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.