2012 48hr Sci Fi Challenge – Tips from the 3rd place team

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The 48hr Sci Fi Challenge. 2011… 2012… 2013?

So, this article is going to take you through my experience as part of Team Superluminal, in the 2012 Sci Fi London 48hr Film Contest.  Our film, ‘Eight Items‘ came third overall in the competition, out of around 360 initial entries.

After the tips section, there’s a special guest post from the writer of the film…  I know, I know – you’re being spoiled.

First off, a little history…:

Last year (2011) I entered the Sci Fi London 48hr Film Challenge. On Saturday morning, a friend of a friend queued up for us outside the Apollo Cinema on Piccadilly, then picked up some criteria (a title, prop, line of dialogue) that had to make it into our film.

From that point, we had 48 hours to return to the Apollo with a finished film of no more than 5 minutes.

5 measly minutes.

300 seconds.

Easy-peasy.

I made my first 48hr film (here) in 2008, for a different competition.  The process had been fairly enjoyable and we’d even won a couple of awards.

The rules of that competition required the film to be dropped off in London. So (obviously..) we shot in the Oxfordshire countryside, nearly missed a vital train, and got the film handed in with minutes to spare.

The 2011 Sci Fi competition also required that the film be dropped off in London.

So, logically, we shot it in Bristol.

The journey from Temple Meads to Paddington on the Monday morning was actual hell. I hadn’t slept. In fact, I didn’t sleep until that evening, by which time I’d been awake for 60 hours and was producing the kind of smell that gets you a tube carriage to yourself.

I hadn’t slept because I’d been a fool – I hadn’t taken the competition seriously enough and had failed to plan adequately.

RULE 1 – don’t try and do every job on the film yourself.

I shot some of it. Directed. Wrote. Did some of the sound. Edited it. Synced the rushes. Did the effects… Gah….

Don’t do this!

Pull in favours and get people to help you out. Don’t take on too much.

The 2011 competition was a tough experience but two really good things came from it. Firstly, I developed the idea into a 60 page pilot script. I whacked it in for the Red Planet Prize, it got down to the last 100 and…

Well, it didn’t get any further – but still, it’s another script under the belt.

Secondly, the networking. While everyone waited (and waited… and waited…) for the results, a strong community developed on Twitter. Using the hashtag #sfl48hr we shared horror stories, swapped films, and theorised about the delayed results (much the same in 2012…)

Then we all met up for drinks at the Curzon Soho.  Through that event I met several other filmmakers, including Jake Wynne (@jakewynnehd on twitter).  By coincidence, we’d both done some work with the same actor.

When the 2012 competition came round, I knew I was in no state to take on directing a film – I was in the process of moving from Bristol to London, having meetings and interviews and all sorts, looking for a house…

But… I’d kept in contact with Jake, and he asked if I was up for helping in his team – as A.D. and 2nd Unit.  This was a wildly different experience to the 2011 competition.  The film we made (here) has just placed 3rd in the competition overall – and I’ve got a good idea why…

Jake’s a hell of a director on set, but as good as the film looks (and it looks good… great performances, engaging story) there’s a lot of his skill which you’ll never directly see on camera – because the film’s success is founded on excellent preparation and organisational skills.

I’m not talking about preparation in the ‘it was all pre-written’ sense. I’ve seen a couple of those films in the competition and they tend to stand out like a sore thumb. Our film had a strong script that was based on the criteria (there’s a post from the writer, Will Goodchild – @filmchild on Twitter – at the end of this post) and that definitely made a HUGE contribution to its success – as it did, undoubtedly, with the excellent winner.

Jake’s preparation was as follows (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘I need a good crew. I need a good postproduction team. I need good catering. I need to organise potential locations. I need good actors’.

Simple…?

Having a team you know you can rely on is enormously important on any project – and it’s no different in a 48hr context. If you don’t take it seriously, you’ll either not make the deadline (over 50% attrition rate every year), you’ll not make as good a film as possible, or you’ll kill yourself in the process.

Our crew consisted of:

Actors. (@alexisrodney / @morganwatkinstw)

Director. (@jakewynnehd)

Writer. (@filmchild)

Producer.

