72-Hour Film Competition: The Results

Klein bottle -- Photo by Carolyn McIntyreOn Friday night (8 May 2009), the 72-Hour Film Competition showed all 30 entries and awarded the prizes.

To recap: the idea is to make a film from scratch in 72 hours, using certain elements that the competition gives you. Producer/director Kat Ogden asked if I’d like to be involved, and I said sure.

This competition’s elements:

  1. Use the phrase “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
  2. Use a container as a prop.
  3. Use the action of washing.
  4. Use the situation of a misunderstanding.

We got the elements on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. Discussed them Thursday evening. I wrote the script from midnight to 3:00 a.m. on Friday. Kat scoped out what we’d need to do and cast the film on Friday, and the Seattle SF community did me proud with the offer of a Klein bottle to use as a prop. We filmed most of the day Saturday, and Sunday morning. Kat, and her friend Erik, edited their hearts out the rest of Sunday, and got the five-minute film in just under the wire.

“Message in a Klein Bottle” didn’t sweep the results, alas, but I learned a lot and really enjoyed myself.

So, on Friday evening, my sister Carolyn and I gathered with the Ogden clan and trooped off to the Rialto Theater to see the entries in the film competition. The Rialto is a nice old theater in downtown Tacoma, complete with plaster medallion ceiling.

The entries ran the gamut from extremely slick (they filmed a crashed car and gutted it with the jaws of life, and got the OK to film in an ambulance in 72 hours? Impressive!) to more or less incomprehensible, but all the filmmakers obviously put a lot of love and attention into their films.

“Message in a Klein Bottle” didn’t win anything — I kind of knew we were in trouble when “Here’s the trans-dimensional frammistat” didn’t get a reaction; it was not, alas, a stfnal audience.

I don’t have a list of all the winners, and after watching 30 five-minute movies in a row I have a little trouble keeping them all straight.

But “Coffee Table,” which won both Best Use of Prop (container) and the audience award was extremely well-done.

Best Use of Phrase went to “Twenty Seconds,” which deserved it — the audience cracked up when the protagonist, in a fit of frustration, went through one of the Groundhog Day-type repetitions in the buff, and an SNL-style little old lady on a park bench exclaimed “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!”

I blush to admit I’ve spaced out the winners of the other two categories, and the title of the overall winner. With any luck the competition will put the list on their website and I can link to it, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The judges decided to give a special award, for animation, to “Bad Habits,” which I thought was very cute and funny.

One film that didn’t get any notice from the judges was “A Fanpire Story,” which was made by students at Annie Wright Middle School. I like it a lot — it was a combination Twilight hommage/A Christmas Story parody. You kind of had to be there, but if you’ve seen A Christmas Story, as soon as you see the leg lamp and hear the phrase “secret decoder ring,” you know what’s going to happen and watch in amused anticipation. I thought if the judges could give a special animation award, they could have given the kids a special movie parody award, or something.

As for “Message in a Klein Bottle,” it suffered from my inexperience. If you should ever have to make a five-minute film on short notice, do not write a script that’s 7 pages long. (Screenplays average one minute per page.) I read it aloud, and you can read it in five minutes, but that doesn’t give you the time for the camera to linger lovingly on the debris field or the rampaging robots. Kat has that footage, which I hope will end up in the director’s cut.

Also, if you’re going to make a five-minute film on short notice, keep your sets to a minimum. Our film had the control room, the Glass Museum, the Glass Bridge, the storefront, the drawing room, and the Phlogiston Extractor Cache. Way too many sets for a film of that length!

You can add another stress point by writing into the script a prop you don’t actually have, in this case a Klein bottle. The Seattle SF community (thank you, Tom Lawrence!) saved my bacon by providing one, and Kat’s friend Erik did the same by transporting it from Seattle to Tacoma.

It would also be a good idea to avoid putting in more characters than you’re sure you have actors for. Megan recruited our “Tiffany” on the spot — on the Glass Bridge — (and she did a great job), but that sort of improvisation isn’t what I’d recommend for seamless filming.

No matter how pressed you are for time, do a table read-through and rehearsal, or three, especially if you can do it the day before filming. That would give The Screenwriter (me) the opportunity to realize “OMG, that isn’t dialogue, that’s a speech!” and revise it.

And if you’re writing a quest story, don’t be too attached to the Rule of Three (the protagonist has to fail twice before succeeding in the third try). For a five-minute movie, one questfail is plenty. The whole Calvin Klein Bottle sequence, while rather cute, could, and should, have been jettisoned. If I’d ripped it out by its roots, Kat would have had a much easier editing job.

A couple of comments about films in general.

First — and this goes for both amateur and professional films — the deliberate jiggle-cam is extremely fashionable these days. I don’t know about anybody else, but I find it virtually unwatchable. Several of the entries in the film competition used the technique, and I had to treat them like radio plays. The constant moving around and jiggling of the camera, the zooming and panning combined with the intentional jiggling, makes me queasy. (I am not generally subject to motion sickness.) I think the worst professional example of this is Medium (a show I enjoy as well-written with good characters, despite my opinion that the premise of the show is entirely pernicious). There’s no earthly reason for it to be shot in faux-documentary jigglecam, but it is, and I generally only listen to it rather than actually watch it.

Second — a function of amateur films, not usually a problem with professional ones unless the director decides to do the sound equivalent of jiggle-cam — is that hollow, far-away sound anybody who’s ever seen or made an amateur film is familiar with.

