Somehow, it always surprises folks that I like doing video contests. After completing fourteen contest films in seven years, I thought that was fairly obvious. Even when we fail to win a prize, I still find the process rewarding and learn something new each time.
The reason I started doing them was pretty simple: I went to school primarily for animation and wanted to be better at live action video. I’d taken courses in college, but it amounted to three short live action films, and only about 220 hours of instruction–well below the “10,000 hours to become an expert” threshold. The 48 Hour Film Project specifically offered a low risk, simple way of playing with this medium and guaranteed a final product in a short amount of time. I also personally love the limitation of having to do a specific genre. If you’re curious about the 48 HFP, find out if your city is hosting one.
I did a tally of the last seven years, and I’ve worked with over 85 different people (not at the same time) and won over $40,000. They’re Using Tools! is a small army of actors, crew, and other creative folks. This is because I’ve always let anyone and everyone on the team that wanted to learn more about filmmaking. Working together, we’ve made some great films, learned more about working together, tried out fun equipment, and–sometimes–won money.
Ok, so here’s what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, what went wrong, and what went right…
2007: Failure in F Minor (48 HFP)
Overview: We pulled “Musical or Western”, meaning that we had to make a musical or a western. Being totally, naive, I choose to go with “musical.” Our team was the largest one we ever had–around 27 people.
What I learned: Have a dedicated editor. Have a person that’s well-rested looking at your footage and making decisions about it. We left it all for Sunday and it was me and a guy “hoping to learn how editing worked.”
What went wrong: I yelled at someone. We’re still friends and make videos together, even though I yelled at them–again–during another 48 HFP.
What went right: Despite making a horrible film that makes little sense, everyone had a great time and wanted to do it the next year. Mostly because there was a “we’re all in this together” vibe. While lack of specific production roles hurt us, the fact that anyone could have a great idea made team members work harder and better.
2008: The Poughkeepsie Job (48 HFP)
Overview: The genre was “Road Movie” and because we couldn’t just do one thing, we also did a gangster movie. This was our only late film.
What I learned: Have a dedicated editor. You’d think I would have learned from last year, but I didn’t. Instead, our second camera person was editor, which meant they stayed up all night editing. It’s the only time someone has stayed up past 11pm for one or our 48 Hour Film Projects.
What went wrong: Food! I tried to get a dedicated person organizing food for the crew, but ended up choosing poorly. The person I chose left the set early to hang out with a friend–right before dinner time. This meant we had a “fabulous” wrap-up dinner at TGI Fridays. Food has been a running problem. Even if it’s covered, finding enough food for 15-25 people over the course of a couple days that satisfies every dietary and allergic requirement is a big challenge.
What went right: Because I let anyone and everyone on the team, we got some truly amazing production photos that year from Lindsey Elgin. http://lindsayelgin.com
2009: Unicorpse (48 HFP)
Overview: This is the one that nearly everyone points to as being their “favorite”. We pulled Fantasy and I changed up the hierarchy of the team a little.
What I learned: Myself and Cat Smith can construct a unicorn horn in five hours without uttering a word or confering with each other in anyway. This was pointed out by the director, Nicholas Pasquariello.
What went wrong: Not food, this time. There was a worrisome moment right at the end where the editor didn’t have their system tested well enough for the speed we needed.
What went right: I decided to play an internal “game” with our team and let someone else direct. I asked the team who wanted to direct, and I asked them to pick a few genres they thought they could direct well. If their genre came out of the hat, they were director. Nicholas Pasquariello chose fantasy, and he turned out to be one of the best directors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
2010: While My Guitar Gently Creeps (48 HFP)
Overview: The genre was “Comedy”. We had a different idea that was a little darker, but the actors objected. I’m glad they did–this film won “best use of genre” that year and we got $100 for it!
