All in a panic – Why I’m not a fan of 48 hour film challenges

Earlier this year, myself and my friend Adam Brown completed work on a short film called KERNEL PANIC. The film was made as an intended entrant for a sci fi themed 48 hour film challenge. Adam, who produced, has entered a few of these challenges before, even winning one time with his short film STRANGE WOODS. This was my first 48 hour film challenge, and most likely my last.

Yes, I am not a fan of the process. Believe me, I seem to be the only one within my little circle of filmmaking chums who feels this way and I’m sure they will disagree almost entirely with this post.

Now, just to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, I should explain what a 48 hour film challenge is. Each team of filmmakers is randomly assigned a theme, a genre, a line of dialogue, a prop and sometimes, a title. Once drawn, the team have 48 hours to shoot and deliver a film.

Whilst these competitions are great at getting filmmakers motivated to shoot something over one weekend, I find the end results normally look rushed, the scripts unrefined and the end result unpolished. Which to me is just plain obvious. They’re literally made from a first draft, cut to a first edit. If you know about writing and editing, the first version of anything is always lacking. 48 hour film challenges by definition create first draft films. Obviously, I appreciate how difficult it is to make films this way. But the compromised, rushed nature of these films means you can only appreciate them if you know how hard filmmaking can be. It’s a niche film format for an even niche-er audience, one that is most appreciated by other filmmakers. Now, I’m a huge Lynch and Jodorowsky fan, so I’m not saying everything we make has to play well to the masses. But it does need to be fully functional, have a beginning, middle and ending that works, with well developed characters and a story that conforms to its own internal logic. Rushing into a story, with a randomly selected theme, plot, dialogue or title makes it very difficult to create something that reflects your potential. True, you have the option of recutting what you shot, editing to your heart’s content. But there’s no escaping from a first draft you scripted in a hurry. A compromised script is an event horizon no amount of directorial skill can save you from.

That said, they are still an opportunity to do something, however misplaced and mistaken they may be. Doing anything creative is always preferable to doing nothing, well… at least in my dojo. Also, mistakes, or rather, reflecting on your mistakes is an excellent way to learn. So, despite my reservations, I was in. *cue fanfare*….

Because of the sci-fi theme, many of the competing entrants were putting together elaborate sets and props. There was even a rumour that someone was building a spaceship set! You could argue that this sort of thing is contrary to the spirit of the competition, but I wasn’t really bothered about competitions and prizes, I just wanted to make a good film. So I suggested we construct a space suit as a centre piece for our entry. Along with the suit, I wrote a short script based around the costume, just something to have in our back pocket, in case inspiration deserted us or the magic tombola (from whence our entries, theme, prop and line of dialogue would be drawn from) delivered to us unworkable choices. Which, I was almost unsurprised to discover, it did! What we drew was just nonsense, uninspiring, dull and unworkable. Adam (as I mentioned, veteran of the process) was shocked by the result. So, we shot my pre prepared script instead, invalidating us from the competition.

But despite everyone’s hard work, despite the excellent turns by Fliss and Juliet, the end product was compromised by the necessity to write something that COULD have been used in the competition: An idea, shot, edited and delivered over the weekend. Naturally, I created something whose necessity for a quick turnaround stifled the full potential of the idea. My next post on this blog will cover in greater detail the weaknesses in my script and what I should have done. For now, I will say this: The failure of the film, both on the page and as an entrant for a 48 hour film challenge lies squarely with myself, the lead creative in this project.

We would have done better had we ignored the whole competition from the start and just… made a film! We assembled a great team and scored some cool resources to shoot  over a weekend. Great! We rock! But, instead of making it all up in a rush, why not spend some time on the script beforehand? Fine, the randomisation of theme, style, props and dialogue can be a great way to force creativity. And, learning how to improvise, how to get things done under stressful and chaotic situations? You don’t have to be a genius to see the worth of that. But what you don’t need is a separate organisation to sort these things out for you! The internet is full of random word and image generators. I use them all the time if I’m stuck for inspiration. And filmmaking is haphazard enough to throw you natural curve balls that will test your capability to think very, very fast. No need for simulated panic! By all means, shoot the film under a time limit, apply as much creative restrictions as you think will make it a fulfilling challenge and an education. Just, don’t rush the script, don’t rush the edit, especially when you’re half dead from sleep deprivation because you have to get the damn thing done in time. Produce something that works, good enough for you to take a step up onto the next rung of the ladder.

The key learning experience for any filmmaker is making films. But you cannot make a good film without a good script. Sure, you can learn from mistakes you made shooting a film that was improvised over a weekend, but why not learn from mistakes you made shooting a GOOD film over a weekend?

For the sake of balance, I have seen some films created through this process that have been good. Examples include the aforementioned STRANGE WOODS and JUICE by the Blaine Brothers. And the winning entry in the competition we failed to enter was superb! But I have seen far, far more films from great directors that just do not work. Products of a script undermined by the necessity for haste and straight-jacketed into a process that I find a complete anathema to creative story telling.

For me, 48 hour film challenges are not really worth it. Worse, I think they can spoil an opportunity to create something worthwhile. One day, someone will pitch a new reality show based around the concept of 48 hour filmmaking and I don’t think I could give a stronger condemnation of these silly competitions then that.

Play by your own rules. Why leave it to chance?

2 thoughts on “All in a panic – Why I’m not a fan of 48 hour film challenges

  1. Thanks for the mention Martin, much appreciated. We’ve done three 48hr films in the past. As you say Juice was a joy and still makes me laugh even now. Anyone wanting to watch it can find it at https://vimeo.com/11180045

    Like you I’ve seen more than my fair share of awful films that unsurprisingly prove that 48hrs is not enough to make a good film. But I remember being in Berlin and watching the German entrants the year we made our worst film ever… it was humbling. When you see films made in 2 days that are far better than many people have struggled years over it makes you really reassess what is essential… and what is possible.

    I think the fundamental point though is not to under estimate the importance of the point you yourself make “Doing anything creative is always preferable to doing nothing”. Yes it’s true that you *could* have made Kernel Panic outside of the competition… but it’s also true that you didn’t.

    Digital cameras, cameras in phones, edit suites in our laptops… the freedom we all have now to make films is intoxicating and often also crippling. There’s little to stop any of us from making a film on any given day. If all a 48hr Challenge does is focus the mind and force a film out of the imagination then it does a great deal indeed.

    After all, Kernel Panic may not be the best film you’ll ever make but it’s a lot better than you make out in this article and – most importantly – it is.

    much love
    bB

    • Thanks for the reply, brother Ben.

      Must admit, I wasn’t sure about raising this subject on my blog. In fact, I feel a bit of a fraud saying anything about filmmaking, seeing as I have so little previous experience outside of lurking in the shadows cast by Sneakers and Charlies…

      Rather selfishly, I think collecting my thoughts within my own dark little corner of the internet serves more of a personal interest than anything else. Hurling my little musings out into the electronic ether somehow makes them feel more substantial than just writing them down in my diary.

      I will have to leave for another day the explanation of why I didn’t do something sooner, mostly because I’m still trying to figure that one out for myself. But you’re right about this particular challenge being a kick out the door for me. So for that, I am grateful.

      Perhaps I have been a little hard on myself, but I think being tough on yourself is a vital quality in, well… in anything, really. It’s what drives me, spurs me onwards. Again, my public flogging is probably more about my own gratification than the passing on of experience.

      Still, enough about flogging and gratification in public, eh?

      See you around
      Martin
      The Whip Master General

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