18 Tips for a Successful 48 Hour Film Project

Last week, I got an email letting me know that the 2011 48 Hour Film Project tour was kicking off this month.

Is it really that time already? I still haven’t recovered from last time.

We’re signed up to officially participate this year. Indy’s dates are the last weekend in July again.

I was thinking about what we learned and what we’d do differently. I did a post-mortem after that weekend, but now that 9 months have passed, I feel like I can make a more coherent list for people who might be looking for solid tips in participating in their local 48 Hour Film Project.

1. Assemble your crew ahead of time and come up with a plan.
This is the best thing we did. We had a couple of meetings beforehand where we solidified our roles, equipment, where we’d find props, actors, etc. We had a production schedule on paper to help keep us on track even though we had absolutely no idea what we’d be shooting. Everyone knew the basic outline for the weekend and what kind of expectations to set.

2. Pick locations beforehand – and make sure you have full access.
This is another great thing we did. We decided to stick to one single very diverse location to limit our ideas and transportation time. We set up a little headquarters, had parking taken care of, and spent the entire day in this location. We let it help guide our shot selections. Plus, we got shooting permissions signed off on well ahead of time. However, we were on this location late at night doing some editing as well, and we happened to get tossed out by the local security/police. The person who had signed our location release had put the address of his building only, not the entire location (it was a college campus). Although it was totally clear we were allowed to be there, the officer took the opportunity to take advantage of this technicality. In the future, I’m definitely getting a more itemized list of locations we’re allow to be in AND the times and dates we’re allowed to be there.

3. Make sure your auxiliary crew knows the plan.
Our core crew was pretty well on top of things, but we had some extended crew like hair, makeup, etc, who likely never saw the production schedule. In the future, I will make sure that they have a rough outline of timing so they know exactly how long they have to do hair, makeup, and costuming changes. And if they take too long after that, we’ll make sure to find someone else. And make sure extras know the plan and are treated well too.

4. Have a backup plan, even if it sucks.
On the day of our shoot, our main talent didn’t show up and was unreachable. Turns out he stayed up all night for no reason and fell asleep with his phone off. Great, never working with you again! But miraculously, we ended up finding a quick replacement with his entire day free that was 10 times better and brought so much more to the role than our original person ever could have. We could have easily have been screwed though. Although you have no time to figure things out, always try to keep some sort of Plan B in your back pocket – whether it’s a talent replacement or a weather challenge, or a location change. We had a backup in mind that would have worked and we were about 4 minutes away from putting him in front of the camera, so we didn’t end up losing that much time to this fiasco. We also had a backup location for rain and a backup schedule to work around rain. We didn’t end up needing either (barely, it rained right after we finished the outside shots).

5. When you get your genre and other items, focus on the story most of all.
The problem with 48HFPs in general is that people get distracted by everything going on and their story gets lost. Make sure when you are writing your script or outline, everyone agrees on the basic plot, story, and theme of your film. No matter what, this core concept will not change on the fly. That’s when things turn to crap. Also, avoid cliches because most films will be FILLED with them – both plot and visual cliches.

6. Be willing to compromise – changes WILL happen.
As the production moves forward, you’ll hit challenges. Everyone needs to be willing to evolve with the production. These changes happen on movies of any scale. It’s just with the 48HFP, the evolution of the film happens in lightspeed. Everyone needs to be flexible.

7. Dedicate liberal time to production.
We decided to dedicate our entire Saturday to production, no matter how long it would take. That was the right call. Our call time was 8a and we shot from about 10am til 8pm.

8. Start editing while you’re still shooting.
Our editing area was near our shooting area. We shot tapes to about half and ran them to the editor to begin logging. I hope this year we can do a tapeless workflow to avoid capturing altogether. We’ll be testing this out to make sure there are no unforeseen bumps in a tapeless workflow.

9. And if at all possible, keep production and post production separate.
Your production crew can rest while the edit happens, and the editors can rest while the production happens. No one will be married to any shots because the editor will be impartial. Then on Sunday morning, the edit can be locked with everyone fairly well rested.

10. Pay a lot of attention to sound.
This is one of the top 3 things that derail a production – no matter how great your visuals, if your audio track is awful, you will never be successful. Have a dedicated sound person recording or monitoring. If you can’t, strip away your location sound and add in stock audio. Or do a silent film. Don’t forget to grab room tone. These things are usually shown in nice theaters, bad audio sounds even worse. For our first production we didn’t want to get screwed with audio, so when we wrote our script, we intentionally made it very silent, relying on foley and ADR.

11. The other 2 things that derail a production: lack of communication, and getting hung up on things that don’t matter.
Keep communication open and honest. And if something is holding you back, make a decision and move forward. If nothing else, just defer to the director.

12. Test your workflow ahead of time!!
This is huge. Have everyone on the same page as far as how the workflow will go from ingest to delivery. Test out bringing in footage, getting the right aspect ratio, how long the color grade will take the render, and how long the export will take. Have a Compressor setting set up with the delivery requirements. However long the export will be planned to take – double that time. Make sure you have at least that amount of time on Sunday. Seriously, do this. You don’t want to be watching a render bar 15 minutes before the deadline.

13. Now is not the time to try something new.
If you have a new filter, or you want to build something new in After Effects, great. Just don’t do it when you only have 48 hours to finish. Stick to tried and true methods, things you can pull together in your sleep. Or else you might be stuck trying to figure out something trivial that has no bearing to your story. Keep it SIMPLE.

14. Dedicate one person to paperwork.
There is a crapload of paperwork you need to turn in with your project. Have one person responsible for gathering and organizing all of it. There is too much to have it flopping around everywhere. You don’t want to get disqualified for something stupid like a missing release.

15. Have someone completely separate from your production cater for you.
Parents, friends, whatever. Have someone bring food at a designated time during production and have everyone take a break. They will be happier for it.

16. Have a production assistant you can depend on for menial tasks.
Coffee grabber, equipment finder, or just someone to watch your editing room while you go to the bathroom. It’s very handy to have someone willing to stick around and do whatever you might need whenever you might need it. A friend is ideal, a student or someone interested in filmmaking is even better. Our PA was Lauren, and she was able to sit and watch equipment, direct extra crew and cast to the right areas, clean up, and run to get us things so we didn’t have to leave the edit. It was lovely.

17. Just because you have 7 minutes doesn’t mean it needs to be 7 minutes.
Honestly, most films I saw could have been cut in half. Increase the pacing, cut the nonsense, and make it shorter. It’s almost always better.

18. Have fun.
You aren’t making an Oscar winning film in 48 hours, it just doesn’t happen. This is a great opportunity for you to bond with your friendly filmmakers, meet some new people, and see what’s possible.

BONUS TIP: Constraint is your friend. Having the genre, character, and item thrown at you on Friday night is enough variable. Establish the pool of actors you’ll draw from, the location you’ll be at, and maybe some possible costuming or props. Don’t change this stuff. Use it to guide your story. This allows you to develop a story easier – you’re writing a story around a certain person or place instead of writing a story and trying to figure out who could play the lead, where you’ll shoot it, and if it’s even possible to do so. Find the film “The Five Obstructions” and get some inspiration.