The Asian American Film Lab’s 72 Hour Shootout from One Filmmaker’s Perspective (Part 1)
Posted: May 22nd, 2013 by David J. Lee, filmmaker and 72 Hour Shootout Competitor
So making a movie used to be this insano process of shooting on film, using a rented camera and not knowing if you got your shots until you had gotten your reels back from processing. Then you had to get access to a flatbed or a moviola and an editing nerd who would literally cut your physical film into the story you hoped it would be.
Almost nothing was in real time. It was sort of like baking a cake, only the cake cost thousands of dollars, took the efforts of an entire team of people, and your sense of self worth was directly connected to the result, because if the cake turned out shitty, your parents would be nagging you about how you should have stayed in law school and given them grandkids by now.
Now, of course, we’ve fulfilled Francis Ford Coppola’s prophecy of the kid with the video camera and we can do it all faster, cheaper, and ostensibly better. It’s for this reason that contests like the Asian American Film Lab’s 72 Hour Shootout can even exist (www.asianamericanfilmlab.org.)
And since they do exist, this article has my suggestions on how to make the best film you can within those 3 days.
Why should you care what I think? Well, my teams have entered the Shootouts in 2007 and 2009 (as Team HeadOn) and most recently in 2012 (as Team Jong-IL). In each of those years, our films placed in the top 3 (top 2, really) and in 2009 we actually won the grand prize and a whole slew of the individual awards.
You may or may not like my teams’ films, but I figure that’s a record that suggests that we’re doing at least a few things right.
Just to be clear – this is not a guide on how to win the 72 Hour Shootout. I can’t write that article, because I don’t know how to do that, and I’m suspecting no one else does either. You can’t account for the tastes and preferences of the Film Lab staff and the guest judges for any particular year. This article is simply pragmatic advice on how to make things easier for yourselves during the process.
So, that being said, let’s get into it…
PRE-PRODUCTION (Everything you can do before the weekend)
So how much can you prepare for when you don’t even know what you’re going to shoot? Quite a bit, actually…
Take stock of all the locations you have access to – apartments, friends’ workplaces, backyards, public spots devoid of law enforcement, that alternate dimension you can access through the portal in your closet.
This will come in handy on Friday evening when you’re trying to come up with your script. The locations you have on hand can give you story ideas, or help you eliminate others that may not be feasible.
GET YOUR CRAFTY
At minimum, you should have portable water, caffeine, salty snacks, and some healthy sweet snacks around your set at all times. I recommend opting for non-perishables when you can and small packets (individual chip packs instead of big jumbo bags.) This may allow you to be more mobile when you film in public.
Otherwise, you may find yourself waiting to get your next shot off because your soundie has run back to the production Nissan to grab a handful of potato chips.
Don’t be researching meals on the day of. Anticipate where you may be, look up good affordable food options in those areas, and have that info on hand.
Not that it takes long to yelp a sandwich shop on your iPhone, but you’re going to have a lot on your mind on the day, and having to figure out food right then and there is stress you really don’t need.
General union rules are that you break for lunch 6 hours after your start working. Abiding by this is not only professional behavior, it’s also basic human consideration. Being on set is hard, physical work, and after about 6 hours of it, most humans are ready for some rest and nutrition.
Do you have all the equipment you need? Camera? A range of lenses? Tripod? Sound recorder, boom, and mic? Wireless lavs? (these are incredibly useful when sneaking shots in public) Light kit? Bounce boards? C-Stands? Sand bags? Hard drive with a fast connection to unload footage? A laptop to which you can connect aforementioned hard drive?
These are all items that are useful to arrange for before the weekend (in LA, most equipment rental pickups for the weekend are done Friday morning or afternoon.) You don’t want to waste time on the day of filming doing equipment pickups.
A big car, like an SUV or minivan is very useful for carrying large loads or multiple people, and can have other uses as well, like making it easier for an actor to change costumes in public.
We had an actor change costumes in the back seat of a Ford Festiva once. It was awesomely hilarious, but ultimately inefficient and time consuming.
Get on the Film Lab site now and carefully read through all the contest rules. Do this, even if you’ve done the Shootout before. You don’t want to get caught with your pants down if the contest rules for this particular year have been updated or adjusted.
Download, print, and fill out any relevant paperwork (to the extent that you can.) Get your actor and volunteer waivers prepared, and assign someone the job of making sure everyone who works on the film fills out a form while you’re filming (usually the producer or a PA).
