Fresh Ideas for Using your 48 Hours Wisely

Guest Blogger: Jess Brauning, Senior at Dordt College, Digital Media Production Major. Grew up as an MK (Missionary Kid) in the Dominican Republic.

Back in 2006, when I was a sophomore who had just gotten his first taste of filmmaking, I signed up with some friends to take on Dordt College’s first 48-hour Prairie Grass Film Challenge. We made a western called “The Sinner, the Saint, and Sandy.”

Since then, I participated in both the following film challenges and finally, on my third try, I won this year’s challenge with another western, ‘No Man’s Land.’ So as far as these things go, I guess I’ve been around the block a couple times.

Which is why I’m writing this blog: I want to help you, my prospective competition (What, you think I’m just going to disappear once I graduate?) make the best 48-hour film you can. Making a short film in such a short amount of time can produce surprisingly good results, if you put your back into it, and really work hard. There are a tricks to the process, of course, and some good guidelines that I try to make myself follow. Now, a good cook never gives away his prized recipes, but hey, I’m no cook. Filmmakers always help each other – the more excellent films being made, the better.

    Consider that tip number one.

In the months before the film challenge itself, there’s only so much you can do to prepare, but the steps you take to get ready for the challenge are crucial to your success.

The first thing you want to do is assemble your team.Who are you working with? Pick wisely. Major creative differences can shipwreck a film and a relationship faster than you can blink. Work with people you trust, who have the same drive and passion you do.

How many people should you work with? The maximum core team size is 8 (see the fine print in the rules on the Film Challenge website), but you will quickly find that it is possible to expand far beyond that number if you go recruiting actors, musicians, or caterers. In my second year of the film challenge, I worked on a film that had 25 people attached to it, and at least 6 people who felt that they had creative control over a major aspect of the film. On the other hand, “No Man’s Land” enlisted the help of 9 people total, and the creative control was firmly in the hands of only 2 of us. Which way works better? It’s hard to say. With the firm hand of a skilled producer on the reigns, you can pump a lot of quality work out of a large group of talented people, but it’s a lot easier to execute your vision if you don’t have to convince 10 people you are making the right choice. My advice would be to keep your team small enough that you can work efficiently, and big enough that you aren’t missing a key talent – if no one on your team can put together a good soundtrack for your film, for example, you’re going to be in trouble, so cover your bases.

Alongside assembling your team, you want to make sure you inventory the equipment available to you, the tools. Do this as soon as you can. The judges aren’t prejudiced against people with cheap cameras, but they are prejudiced against people with no cameras whatsoever, and you don’t want to discover halfway through filming that your camera is actually broken. Make sure you know how to use it and all your equipment. Find out if you have access to lights, microphones, tripods, or whatever else you think you might need. Make a list of any cool stuff you have that might make an awesome prop or set piece. Now would be the time to read a book on cinematography and camera moves.

Once you’ve got your team put together and your equipment green-lighted, you still need places to shoot, so get scouting. If next year’s film challenge is in January again, prepare for snow. Find interiors and exteriors and get release forms signed for them (release forms can be printed from the website). If you forget to do this, you might end making your whole movie in your backyard or house.

Okay, so now the day of the Prairie Grass Film Challenge actually comes, and you are prepared, you have a team, you have equipment, locations, actors (make sure you get some of them, they make or break the show), and you are good to go. So what do you now? How do you take advantage of your 48 hours?
Let me break it down for you: You will run out of time. I always do. So your goal is to have a working video output at the deadline, even if you aren’t really done. Because let’s be honest, it always feels like there’s more that you could do. So you maximize your time, you organize, and you set deadlines for yourself within the timeline.

I’m going to split the time up in to different periods and tell you what I do in that time to get done.

First up is the 2-4 hours after you get the email detailing what needs to be in your film (prop, character, line of dialogue). In these couple hours is when you need to concept and outline your movie. There’s no time for slacking off here at the beginning, because you can’t do anything else till you have your idea. So brainstorm like crazy, and when you hit on something, build it, outline it.

Then you can start scripting. Writing the script for the film, if you put the effort in, will result in a tight movie that has theme and resonance throughout. If you take into account that one page of script equals about one minute of movie, you should shoot for 7-8 pages of script. A good scriptwriting program that’s free is Celtx, which you can get online. There’s a good chance that it will take you all night to write the script, so get on it. If you can get a few hours of sleep when your script is done, great. But be ready to start shooting on Friday morning.

