It's 8:52 p.m., and we're starting to freak out.
We're exactly 35 hours and 52 minutes into a contest that gave me and nine teammates 36 hours to write, produce, edit and deliver a three- to six-minute movie for the O36 Video Race. It's that last bit that poses the problem: The movie is shot, edited and ready to go. But in the course of trying to transfer it from the computer to digital-video cassette and VHS cassette, which is required for judging, we hit a snag.
First, the DV tape didn't work. For some reason the movie wouldn't load onto the tape through the borrowed recording deck. After 20 minutes of tinkering, we dumped the recording deck and figured out that we could transfer it directly through a digital video camera. Now all that was left was to dump it to VHS. Not as easy as it sounds. And there were only eight minutes left to figure out the problem and get the tape downtown from my house in Ocoee. In other words, impossible.
"It would suck to do all this work and lose because of this shit!" says Ileana Johns, the film's executive producer/editor. She's in tears, and attempts to calm her down are fruitless.
But we catch a break. The film's director, Jen Vargas, calls the event organizers and explains that we are having a problem with the VHS tape. Would it be OK to drop off only the DV tape instead? The answer comes back affirmative.
But it's already 9:04 p.m., meaning we're already late. The organizers won't tell us the penalty our tardiness will cost when the film, along with the 38 others who finished the race, is judged.
Johns and I hop in her car and haul ass. We run red lights, we blow through stop signs, we hit the East-West Expressway at 90 mph. We pull up in front of DMAC at 9:12 p.m.
It's over. Maybe now we can get some sleep.
NO SCI-FI, PLEASE
The rules for this contest were simple: At 9 a.m. Feb. 19, a representative from each team went downtown to DMAC and received a packet telling them what genre of film to make, a prop that had to be included in the movie and a line of dialogue they had to use, to prevent teams from filming ahead of time.
The key, we'd been told in a pre-competition meeting the week before, was preparation. Make sure you had cameras, locations and editing systems lined up. Make sure you had actors you could call. Make sure you had lights, and people who knew how to use them. Brainstorm as many story ideas as you could for any genre of film you could think of.
We culled our 10-person crew from friends. Vargas would direct. Johns would edit and produce. Jay De Los Santos would run camera. Eric Palkovic would handle the soundtrack. Brian Lanier would be our actor. We had people to handle everything from production assistance to lighting and set decoration. I would write the script, though I have zero experience of screenwriting.
Since most members of our group were students at Florida Metropolitan University, we borrowed lights and camera rigs from the school. My house, on Lake Sherwood at the edge of Ocoee in east Orange County, was the base for our locations.
We went location scouting a few days before the contest began, walking down a heavily forested dirt road at the end of my street. There we found a dilapidated old couch and a handful of broken television sets a perfect movie set, regardless of genre.
Speaking of genre, there was one none of us wanted: science fiction. Sci-fi can look ridiculous if you don't have the time or budget to make the effects look right, and we had neither. The genre we got: sci-fi.
At 9:15 a.m. Vargas called from downtown. We had the prop a little blue ball that lit up when you squeezed it and the line of dialogue "I wish you hadn't done that, but since you did …" Time to make a movie.
Video races are a relatively new phenomenon, though one that has grown rapidly in the last five years. There are contests in nearly every city that considers itself at all hip. The general premise doesn't vary much: Contestants have a short time 24 to 48 hours is the norm to produce a short movie, incorporating a genre or prop or line of dialogue to prevent cheaters from getting a head start.
Vancouver, British Columbia, has 24-hour competitions for both filmmaking and public-service announcements. Boulder, Colo., has The Shoot Out Boulder, a festival for shorts made in 24 hours; the catch here is that films must be shot continuously, meaning no outside editing. Salt Lake City, Utah, has the LocoMotion Film Festival, another 24-hour contest. New York City has NYC Midnight Movie Making Madness.
Thirty-three cities across North America and Europe are part of the 48-Hour Film Project, which operates under the same rules as the 24-hour contests (but give contestants an extra day to complete their entry). The winners in each city are also judges in an annual "best of" competition.
In Orlando, O36 is the brainchild of the Media Communications Association Inter-national's Orlando chapter, which wanted to emulate the success of other competitions across the country. They based the event on a similar race in Dallas sponsored by an MCAI chapter there. The Orlando branch partnered with Women in Film and Television Florida, and the first O36 festival took place in February 2004.
The first year had 28 finishers out of 34 teams who signed up, and the results were mixed. My group, and a handful of others, viewed a selection of 2004's winners at a seminar the week before the contest. One film stood out, and swept all the categories for professional groups. (The judging is divided into two groups: one for students and another for professionals.) The student films which made up most of the entries largely sucked.
This year, the expectations were higher. The MCAI was hoping for as many as 120 entrants. They didn't get that many, but 46 teams signed up, and 39 crossed the finish line. This year, the ratio of students to professionals was about even.
"We didn't have a sweep this year, so far as I can tell," says Stephen Hayford, the O36 committee co-chair and a competition judge. The quality of entrants was improved, adds Hayford. "Some of them were much better. I was quite amazed at some of the student ones."
For MCAI, the competition is a chance to attract new members. For the filmmakers, there aren't a lot of practical implications. With the exception of those in the television news industry, the film and video world rarely has such tight deadlines. But making a movie in such a short time frame drives home the concept of delegation.
