The 48 Hour Film Project is a global phenomenon taking place in hundreds of cities worldwide, so I was very glad to know that it arrived in Dubai in 2011. After sitting out two years just watching the entries, I decided to finally take part in 2013. The result was an exhilarating experience that was unlike any other. Last year was different since it happened two times. Once, I won the Audience Award. The second time, I won Best Film itself.
While I won’t be able to take part this year because of other shooting commitments, here are ten tips from my end on how to survive and make the best film possible during 48 Hour Film Project.
1. Have Three Actors Ready
It’s always daunting when you as a team leader and filmmaker have to gather a team for your crew. But the one thing I have learned is to think small. As far as your actors go, it’s great if you can get ten different people to be a part of your film. For some filmmakers, this is very easy to find. But for others like you and me, it might be a much harder goal to accomplish. So here’s the trick – get at least three actors. Two of one gender and another of a different gender. So two male actors and one female, or vice versa. No matter what genre you get, it’s almost always possible to come up with a story that involves three or less characters.
The advantage of having at least one person from the other gender is if you get romance but even without that you can get creative. Maybe instead of a guy meets girl, it’s about a guy obsessing over a picture of a girl instead. But point is – three is a good minimum number of committed actors that ensure that you’re not creatively stifled when thinking of ideas. My first round film had three actors (two male, one female) while my second time around had just two actors in a room. But it’s always a good idea to also have a bunch of friends willing to play extras as well if needed. Just in case.
2. Have Two Locations Ready
For most people, this is hands on the biggest nightmare when it comes to 48 Hour Film Project. Locations wildly depend on the people you know and the kind of favors you can pull, but at the bare minimum the best idea is to have just two locations ready. Make sure the two locations are completely different in style eg. a house and an office/university instead of two houses. This is to give you maximum freedom when it comes to writing your script, because I guarantee you every single genre you get can be shot in one of two locations if you’re creative enough. Romance? Shoot an office romance. Horror? Shoot on set in a university (like Cold Feet is). In fact, I prefer locations not to be houses because they tend to be a bland location visually.
For my first time, I had a house and a university as confirmed shooting locations. When I got horror, the first instinct would be to use the house to shoot a horror short. But it would also be the most generic way to go, since almost every horror short takes place in a house at night. So why not be creative and distinguish your film? How about a horror film that takes place at a university at night? That’s how Cold Feet was born, and was a better movie for it. If you have access to more locations, great! But at the least, try to borrow two and you’re good to go.
3. But Shoot Primarily Only In One
Here’s something that works for me and guarantees a lot fewer headaches during the shoot – shoot in one location and try to avoid that location being outdoors. Again, every single genre can have an idea that’s completely contained to one location and will force you to become a more creative filmmaker for it. It’s easy to go out and shoot in five different locations but writing a film that takes place in one is the hard part. But that hard work pays off during shooting because moving around with your crew and equipment on a tight deadline is the most stressful thing you can do and almost invites something to go wrong. The less locations you have, the less the downtime and the less chance there is of one of them not working out for whatever reason.
The great part about 48 Hour Film Project is that they actually get you official filming permits for shooting in government locations and roads but I’ve never used them. Shooting outdoors means working in an environment you cannot completely control, which can lead to all sort of continuity issues. Not to mention things like sound become that much harder to do on outdoors than in an environment you control. There are exceptions to the rule and if you can somehow control an outdoor location then go ahead, but as a general guideline it’s best to stick to an indoor location. It’s for your own ease.
4. Delegate But Centralize
This is the most subjective and possibly contradicting advice here. Being a guerilla filmmaker, I was conditioned to do almost every job behind the camera myself. This goes from writing the script, handling the camera, doing the audio, editing the film and everything in between. But for the first time in 48 Hour Film Project, I had to make the decision to delegate and find a larger crew that could take on some of those responsibilities. So make sure you’ve got people on your crew that you can give certain things to. For me, it was production assistants who helped me out, someone handling the lights, and someone dedicated to handling audio on set. Usually, I’m the guy handling all of these things. But in a tight shoot like this, trust others to do the job (even if they’re new to it) and focus on the essentials of getting the film right because time is of the essence.
But since time is of the essence, it’s also important to centralise. While it’s great to have as many helping hands with you on the set of your film, try to keep it to a manageable number before your set becomes too big for you to handle. Believe it or not, there is a point after which the benefit of having helping hands diminishes and you actually end up spending more time shooting your film instead of less just because you had fifteen people on set doing little things that make shot set-ups much longer. But more importantly, centralise when it comes to post-production. Almost all the films that don’t end up submitting on time during the competition are because of time spent in the editing phase and the film not being ready yet. One reason for that? Too many people involved in post. I know people who have an editor who edits the film, then a sound-designer who gets all the audio mixed, then a composer who makes a score for the film, then a grader who color corrects the film. The more people you end up relying on, the larger risk there is of your project not being ready in time. You don’t have a lot of hours, so make sure you’re lean. If you edit your films, great. Otherwise, give the footage to your editor but also have him grade the film while making sure your composer sends you a sample score based on raw footage so there’s something ready by the time the editor is done grading the film. The aim of the competition is to submit the best film possible in time, and you can always fine-tune the film afterwards.
5. Embrace Your Elements
A lot of filmmakers dread getting their elements when they’re thinking about their short films. And some of the worst entries I’ve personally seen are the ones that shoehorn the elements such as dialogue and prop into the film like an afterthought in the laziest way possible. Don’t be that guy. In fact, do the opposite. Use your elements to inform your creative process and I guarantee you it will somehow help you in the writing phase when you’re deciding on the idea. I’ll give you an example. When I got Horror as a genre, the basic idea I had was a guy stuck at work late at night and weird shit happens. But then the genre elements I got were a referee (character) and an envelope (prop).