What I learned: Make sure your dedicated editor actually understands how to edit sound and picture. Our editor sat around all day Saturday because they couldn’t see how to edit small sequences or prep footage. We wasted a lot of time because they wanted all the footage before they would start. Also: ask if your teammates have any special skills. We found out Jesse Gold is an amazing voice actor and he’s one of our most-requested contractors.
What went wrong: When the shooting crew finishes “early”, there’s usually a problem. You might have noticed a very poor green screen shot in the chase sequence. This is because the director and cinematographer convinced themselves that it would be better/easier to just shoot the stalker musician on green screen and composite him in. I should have sent them back to shoot pickups instead.
What went right: I trusted another untested director and we won an award for it. Everyone easily fell into their rolls and completed a great amount of work in a small amount of time.
2011: E.D.S. (48 HFP)
Overview: The genre was “Silent Film.” We decided early on to not do a classic silent/black and white era film. We wanted to make something modern and original that used the lack of vocals as a dramatic effect. We did everything we could this year: props, prosthetics, digital effects, custom music, and twenty-five hours of editing. For our efforts we won three awards: best editing, cinematography, and 1st runner up!
What I learned: Never, ever turn down the crazy ideas. I think the seed of this was “blue eggs cause silence.” It turned into such a great story from that outlandish idea.
What went wrong: Not the edit! Mostly because I edited this year. I can’t remember if we just made Nick director or if we did the method from the previous year. I think the only thing that went wrong was the eggs took longer than expected to empty and decorate. We should have pulled some under-utilized on-set folks and put them in the prop department.
What went right: Pretty much everything. It was a fun year and everyone fell into a good groove.
2012: E.D.S. 2: The Road to Tecumseh (48 HFP)
Overview: The genre was “Period Piece.” Instead of doing something set in the past, we decided that the future was a period of time that was on the table. We also thought it would be hilarious to make a sequel to the previous year’s film.
What I learned: If you’re going to give someone a specific job, give them an overview of the limitations. There was some shouting over the use of fake guns in the film (where). It’s one of two times I’ve yelled and I still regret it. Big rules like “no guns in public spaces” should be gone over with the writer before it becomes a problem.
What went wrong: Sunburns, bugs, stomach issues, and someone walked off the set. This is New England, so most of the crew is on the lighter side. I think most of the cast got a sunburn or was bitten by bugs. I should have put sunscreen and bug spray in the field kit. I got a bad stomach flu on the Saturday and mostly directed the production from the comfort of my couch with a steady stream of ginger beer. The person that walked off the set was the Saturday editor–like the problems we’ve had before, they weren’t vetted and they didn’t understand what they should be doing with their time. On a lesser note: don’t let the team do “period piece set in the future with a scifi/western theme.”
What went right: Most of the crew that was shooting didn’t notice that I was horribly ill. Here’s a photo of me with a great sickly sheen while I try to apply bullet wounds to the cast members playing wounded robbers. I also found my first employee through that year’s 48 HFP: Greta Scheing. The entire cast and crew had nothing but praises for her.
2013: Madame Catastrophe (Rock and Reel)
Overview: In this contest, you pull a song out of a hat and have 72 hours to turn it into a music video. We pulled Jennifer Teft’s “Madame Catastrophe”. I decided I would try directing for the first time in six years and only use a crew of five people. We won best cinematography, director, and 1st runner up.
What I learned: I can be director and not do a bad job! I mostly rested on the principles I’d learned from the 48 HFP of letting people do what they were inclined to do/good at. That meant crazy costumes, lots of blood effects, and heavy use of a broken toy we had in the studio. A lot of the blurry-edge effects are also a plastic bag I taped around the lens–it was an insta-instagram filter.
What went wrong: A meeting I had scheduled for the same weekend. Having that extra 24 hours, I decided I could meet a client during that time. They stood me up and the bad mood it put me in was probably felt by the other crew members.
What went right: Everything! Even when we used my cat in the tub scenes. The whole film looks cohesive, even though we were developing shots and story lines as we shot.
