48 HOUR FILM CHALLENGE: ATMOSPHERIC – THE WRITEUP
A little while back I wrote about the opportunity presented by 48 hour film challenges, and I was just about to embark on probably the largest one in Europe, at least in terms of the numbers who entered and the prize on offer. Vertigo films are a leading production company in the UK and the prize they’d offered was a development deal for the winning film. That’s not a deal to produce obviously, but it’ a chance to pitch to producers and have your project taken through development, and that’s huge for new filmmakers.
350 teams entered the Sci Fi London 48 hour film challenge and 175 films were completed and handed in on time. If you were in London that particular weekend you’d probably have had a hard time walking around for cameras. We’re so good at lamenting the state of the film industry in this country but there’s no shortage of people willing to give up their weekend to contribute and that’s surely a good start. I’m not going to lie and pretend that they were all good, in fact most of them fell down on a number of things, ours included, but you’re putting these films together in 48 hours, what do you expect? Well, I expect a story. A huge proportion of the films were shot on DSLR and you could really see a massive leap in production value from the previous year. All of this resulted in films that really had a lot going for them looks wise but completely failed to deliver a cracking story.
48 hours is really not a long time and without military precise production you’re going to fail to hit the deadline. Unfortunately, in the middle of all that you still have to write a script. This was a sci-fi challenge and with that comes the vast history of the genre, from 2001 to Cube. The genre carries atmospheres which are relatively easy to create and this is why it’s such a great genre for the challenge, you can very quickly inhabit the feeling of a sci-fi film. And this is why I was so disappointed to see so few great stories in the mix when it came to the final reckoning. Lots of teams went for the glossy sci-fi feel and had hunted down some stunning locations to serve their films well in advance of the challenge. We hadn’t, preferring to react as fast as possible to the elements we were given and then just trust to our instincts.
At the start of the challenge you’re given a title, a key prop, and a line of dialogue. We got slammed. Title: Atmospheric. Prop: a plate with three or more biscuits, a character takes one. Dialogue: “Geez, what the hell did you do to my bathroom? It looks like the Dulux dog exploded in there.” That line of dialogue really sent us through a loop. Other teams were given lines that were a lot less specific and gave them more room for manoeuvre. Ours not only told you the kind of person that said it, but the time they said it, where they were, and even what nationality they were. ‘Geez’ isn’t something we say in the UK. And yet, the Dulux dog is very english (Dulux being a paint brand). We toiled down this route of making a buddy comedy where two cops arrived at a crime scene to discover a destroyed bathroom, etc. etc. However, we knew we really wanted to tell a story, putting our faith in the judges to reward narrative skill over technical skill. That’s not what we normally we do. We normally do completely the opposite.
Having wrestled with the dialogue all day we finally arrived at what we thought would be a decent story, the tale of a door-to-door salesman who arrives upon a strange man living in a kind of museum to unusual objects and who might benefit from a unique cleaning service. We wanted to finish with the exploded bathroom, walls destroyed, revealing the sci-fi world outside and end on our dialogue. It was going to be a strange, comedy piece, where the two actors would improvise around the scenario and we’d just let it roll as we saw fit. We knew we wanted the alien in the suitcase and that’s how we set up the film. As a comedy. We had a great location filled with unusual objects from the fifties, sixties and seventies and we had to get shooting.
Rather than shoot on DSLR I’d decided to go with the F3 and a Ki Pro Mini which I had on loan for appraisal. I felt that shooting straight to ProRes and not having to sync audio would seriously speed us up. This all sounded like a great idea, except that we were really weren’t properly set up for it. We really struggled to find the best setup for all the kit, the F3 proved to be a very different animal to a 5D, and we were constantly struggling to get the balance right on the tripod with all the extra bits stuck on the camera. We had no idea how long the Ki Pro would last on a v-lok battery and the answer was not very long. Around lunchtime we had to abandon it and just shoot straight to xdcam, which is probably what we should have done in the first place. While we’re on the subject of mistakes, we were really understaffed for the first day of the challenge and should really have brought more people in to help. We were actually overstaffed on the sunday and yet still missed a proper focus puller and soundman. Nonetheless, we did still manage to get the film in on time.
So, story wise, at midnight on the Saturday Neil Gordon, DOP, and Gez Medinger, my regular co-director, sat down and looked at our idea and then the doubts started to flood in. By this point we’d already shot the beginning of the movie (as for a comedy) and that was fine, but the rest of it was starting to really fall apart in our minds. We just didn’t think it worked. So we sat and brainstormed a different direction for these characters we’d created. It ended up being a story about slavery and developed into something really dark, nuanced and subtle that would give the actors so much to work with. We knew other teams would be blowing things up, going down the high-gloss route, but we decided to put our faith in good acting. The only problem now was that it was 2am and our call time the next day was 8am.
I went home and started to write. I wrote all night, putting the structure together, working out beats, motivations, conscious desires, unconscious desires and the crucial climax decision that the whole film was building to. We also needed a beginning, a middle and an end. So many of the entries for the challenge suffer from having a beginning, an end, but no middle. The best short films ping hard from scene to scene, charting a kind of zig zag path of emotion. Feature films tend to enjoy smoother curves but shorts tend to need to make sharp changes of direction. I think you can really see this in our film: the main character goes in trying to make a buck, he gets what he wants but not at all the way he expected. In drama you should always try and think about how the best possible thing could turn out to be the worst possible thing, and vice versa. For our character being offered a million is absolutely what he wants but it means giving up his greatest treasure, his alien in the suitcase, the character he loves. For me, this has all the material you need for a great short film. I don’t really care for films that just hinge on a stupid twist for the twist’s sake. I want to go through the drama with the characters.
So, after struggling with our shoot, struggling to get lit quickly, struggling with an unfamiliar camera and struggling with lack of sleep, we wrapped our shoot at around 9pm. Not having to sync audio made such a big difference. We were able to crack straight on with editing the film and strangely it all fell into place pretty well. We’d done our homework with the script, and the beat sheet worked nicely. Where we did struggle was with visual FX. Our alien character has no special makeup and her story relies on you believing that she’s something very unusual and very unique. That meant CGI. Our opening shot, too, needed to set the world, sometime in the future, but far enough so that the antiquities in the client’s house were embued with more meaning. The guys wrestled with the shots we gave them and had to pull a lot together fast. We didn’t really understand how slow that process would be. One of the top 3 films had a team from the Mill working on their CGI and it looks great, but having a render farm to do the heavy lifting makes a big difference. Their CG work is fantastic and fair play to them.
The film you see at the top of this article is not the film we delivered in 48 hours. I’ve spent five additional hours working on the edit, developing the drama further and just making the scenes work. So, it’s a 53 hour film. Below is the film that won and the other two films that made the final. The films were reduced down to a ten film shortlist, which can be found here. Then those ten were reduced to a top 3 and from there the jury picked the intention of Miles. I saw some great films that didn’t make the top ten shortlist and, had I been judging my criteria would have been different but it’s not my competition. I’m proud of the film we made and proud that it reflects my sensibilities and what I value, and we didn’t take what would have been an easier path, simply to dazzle with production value. Ultimately I’d like to be known as a filmmaker of substance and that’s all that really matters. Here’s the film that ultimately won the challenge.
And some comparison shots from the different setups we used, click on the image to see the full size version: