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Making A Film In 24 Hours


By Robert Alstead - Posted on 13 April 2004

It's 9.45am, and I'm in a crowded Italian café in Vancouver looking for my producer, who I've never met before, to make a film about, well, we're still not sure yet. Oh yes, and we are going to make this film in 24 hours.

Welcome to the 24 Hour Film Contest. The contest is one of a series of "fast film" events that have sprung up in recent years in "Hollywood North", where contestants race to make a film, from writing the script to delivering a finished short of 5 minutes or less on tape.

Contestants are given a selection of elements to incorporate into their film - themes, a word or phrase, a character, and a prop like a light bulb, a pumpkin, or an egg. Up to 60% of the points awarded by the judges are based on how well teams have incorporated those elements into their film. There are various prizes - typically gifts in-kind from the local film industry and a public screening at a local venue.

Many of the filmmakers huddled in teams around the room and milling on the sidewalk, are young but not all of them. The event attracts both new and seasoned filmmakers. So why are more and more filmmakers, there are 35 teams on this occasion, shelling out 200 Canadian bucks (about 80 pounds) to take part in this adrenaline-charged film sport? Wouldn't they be better putting that money toward a project over which they have more control and with which they wouldn't have to cede global distribution rights?

"People make films when they have a mandate to. A lot of people are would-be filmmakers or want to make films but they can't pull their crews together," explains Ed Hatton, one of the organisers of the contest. "If people can say I can now make a film and all it takes is one day at a time, they can get the crews, they can get the better talent, they can get the producer, because it is a fixed commitment."

He and founder/organiser Kryshan Randel also believe that the shorts make a much stronger package together whether it be screening in public, exhibiting on the web, selling on DVD or for potential television buyers.

The Contest is also about having fun, as my producer, Kaare Andrews, reminds me when I find him at 10.05am and the room's adrenaline level is rising.

Kaare, a veteran of five contests and a two-time award-winner, has in mind a military/POW type movie inspired by a famous Civil War short story. The story goes that a Confederate soldier survives being hung off a bridge, when the rope around his neck snaps and he falls into the river. He swims away and escapes to his wife, before it becomes clear that in fact he died on the bridge and everything is taking place in his head.

Kaare's idea, to be set in the basement of his apartment block, is about a prisoner who overpowers his guards just as he is about to be executed, dives out of a window into the ocean to be reunited with his wife, before snapping back to reality.

"Normally I come in with something and it always changes. I haven't done any preparatory work. In my head that's the structure I could go with if the elements were appropriate," says Kaare.

Our brown envelope with the rules and film elements reveals the sub-theme is "where words fail, music speaks", the characters are "the good, the bad, and the melancholy", the phrase is "today, nothing is going to hold me back", the genre is "narrative", and a "bale of hay" is the prop. All filmmakers are designated a soundtrack from a local up-and-coming band which the rules stipulate must be played in its entirety, linearly and at audible levels.

After everyone has shouted the traditional call to "Get Creative Fast!", the filmmakers scatter. There are three of us in our team so far - the other being an artist called Ron - we'll meet the others later. For a race, Kaare makes it feel relaxed. He points out that you've got to be ready for anything to be thrown at you, adding that, at the same time, the obstacles can sometimes make it easier by narrowing down your options.

Outside on the sidewalk, people are wrestling hay bales into black bin bags. A car with a block of hay strapped to the roof races off down the street. The last out, we discover our first obstacle: the hay bales have run out. After some discussion, arrangements are made for the hay to be delivered.

On the way to the car I suggest that we keep the militaristic theme but make it a hunt for some contaminated hay, but Kaare and Ron seem sure that we can find a workaround using the original idea.

Over breakfast, we firm up the treatment. Kaare and Ron are excited about doing special effects, in particular a "crappy" compositing sequence where the prisoner leaps from a window into the ocean. To fake the fall we will be using a plastic action man as a "stunt double", a swimming pool and a beach in Vancouver. We also have a SWAT suit apparently worn by Jet Lee in The One which Kaare won in an internet auction. Ron suggests we replicate it to create a SWAT team.

The ideas are flying. There's even discussion of having me do a mock critique of the film tagged onto the end (a film historian "a la Monty Python," enthuses Kaare), which I'm a little nervous about doing. It could fall horribly flat. We leave the option open.

The tough part will be incorporating the song, "Your City is Ugly". Listening to the track on Ron's laptop we find it's not punk as we had hoped - that might have better fitted the militaristic theme - but a self-absorbed and melancholic piece of pop about a girl who feels alienated by Vancouver. The female vocals are soft and gentle, which would be fine if the rules didn't stipulate that the song must be played in its entirety, linearly and always audibly.

Kaare's reaction is that the organisers have made a mistake. "I'm incredibly scared that there will be a lot of really bad music videos," he says. Fortunately, the rules say nothing about speeding up the soundtrack so that it is just an audible sting in the opening title credits, which is what Kaare eventually does. We might get marked down for it, but as he says, "It's not just about winning."

In our favour, we also use part of the song, and the refrain, "Your City Is Ugly" to satisfy the sub-theme element. Ron is assigned the job of creating an "ugly" post-apocalyptic urban backdrop for the prison in Photoshop.