The last thing you need to be doing on Monday afternoon, while you’re trying to upload your finished film and contest materials, is chasing people down to get their signatures.
How big should your crew be?
We’ve tended to shoot with a director, a cinematographer, a sound recorder/boom operator, and a producer who also generally acts as an assistant director and swing crew. This last time, we also had a production designer, which was pretty nifty.
Also, if we can, we tend to lock down a production assistant as well. It’s always good to have a PA to run errands so that an essential crew member doesn’t have to. This person does not have to have film experience. It can literally be someone’s sibling/girlfriend/boyfriend/stalker/whatever. They just have to be present and reliable (incidentally, we’ve found stalkers to be amazingly dedicated workers.)
So that’s about 6 people. I’d say keep it around 5-8 core crew. And everyone helps everyone. The director helps hang lights. The soundie helps with production design. If the crew is smaller than this, everyone’s job starts becoming exponentially harder. Any more than this and you start getting less mobile as a team and you’re also feeding more people.
Now you may have access to a lot of crew and volunteers, and you may come up with a big, elaborate, high production value idea at the beginning of the weekend that requires them. But know that you’ll be moving slower, both between shots and between locations.
Either way, I’ve found crewing up with 5-8 people to be the sweet spot for the scope of production I prefer doing for the Shootout. If you’re finding that you need more people than this, then in my opinion, that’s an indication that you’re tackling a production that may be larger than you should be tackling for a weekend film contest.
Then again, people have pulled big productions off in the past, so consider that as well.
One final note on crewing up –
Try your best to split up the jobs so that no one person is doing all the work. The person who writes the script shouldn’t have an early call the next morning. The director shouldn’t edit. Everyone should get to sleep at least a little bit after their main gig.
For our first two 72 Hour Shootouts I wrote, directed, and did almost all the post production. By my estimation, one weekend I stayed up for 34 hours, slept for 6, then stayed up for another 28-30 hours, and it hurt me lots. It hurt my soul. Like literally, before that weekend, I liked unicorns and pink was my favorite color. After that weekend I listened to nothing but Morrisey and started telling kids that Santa Claus wasn’t real.
One day I may find a woman who will consent to marry with me. And I will likely have sex with that woman and may even impregnate her and our children will come of age and have sex with other people and have their own children, and they will be my grandchildren, and I may not be alive to know them, because I fucked up my health trying to do too many jobs on a 72 Hour Shootout.
However, for our last film, we had a full team with nobody doing split duty, and it was pretty fantastic. I’d highly recommend doing it that way if possible. This is all my long winded way of emphasizing the value of splitting up the jobs. Sometimes it’s fun and enriching to write, direct, and edit a film, but do it on a normal film, not a 72 hour one. Trust me on this.
Anyway, moving on…
My personal recommendation is to make friends with actors far in advance of the 72 Hour Shootout weekend.
The fact of the matter is that the 72 Hour Shootout puts a lot of actors into very unprofessional situations. You have them on standby because you can’t guarantee them a role until you develop your script enough. A lot of times you may not be able to give them proper 12 hour notice before calling them because you didn’t come up with an idea to shoot until 3AM Saturday morning. On the day, you’re going to be asking them to work under substandard conditions and sometimes past SAG working hours. You’ll need actors who will be forgiving of the situation.
Let’s face it – it’s uncomfortable to ask strangers to do this. But you can totally ask your friends. Because that’s what friends do – they put up with each others’ shit.
And make friends with good actors – actors who have the chops to work with little-to-no rehearsal and memorization time. Actors who will enjoy the challenge of working under these conditions, but who also have the training and experience to put out a good performance regardless.
Having a team of actors you can draw upon can also help with your ideation on Friday. Much like your locations can give you an idea for a story, knowing what actors you have access to and knowing what they individually bring to the table can help you develop characters for your script.
So make friends with actors. Network. Film small projects throughout the year so you have an excuse to hold auditions. Play video games with them. Ask them on dates. Get them wasted then tell them how much you love them. Whatever. Just have people you can call on before the 72 Hour weekend.
Do you hate networking? Are you shy? Really? What a coincidence – so am I! Get over it.
Film’s a team sport and a baseball team would suck if all you had was a pitcher and no one else. Meet people, make note of the ones who are talented and considerate, then start buying them alcohol until they agree to be friends with you. If that doesn’t work…then just keep buying them alcohol. A lot of people are more agreeable when their slozzled. At the very least they’ll be easier to kidnap.