2013: Oh Grave, Where is Thy Victory (48 HFP)
Overview: The genre was “Western.” So, of course, we did a modern day murder-mystery as a western. This is the second time I’d directed one of our contest films.
What I learned: When you buy bug spray and sunscreen, it will be the first overcast and muggy day in seven years. I also learned that good graphic designers know all sorts of tricks like using wingdings to make the title cards look old-timey. And (!), Diana Porter can drag a 6′ guy more than three yards. She is strong and an awesome actress.
What went wrong: Check the microphone system and arrangement before shooting. We had shot in good locations–with sound proofing–or totally out in the field. But, never in a regular-old house. We had quite a few problems with levels and background noise that never could be fixed. Luckily, we still had some strong visuals.
What went right: Definitely the music was the best part. The quiet, slow instrument noise William Moretti II made really helped sell the ideas we were going for.
2014: Scratch Ticket (Rock and Reel)
Overview: This was another music video contest. We pulled Eric Barao’s “Scratch Ticket”. I was not at the music drawing, but the person that was told me that some of Eric’s music was inspired by Elvis Costello. We used the music for Costello’s “She” as an inspiration point. We won best cinematography, best director, and best overall (1st place!).
What I learned: I can be a good director more than once. I also learned that there are still really smart and amazing people in Rhode Island I haven’t worked with yet.
What went wrong: Lack of editor. I had hoped one of the two new people could hop on editing, but neither was interested. This left the 28 different performance shots un-synced till the evening. All in all, it wasn’t too big a catastrophe, but it was the worst thing to happen.
What went right: While filming everything, we ran into the trap of not having a dedicated editor–again. Undeterred, I grabbed our production photographer and taught him how to sync clips in Premiere (he had some experience with audio editing). We also used a young-ish actor in the lead role and they totally nailed the performance time after time during a thirteen hour shooting day.
Genius Rocket is a “curated crowdsourcing” video company. They find small agencies and give them the chance to pitch on big-brand clients. You start with a written pitch, then move to concept boards, storyboards, rough draft, and final draft. Each stage you progress through nets you increasing amounts of cash. From the 48 HFP, I was able to construct a team of people that helped us create award-winning video for Genius Rocket’s clients.
2010: National Hummus Brand Project (GR)
Overview: This was the first large cash award project that Genius Rocket had ever run. I wrote the initial pitch in four hours on Christmas eve. We ended up winning $18,000 and producing a one minute commercial in five weeks.
What I learned: Wow, we can do a lot in a short amount of time. The song, puppet construction, and filmmaking was all flawlessly executed in just 10 days.
What went wrong: If the prize is substantial, make sure you have an agreement with the cast and crew before you set out. The $100 prizes we got from the 48 HFP could easily be spent on a round of drinks for the crew. $18,000 requires more foresight. This caused some disagreement between myself and some of the crew. In the end, everyone that worked got some money, but working out exactly what that was–and how much went to each person–was a challenging negotiation. Luckily one that didn’t dissuade crew from signing up for future projects.
What went right: Besides winning $18,000, I also created a showpiece that launched the company into a few new categories of production.
2010: Anyone Can Sell on Amazon (GR)
Overview: This was the same year as the National Hummus Brand Project. I pitched something similar in style to the film “A Town Called Panic.” We won $8,000 and had about a month to complete this project.
What I learned: Don’t use CFLs for stop motion filming. They are incredibly hard to color correct.
What went wrong: Many, many things! The project was due right before Thanksgiving so that it could be promoted during the holidays. All our voice actors got colds at the same time, and I broke my foot. The company actually wrote some of the story, but didn’t realize that individual sellers can’t sell clothing through their service. The same week as breaking my foot, I had to come up with a new product that could be sold on Amazon and re-shoot many shots. This meant that I was rolling around the studio with my foot on another rolling chair while trying to find new actors to re-read the script, while also constructing and animating new pieces to fix the error.
