I think every filmmaker at some point gets sucked into the 48 Hour Film Project. If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the jist of it: filmmakers pay an entrance fee and gather a cast and crew together for a weekend shoot. On Friday evening, they are given a genre, a line of dialogue, a character and a prop which must appear in the film. Then they have 48 hours to return a completed 5-7 minute short film by Sunday at a certain appointed deadline.

I myself have been involved with 5 of these filmmaking stunts: twice in a captain role and three times as a cast or crew. I will tell you right now exactly what the 48 Hour Film Project is – a fun way to network with other people who are interesting in making films and an excuse to make a film that gets screened in a theater. That is all that it is.

It is not a place to “learn filmmaking” – it is not a place to “get discovered” – it is not a place to get “your great filmmaking skills validated” – and lastly it is certainly not a place to make “great films”

And yet, I still see a lot of young filmmakers pinning dreams and hopes on the 48. My two positions in the captain role both resulted in high off-set drama because some team members (and perhaps myself as well) did not understand what the 48 was NOT. Time pressures exacerbate everything – especially interpersonal relationship. But let’s focus on the last bit of my list above: The 48 is not the place to make great films. To explain why, I’m going to rely on a now fairly cliched graphic: The Good-Fast-Cheap triangle:

The saying goes: “Good, Fast, or Cheap – Pick Two“. In the case of the 48 hour film post, “Fast” has already been selected for you. Now you’re probably working with a volunteer cast and crew and a minimal budget so you’re also stuck with “Cheap”. What does that leave out?  Good. And that’s the problem with these timed competition stunts.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey – Films used to be hard to make. You had to properly expose a negative and send it off to a lab to get your print back and hope something didn’t go wrong. I myself was born too late to experience that but I’ve had my own share of experiences with linear editing and tape. When film was hard to make, you would be more willing to watch one that was created because of the novelty. But now the act of actually making a film is easy. Facebook is full of people making short movies all done from a smart phone.

The novelty is gone. In this sea of content out there – how do you stand out? How do you become a better filmmaker – a better story teller?  Let’s start by trying to make a good film.

Back we go to our triangle – we want GOOD.  So if we want to get Good and fast, we can’t do it cheaply. Start hiring and delegating to the best people in the industry – drop a million or two and with the right talent even a first time filmmaker will look pretty good. But this is not really an option for most of you reading (but if is an option – give me a ring)

We want Good and Cheap – so, it’s not going to be fast. And what exactly is wrong with that? Take your time and make it the best that you can. Spend 48 hours just writing the script. Spend 48 hours on just one character’s monologue. Sleep on the idea, come back with fresh eyes – craft, recraft, and craft again. Shoot the film, spend 48 hours editing it – play with cuts a frame earlier or a frame later – sleep on an edit and come back with fresh eyes and ears….  repeat for every step.

This watch was hidden for 7 years in order to make a great story.

Take your time – do it right. That’s how you learn filmmaking and eventually after you’ve made enough films, you start making some that are actually good or even great. And isn’t that what you really want to do as a filmmaker?

Now I don’t want you think I’m discouraging anyone from participating in the 48 film competition. There was a point in my life where I appreciated that opportunity to make something – anything – film related. If you don’t know anyone in your area that is interested in filmmaking, this is a great way to network. Maybe you’ll find and actor or crew member that will help you make your great non-48 hour film.

Realize that filmmaking is not a short sprint race – like every art, this is a marathon and the only competitor is former self.

If you are still interested in doing a 48 hour film – check out my 7 Pro Tips to Surviving the 48 Hour Film Project which I wrote years ago but are still relevant.

13 comments
  1. Chris Hackett Phantoscope

    Ive done all from 12 to 48 and once just missed the deadline for a 72 hour. I probably come up with some of my best ideas for other films while doing these. Find locations I had no idea existed and were quiet enough to just shoot.

    Ive seen maybe one film win that could be its own story and have been shot on a more relaxed planned schedule. But it was done mockumentary style, but the camera moves looked great and the editor had a real eye for the genre.

  2. Joe Dzikiewicz Mutoscope

    As a big fan of the 48 (I just finished my dozenth or so), I beg to differ.

