James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – Reflections (Pt. 5 of 5)

By James Fair If I think back to the drunken bet in Dublin, when I said that I could make a feature in three days, I believe I have proven my point. I think the audience approval makes my point even further, as it was not only made in three days, but people also liked it. More importantly, I hope that we have helped demystify the production process and gone some of the way towards inspiring filmmakers to try different approaches.

However, the goalposts are now being moved, and people are asking whether it will have a life after the festival. I hope that it can, although it now competes alongside other films in the conventional fashion, jostling for distribution and exhibition deals. If we go back to the aims and objectives, we never designed a plan for what we would do at this stage, which was perhaps a mistake.

I believe there is currently a great deal of methodical examination of distribution and exhibition channels being conducted simultaneously by academia and by business. I have a constant concern that cinema is being marginalised in favour of more dominant screens, especially those of Internet and iProducts. As a filmmaker who fell in love with cinema in the darkened rooms of my local multiplex, I can’t subscribe to the loss of the collective experience of the big screen with no remote control. Whilst I am intrigued and excited by the emergence of technologies and concepts such as VOD and transmedia, I don’t currently use them and I don’t want to see their rise indicate cinema’s decline.

“Innumerable confusions and profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions. Our “Age of Anxiety” is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools – with yesterday’s concepts.” Page 8, McLuhan, Marshall & Fiore, Quentin (1967) The Medium Is The Massage (California, Gingko)

McLuhan’s quote may be 43 years old but I genuinely don’t believe we have exhausted all avenues in cinema. I believe that we rely upon technologically spectacular advances to constantly woo audiences, and whilst that may have worked in the last century, it won’t work as effectively now. I feel that if we altered some of the ways that we made film, the audience could capture a sense of quality that didn’t depend on 3D glasses or special effects. It is because industry defines these elements as quality that audiences are desperately expecting to feel it, but they aren’t necessarily detracting a quality experience.

“Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. A product is not quality because it is hard to make and costs a lot of money, as manufacturers typically believe. This is incompetence. Customers pay only for what is of use to them and gives them value. Nothing else constitutes quality.”

Page 206, Drucker, Peter (2007) Innovation & Entrepreneurship. First edition 1985. (Oxford, Elsevier)

We can find solutions to many of our challenges through action followed by analysis. I believe that academic analysis by itself is of little world value and can lead to paralysis of activity, therefore it is important to create as well as criticise. I believe that film academia should stop standing on the sidelines of industry and actively engage in helping out during this paradigm shift. Whilst they are not there to be the research and development department of the studio, there is little value in them simply analysing cinema from a distance. Being truly innovative is to think of something and to make it happen. Thinking about it and not doing anything is not innovative at all; it’s just creative thinking.

It is for this reason that I have found it a pleasure to guest blog for Ted over the last few months. I think the quality of discussion upon the Truly Free Film blog is a valuable contribution to our community. It is important that we keep our contributions constructive. Machiavelli wrote, “The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order and receives only lukewarm support from those who would prosper under the new.” This has recently resonated with me, especially when I would receive criticism even though I never envisaged 72 as being anything other than an inspirational exercise. However, I’ve tried to see other people’s frustrations and loosen my own resistance to them.

For some on the outside, it appeared as if we were stealing a slot in a major festival without having made the film yet. It looked like we are saying that it doesn’t take three months to shoot a film, it takes three days. It seemed were ‘showboating’ and ridiculing the filmmaking process. We actually set out to create a transparent process that inspired other filmmakers, but I can see how that may have got lost in the message. Hopefully our continued presence here upon Truly Free Film, as well as Chris Jones and Randy Finch’s blogs, has meant that we’ve had a chance to get our undiluted thoughts upon the 72 Hour Movie project ‘out’ there.

Thanks to those that have supported us along the way. If you are interested in finding out more about ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ and the 72 Hour Project, please visit our website www.72hourmovie.com and join us at www.facebook.com/72hourmovie .

