Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The 48 Hour Film Project 2010

After returning from Apple’s WWDC in San Francisco last week, I had a 9 hour layover at home before my parents picked me up for our road trip out east. We visited relatives in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, then I flew home ahead of them on Friday to help with the 48 Hour Film Project kick-off event. While I was not planning to join a team (I was tired after two weeks away, preceded by an intense week prepping and shooting for the 50-Fifty Reel Challenge), I also knew that, if asked, I probably wouldn’t need much arm-twisting before signing on.

Minutes into the kick-off event, Crow and JD, the producers I’d worked with on the 50-Fifty, asked if I’d be interested in joining their 48 crew (technically not “theirs”, since they weren’t producing this time, but rather, “the team on which they were working”). Andy, one of the directors, echoed their request shortly thereafter, and I officially agreed. Who needs sleep, anyway, right?

Following the kick-off, with genre (Suspense/Thriller), character, prop, and line of dialogue in hand (figuratively), we journeyed to Andy’s house, eagerly awaiting news from the writing team upstairs. Knowing there would be an early call in the morning, I went home around 11:00 to get some sleep. When I woke up the script was patiently waiting in my inbox, and I took off for the set.

The shoot overall went well. Aside from Crow and JD I’d never worked with any of these folks before. And I didn’t have a specific job title, so I kind of did everything: AD, camera op, sound mixer, assistant to the DP, PA, etc. What was so awesome about this shoot, though, is that, despite the time pressure, stress, and many of the crew being sleep-deprived, no one stepped on anyone’s toes. I was throwing ideas at the DP, we were both throwing ideas at the directors and the AD, and the collaboration just worked.

I had an hilariously embarrassing moment in the middle of shooting: as we were prepping for a shot, I couldn’t remember one of our crew member’s names. Thinking he was in the other room, I whispered over to Crow, “hey, what’s that one script supervisor’s name? Is it Aiden?” Someone pointed and I realized Aiden was actually sitting right in front of me. Oops. But at least I got his name right. And provided the fodder for a running joke that continued the rest of the shoot.

There were some awesome crew members on this shoot. Smi, our second camera operator, exceeded all expectations. And Jason, our “Boom Goon”, was phenomenal - we literally never had boom shadow or the mic in frame. I don’t know how he did it. And Erin, the 1AD, who was so good with details all around. Definitely people with whom I want to work again.

We wrapped shooting about on schedule and sent the second set of tapes back to the editor to start importing while we cleaned up the apartment where we’d been shooting. It’s quite amazing how quickly that place returned to normal, given the extent of set-dressing/trashing that had been done to it.

Back at the director’s house we ate dinner and gathered the last few pickup shots with our primary actor (who, by the way, was absolutely phenomenal! He’s a theatre guy, never done film before, but he was by far one of the strongest actors I’ve ever worked with).

Crow, JD, and I all went home to shower and change clothes before coming back for the long-haul. When we returned, we set up our LAN party in the dining room: their PC for importing and clipping the sound recordings (did I mention we rolled sound separate from the cameras? It’s like we’re legitimate movie-makers or something), and then my MacBook Pro, second monitor, and some hard drives as a secondary editing machine.

After battling the wireless router (it had run out of IP addresses with all the new computers in the house), we waited. At some point in the middle of the night, we knew the editor would need to leave to go get sleep (what’s that?), so I’d be taking over at that point. Until then, there wasn’t much for us to do.

Then tragedy struck: my voice recorder stopped working, displaying a “memory error”. This has absolutely nothing to do with the 48 competition, but it’s part of the weekend’s story. I’ve had this voice recorder for 5 years, it’s become perhaps even more essential to my daily living than my phone, so I panicked. Crow and I took a middle-of-the-night run to Walmart, the only store still open at that hour, to buy a new one (which, unfortunately, turned out to be a cheap plastic wanna-be, so I returned it a few days later and ordered a quality one from Amazon).

Around 4:00 or 5:00 am, Katie, our editor, was dead tired and needed to go home. She gave me a copy of the Final Cut document (she’d already copied all the footage to one of my external drives earlier in the evening), and, thank you Apple, when I opened it on my computer everything “just worked”.

The directors and I continued doing tweaks for many hours. It got light outside. The composer showed up, we gave him a new rough cut to start working with. Finally around noon we had picture lock. I think. My memory is vague.

Leading up to that, I kept asking “who’s going to do sound syncing and mixing?” Uh-oh. There was no one lined up to sync sound from the recorder to the final picture. And the on-board camera mic recordings truly were not useable. Not a good situation. Worse: no one, including me, knew a good way of syncing all the video and audio clips. I had a couple ideas, but none were ideal due to their labor-intensive natures.

