A cast reads through a script (quickly?) for a 48 Hour Film Project piece.

Fast-Track Filmmaking with the 48 Hour Film Project

Ryan Riddle June 14, 2010

When writer/director Maurice Molyneaux drew “musical or western” for last year’s 48 Hour Film Project, he knew he did not have a minute, or an hour, to waste. In two days, come hell or high water, he had to have a completed film from script to final edit. But Molyneaux hadn't just blown into town on a horse and a prayer. This was his fourth outing. He had already selected his location long before he knew he had to have a character named Claude Green who was a guitarist, a hat for a prop, and the line of dialogue, “I believe anyone can change.” That night, Molyneaux and his writing team banged out the script for Stagecoach in the Sky, a western set aboard the Short Solent flying boat at the Oakland Aviation Museum.

The year of his tale is 1949. Newsreel announcer Claude Green (played by James D. Shelton, VI) has gumptions about being a singing cowboy. So he sets out for the wild, wild west on the City of Cardiff where he finds love, cuts cards with the notorious Phoenix Phil, and becomes a gunslinger far sooner than he expected.

Deciding on the location weeks in advanced saved Molyneaux’s hide on this shoot. He got the idea while watching one of last year’s entries, whose junkyard location was chosen before assignments were handed out.

“I realized that was smarter,” Molyneaux said. “I spent a lot of time running around saying that if I got this thing, I could shoot at this bar or if I got this thing, I could shoot in Golden Gate Park. But that made a lot of ‘if then, if then, if then.’ If I found one location that I can use for anything, I’d live with it no matter what genre I draw.”

It also locked the production into a time period. “We didn’t know what [the genre] was going to be, but the time [frame] of the plane would be the late '40s and early '50s,” Molyneaux said. “Instead of pushing the envelope, I boxed myself in further. That no matter what, even if we got cell phone as a prop, we’d make it work in the late '40s.”

Stagecoach isn’t the Short Solent’s first appearance on camera. It’s been featured in several student films but its most famous appearance was as the Pan Am clipper in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Not My Day Job
The 48 Hour Film Project, kicking off again Friday, June 18, got its start when co-founder and filmmaker Mark Ruppert wanted to know if it was possible to shoot a film in two days. In 2001, he gathered a team in Washington D.C. and successfully produced a “watchable film.” Now the project is in nearly 80 cities worldwide. The best film in each city goes on to the award ceremony Filmapalooza for a chance to win a grand prize of $3,000. San Francisco first participated in the festival back in 2003.

But this isn’t the only film competition out there. There’s also the San Francisco-based Seven Day Film Festival, where filmmakers have one-week to make a short. And for those who want a greater adrenaline rush, there’s Film Racing[5]. Instead of a week or 48 hours, crews in some 20 cities—including here—have 24 hours to get it in the can.

According to this year’s local producer Elena Cruz, the 48 Hour Film Project has all types of filmmakers, ranging from high school amateurs to professional production companies. Even people who have no desire to make films for a living get in on the act—one team went under the moniker, “Not My Day Job Productions.”

“It’s a random assortment of people which keeps it interesting,” Cruz said.

Molyneaux’s association with 48 Hour Film Project began in 2007 when he worked on his friend’s entry up in Portland, Oregon. Having had a strong desire to write and work in film all his life, he jumped at the chance to help write his friend’s short.

However, the shoot was plagued with difficulties, including rearranging the schedule and script to accommodate the lost of actors and locations. “You either buckle under that pressure or you do it. You have a time limit. It forces you to finish or you don’t. You have to come up with whatever [is necessary] to get you there. I love that process,” Molyneaux said. “In the end, I don’t think I’d been happier in my life, doing all this crazy, creative stuff on the fly. It sort of confirmed: yes this is something that I want to be doing.”

Molyneaux’s 2008 entry had its fair share of troubles. He stayed up for nearly 39 hours, which caused him to make small mistakes during filming. Instead of sleep the night before, he took his huge writing team’s ideas and turned them into a workable script. This year’s solution: a writing team of three.

 “Narrowing it down not because people didn’t have good ideas or weren’t valuable but it was one of those production decisions based on the time it takes to get everybody together,” he said. “Every minute I’m losing the time I can work on the script or the sleep I need to get to shoot the next morning at 7: 30. It’s all about problem solving. Every second is problem solving.”

Cruz agrees. “With such a tight deadline, there’s no time to toss ideas back and forth or try different things. Every person on the team should have a specific role and stick with it,” she said.

Beg, Borrow, and Steal
Molyneaux is a 20-year veteran of the video game industry. Working with constraints isn’t foreign to him. A lot of games he worked on were licensed properties and he had to stay within the specifications provided by the license holders. One time, Molyneaux circumvented the licensing department to get the materials he needed to complete a project.

“That’s the producer thing where you have to beg, borrow and steal. Lie and cheat. Anything to get what your people need,” Molyneaux said. “So this year I took all that experience video game producing and said, ‘How do I make sure this 48 hour shoot goes as amazingly smooth  as possible?’ Then I can focus on the acting, the cinematography, the editing and making a good film.”

Once he got the initial notice for this year’s project, Molyneaux gathered his posse—a crew of 28 people—over the course of eight weeks. He even did a dry run with his writing partner to see if they could generate ideas that would fit a plane locale for all the possible categories. Of course, those ideas were junked since the rules state that the creative work—including writing—has to be done within the allotted 48 hours.

However, one rule states that technical preparations can be done beforehand. Taking advantage of that rule, Molyneaux and his cameraman studied the layout of the plane in the weeks before the shoot. This helped them cut down the amount of time wasted on set-up.

Molyneaux kept his cast and crew well informed every step of the way. For instance, the moment he knew they were doing a western, he called composer Matt Levine. While the script was being written, Levine was researching western themes and motifs. The script was emailed the next morning and Levine wrote the music while the crew was filming.

In fact, everyone on the crew worked in parallel. As one scene filmed, the other actors would run lines and block their scenes. This made it faster to shoot scenes and move on to the next. This efficiency is something Molyneaux took from a truism coined by visual effects legend Doug Trumbull: "It's not the time it takes to take the takes that takes the time, it's the time it takes to talk between the takes that takes the time”

Off Into the Sunset
The crew’s hard work and Molyneaux’s preparations paid off. The film tied for runner-up for “Best Film” and took home awards for “Best Costumes” and “Best Sound.”

Now Molyneaux is looking to do a “sweetened” version of Stagecoach to enter in other film festivals and this might be his last 48 Hour Film Project. He wants to take his experiences and move on to greener pastures.

Gaining experience seems to be the goal of the project. “Most of the filmmakers say they had no idea how much work it would be—they also get a new perspective on the importance of teamwork,” said Cruz. “So basically, beginning filmmakers are getting a realistic view of how films get produced. It’s a lot harder than you think.”

Molyneaux has some parting advice for any rascal considering entering the contest. “Finish something,” he said. “Even if it’s crap, you learn something in the process getting from the beginning to the ending. There’s that sense of completion, knowing that you can do it. You make a few 48 hour films and they’re flawed, but you completed it and you learned from it. You learned you could do it.”

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