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – Production (Pt. 4 of 5)

By James Fair Unsurprisingly, most of the fascination around the 72 Hour Movie project ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ surrounds the process of filming and editing it so quickly, especially in relation to the projects that can take months. In this post, I’m going to focus on how we turned it around in such a short time. I wrote a post for Ted a while back titled ‘The Shape of Things’ that explored the organisational structure of the 72, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead I’ll concentrate upon the necessary elements that must be present in order for the process to work alongside the organisational structure.

The simple target is to maximise effectiveness from the effort. People assume that you would have to work hard to make a film in 72 hours, but that is not as valuable as being productive and efficient. In fact, it is the opposite! To be productive and efficient is to achieve a significant amount with a small amount of work. Efficiency is the ratio of the useful work performed by a process to the total energy expended. If it is hard work, something has gone wrong. Quite a few films have been shot in such a short timeframe and even less. Corman’s version of ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’, in which Jack Nicholson made an early appearance, was shot in two and a half days I believe. Shooting rapidly isn’t that hard or complex. It just requires thoughtful consideration to the effective organisation of a good cast and crew, good location management, good scheduling and good direction.

Good casting is critical. They must not only cope with pressure but also thrive upon it. They must be consistent with performance. They must have patience and calm. They need to be rehearsed but not so much to be inflexible. They must know their lines and be capable of nailing the performance in approximately three takes. Any more than three and we are losing too much time on set and sending too much data to the editors. I was incredibly fortunate that all of the actors in ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ were extremely competent and unflappable, despite the huge pressure. This sounds like a staple requirement of an actor, but in reality not all are happy to be put under such stress.

The crew must have similar characteristics, buoyed by an enthusiasm and energy for the project. As a director I believe I encouraged this through leading by example. It was more ‘do as I do, not do as I say’ – the opposite of traditional direction. If a tripod needs carrying, I can do it. People criticise this approach by saying that ‘if you are carrying the tripod you are not directing the film’. This is rubbish. Carrying the tripod is directing the film. It is moving it where you want it to be. If you are still making creative decisions on the set of your movie, to the extent that you can’t carry a tripod, you are an ass. Something has gone horribly wrong.

I believe that good direction is good planning. Know where you want to put the camera. Know how scenes will cut together. Know the pace of the action and make sure you are getting it on set, regardless of how fast you are filming. The temptation with video is to shoot lots of coverage, but I believe this is lazy ‘dump-truck’ directing. Shoot what you need and move on, otherwise there are ramifications throughout the process. Shooting too much means time transferring it, cost to store it, time sifting through and editing it.

Good scheduling is essential. For every hour that we filmed, approximately two minutes would have to be used in the final cut of the movie. Our first day of filming remained in one location and we shot through just over a third of the movie, accounting for the slow start as we gelled as a team. The second day we had many more location changes but split into two units for a couple of hours and filmed sections of the script where the protagonists weren’t on screen together. The third day we fell behind early on, but the adrenaline and momentum of being so close to the finish line carried us forward.

All the way through this we were transferring files on location from the 16GB RED cards in regular data dumps, not dissimilar to the process of changing the film magazine. Occasionally we’d resort to using the RED drives instead, but we were wary of bottlenecking the data to the edit and paranoid about dropping frames. These were then couriered as quickly as possible to our edit team, who were located centrally in Melbourne. They would transcode the footage and send low-resolution versions for the editors to picture cut. They would communicate back to location that the footage had been ingested and in circulation that meant we could start to recycle the cards on set. Once the editors were done, they’d send the sequence back and it would be conformed at full resolution, along with a stereo sound mix that was being cut independently. This convoluted process requires a blog in itself, but that would have to be authored by Mike Fisher, our genius workflow manager courtesy of Sequence Post in London.

Ironically, the biggest problem throughout the process was dumping the film back to tape in order to be screened in the Australian Centre for Moving Image. The whole 72 Hour Movie project hinges upon the benefits of tapeless workflow, it simply couldn’t work if we had to digitise in real-time. Yet in order to screen the film in a traditional setting we had to go back to the conventional safety of tape! A classic example of how the possibilities of digital filmmaking production don’t always marry nicely with the traditional processes of distribution or exhibition.