All of Friday is dedicated to one thing: Shooting scenes. A great goal is to have all of your scenes shot by maybe 8 or 9 pm on Friday. This means that you are probably only going to have a few breaks all day, which is why I say try to get a little sleep Thursday night. Make sure to cover your scenes from multiple angles. Get wide shots, close-ups, and crazy stuff. Just don’t shoot your movie all from the shoulder in single long shots. It’s boring. Shoot your dialogue carefully, so that it sounds good and clear. Most importantly though, get it done. Don’t skip scenes if you can help it, better to shoot it and cut it when you edit. Give yourself options.

So it’s Friday night and you have your movie shot and in the computer. Now comes the part where you really don’t sleep. Well, actually, now might be a time when you should get a few hours of shut-eye, and then start editing. I guess it depends on how much of a night owl you are. When dawn breaks on Saturday, if you already have a rough cut together, just the clips in basically the right place, no frills, then you are doing great. Trust me, you can spend a lot longer than you’d think tweaking cuts, mixing audio, color correcting, titles, making credits, and especially outputting to tape or DVD.

    As a rule of thumb, stop everything you are doing two hours before the deadline and start outputting.

If you wait any longer, you might easily run into serious problems getting a working hard copy that you can submit.

As far as weekends go, film challenges are pretty much unparalleled for the energy and excitement that they generate, and the rewarding outcome. Getting it all done, from concept to cut to completion is a challenge, to be sure, but it is possible. I would encourage everyone reading this to enter in next year’s competition and create something excellent. Give it a go!

Jess Brauning and his team took “Best of Show 2009” and took home the coveted Dordty Award, $500 and Avid film editing software. And T-shirts.

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Why the new dates for the PGFC?

If you’ve looked at the front page of the Prairie Grass Film Challenge website, you’ve noticed that the next film challenge is in January 2009 (Competition: January 15-17; Screening and Awards Ceremony: February 13).

We made the change for a couple reasons. We’ve noticed over the last few years that quite a few people were REALLY interested in forming teams and competing, but because we held the event in the Fall, they were not able to compete because of football, homecomings, or other sports events.

Another issue we faced with an early Fall competition was it gave us at PGFC HQ very little time to promote the event in high schools in our tri-state area. As you may know, we want a lot of high schools involved so students will have a way to enjoy the creative work of film making, and a venue to show their work. With the event following so closely on the heels of summer, we had a hard time letting people know about it.

So, we moved the event to a time when there’s not a lot going on yet in the sporting world (at least that we know about), and it now gives us the entire first semester to do proper promotion for the event.

We hope this arrangement will work great for those who want to compete, and for those who enjoy coming out to watch some fun, creative films…all created in a mere 48 hours. As an organizing team we’re looking forward to seeing your work and meeting you and your team at our screening and awards ceremony on Friday, February 13, 2009, on the campus of Dordt College!

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The Importance of Light

Audio and lighting are two things that help set the professional film maker apart from the amateurs. Here’s a primer about lighting from “Video Maker Magazine” (http://www.videomaker.com/article/7225/) that you might find helpful as you make your movie for the Prairie Grass Film Challenge.

LIGHT SOURCE: REFLECTING LIGHT

There was a time when dramatic lighting and video production were mortal enemies. Early video cameras needed so much light to create a clean picture that it was nearly impossible to create the dramatic lighting effects found in motion picture dramas. That time has passed into a distant memory. Today’s video cameras are so sensitive to light that it is sometimes hard to shoot on a sunny day without adding neutral density filters to your lens to cut down the intensity of the light. We live in an age where it’s easy to achieve dramatic lighting with just a little know-how and some ingenuity.In this column we’ll look at some different styles of dramatic lighting and describe ways you can achieve the desired results. We’ll start by taking a look at some basic accessories you can use to turn any ordinary video production into a dramatic presentation.

The Shadow KnowsThe key to dramatic lighting is creating and controlling shadow. There are a number of tools that professionals lighting designers use to block, cast and focus lights and shadows. Three basic lighting tools used to create and control shadows are the flag, barndoors and snoot. A flag is an opaque panel or card (usually black) that blocks light from a lighting instrument and casts a shadow on your subject or background. Barndoors are adjustable metal flaps that attach to the front of a light. By opening or closing the flaps, you can control the shape and size of a light beam. For a very narrow beam of light, you might use a snoot, a funnel shaped metal cone that fits over the front of a light. Finally, the most important tool in the lighting designer’s bag is imagination. By visualizing the effect you want to create and by experimenting with the tools mentioned above, you can achieve a myriad of different lighting effects to match the mood you are trying to create.