What went right: We made a film that was definitely loved by the company. We made the decision to show the grandmother character’s ultimate purchase as the infamous “badonkadonk”, and our knowledge of the urban legends of Amazon really won them over.
2011: Econo Lodge (GR)
Overview: Instead of making everything from scratch, I decided to take a gamble and use a few pieces already at our disposal. I picked a temp track from one one of our collaborating bands (Canadian Invasion) and did a mockup in the style we’d already been using for them. The retro-pop art look really resonated with the client and worked as a strong showpiece in their manager’s conference. The timeline was about four weeks, and the prize was $8,000.
What I learned: Doing animated storyboards as totally finished, animatable pieces saves a lot of time. It’s a risk to put so much effort storyboards. We just didn’t have much time and this gave us more of it to spend on music creating, editing, and messaging.
What went wrong: Pretty much nothing. I think that the biggest worry was that the lyrics to the song had to go through the legal department. Knowing this, the musician kept the lyrics incredible simple and “easy” to approve.
What went right: We paired art and idea perfectly to give the client something fun and fit their brand. Sometimes what you need is lying right in front of you.
2013: AARP Travel (GR)
Overview: This pitch involved making concept boards only since the messaging was handled by the client. We could only submit two, so I let Greta make one while I made another. The client ended up liking her’s the best and we fleshed it out into a full look. Another short timeline video, I think this was four to five weeks and an $8,000 budget.
What I learned: Trust your employees, there’s a reason you hired them in the first place.
What went wrong: Music. This is an expensive part to get right. You can go with stock music–which is cheap–but ends up not having the pizzazz of custom. Sometimes stock music will work if the client is clear on their tastes, but other times it cheapens the whole video. Or you spend too much time finding the “right” sound. We initially chose to do custom music, and the client rejected our samples. This sent us into a bit of spiral. At one time both sides were scouring stock site to find the “right” piece. We should have spent more time at the beginning figuring out the genres of music the client enjoyed.
What went right: It was a great piece with a good balance of facts, fun graphics, and story. It was primarily and internal-only video, so it needed to get employees through the how/what/why very quickly while keeping them engaged.
2014 AND BEYOND
2014: Wistia Fest (Wistia)
Overview: Because I love a challenge, I decided I would try to win a ticket to Wistia’s WistiaFest in May. The ticket was valued at $500 for the two day conference. Of course, I decided to do this all alone, animated, at the last minute, and these choices left me just 36 hours to try to complete the full video.
What I learned: I can make one minute of animation in 36 hours, and still sleep. Also, the microphone on the Zoom is not as good as they claim.
What went wrong: Didn’t leave enough time for rendering. I actually didn’t get it in by midnight. But, Wistia and their sponsor Pardot saw that I still got a ticket for my efforts. http://wistia.com/blog/wistiafest-pardot-sponsorship
What went right: I made a video that showcased my writing “voice” and my actual voice. A few of my friends and colleagues were really delighted to see find out more about me. They’d never seen the upbeat, excited Mel that I created for the video. It’s someone I don’t let out much because I’m always afraid that it will just seem too silly. Instead, I think it let people get to know me a little bit better. I also got to go to an amazing event where I met other enthusiastic video people.
Not Doing the 48HFP
Wait, what? Yeah, that’s right. I’m not participating this year. After telling you about all the awesome contests I participated in and all the fun times we had. There’s two reasons:
-I’ve done this for so long, I know a lot about the doing videos for timed contests. I want to make sure that other filmmakers have as much fun as me.
-It’s become too easy to do the 48 HFP. I need a challenge. I’ve never had to book screening venues, find sponsors, and work with such a large group of strangers all at once.
-I’m producing a short film this year and want to focus my energies on that production. I feel like I have the know-how, confidence, and resources to put it together. We’ll be shooting the zombie-comedy musical Won’t You Come Home, Bones Bailey? in August, with October release in time for Halloween.