20 Beginner Tips for 48 Hour Film Project Survival

Since the 48 Hour Film Project is kicking off this month, I figured I’d update my tips and repost. So, you’re crazy enough to have signed up for the 48 Hour Film Project and now you’re Googling away, trying to make that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach go away by researching and preparing yourself? Spoiler alert: unless you really get an endorphin trip from pure craziness and frenzy, that feeling isn’t going away. There’s not a whole lot you can do to really prepare yourself for the crushing realization you have to make a film in two frickin’ days, but these tips will certainly help you set yourself up as best you possibly can to avoid some of the pitfalls before you even get started.

If you’ve read this on my blog before, it’s because I posted an older version before. This is an updated post.

Oh, and some background on me: I’ve done the 48 Hour Film Project twice (2010 and 2011). Our film won best music in 2010. Didn’t win squat in 2011. Our 2010 film really got some mega-mileage out of this two day insane-a-thon though. It’s won some awards at other festivals (including Best Film, at a contest where it competed against films that had UNLIMITED time to finish!) and it’s been screened at something like 10 theaters across the midwest, even so recently as last month. So clearly we did something right. However, remember that like any other awards ceremonies and contests, there are politics and opinions involved and often the deserving films are beaten by the flashy or heavy concept ones. Just a warning – the judges make a huge difference, so do this contest for the fun of it, not the glory of awards. But that should be true in any case!

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 one 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. If you’re in a place that can have gray areas, get an itemized list of the locations you’re allowed in, and the times you’re allowed 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. Obviously it’s helpful to them if they know how long they have to do a hairstyle or create a makeup change. 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 in 2010, 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. Don’t get distracted by the assigned aspects (character, dialogue, etc.)
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. Don’t get hooked by one aspect of your film – for example, if you have a good idea for the use of your prop, don’t let it dictate the entire production. While there are awards for such things like best use of prop, it probably doesn’t make for a great story.

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. If you had hard-headed people on your team, ditch them. Everyone needs to work together.

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 would have preferred a tapeless workflow obviously but it wasn’t something we’d done before as a team. At this point, if you shoot tapeless and edit in Premiere CS6, you should have almost no downtime. That is a huge plus.

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. That’s really how this should work. Ideally, if there can be someone on set as a liaison between the editor and the production crew to relay the idea of the film and what the director wants, that would be best. If it can be the director, super. Better yet might be a second assistant director who is there half a day and hasn’t been going strong for hours, but understands the film from the other assistant director and reading over script notes.

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 over location sound.

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. Make a decision collectively ahead of time that someone will just be the final decision maker. It’s better to just understand that not everyone will get what they want than to fight about dumb things.

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 plugin, 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. And your cast will be impressed you actually thought to feed them real food (and not just cold pizza) and will want to work with you again.

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. Story is the key. Keep it simple!
Like I said, you don’t have anything if you don’t have a great story. A lot of 48 hour films I’ve seen look good and have some great aspects to them but they don’t tell a good or complete story. So what’s the point of them? The films that win (usually..hopefully) have a great story. If you can, get some people involved on your team that have a background in writing or storytelling. Keep it SIMPLE.

19. Have someone take production stills for you.
You’ll be busy, so recruit a budding photographer or bribe a professional to document your day. You’ll love seeing all the photos later, especially because you won’t remember a lot of it.

20. 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. What’s easier: “We need to write a comedy” or “We need to write a comedy about a butcher with a dog that will take place in this office”? Find the film “The Five Obstructions” and get some inspiration. Thinking from a constrained viewpoint instead of having the entire world at your finger tips makes a much better film.

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