Dramatic Lighting PrimerThe key to deciding how to light a scene is determining the effect you want to have on the audience. You may want to draw your viewer’s attention to a particular part of the frame. You may want to duplicate the natural illumination that occurs in a scene. By keeping your intentions in mind, and using the tools described above, you can create a dramatic scene that will impact your audience.

  • Cameo Appearance
    Cameo lighting is usually used to light a single person without lighting his or her surroundings. To create cameo lighting, place a small, intense light about sixty degrees above and at about the one o’clock position in front of the subject. The light will fill the subject’s face and create hard shadows to one side of the nose and below the chin. Make sure you position the light low enough to catch a glint in the subject’s eye yet not so low as to spill onto the background. This is called cameo lighting because it duplicates the effect you find on a cameo stone, a light figure on a dark background.
  • Rembrandt Lighting
    Lighting designers use this technique to highlight specific features of their subject, the eyes for example, while keeping everything else in shadows.
    You can achieve this look by using flags, barn doors and some diffusion material. By carefully flagging and diffusing ordinary three-point lighting, you can reduce the amount of light that falls on the background. This will allow you to change the placement and quality of the light on your subject’s face or body and direct the viewer to focus his attention on whatever you wish him to.
  • Silhouette Lighting
    Silhouette lighting is also a highly dramatic way to light a scene. To create the silhouette effect, light your background with flat lighting and place a backlight on your subject. You will not be able to see any features of your subject, just a distinct outline. Video producers often use this type of lighting to keep the subject’s identity a secret or show clandestine meetings.

  • Motivated Lighting
    Motivated lighting simulates light that comes from sources established in a scene. Say you’re shooting a scene in a living room at night. Your subjects are sitting on a couch looking into each other’s eyes. At the camera-left end of the couch is an end table with a lit table lamp. A street light filters through the picture window behind the couple. To light this scene, you would need to duplicate the light coming from the table lamp and the streetlight coming through the picture window.
    You can duplicate the lamp by placing a soft light behind, slightly above and to the camera side of the lamp. Make sure that the shadow of the lamp itself is not cast on the actors. By putting a 15-watt bulb in the lamp, you’ll still get a glow from the lamp but the real light from the scene will be coming from the soft light. To keep the lampshade from showing light on its outside, carefully flag the light so that only the lampshade is in shadow. For closeups of each of the subject’s faces, use a bounce card to add a little reflected fill light from the lamp or streetlight.
    By placing an intense blue-gelled light outside the window and covering the window with sheer curtains, you can easily duplicate the effect of light coming from outdoors. By turning a red-gelled light focused on the window frame on and off, you can create a blinking neon sign effect. Adding partially opened blinds to the window will create a very dramatic effect if the outdoor light is focused to throw the striped shadows on the subjects’ faces as they turn toward the window. By altering the position of the outdoor light, you can achieve the desired slant of the shadows. If you keep the indoor, lamp light fairly low, the window effect will be very dramatic.
  • Nighttime Car Interior
    You can achieve dramatic and believable car interior lighting effect with a little gaffer’s tape, two small cool-blue fluorescent lights, two or three small flashlights and some diffusion material. By taping the two fluorescent tubes under both the driver’s and passenger’s sides of the dashboard and covering them with diffusion material, you can create a believable lit car interior. The more diffusion material you use, the less intense the light. By rhythmically shining a spot of light across the hood of the car, you can duplicate the passing of streetlights. Passing two evenly spaced flashlights across the back of the car and into the rear-view mirror will duplicate the passing of another car. Supplement all of these techniques with some realistic sound effects and you can easily create a night driving scene.
  • Colored Lights and Smoke
    Don’t be afraid of using color gels and smoke to add a touch of drama to your scene. You can find relatively inexpensive heat-resistant lighting gels in some video stores and in most theatrical supply houses. Deep reds, blues and greens are the most effective colors. The darker the subject or surface, the more intense the color will be. Keep in mind that when you use colored gels, be sure to white balance your camera with the white light on your set, not the colored light.
    Smoke created by smoke machines, incense or cigarettes can add a dramatic touch to your lighting. To see the smoke, light it from behind. To see a beam of light, pass it through smoke from slightly behind. If you choose to go more high tech, smoke machines have come a long way. You can now rent smoke machines for a small fee and the chemical smoke they create is non-toxic and doesn’t leave your cast and crew rushing for the door. For a more friendly work environment, cigarettes and incense are usually not suggested to create smoke unless needed as part of a scene.
    By combining the right lighting setup and a bit of colored light to a soft smoky atmosphere, you can increase the dramatic intensity of a scene tremendously.
    The secret to dramatic lighting is learning how to accentuate your subject with light and cloak the rest with shadow. It’s the contrast between the light and dark that makes for a dramatic set. By experimenting and practicing with different techniques you can dramatically increase the quality of your video productions.
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SOUND ADVICE: GET YOUR AUDIO RIGHT!