    Sure, it’s not a place to get discovered. But getting discovered is hard – and there’s plenty of other bad places to get discovered that are nevertheless worthwhile endeavors. (Putting a short in film festivals, putting a video up on the web without a really good publicity plan, etc.)

    And sure, you’re not going to make Citizen Kane in a weekend. But then, most of us are never going to make Citizen Kane no matter how much time we have. It is demonstrably possible to make a good short in a weekend, because many of the films made for the 48 are good shorts. (Just look at the online showcases of the winning films of each year if you doubt me. Many of them are to the standard of things that get shown on broadcast TV, even of theatrical productions that cost millions to make.)

    Where I have to disagree most strongly is where you say that you can’t learn filmmaking at a 48. Sure, you can’t learn everything – but I’m a huge fan of learning by doing.

    Recall the Mark Duplass SXSW speech of a couple years back. His big advice was get out there and make things. Sure, most of what you make at first will be crap. But the more you make, the more you learn – and you may stumble onto things that aren’t crap that you can later use in more significant ways.

    I’m a big believer of that advice. And I think that the 48 provides a great framework for making things quick. That deadline is marvelous – you are going to make a movie in a weekend, it will be finished. And if you pay attention, you will learn things that you can carry over into more significant projects. (And one of the most important of those is how to finish something. I know a lot of people who start a project but never finish it. Do a couple of 48s and you’ll know how to finish things, and you’ll gain the confidence that comes from having finished a film.)

    And don’t downplay the importance of seeing your film on the big screen with a full audience. You learn things by seeing how the audience reacts, things that you’re not going to get by just showing it to a friend or two in a small room.

    I recall the 48 that I did where the audience was laughing through the first half of the movie, and then the laughter stopped. Huh, I shifted the tone halfway through the film and did not continuously escalate the things that were special about the film. I guess I shouldn’t do that.

    Yes, I could have learned that some other way, but learning it from the audience reaction made it stick. And it only took me a weekend’s effort to learn that lesson. (I’d have been quite sad if I had worked for months on that film only to learn the same lesson – let alone the challenge in getting a half-baked effort in front of a huge audience.)

    It sounds like you’ve had some bad experiences with the 48. I’m sorry about that. I can see the possibility of drama, have seen it happen to some teams. But I’ve never had that on my films. Part, no doubt, of setting expectations: I always tell my team that our goals are, in descending order:

    1. Don’t get hurt.
    2. Have fun.
    3. Make a good movie.

    We haven’t always made a great film, but we’ve generally made good ones. But we’ve always had fun, and nobody has gotten hurt. So it’s been successful.

    And I know I can complete a film, and know that each film I make is improved by the lessons I’ve learned from the dozen or so 48’s (and various other stuff).

    1. John P. Hess Founder OP

      I haven’t seen a 48 project that could stand on it’s own without having the caveat that this was made in 48.

      You can’t sidestep the Good-Fast-Cheap rule. As Duplass said, make things… but make them with some time to reflect on them. Make them with time to think and evaluate – not just fly by the seat of your pants.

      1. Joe Dzikiewicz Mutoscope

        I’m not sure if you just haven’t seen some of the 48’s I’ve seen, or you haven’t seen some of the great stuff with questionable production values that I’ve seen! I’ve definitely seen 48’s with production values up to, say, the Monty Python skits that I’ve loved since childhood. And there’s plenty of 48’s that I’ve seen that were more entertaining than things I’ve seen on other skit shows, on Funny-or-Die videos, or things at a similar level.

        I don’t recall Duplass calling for a lot of planning. He was, as I recall, speaking of learning-by-doing, and doing fast. I think there’s a huge value in that – make something, reflect on it afterwards, figure out what worked and what didn’t. And next time, make different mistakes. I certainly find that, for me, I learn more from making four weekend projects than from making a single multi-months project. (Though there’s advantages to each.)

        (There’s also a certain charm in flying by the seat of your pants, as the popularity of good improv comedy or quality improvisational jazz demonstrates.)

        1. John P. Hess Founder OP

          Monty Python may have had low budgets but they didn’t rush their writing. John Cleese in recent things has spoken a lot about the unconscious mind – letting things work out in the background. This reflection time is robbed in the 48.