It's past noon when we arrive at Kaare's place to find Chris, the lead actor, sitting on the kerb in the sun. Up in Kaare's cluttered apartment we toy with his replica machine guns, and we get into military costume as he scrawls storyboards so rough that noone but he can make head or tail of them.

This is quite a shift for Chris who just finished filming big-budget Miramax thriller The Underclassman. But he is happy to do this for free. "It's exercise," he says.

The second actor Rob, a drummer looking to segue into acting, arrives at 12.25. He tries on the Jet Li suit. It's a squeeze but it fits. An ancient gas mask adds a touch of sci-fi to his get-up.

I'm playing an officer guard wearing Rob's overcoat, which is way too short in the arms. Not a problem, says Kaare.

A tinkle on the mobile confirms the final member of the cast, Rob's friend Leela, is available later to play the love-interest. Kaare schedules to shoot her with the prisoner at 4.30pm at the beach at English Bay, which conveniently is only a few minutes walk away.

It's after 1pm before we're shooting in the basement storage area. We're only using available light to shoot, which is coming from one high window. Fortunately, it is a bright day, and the 3-chip mini-DV camera can handle the hard contrasts of the setting. The light gives the slatted storage cupboards an appropriately prison-like appearance and picks out the beads of glycerine sweat on the prisoner's skin nicely. Adding to this stylish aesthetic, Kaare is shooting at a speed of 15fps which not only minimises the grain of the picture, but creates a pleasing strobe effect as characters walk past the camera.

I wont be doing any camera myself today. I start off as boom operator, before handing over to Ron who hands over to Troy, the final team member who arrives as filmming starts.

We run through a series of shots of the desperate-looking prisoner huddled in a storage cupboard, dragged across the floor and marched back and forth the length of the room by the guards. There is a lot of marching.

The straw, which was originally going to be in the prisoner's "cell" arrives too late to be in shot - we'll have to use it later.

The hardest prison scene to film is where, just before being executed, the prisoner stares into a picture of his wife and gathers the strength to rise up and overwhelm the three armed guards. There isn't a lot of time to rehearse this piece of physical action, since it's after 4pm and we are running late. We have the exterior scenes of the escape to shoot and our lead actor has an ice hockey game at 6.30pm. Chris is a natural action man though and the scene goes well enough.

It's a relief to get out of the stuffy basement by 4.20pm. We shoot a sequence of Jack ("the prisoner" has assumed an identity by now) making a break up the stairs of the apartment. The commotion brings out the building manager, who demands why nobody asked him for permission to film. Kaare appeases him politely and promises that, "We're just finishing up" omitting to mention we still have to film our man jumping fully-clothed into the apartment swimming pool.

Having completed the escape and jumping-from-the-roof scenes in "roof-like" settings outside the apartment block we beeline down to the beach to catch the sunset. A small crowd of inquisitive seaside strollers gathers, as Chris is filmed emerging from the ocean to meet the girl. Having arrived late in the proceedings, Leela is a little uncertain as to how to play her part, but soon understands when a bare-chested Chris sweeps her up in his strong arms and snogs her on the rocks. "Is that Rob's girlfriend," someone asks? Rob, still in Jet Li's suit, looks a tad uncomfortable.

We still haven't used the hay. On Troy's suggestion, we stick the bale on the rocks and shoot it against the sea and sunset. We can use it to roll the credits over if nothing else.

Just after six we're back at the apartment. Kaare records Rob heavy breathing and speaking in Russian through the gas mask: "Your city is a dog," he says (in Russian), in deep resonant tones. "Dos vidanya, Jack!" The effect is eerie.

It's dusk now and we're hungry. Kaare treats the remaining crew Troy, Ron and me, to a slap-up meal at a local sushi restaurant. The sense is that things have gone well, even if the hay and the soundtrack have been difficult to work in smoothly. That feeling is backed up when we view the raw footage back at Kaare's. It looks good.

Kaare still wants to do the film historian part, but I don't feel up for it. So the final scene is of the action man. Kaare, laughing uncontrollably, paints a white vest like Jack's onto the little man and we shoot him at multiple angles being dropped against a white wall.

With the principal photography completed, and around 13 hours to go, we leave Kaare to whittle the footage down on his Mac (an 800Mhz G4 with latest version of Final Cut Pro).

Ron sends in his photoshop files and Jeff, who composes soundtracks for video games, comes on duty at midnight to develop the soundtrack via email and FTP.

Kaare later explains to me his editing method. "I start dumping chronologically," he says. "The first pass is 10 minutes then I have to make two or three more passes to cut it down to five minutes." And all the time confidence and energy waxes and wanes.

When I meet him the next morning at the drop-off point he's in good spirits. The film is in with at least half-an-hour to spare.

"I could have used another hour editing, maybe two. When I did my final output I noticed that it was a little rough. Other than that, it was cool, it was fun... it looks pretty good."

How will the judges and audiences respond to it later this week? More on that later...

24 Hour Film Festival winners

The Vancouver 24 Hour Film Contest

britspotting 48 Hour Film Challenge

Read more Making It columns

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