One of the surest marks of an amateur film/video maker is not paying attention to AUDIO. We get pretty wrapped up in getting good visuals, but don’t pay much attention to what we hear.

Audio is 50% of the equation, so it pays to give as much attention to the audio as it does to the video. One simple thing anyone can do is hook a pair of headphones to the camera so you can hear exactly what’s being recorded on tape. The big headphones that cover your ears completely are ideal, but even a pair of earbuds from your iPod are better than nothing.

Below is an article from “Video Maker Magazine” (http://www.videomaker.com/article/8383/) that you might find helpful as you get ready to make your film for the Prairie Grass Film Challenge.

SOUND ADVICEAUDIO: GET IT RIGHT FROM THE START.

So, you’ve bought a shiny new digital video recorder and you’re blown away by the image quality. But what about the audio? Audio is possibly the most overlooked element in video production. That’s too bad because audio quality can make or break any video project, regardless of budget.


You may be able to fix some things in post-production, but why go to all the trouble when you can get it right the first time? This article explores 10 tips for gathering the best possible audio on your next shoot. Some are common sense tips, but many are hard-earned lessons from the field.
1 – Plan AheadWhen shooting on location, a smart videographer scouts the site before the shoot, looking for ideal lighting and backgrounds to produce the best image possible. For your next shoot, scout with your ears too. Listen for traffic noises, machinery, animals and aircraft anything that might ruin the audio during the shoot. Depending on your topic, some background noise may be acceptable or even desirable. Just make sure you can hear your subjects over the ruckus around them.

2 – Use an External MicrophoneUnless you have a high-end professional camera, your built-in microphone is absolutely worthless for anything more than your 3-year-old’s birthday party. First, the microphone is built into the camera’s body, and is very sensitive to noise from zoom, focus and tape drive motors. The second problem is a matter of distance. Even though you can zoom in on a subject from across the room, the microphone is stuck 20 feet away. Trust me, you need an external microphone.

3 – Choose the Right Microphone for the JobOK, I’ve convinced you to use an external mike, but what kind? There are four basic types: handheld, lapel, shotgun and boundary.
Handheld mikes, typically used by news reporters, add a newsy feel to your video. Directional handheld mikes minimize background noise while non-directional mikes collect the audio flavor of the scene.
News anchors and sit-down interview participants often use lapel, or lavalier microphones. They are useful anytime you want to get close to the source, but minimize visual impact.
Shotgun microphones, highly directional and often used on TV shows and movie sets, usually suspend from a boom or “fishpole.” Shotgun mikes typically hover just out of the video frame and point directly at the subject.
If you shoot legal or corporate video, the boundary microphone could be your new best friend. Boundary mikes turn an entire table, wall or floor into a pickup surface. Unfortunately, their incredible sensitivity is a double-edged sword. They clearly pick up voices from every direction but also amplify shuffling papers and air conditioner noise equally.

4 – Use a WindscreenYou’re familiar with the effect of wind blowing into a microphone. The resulting rumble masks all but the loudest sounds, making the audio useless. Subjects speaking close to a microphone also produce small blasts of wind from their mouths. One of three basic windscreens will minimize or can even eliminate these problems altogether.
Foam windscreens are the most common since they are inexpensive, and work great for both handheld and lapel microphones. Although shotgun mikes also use foam windscreens, the pros usually use a special type called a zeppelin. This special-purpose windscreen gets its name from its shape. It looks like a long, skinny blimp. Porous cloth or fur typically covers the mike and blocks the wind, while letting sound through unharmed. A shotgun microphone mounts inside the zeppelin where the entire mike is protected from audio-wrecking wind noises.
When you record the narration for your next video, consider using a hoop-style windscreen to improve the sound quality. Hoop screens are usually about six inches in diameter and covered with one or two layers of fine mesh cloth. Recording studios worldwide use this type of windscreen on critical vocals, and you can too.