          Good Improv Comedy and Improv Jazz is NOT flying by the seat of your pants – I can actually speak on the Jazz part as I spend a lot of time there. Improvised Jazz is not fly by the seat of your pants – it’s actually the result of hours and hours of practice going through and studying the chord changes, scales, and memorizing licks. Then on stage, the preparation allows for spontaneous creation and interplay between performers. I don’t speak for improv comedy but I think preparation and planning play just as big a role there as well. But those two forms mentioned are performances, not film productions… and sometimes they are best experienced in real time rather than recorded and reviewed.

          Seems to me you’re setting the bar far too low. I think a good place to judge your work is against Vimeo Staff Picks https://vimeo.com/channels/staffpicks – is it at least as good as the films featured there? That should be your goal, not as good as some slapped together Funny or Die.

          1. Profile photo of Dustin Johnson
            Dustin Johnson Super 8 mm

            I agree. I mean, I am kind of newer to Filmmaking, (Only 17.) Had never even heard of the 48 project, But I have made movies by taking my time, and just Filming and editing with no time limit, and it seems to me, that you can learn a lot more about Filmmaking and be a lot more at peace by taking your time, not being rushed to: write the Script, make the props, find the locations, edit the movie.

            It just makes a lot more sense to me, to take your time, and make the best movie you can, rather than rushing, and ending up with something mediocre.

            And as they say: You can’t rush Art.

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but, that’s how is see it.

          2. John P. Hess Founder OP

            That’s exactly my take.

            But I’m not saying you shouldn’t do the 48… just know what to expect.

          3. Joe Dzikiewicz Mutoscope

            Not setting my goals too low – just setting a somewhat lower bar for the 48. When I’m not trying to squeeze everything into one weekend, I aim a lot higher. And I’m happy to say that one of my films is going to get its debut at the DC Shorts film festival in a couple weeks, so occasionally I seem to be able to hit that higher mark. smile

            That said, I really don’t lose track of what the 48 is. I always start out by telling my teams that my goal is, in descending order, that 1) No one gets hurt, 2) Everyone has fun, and 3) We make a good movie. We don’t always hit #3, but we’ve always achieved 1 & 2.

            And I have learned a lot of things in the 48. It really has been an education for me about things like tonal consistency in the film, just how important sound is, what kinds of things an audience reacts to. And it’s a chance to get a movie seen by a large audience – the easiest way I know for a novice filmmaker to get a film seen by a couple hundred people on a big screen, and I think that’s a valuable experience all in itself.

            But quite aside from anything else: I wouldn’t be making films at all if it weren’t for the 48. Around four years ago, I was in a local community theater production and some friends in it invited me to come do the 48 with them. I’d never heard of it, didn’t know anything about making movies. I spent the night before the shooting reading my camera manual to figure out how to turn on video mode.

            What we made wasn’t great. But it blew me away that I could make a film with a camera that I owned. And I became obsessed and have spent most of my free time and money since learning about filmmaking. Doing that 48 truly changed my life, and I’ll always be grateful to the competition for that.

            And if nothing else, it got you one more regular reader!

          4. Joe Dzikiewicz Mutoscope

            On, and one more thing: while none of my 48’s have gotten much play beyond my own circle, I did do a documentary for a similar contest – a make-a-doc-in-a-weekend thing. That one has gotten into a number of small local film festivals, and even won me some nice prize money. I really do think you can make something good in a short period of time – like most cliches, the good-fast-cheap thing often falls apart in practice.

          5. Profile photo of Dustin Johnson
            Dustin Johnson Super 8 mm

            That’s great to hear it worked for you. smile

            I guess there are plus sides and downsides to the 48.

            I’m still against it but, Good luck at the DC shorts Film festival!!

          6. Joe Dzikiewicz Mutoscope

            Thanks!

            The other thing to note is that even if you don’t get much out of the 48, you’ve only spent a weekend. And it can be an awfully fun weekend (though if you get with the wrong people, it also can be a painful weekend).

            And at the end of the weekend, you’ve made a movie.

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