DOP. (@sonsofsidjames)

Sound. (@jacknash)

Editor.

Edit Assistants.

FX.

Grade.

A.D. / 2nd Unit. (me – @hit_delete)

Runner.

Catering.

Music/Sound design.

 

We got a phenomenal amount done because everyone had clearly defined roles and at each stage of the process there were dedicated people waiting to get stuck in and do their job (often going waaaaay beyond the call of duty).

So, here cometh the main bulk of the tips – based on a mixture of my experience in 2011 (bleurgh…) and my experience in 2012 (Yay!). They’re in no particular order:

1) DO NOT try to do every job on the film yourself.

Pull in favours, get a proper crew, and delegate. Use your showreel and portfolio to get people interested in working with you. Then, once you’ve got your super-crew, keep them well fed and watered.

2) In particular, get someone else to do the edit. And preferably multiple other people to work on sound, fx, etc.

Jake’s got a strong background in editing and was able to get some amazing people working on the Post side of things. To be able to sit back and watch them at work was a pleasure. I played ping-pong, drank endless cups of tea and occasionally stuck my head in to see the latest version of the cut. Get a good editor and get some sleep.

3) Wait until you get the criteria before you write your film, and don’t be in a rush to start filming ASAP.

The winner this year (Future Inc – here) spent the whole of Saturday writing and re-writing their script, basing it firmly on the criteria they received. While most other films (ours included) had finished shooting by the end of Saturday, by Sunday morning Future Inc. hadn’t even started… At the time, I thought this was madness. Now, it looks like genius.

We spent a decent amount of time on our script – and our writer, Will, did a heck of a job. In the mouths of our actors, the dialogue sparkles and the criteria line (about ‘monogamy… tyranny…’ etc.) fits perfectly.  I guarantee Will wouldn’t have minded more time – but given the nature of the story that was developed, if we hadn’t started shooting until Sunday we’d never have finished on time.

It’s always a balance, but this year definitely proves that time spent on your script is time well spent.

4) Figure out deadlines, then back-time.

If the finished film has to be delivered at 10am, and it’s going to take you an hour to get there…

Don’t start exporting it at 9am, in the car, hoping to burn a DVD en route. Set healthy deadlines and try as hard as you can to stick to them. There’s an ‘ideal’ of what the film could be, and there’s a ‘possible’. You’ve got 48hrs – better to make a ‘possible’ film, than fail at making an ‘ideal’ film.

Set a time by which FX etc. have to be finished.  Prioritise.  If necessary, cut down elaborate ideas.  Do whatever is necessary to make sure that your film makes it to the finish line.

5) Think different.

This year’s winner is a kind of romantic comedy / tragedy / sci-fi.  Ours features a car chase, some witty banter, and a bit of espionage.  The films that were the most exciting recognised that sci-fi doesn’t just mean the following: Post-apocalyptic scenario / Warehouse locations / Women in leather with guns / Men in biohazard suits with guns / Men in black suits with guns / Tortuous ‘techy’ dialogue.

Right, that’s enough of the lecture. To recap:

1) Don’t try to do it all yourself. Pull favours, and get a proper crew.
2) In particular, get someone else to do the Post.
3) Spend as long as possible on the script, and really make the criteria central to your story.
4) Figure out deadlines, and stick to them.
5) Think different. Combine sci-fi with a unusual genres, and see where it takes you.

And as a bonus, 6)…

Get the bloody fllm in on time, and then network like hell. The competition is a great opportunity to meet new people AND get your work seen.  Get someone on Twitter throughout the process, and make the most of this opportunity to connect with your fellow filmmakers.

Our finished film is HERE.

And now for something completely different – to make this into a special, jam-packed sci-fi post, here’s some words from the writer of ‘Eight Items’, Will Goodchiild (@filmchild / http://goodchildfilm.blogspot.com/ ):

On the Saturday morning director Jake Wynne went into the Apollo Picadilly for briefing and to pick three elements out of a hat. I went over the road for a strong cup of Joe with Alex Richardson, our 1st AD/2nd Cam (you may have heard of him). Our spirits were high but the air was tense. I felt like an old-style expectant father in a waiting room. When Jake appeared with the criteria, the work began immediately. The title, dialogue and prop supplied were not exactly terrible but they were still a real bastard. As we spit-balled ideas, a thought kept popping into my head that I couldn’t quite suppress:why put ourselves through this? Film-making is hard enough in the first place without added rules and constrictions, I mused. And there the question popped: why put ourselves through this? But I maintained a focus… of sorts.