When I hit a wall with my premise in terms of where to go with that setup, it was very tempting to come up with ways to shoehorn those elements into my existing idea. Maybe the guy watches a referee on Youtube for a second, and then pushes an envelope away from his desk before the film goes on. A lot of films do that and it’s really awkward and off-putting. Instead, I began to think – what if I make my main character the referee? I immediately realised I have a university I can shoot that, so this same setup can be a referee leaving the university he works at late night and weird shit happens. But ‘weird’ isn’t a story and I was coming up with nothing. That’s when I looked at my prop – envelope. What if the referee found some of his students terrified late at night and they’re each holding an envelope in their hand? What’s in the envelope? Suddenly, my mind was racing. Pretty soon, I was ready with a great unique idea for a horror short instead of a cliche serial killer route I was originally thinking of. It led to a film I’m way more proud of, and feels like it was made for the competition rather than something I thought of before then forced the elements in. So make the elements your friends and they will definitely surprise you.
6. Don’t Be Afraid To Think Crazy
You’re a part of the 48 Hour Film Project to not just have a great experience, but also to win it. And safe doesn’t win. The general advice here is that when you’re in the phase of coming up with an idea for your film, don’t be afraid to make it a unique and crazy. That’s the beauty of 48 Hour Film Project – the short time period can lead to some crazy films. If you get romance, you can easily shoot a safe romantic comedy short and technically have a decent finished film. But there’s no fun in that and unless it’s truly excellent, it probably won’t win. So why not think out of the box? When I got Time Travel as a genre last time, I could have easily made a serious sci-fi film with time travel as an element. But instead, I decided to think something out of the blue. What’s the last genre you’d think of when you hear ‘time travel’? A comedy. What’s the last situation you’d expect time travel you show up? A job interview! That led to See Yourself, the winning film of the last round about a job interview where the interviewer finds out that the candidate has time travel abilities. It’s a unique film that, despite technical hiccups, won the round solely because of a crazy concept that immediately hooked you in. So make crazy a part of your equation.
7. Sleep Well On Thursday Night
Generally speaking, the 48 Hour Film Project weekend won’t exactly be a weekend full of sleep for anyone. But it’s important to know the one day that you absolutely need to get sleep and that’s the night before the shoot itself (Thursday night for UAE). It’s tempting to be up thinking about the film you’re going to be shooting all night, but you need to get at least 6 hours of sleep before you are up to shoot. And the reason is simply because the shoot will always last longer than you expect and can keep you up for 12 consecutive hours even. And if you’re also the editor on the film, things get even harder for you because you will come back home at midnight after the shoot and just crash. Instead, sleep on Thursday night and stay wide awake on Friday night editing your film or sitting with your editor working on the edit of the film. It’s here that every hour really counts, but the only way you can be awake all night here (and I’ve done that twice) is if you have had ample sleep the night before. Otherwise, forget about it. So be the smart one and take some sleep.
8. Don’t Neglect Nor Obsess Over Sound
It’s true that sound is half the experience of a film, so it’s your job to make sure you do not neglect it. I cannot tell you the amount of short films I’ve seen that are shot on the slickest DSLR but have audio with noticeable hiss and dialogue from the on-camera microphone. Nothing spells amateur than bad sound, so make sure you pay attention to how your sound is being recorded on set. That said, in context of 48 Hour Film Project, it’s important to not obsess over sound in editing if you’re running out of time. Of course, it’s ideal to submit the film with the perfect sound mix and the cleanest audio you can imagine. But at the end of the day, your perfectly mixed film will screen in the ‘Late Films’ section of the screenings and be ineligible for the awards. Rather make sure the sound is the best that ‘it can be’ during the final day of the weekend, but know when to stop and render the file so you can drive over and submit your film in time. This is one aspect you can always return to when you have time later, and I’ve done this for both times I took part.
9. Be Decisive, But Welcome Ideas
The 48 Hour Film Project is all about collaboration and teamwork, and it’s great to embrace and welcome ideas from every member of your team in every phase. Some of the best moments in my competition films came from random suggestions from actors that were far better than what I had in mind and that’s definitely a huge advantage of having a collaborative attitude during filmmaking. That said, it’s also important to be decisive. Sometimes as a director, you might not have a concrete idea on how to do a certain scene or how to end your film. The moment your crew sees that you don’t have a concrete idea to execute something, they’ll jump in with great suggestions. But at the end of the day, you are the captain of the ship here and it’s your job to make sure to take the best idea and stick to it. Or if your gut instinct says to go with something you have in mind, then stick to that. I’ve learned this the hard way since I spent 30 minutes arguing with the cast about how to do a certain scene, just because I wasn’t decisive enough on the way I wanted to do it. So the best way to save time is to absorb ideas but in the end go with the idea that you feel is right. It’s your film, so trust your gut instinct and be decisive.
10. Don’t Forget To Have Fun
Look, the 48 Hour Film Project is supposed to be fun. Yes, it’s stressful at times and insane at other moments but think about this. At the end of 48 hours, you will have gone from having literally nothing in your hand to a finished short film that you can then do whatever you want with it. Isn’t that crazy and worth celebrating? So make sure you have fun throughout the experience because it’s one of a kind and it will lift the morale of your crew which is most likely giving you their time for absolutely nothing in return. A fun set is a productive set. Crazy group pictures optional.
Hope those tips were helpful, and you bet I’ll be there on the final screening night to see what gems this year produces. Now go on and make the best film you can. Best of luck!