"It teaches them that one person can't do it all," Hayford says. "That's what TV is all about."
And, perhaps more importantly, it's all about having a good time. "It's a chance to do a project you wouldn't do in the real world," he says. "If you're in corporate `video production`, you're not going to do film noir or science fiction."
And if you're a writer for a weekly newspaper, you generally don't find yourself writing movie scripts, either. Ergo, cranking out a first-time script is quite the stressful endeavor.
Fueled by Red Bull and Starbucks coffee, I sat down to write. I didn't want something cheesy, though with our genre, cheesy would be easy. I rejected stories involving aliens or zombies, and tossed the idea of doing something campy, a la Ed Wood. I wanted something smart.
My goal was to have the script finished by 1 p.m. That would give Vargas and De Los Santos about five hours to shoot outdoors before sunset, and another six hours to shoot inside and get night shots. By midnight we'd be editing, leaving plenty of time to finish, perhaps even ahead of schedule.
It was a nice theory.
De Los Santos and I developed the story concept almost immediately: a man tormented by visions. He assumes his visions are real, an abstract prediction of the future, and acts on them, killing someone he believes to be an antagonist. The film would be ambiguous about whether that second character was indeed a villain or not.
First problem: Would such a story qualify as science fiction? If the audience thought our protagonist was hallucinating, we had a psychodrama, not science fiction. Yet De Los Santos and I liked the general idea. Others on the crew thought our prop the light-up ball could trigger the visions, but I found that obvious. I wanted to employ the prop in a more subtle way, so I gave it to our lead character to use as a stress ball.
Second problem: Our storyline had a huge hole. At some point our story's two characters would have to meet, but there was no way to arrange a meeting that wouldn't seem contrived.
Our 1 p.m. deadline came and went. I'd developed a few scenes a dream sequence to open the film, a diary sequence, a scene in which our lead character is burying his enemy and determined that the majority of the film's dialogue would be captured on voice-over, thereby eliminating the hazards involved with live sound. But the storyline still wasn't fleshed out. And soon, we were going to lose daylight. Worse, Lanier hadn't shown up yet.
He finally rolled in, as De Los Santos and I were still trying to iron out the script. The dream sequence would be shot in the woods, on an assembled, impromptu set including the ratty couch and the broken televisions. Time was wasting, and we needed to shoot.
That first scene was the most elaborate, since it had the closest thing to a special effect. In his dream, the protagonist would sit still on the couch while his gun-wielding nemesis, played by Chris Cartee, walked around him in blurry fast motion and pointed the gun at his head. It took two hours to shoot.
We spent the rest of the daylight hours shooting chase scenes in a nondescript parking lot, in a long church driveway and in the woods. We shot a scene in which Lanier and Cartee's characters bumped into each other, but realized later that we couldn't use it because of a glimpse of a hardware store's logo in the background; the rules said no logos of any kind.
At dusk we still didn't have a finished story.
THAT'S A WRAP
We broke for dinner at 7 p.m., and reassembled for a progress meeting an hour later. Our story needed to be addressed immediately. While De Los Santos and I wrestled with that problem, the rest of the crew prepped the house for interior shots.
I'd already given up hope of writing a traditional script. Instead, I made a list of scene summaries to expedite things, leaving the action directions to others. We would plug in the dialogue later. In the course of the next hour the story finally came together. Our protagonist bumped into his nemesis in his dreams, and killed him to prevent him from carrying out his nefarious plans. All would be revealed through the voice-over narrative and a brief dialogue scene, which I had yet to write.
I finished the dialogue around midnight, and then declared myself brain-dead and decided to sleep. Meanwhile, the crew continued shooting. At about 4:30 a.m., they traveled to another parking lot to shoot the all-important confrontation scene, the only one with live audio.
They were noisy, and someone called the cops. Our set designer and boom operator, Debora Crow, explained the situation. Amazingly enough, the cops told them to hurry up and finish.
The crew returned for a few hours of sleep. I woke up at 8 a.m. and roused them; we needed to finish shooting quickly to have enough time for editing. Overnight, Palkovic e-mailed us his soundtrack, computer-produced string and guitar arrangements that covered a variety of moods. He had no idea what the movie was about.
We scrambled to finish a few last-minute shots, including a replacement for the take ruined by the hardware store sign. At the house, the crew set up a shot of a girl bound and gagged, and another of Cartee's character washing his bloody hands. By 1 p.m., the shooting was done.
Johns edited quickly, but there were more problems. We were short on both filler and scenes. The soundtrack was better than we ever expected, and fit the movie perfectly, but Lanier had gone through his voice-over too quickly which was my fault, since I was coaching him and said nothing. We had to slow him down and space his lines out on the computer to make it coincide with the images on the screen.
We stretched. With credits, our movie The Diary of Disappearing ran 5 minutes and 20 seconds. It was 7:30 p.m. All we had to do was drop it to digital video and VHS, and get downtown. Fast.
The end result won't make the cut at Sundance, but it ain't bad for a bunch of people who didn't know what they were doing. We'll see just how good it is, compared to the other entries, at the O36 Video Race awards ceremony 2 p.m. March 20 at the Universal Loews Cineplex. The judging and screening will be open to the public.
If our movie is declared a winner we entered in the "student" category, since most of our crew members were film students they'll show it on the big screen. If we don't get there, perhaps a snippet will make it big.