My first thought (which we ended up going with) was to find the marker/clap point in the video, find the same clap in the audio, then do some math to identify the correct audio in-point to set. For each and every clip. Granted, it’s only a 6 minute movie, but that’s still a lot of work.

My second thought was to strip the audio portion from the QuickTime source files and replace it with an identical length track of the audio recordings from the field recorder, spliced together to sync with the video. In an ideal world, that would have worked swell, but I realized (far too late) that in the time-limited world in which we were dealing, this was an inefficient idea. Oops.

On two friends’ suggestion I also tried a program called “Pluraleyes”, but I couldn’t get it to work in the time we had.

In any case, I knew I also had to do color correction, so my laptop would be unavailable to start working on sound for quite some time. We needed Katie’s laptop back if we had any hope of finishing on time. She graciously agreed to drop off her MBP and let us use it, even though she couldn’t be there to help. We owe her so much. With her computer, Crow was able to start audio syncing while I finished color. Now, Crow has never used Final Cut before, because he’s a PC guy. But the interface was similar enough to, and in many cases simpler than, Vegas, which he has used in the past. So with very few questions to me, he was off and running.

At this point I hadn’t slept for 30 hours, so I was getting a little loopy. Apparently I’m funnier, and also more laid-back when I’m tired.

Under time pressure, the color correction took about 30 minutes for every 1 minute of movie. Roughly. Some shots were much easier than others. At several points in the process I declared that really it’s no longer about making the scene look “good” as it it about making it look “less crappy than it was”. That got a good laugh.

Oh, have I mentioned the A camera footage yet? Somehow the XL-1 that was our A camera got switched to “frame mode”. As best I can tell, this is Canon’s way of screwing with indie filmmakers to make the footage look like crap. Truly. I am still completely baffled why they would add a button that changes your frame rate to 7.5fps and crapifies your footage. And somehow, mid-way through the shoot, this button got pushed, so some of our best camera angles for the latter part of the film were unusable. We snuck one or two shots in that weren’t too awful. I applied a motion blur and tween that, on a short clip, makes it almost decent looking. Hopefully the audience will think we added a pseudo-slow-motion filter to those clips on purpose, because that’s what it looks like.

Late Sunday afternoon (movie is due at 7:30), color was done, and then I started helping with sound. We were missing a lot of sound clips initially, so I kept JD busy pulling those up on her computer and flash-driving them over to me. Once I finished the first half of the movie with syncing, I grabbed Crow’s FCP document, copy/pasted those audio clips into my master (another thing that “just works”, thank goodness), and then walked away so he could start mixing things together.

Somewhere in there the soundtrack came down from upstairs, so I dumped that into the timeline. Didn’t have time to listen to it, of course, but at least it was there.

At 6:30, with an hour left before the deadline, we had to go. The car was waiting, along with an AC inverter, so we moved my computer and a hard drive out to our “mobile office”.

Arriving at the drop-off, we had a little more than half an hour. Crow finished audio balancing, the directors and he took one last watch, then I exported and burned the DVDs. We turned the finished product in with about a minute to spare.

Last year I helped with the 48 check-ins, and I was amused by the folks sitting in the lobby doing their final renders at the very last minute. Now I know how they must have felt. And we were lucky: we got ours in on time. A lot of those other teams didn’t. We felt even more lucky because hours earlier the directors were pretty much expecting we wouldn’t finish on time, given all the audio issues we ran into. At one point one of them literally said “we don’t have a movie, do we?”

But it turned out. Katie did a great rough cut, which got me to a place I could finish it. The sound sync issues got resolved, and now I know how to do that next time (I’m even writing a little helper program to do the math for me). And the story itself. It won’t be *the* winner, but it should at least be one that people talk about afterward. I think we have a product we can be proud of. I keep coming back to this mantra: I could have done better, but not in the time we had; I did my absolute best given the situation, I could not have given it any more.

By the time I got home I’d been awake for 40 hours straight. To my recollection, I don’t believe I’ve ever stayed awake that long in my life. It was exhausting, and I’m still recovering, but it was also totally worth it, and I’d do the whole thing again. Not next weekend, but eventually.

“Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways at the last minute, champagne in one hand, strawberries in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming "WOO HOO - That was Fun!”


Jenna Meier said...

That is one of my favorite quotes! I'm in for the ride!!!

Mom said...

The whole 48-hr event comes more alive in your re-telling of those hours. Thanks for sharing the details!

Crow said...

You are the first person that has ever retold a story that I was involved in, and got all the facts right... That was an incredible weekend. Thank you for being a part of it. Now, let's push Roo into getting you the HDD so you can transfer the footage to