5 – Position Microphones ProperlySome simple attention to microphone placement can make a dramatic improvement in sound quality. Take the shotgun mike, for example. Its extreme directional characteristics and high sensitivity make it great for picking up audio from a distance. But point a shotgun mike up at your subject from the ground (instead of overhead), and you might pick up birds singing in the trees or the 3:30 flight to Albuquerque.
Misuse of lapel microphones is just as easy. Ideally, they are worn on the outside of clothing, attached to a lapel, tie or shirt. However, hiding lapel mikes under clothes minimizes wind noise and visual distractions. This location guarantees a muffled sound and the sound of cloth rubbing on the microphone. If wind is the problem, try positioning your subject with their back to the wind. If cosmetics are the issue, try a smaller microphone, a less distracting location or a shotgun mike.

6 – Learn to Deal With AGCAutomatic gain control, or AGC, is built into virtually every camera on the market. This seemingly magic circuit constantly monitors your incoming audio, then keeps the loud sounds from getting too loud and the soft sounds from getting too soft. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? It’s not a bad idea, but problems crop up later during editing when you try to match clips from different takes. One take will be loud and strong, but another will be softer with more background noise. Now what are you going to do about that?
There are a couple of solutions. First, have your talent re-take the material, starting before the break point. This will get the AGC working in a similar range to the previous take, making your edit point more consistent.
The second method is to turn the AGC off. This only works on certain camcorders, but if yours has this feature, use it. You can adjust the audio level manually for consistent sound, take after take.

7 – Monitor With Headphones
If your camera has a headphone jack, buy a pair of good headphones and keep them in your camera case. The next time you shoot, you will hear exactly what the microphone hears, making mike positioning easier. You will also catch bad connections, dead batteries and background noise before you commit it to tape. This is an absolute must and will save you much frustration and embarrassment.

8 – Get ConnectedAudio cables and adapters are a necessity for the videographer – just make sure you have the right ones before you shoot. Wireless mikes often need jumper wires to connect the receiver to the camera. Professional microphones use three-pin XLR connectors that won’t plug into most consumer and prosumer cameras.
For these mikes, string together several adapters or, buy an interface box. If you’re connecting to a sound system or other audio equipment, it’s a good idea to bring every adapter you own to the shoot. Most likely, you’ll need them.

9 – Get In CloseRegardless of your microphone choice, the closer you get it to the subject, the cleaner your audio will sound. Position the handheld or lapel mike a little closer than you previously had. Boom in as close as possible with the shotgun. This technique also reduces background noise and further improves your audio.

10 – Bring SparesSpare cables, spare adapters, spare microphones and spare batteries. This tip will save your skin in an emergency and give you some creative freedom. Perhaps you get to the shoot and discover your single lapel microphone won’t work because there are two subjects speaking. Your spare shotgun or handheld microphone will work even better and you’ll look like a very smart cookie.


Take these ideas to heart and your next video production can soundmatch the sound of a professional studio. In a future article, we will explore how to create professional-sounding audio in the edit suite. So stay tuned.

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Where do I go if I want to learn more about filmmaking?

One place you can go to become very proficient and marketable in film and video production is right here at Dordt College. Our brand new Digital Media Production major draws from the expertise of six departments at Dordt to train up young people in the art of digital communication in our world today.

There are other schools that teach you which buttons to push and what technique to use, but only Dordt does all that, PLUS gives you the skills you need to be a critical thinker in today’s media-saturated world.

Check out the course list hereand while you’re on the page, click around and see what else the major has to offer. If you want to schedule a visit to see Dordt’s state-of-the-art media lab (bigger and better than many of our nation’s big universities), give Dordt a call at 712-722-6080.

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Green Screen

If you want to do some compositing using green or blue screen, there’s a great website for you to look at. Check it out here.

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Your Source for Film Challenge Info

This blog is where the PGFC organizers will post helpful hints and tips to make your movie a winner! Check back often for tips on audio, composition, lighting and more.

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