large amounts of people. If you have more to spend on better meals, your crew will like you even more!


Final thoughts on the experience

Unfortunately we did not turn in our project on time, therefore forfeiting any chance of being nominated for awards outside of Audience Choice. We were still allowed to show our film in the theater the night of the premiere, but it had a giant "LATE" title card with a shaming dwindling horn sound effect, salting the wound just a little bit more. Still, we enjoyed watching all the films back-to-back, and the energy in the room was high throughout the whole night.

Was it worth it? Absolutely! I had a blast, and it made me grow as a filmmaker.

Was it stressful as hell? Oh yeah! We were go-go-go for almost two days straight while running on barely any sleep.

Did I have an amazing time being creative and shooting a short move guerrilla-style, collaborating with a talented team of people? YOU FREAKING BET!

Feel free to leave any other questions you may have about the 48 Hour Film Project in the comment section below. I would be glad to answer them.

The experience left the team and I motivated, knowing that we created something together in such a short amount of time. We oddly are also still amazed at our capabilities even though we were late, and can't wait to give it another go sometime in the future. If you're up to the challenge, I would wholeheartedly recommend giving it a shot!

Team Cold Robot Studios, Cleveland 48 Hour Film Project 2019

Here is our film, titled "SonGlasses", just to give a taste of what's possible in (a little over) 48 hours. And if you want to challenge yourself, be sure to go to Cleveland's 48 Hour Film Project and sign up for the next one!


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