Since we did a lot of location shooting, our hollow, far-away sounding dialogue also was marred by ambient noise — especially on the Glass Bridge, which spans I-5 and the railroad tracks, not to mention being the main thoroughfare for visitors from downtown Tacoma to the Glass Museum. Including one who noticed us filming, paused, then walked right through the scene while yammering on his cell phone.

Realism! It’s great, but it makes it hard to hear the dialogue.

Whether there’s any economical solution to amateur film sound, I don’t know.

Commercial movies re-record dialogue in the studio where the engineer has complete control over the sound, foreground, background, and ambient. Unfortunately that requires (a) a sound studio, which is expensive, and (b) a sound engineer, which we didn’t have. We kind of had an anti-sound engineer, namely me: when I was producing Science Fiction Conversations, I created worse sound the more experience I had, till I was so demoralized that I quit doing the program. The sound guys at the tv station where we did the show would look at my tape and say, “How did you get it to do that?” That’s how bad I was. I suspect my bad sound karma infected the shoot.

The result was that some of our dialogue was so overrun with background noise that it was extremely difficult to tell what was going on, and for what was essentially flash fiction it was relatively complicated. Uderstanding the dialogue was, well, essential.

I’ll know better next time!

As for the competition in general: I wish the organizers had done a couple of things.

First, the prize awarding was extremely informal, and none of the filmmakers got up on the stage and said anything. Granted we’d all been sitting there for several hours, and once the first filmmaker had declined to comment, the rest probably felt they had to follow suit. But I would have liked it if the presenters had got everybody up on stage and at least introduced them and had a photo-op.

Second, a brief get-together of all the teams would have been beneficial. If one of the aims of the competition is (as I believe) to try to pull in some filmmaking to Tacoma, a little networking would be a boon. At least a website with everybody’s URL listed, or a listserv, or something.

Third, what if if the competition managers invited local theater groups to attend? My experience with actors in Seattle (including professionals) is that they love to work and they don’t necessarily expect to get paid, especially if you feed them well. (Kat’s brother fed us extremely well over the weekend, bless his heart.)

It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that some experienced actors might be willing to appear in people’s short films, given the opportunity. It might be too complicated or too competitive (especially with 30 teams!), but it might be worth trying at least once.

Your required prop: An actor.



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72-Hour Film Competition: The Results — 6 Comments

  1. I completely agree with you about encouraging people to go up on stage. Say a few things. Thank some people. Etc. And a meet and greet after would be awesome -there were 30 teams of us that made movies, but I only know a few. Would be a great opportunity to mingle and make some connections since we all have at least one thing in common. A few years ago there was an informal meet and greet after over at Jilian’s. But nothing in the past 3 years.

    I would like to see the awards dropped for the “best use of” each requirement. It’s cool to see how each group incorporates the requirements into their films, but I think the awards should be geared toward the movies, not the best use of requirements. It would be more appropriate to have an Oscars-like roster: Best Picture, Best Screenplay/Story, Best Acting, Best Cinematography, Best Editing. Or even at the very least, the top three and the audience award.

    It’s quite a ride doing the 72 Hour Film Competition. I have learned my own set of “best practices’ each year I have done it. Unfortunately I seem to only make movies once a year as a result.

    Heres a link to my movie “Calming Heads” on Vimeo:

    Jeff Alldridge

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for weighing in, and congratulations on winning the competition. Folks should check “Calming Heads” out.

    My DSL connection isn’t any good for playing videos unless I can buffer them. Gotta get around to upgrading!

    Do you live in Tacoma? I wonder if the Competition’s organizers would let you get in touch with the other teams (or tell them you’d like to and pass along your email address, if they don’t feel comfortable giving out the information)?

    I’ve been in a couple of workshops whose members keep up with each other using an email group; might that be a way to start some networking? (I’m in Seattle, but would be glad to be on the mailing list if you start one — I’m vonda at s f f dot net.)

    — Vonda

  3. Wow. I’d never heard of that competition before. Sounds really exciting. And exhausting. But what a clever idea! How many years has the competition been held? My sister was just mentioning the Glass Museum to me last week as someplace I should visit.

    The only movie I’ve ever made was for my Film Art class in high school. I borrowed my best friend’s super 8 camera. Remember those? It was quite the large production (with me as the script writer, director, camera operator, and editor) compared to what my classmates did and I still have it stored away somewhere. I wonder if it’s still viewable after 30 years…

  4. I never heard of limited-time film competitions till I helped judge one of the SF Museum’s short sf film festivals a couple of years ago. Several of the entries were from a similar event. Apparently they’re relatively common. This one is several years old, apparently. Oftentimes they’re 48-hour film competitions, which seems to me it would be awfully stressful.

    I think it would be pretty easy to set one up. The main expense is probably a venue in which to show the films.

    I didn’t have time to go through the Glass Museum itself, but the Glass Bridge is pretty keen, and the Hot Shop (where the glassblowers blow blass) is very nifty. The folks at the Museum were extremely kind and helpful to us.


  5. The thing I will take from this is what fun we had! I discovered a word that I still cannot pronounce . . . and it was in the script. Watching Vonda work taught me both how similar and how different writers are in how they work. It was an education to look at a page with just a few lines of dialogue on it and then find how hard it was to reproduce that on film in a minute or less.

    I suspect we’ll give this a shot again next year, and I also suspect we’ll make all new mistakes. One thing I have learned that I’d never thought about before: the camera sees only what we show it.

    Vonda, I hope you had as much fun as we did. And we need to get together more often!