The supplied criteria needed to be key components of the film, and ideally, they would be part of the actual skeleton. The three of us worked together well, furiously throwing ideas around. We travelled by tube and car to Jake’s flat in North London, chattering all the way. Every idea was accorded respect. It seemed mutually understood that no idea was a stupid one. Even the ones that didn’t work inspired and breathed life into ones that did. The ideas were coming thick and fast but not especially from me. It does, I admit, take a little while to find my groove. Jake allowed that to happen when they left me alone as they ferried equipment around. Given this chance to breathe, a shape started to emerge. Although there are periods of inactivity on shoots they are busy environments – certainly compared to the quiet of one’s usual writing “cave”. Different things are happening around you constantly which means there are a lot of distractions. The ideas melded with the results of our brainstorming and a structure began to take place. Making ideas work is one of my better strengths. Creating an idea out of nothing I can do, but it can be excruciating.

Vanessa’s flat was shoot base camp. Sat amongst piles of kit we talked more about story. Jake, very sensibly, was keen to get the story locked before any filming began. This was my kind of director: someone wanting to serve the story. Everyone present had an opinion. In some ways it aided, in some ways it confused. It was helpful to explain the story structure to everyone. Hearing it spoken aloud was useful in that it made clear what did and didn’t work. It shone a light on the weaknesses and gave us a chance to work on them. I do subscribe to the theory that no great ideas are ever created by a group. It takes one individual, or a pair, to come up with an acorn of a great idea.  The experience was unusual due to the lack of familiarity. Here was a group of talented and smart individuals who didn’t know each other, all fighting (and I use the word figuratively) to be heard and to get their points across. A kind of mini-United Nations… but more serious. Jake presided with the diplomacy of Kofi Annan and we managed to agree on everything in the end. We got the title and prop usage sorted and had fully figured out the initial section of the film – a car chase. I had given each of the actors, Alexis and Morgan a page of dialogue but merely to illustrate their actions and motivations. Jake and I also gave them bullet points. Outside of that it was entirely improvised by Alexis and Morgan. And damn, they did a wonderful job.

As the rest of the cast and crew went off shooting the car chase I was given opportunity to work alone. Well, I say alone. Vanessa was in the kitchen preparing a fine spread of food for us hungry film-makers and Roxy the Jack Russell was snuffling around me as I typed. The utilisation of the prop was an ingenious idea from Jake and Alex. I merely had to slot it in. The line of dialogue was a little trickier. It took time to make it sound natural, and really let it dictate the tone of the film.  You can almost forgive bad use of the title and prop but clunky dialogue can be spectacularly jarring. Gil, playing the arch villain, had to deliver the supplied words. The line was somewhat involved and not exactly short. Many past entrants to the competition have barely featured the spoken word so Jake and I had been keen to fully embrace dialogue. One of the problems is that actors do not have long to learn lines when you’re writing them on the hoof. But Gil, a sprightly 77 year-old and consummate professional nailed not justthe line but the long speech surrounding it. And boy, did he deliver those lines well.

The entire script ended up being shot entirely in chronological order. I imagine this was helpful to the actors (e.g. Morgan didn’t have to rise from the dead to complete any scenes) and it was hugely helpful to me. I was afforded the luxury of coming up with an ending as far along into the shoot as was possible. (This ended up being very late with us wrapping at 6.15am Sunday.) I wouldn’t want to put myself through this again. Script-writing is tough enough without having to bash something out in a few hours. But it’s a good exercise and when we wrapped there was an incredible feeling of satisfaction. As the sun began to rise and the birds began to tweet, thankfully that question (why put ourselves through this?) evaporated into the ether and was never heard again.

http://goodchildfilm.blogspot.com/

 

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