How to Make a Movie in 48 Hours

Making a film in 48 hours is no easy feat for most.

film production set

At 7pm, August 3, 2017, twenty-six teams of people stepped into the circle ready to take on that seemingly insurmountable task.

I was among the hopefuls, with a team of friends and volunteers by my side. Sunday night, with less than 4 minutes to spare, our team submitted its entry.

While we didn't win any formal awards, I'm really proud of us for getting it in the can (getting the film finished, that is, not taking it in the a.. By not winning anything -- oh, sorry, a bit of sour grapes still around).

But this is what learned.

This is how my team will operate when I'm at the wheel, and I'm pretty sure we'll all be better for it.

1) Form, storm and norm ahead of time

Do friends, coworkers and family with a passion for filmmaking make a great production team?

Unfortunately, no --

While the team leader is the common thread, there's a good chance that the 48 hour team is a virgin ensemble (plus an even bigger variable if volunteers are enlisted).

A huge chance to take when each second developing relationships costs valuable time. Meet ahead of time (neutral location, no alcohol to alter personalities, etc.).

Get it all sorted out before the clock starts ticking.

2) It's a 48 hour contest. Be there for 48 hours, period.

Yes, life doesn't stop for this, and there are going to be times when someone needs to step away, and other times when a team member finds themselves sitting idle.

But if they can't commit to the whole 48 (or at least stay within a phone call/short trip away), you'll be sorry. Flexibility - the ability to re-create anything when you need to is essential.

For example, the tension between our two protagonists was based on a shared look into each other's eyes.

Our original shots had a natural barrier (a gas pump) between them that almost completely dismissed the tension. We called our actor in, re-shot his look, and I think it worked much better.

3) Choose wisely

We ended up with a car chase as our central action. One of the cars belonged to a team member who was not going to be available for the final day.

Make sure you have all your equipment ready: the right run-and-gun camera, the right lens kit and if you're missing anything...

Rent your film equipment a day or even a week before the actual shoot.

Pretty difficult to re-shoot any car chase stuff without that car.

4) Solve problems quickly. Quickly! 

Remember the group dynamic thing? Well, solving problems is hard enough within your circle of trust. When problems arise among a group that hasn't bonded, they take even more time to solve.

Here's what I think would help:

a) Do it both ways.

If it's a difference of opinion about shooting something one way or the other, shoot both and figure it out during editing. Once you're off the set, it's really hard to say "well, you know, it would have been good to have shots of this and that and the other, after all".

Better to have more to choose from than to have to do time-consuming editing magic.

b) Consensus kills.

Clear decision-making hierarchy is the only way to get through this without pulling your hair out. So define the chain of command up front, communicate it to all. Apply it early. Apply it often.

Creative differences are OK, but unproductive debate and voting... not so much. Identify your decision makers (team leader/exec producer), and everyone agrees that all decisions are final - nothing personal.

5) Divide (and conquer).

It's noble to offer to take on multiple roles of importance, but soft decisions about who does what is a recipe for disaster.

Create a clear division of labor.

Define each role in terms of its responsibility by production phase, place in the hierarchy, and goal.

If at any time, the team leader feels that someone is not qualified, serious, or working for their own interests, a swift change must be made.

Beware, especially, of the 'I'll do anything' team member.

That type of reckless commitment is honorable, but this year I didn't assign jobs and things got confusing and frustrating.

Personalities ended up defining roles. Never again.

6) Make an agenda stick to it

This is especially critical in the creative process. We ended up batting around ideas for almost 5 hours; deciding on a concept and fleshing it out somewhat for an hour, and then started writing at about 3am, with a 7:30am call the next morning.

Of course, sleep deprivation is expected, but looking back, we would have had fresher writing at 10pm and more time to review, revise, edit, and lay out a production schedule, which would have made shooting so much smoother.

One tip: consider unit crews. One shoots while the other is in the studio. Think back to all the films where a bounce board, tripod, or something else ended up in the shot. In ours, you can see a cameraperson (me, actually) in the reflection in our male lead's sunglasses. Oops.

7) Plan ahead and test everything out before the start day.

Now, the rules clearly state that the entire creative process must take place within the 48 hours (they do state that, clearly), but there's definitely some non-creative planning and testing you can do beforehand just to make sure you don't come up against those kinds of things that stop you dead in your tracks.

Another filmmaker in the contest had a great one: list all your assets ahead of time. Vehicles, locations, props, costumes, tech...

And test everything beforehand. Software, hardware, costumes, props, all your equipment. No reason not to, and it'll save you lots of headaches and panic.

Oh, and don't forget your key props. If our executive producer didn't lead such an interesting life that led her to store a 10" butcher knife in her car, our climactic moment where our potential murderer is revealed would have traded audience gasps for ill-planned comedy...

a) Checklist of must-haves:

When the starting gun fires, here's what everyone on my team has to have (myself, included: (1) $20 cash, (2) car filled with gas, (3) watch, and (4) all clothing and personal items to last the weekend.

Don't got it? Have it when you get to the initial production meeting (moments later, most likely). Can't get it? Sorry.

8) Eyes on the goal. The prize is just gravy.

The goal is to make a movie in 48 hours, given the elements required in the genre chosen.

That's it.

Prizes are cool, but it's not about sacrificing your creativity just to make a contest winner. I'd rather be proud of the work I did (and I am). Recognition will follow one way or another. This should be about fun, creativity, and testing your limits.

That's how it is on my team, anyway. We have fun and make our little movie. Oh, sure, we still argue and panic and waste time, but at least we're prepared for most of the stuff that would otherwise accent every second ticking on that #$#!@%# clock!

Thanks for listening. Now why are you wasting all this time reading when you could be out there making movies? And why am I wasting all this time writing when I could be out there myself.