POST PRODUCTION WORKFLOW
Post Production? During Pre-Production?
Well, you don’t figure out post-production after you finish filming. You do your post production after you finish filming, but you figure it all out before you start, because your post production workflow is going to determine, in many ways, how you shoot your film and how you handle the footage.
Have a RED camera? Or maybe have a buddy who owns one? That’s pretty bitchin. You might wanna pass on using it for the Shootout. Aside from being big, conspicuous cameras, REDs shoot in RedRAW. You can use their quicktime proxies, but make sure they’re not the flat “log” files; otherwise, you’ve committed yourself to a few hours of heavy color correction.
Either way, test out your post production workflow before the weekend of the shootout. Many cameras nowadays don’t record in formats that are immediately friendly to editing programs. Can you drop your footage right into Adobe Premiere? Great! Wait you’re going to be using Avid? Hmm, maybe not as friendly to your camera format. You may need to render it all into Prores or DNxHD, which will take you a few hours before you can even start cutting. Yes, yes, I know there’s AMA, but I’ve found that to create more problems than benefits, especially if you’re using a slow hard drive connection or an older computer.
Know what the hell I was talking about in the previous paragraph? Then honestly, you’re probably technically savvy and don’t need much of the advice I’m dispensing in this article.
Don’t know what the hell I’m talking about? Was everything in that previous section complete gibberish? Then be very afraid.
The one way to not be afraid is to test your post production workflow. Practice by shooting some footage, bringing it into your editing program, editing a simple movie, then outputting a final quicktime file.
Are you going to color correct? It’s a good skill to learn. Ever hear the term “We’ll just fix it in post?” Well, it didn’t take me long to realize that most people who say that don’t know what it really means.
If you learn color correction and its practice and theory, then you’ll truly be able to make the judgment call on set of whether something can be fixed in post later, or needs to be fixed right then and there on set, and because of that, you’ll be able shoot much more efficiently.
But I digress. If you’re going to color correct, then test that part of your post-production workflow as well, cause it’s another area where things can go wrong. Will you be using the editing program or will you be coloring in a separate program like Apple Color or Davinci Resolve? (there’s a free version available from Blackmagic) Test sending your project from your editing program to the color program and then back to the editing program.
Have a new editor you’ve never worked with before? Does he say he’s got everything under control? That’s peachy, but test his shit out anyway. Run some footage through the copy of Final Cut Pro 7 that he has installed on his 2006 MacBook. Don’t take his word for it. Test it out.
Test the hard drive that you’re planning on using. Make sure it runs fast enough and isn’t making horrible clicking sounds (those types of sounds are fine if you are, say, a beetle, but not so much if you’re a hard drive.)
Do this all before the weekend, and you’ll discover any hiccups in the process and have the time to find solutions for them before the time crunch of the shootout. Go into the weekend knowing that you’re not going to have any big surprises there.
I’m spending a lot of ink on this topic because shooting is the “quick” part in filmmaking. In normal productions it’s over with the soonest. Barring a “Lord of the Rings” situation, a film can shoot for a month (not counting development and pre-production, of course) then spend the next 6 months in post. Similarly, in a 72 hour film, post production is what’s gonna take the most time.
So eliminate your problems before the weekend. That way, you can spend your limited time crafting your story and not fixing workflow issues.
So that’s about all I got to say on post production, but:
ONE FINAL WORD ON PREPRODUCTION
Don’t pre-write your film.
That’s total bullshit. I actually don’t think it’s as big an issue nowadays, but I remember watching films from previous years and being floored by how many of them were clearly pre-written with the contest theme crudely tacked on afterwards.
The thing is – if you already have an idea for a film, then why are you doing it in 72 hours? Why not just go and make it for real? Why make it under an unnecessary time restriction, which will undoubtedly impact the final quality of the film, and almost never in a good way?
Is it to win the contest? For bragging rights? Who gives a shit?
For me and my friends, the real fun of this contest has been the challenge of it and the instant gratification. No months of agonizing over the story and script. No months of painstaking post production. It’s all started and done within 72 hours.
We’ve done this contest 3 times now, not because we’ve been looking for trophies, but because it’s fun. It’s stressful, and challenging, and unpredictable, but all with very low risk.
So, in summary: pre-writing your 72 hour Shootout film = total bullshit + completely depriving yourself of one of the best parts of the experience.