At 7:00 p.m. on a Friday night, more than twenty teams of filmmakers gather at a local film center or bar. In a random drawing one member of each team picks a film genre out of a hat. Every team is then given the same character, prop, and line of dialogue they’re required to include in a film—a film they will write, shoot, and edit in less than 48 hours.
This is the premise behind the 48 Hour Film Project, the creation of Washington, DC-based independent filmmakers Mark Ruppert and Liz Langston. Inspired by New York’s 24-Hour Plays, Ruppert and Langston translated the time-restricted theater production competition into film and video, holding the first 48 Hour Film Project in DC in May of 2001. Since then, they’ve expanded the Project to 10 additional US cities, created a countrywide offshoot called the National Film Challenge, and even taken their idea overseas. Last year, Auckland, NZ, played host to a 48 Hour Film Project, and this year, teams will be fighting the clock in Dublin and Copenhagen.
Filmmaking teams begin production on their five to twelve minute shorts at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night. Story brainstorming is the first order of business. “After the ‘opening ceremonies,’ we ordered pizza, bought a case of PBR, and began to write,” says Geoff O’Brien, director of Trash—A Time Travel Odyssey, which won Best in Show in New York’s 2003 Project. “We didn’t stay up too late, because we figured out early on that the schedule was pretty obvious—write on Friday, shoot on Saturday, edit on Sunday. We were up [until] about 2:00 a.m. writing and storyboarding the shots.” Often, teams will talk story until midnight, then assign a couple of writers to work into the early morning hours to hammer out a script. “Preproduction is key,” says Kent Nichols, director of Baggage, the best picture winner of the 2003 Los Angeles Project. “Know what your resources are—where you can shoot, what sort of costumes and props you have access to, and then write the script based on those resources.” For the most part, teams will have something to work with by 8 a.m. on Saturday, but sometimes, entire teams will have been up all night without a script by the morning.
Given the tight deadline, teams run into all sorts of production problems. The most common are sound problems, which can be time consuming to fix. Gaining a false sense of security is another typical mistake. “Things will be going smoothly, teams will stop pressing, and then they’ll turn around and their time’s almost up,” says Ruppert, who adds, “But the beauty of the time limit is it gives filmmakers a sense of freedom in that they have to make decisions quickly and move on.” O’Brien agrees. “It makes you think on your feet. With such a short time period in which to make an entire film, you’re forced to trust your instincts and the decisions you make, and to believe you’re making the best possible film given the nature of the piece.”
Other major challenges come in the editing studio, often during the final minutes before the 7:00 p.m. Sunday deadline. Computer crashes are frequent, and unforeseen difficulties can also arise. During the latest project in Nashville, a team called The Freudian Slips couldn’t get their tape out of their computer, so they ended up filming the computer screen. “It still was a funny film that the audience loved,” says Ruppert. “The amazing thing is just how good the majority of these films are. Some just blow us away.”
Team Boondogglers’ dark comedy White Bitch Down, winner of the 2002 national title, 48 Hour Film of the Year, was accepted by the Atlanta Film Festival where it won $100,000 in finishing costs. Other 48 Hour Film Project success stories include LA-based Itty Bitty Films’ Realities of Love, which placed third at Shriekfest, and LA-based Genesis Films’ A Life for a Life, which screened at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival.
Every team that enters and completes a 48 Hour film is guaranteed a commercial theater screening, typically held the night after the deadline. Awards such as Best Directing, Best Editing, and Best Screenplay are handed out in addition to Best in Show. In March, the 12 Best in Show city winners from 2003 will vie for 48 Hour Film of the Year honors at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, where the competing films will be screened again.
Participants in the 48 Hour Film Project run the gamut from film professionals working in the industry every day—the Boondogglers are full-time advertising producers—to first-time moviemakers. The average team size is 15 to 20, but the Project has included teams of as many as 50.
“The screenings and parties that go along with the 48 Film Hour Project have brought together a lot of independent filmmakers,” says Ruppert. “It’s really energized filmmaking communities.” It’s also re-energized certain filmmakers. Maryland-based Travesty Films, which made more than a half dozen short films in the eighties but hadn’t made a film in over 10 years, attribute their reunion to the Project. “We ran out of steam and were just yakking about doing stuff,” explains Travesty’s Dave Nuttcombe. “Then the 48 Hour Film Project came along, and we’ve been involved in every DC Project except for one—which occurred while we were making our first feature.”
Indeed, says Ruppert, “knowing that you can actually finish a film is very powerful. And don’t forget that on top of a finished film, you get a screening. Watching your film on the big screen is what it’s all about.”