SciFi London 48 Hours Film Challenge… lessons learned

Guest post from Adele Kirby on her SciFi London 48 hour film challenge film.

I’ve been going to the SF London Film Fest a few years now, and annually considered the people who undertook the 48Hr Film Challenge to be a pack of loons. Having now completed it, I can safely confirm this as truth.

I’m a novice writerly sort myself; this whole film-making business is something I considered better left to people better qualified. But after watching a couple of the 2011 shortlisted films at the SFX Weekender in February, I had an itch. I also had a twitter account and predilection for enthusiastic tweetage.

By the close of the Guerrilla Film Masterclass a few weeks later, I accidentally had a huge team of very awesome (and far more qualified) people wanting to do this thing. I accordingly called them Team Awesome and we got started.

Let it be said: Team Awesome was absolutely a team affair, as was always my intention.  I didn’t assemble a group to carry out my particular vision; I assembled a team to produce a film in which we could all claim creative ownership. Mission Objective 1 was obviously to complete and submit a great film; Mission Objective 2 was to have a damn good time doing it and build creative partnerships that would far outlast the key 48 hours. In this, we absolutely succeeded, with a hugely enjoyable shoot and plans already afoot for further films.

We were a team of 19 in the end, 18 of us innocent 48Hr virgins. Veteran Edward McLeod Jones bought invaluable advice on workflow, which got us across the line within time, and that was despite set-backs in post.

Whatever the competition rules on “pre-production”, PREPARATION is absolutely key to these events. I’ll first explain our preparation; then you can then see the film and I’ll explain our reflective conclusions. As first-timers, the learning curve was MAHOOOSIVE.

So we were many, and the objective was to make a film that pitched to our collective interests and strengths. First, we met up to pool our combined skills/equipment/resources.

That was a big pool.

From that meeting we determined the sorts of stories we were interested in telling, considered some visual effects that we wanted to explore if appropriate to the inputs and identified live special effects we had the ability to pull off.

  • there was a definite interest in doing a comedy, largely because we found very few in the previous years films (though over the course of the weekend we found out why that was the case…) and wanted to make something that would stand out and get a reaction from the judges after hours of viewing serious films
  • we had a near-7ft actor in our ranks, so I started trying to find a short actor to play comedically against Jez Hellion; we also had Michael Thyx, Alex Wadam and Jen Carnovale on stand-by call for the Saturday morning, when we would decide the story and therefore casting
  • we had, between us, an arsenal of classic SF props that only a collective of A-Grade geeks could aspire to own. I will openly admit to becoming a little obsessed with using the big blaster and light saber…
  • we wanted the option to shoot outdoors, in daylight, again because it seemed an idea to stand our film out (and again, we discovered why most teams don’t do this!) so I arranged three very different locations to give us choices for the weekend: a park, a house and a quiet street
  • we met up for a test-shoot to get everyone confidently working together and check the workflow for the real thing – this was an invaluable session which helped us break down, time and plan our workflow
  • our ambitious schedule was based around completing the shoot on the Saturday, transcoding the video on set so that a rough cut could be assembled on the Saturday evening and the actors called for or released from pickups on the Sunday. We set out with the best of intentions, but that’s probably not a model I would try or recommend again…
  • to maximise our efficiency on the Saturday, we sent one member to the Apollo and gathered the rest of the fellowship, standby actors included, at a Starbucks central to our three locations, meaning we were already having a very jolly morning together before receiving the inputs and mobilising

So our film requirements arrived and were…

TITLE: Reading for Survival (win!)
Chocolate we see a character open a bar of dark chocolate, break off the top row, go to eat it, pause, smell it… then throw that piece away (double win!)
DIALOGUE: Anyway, it seemed like a perfect place to spread some news around about the Nitrogen Cycle. (…the F**K…?!)

Our story team took the inputs, looked at our locations/cast/effects possibilities, threw ideas on the table and started piecing the puzzle together.

  • After a pow-wow we ran with Lance Nielsens’ comic idea for two intergalactic fisherman trying to have a quiet day fishing on earth. The concept worked beautifully for our tall/short casting, let me put quite a few of the props into a Tardis-like icebox (geek win) and allowed our live effects man Dominic to gleefully gloop an actor courtesy of blowing up an unseen monster with the massive SF blaster gun
  • Jez happened to have The Art of War on his kindle, which became the key prop to incorporate the title of the film: we were imagining the book as a cross between the Art of War and the Hitchhiker’s Guide, trying to instruct the guys on how to defeat the monster
  • the dialogue had us stumped though and throwing around a series of daftish ideas, because who would ever actually say that? Adrian came up with the idea that the ‘nitrogen cycle’ might not be the chemical process but an object… a cycle, powered by nitrogen. The fact that we were doing a comedy made it conceivable that Alex’s character could be a kind of bumbling, well-meaning fool who would try to make and sell a bicycle powered by nitrogen. Well, it was that or he was going to need to take a piss in the lake…
  • the monster was obviously tricky – we’d all liked the idea of including a monster somehow, but obviously without a lot of special or VFX time, we were limited in what we could do. I’m not sure we got away with the monster; we certainly wouldn’t have gotten away with it if we hadn’t opted for comedy
  • finally, having made a call on concept, cast and location, we trotted the team out to South Weald Park (with a few prop-stops en route), with the writing team assembling the script on the train
  • Team Awesome worked like clockwork, giving us a smooth and very entertaining (albeit chilly) shoot
  • with the footage digitized on location – which I would highly recommend –  our editor was able to assemble a rough cut on the Saturday night. Our composer had been considering music throughout the Saturday, swiftly producing a beautifully complementary score which he was laying down that evening; and with footage sent off for VFX on the light sabre and ship shots, everyone felt very jolly by the end of Day 1

Sunday night, on the other hand, turned out to be a pressure-cooker for the post production team. For all our planning and scheduling, we ran into delays in post and then because we were working so intensely on the edit, we lost clarity in the final checks and simply didn’t have time for a full colour grade.

And there are parts of the film that we did sit and pick at, but couldn’t fix because we just didn’t have the coverage to choose takes from.  Yes, our stunningly efficient Saturday shoot started to have serious consequences on the Sunday. We probably had more edit time than many other teams; what we didn’t have was as much footage to edit.

You see, while we had the film in the can at 7pm (win!), we had not spent enough time scripting and story boarding and with the limitations of daylight, did not have enough time on set to rehearse actors and have several takes on each shot. Jez and Alex did a super job, but we were on location at 2pm, shooting at 3pm and leaving the park before it was locked at 7pm. A lot of other teams shot indoors for hours or through the night, and that was a choice we denied ourselves with a specific exterior location.

Glooping Jez, while very entertaining for the rest of the crew, also meant we had an actor literally shaking with cold next to a breezy lake at 6pm. That lacked a little foresight on my part as producer – but where to find a wetsuit at such short notice? That would fit Jez? So concern for his welfare plus the fading of the light saw us accelerate dramatically over the last legs of the shoot, where ideally, we would have had more time, rehearsal, takes and coverage.

Our advice to teams for future years?

  • plan to shoot where light is not an issue, so windowless interiors or at night
  • plan to shoot late on Saturday, to give yourselves loads of time to really nail out the concept and storyboards
  • give yourselves plenty of takes because you’re unlikely to have the luxury of doing pick-ups if required
  • have as many people doing individual roles as possible, so you don’t break anyone over the weekend. We had every crew and post-production role covered, and while it was a mission to co-ordinate, it meant that most people had a really enjoyable weekend and only a few of us got creamed-crackered in the final stretch
  • get your team together beforehand, run a test shoot if you can, build a sense of camaraderie before you make the charge
  • make sure all your post production team are geared up for an all-nighter on the Sunday
  • time your schedule backwards from submission time
  • choose one, maybe two locations and have a good prior think about what sort of stories will be suited to that environment
  • comedy is HARD. It’s hard anyway; it’s harder under pressure. We made a few choices intended to make the film stand out, and while it will have, we didn’t always land those choices as solidly as hoped. Think very seriously about doing it funny (though I’d probably do it again)
  • ENJOY YOURSELVES! More than a single prize is at stake. We didn’t shortlist with our film, but had a super weekend and have built some great working relationships for the future!


Adele Kirby (writer/producer) @adele_kirby
Lauris Beinerts (director/producer) @human_0_1
Lance Nielsen (writer/assoc producer)
Robert Macfarlane (DOP) @DirectorRobert
Jenna Jovi (AD) @jennajovi
Michael Thyx (2nd AD/actor) @MichaelThyx
Alex Wadham (actor) @AlexWadham
Jez Hellion (actor)
Jen Carnovale (actor) @Jen_Carnovale
Adrian Bentley (writer) @AdrianSBentley
Janis Sokolovskis (sound)
Edward McLeod-Jones (DIT)
Dwayne Blee (editor) @dwayneblee
Andrew Kristy (composer) @filmAndrew
Dominic Arthur Peters (SFX)
Mark Williams (VFX)
Jéanine Palmer (costume/props)
Emma Carolina Faith Gorbey (MUA)
John Henry (Monster wrangler)

Thanks Adele…

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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