I have never advocated making features in 72 hours to be the way forward for filmmaking. I believe that our project serves as an example that we can think differently about the process of filmmaking instead of unquestionably adopting the same roles and protocols each time. We all have different motivators for making films, perhaps storytelling, art, business or fame. We should formally acknowledge the different approaches to filmmaking so that alternative processes can be legitimately recognised as valid and viable for production. Perhaps it is the current inability to recognise and reward innovative filmmaking that is leading audiences to believe that cinema is running out of ideas?

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – The Script (Pt.3 of 5)

By James Fair. On a number of occasions, people have said to me that the success of ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) was the strength of the script. I am naturally flattered, because I wrote it, but I am also a little embarrassed, because I do not view it with the same reverence and respect as others seem to. I’m not saying that the success wasn’t due to the script, I am saying that the script was part of the process.

Honestly speaking, I would never waste a developed idea for a film upon the 72 Hour Movie project. I cherish some of my script ideas too much to use them in such a hurried production circumstance. So I deliberately wrote a script that would suit the purpose of making it in 72 hours, using the process as a catalyst for the script.

I started with 40 cells in a Microsoft Word document. These cells would roughly translate to two-minute scenes of screen time, so an 80-minute film. I sat in a cafe with my assistant Irune Gurtubai and filled each cell out, not necessarily in consequential order. The only rule was that each cell should have a significant plot point that carried the story forward. From there, we sat for two hours and drank copious amounts of coffee until we had filled it out. That was the structure of the script. I then spent three weeks writing the actual scenes and dialogue, sticking as close to the structure as possible. It ended up being 46 scenes, which is deliberately one third less than ‘Watching & Waiting’, the film we shot in Galway. I decided to have longer scenes with more dialogue because the RED camera having interchangeable lenses would be a slower set-up than the fixed lenses of the Panasonic HPX500 that we used upon ‘Watching & Waiting’.

The first draft was then sent to a series of different script editors of varying experience for them to compile notes and return them to me. These editors were recruited through a variety of sources; previous colleagues, loved ones, friends and Facebook followers. They were spread worldwide – Finland, U.S.A., Australia, Germany, Ireland and England, which ensured the script would be universal. This municipal process also acted as an accelerant to my script editing, which can usually take far too long between drafts. Taking the notes into consideration, I would rework the script until I was happy with it; five drafts. My first film Peppermint had fifteen drafts!

It was the fifth draft that I sent Kate O’Toole after I had approached her informally through Facebook. I noticed that she was following us in our group so messaged her and she asked to see the script. We went through one more draft, where the character motivations and necessities were tightened up, and this became our shooting script. The shooting script was then amended in rehearsal if the actors offered ideas to strengthen their characterisation. I would act as a sounding board and was by no means precious. So when people commend the script, they are really commending the work of around ten people. This is not script writing by committee, as I wrote it all, but it was the functional product of a methodical process, created in direct relation to the process of filming it in 72 hours.

I have written scripts before and I have studied scriptwriting in two university modules at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I think I may be good at it, but I genuinely believe that we delivered ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ along very formulaic lines. It is a generic romantic comedy, but an audience still love stories that are told well, regardless of their genre. I wrote it faster than any other script I have ever written and I did fewer drafts than normal. I believe that the script followed the ideals of necessity and dilemma very closely, and that meant that it connected well with audiences.

The story follows a middle-aged Irish couple that arrive in Melbourne on their second honeymoon, yet their luggage doesn’t arrive with them. The premise meant the characters losing their luggage in the first scene removed the problems of wardrobe changes. Their flight from Ireland to Australia meant the two protagonists could look tired and bedraggled as part of their jetlag (regardless of whether it was a result of shooting a feature in 72 hours). This premise also considers the demographic of the MIFF audience. Whilst there is a great deal of younger people who would’ve been interested in our process, we wanted to have a story that identified with the festival audience. I find it a little strange that studios are so fixated with the 15-30 demographic when they are the exact audiences that are most likely to pirate material and most likely to be out drinking or partying instead of watching movies. I thought of my parents – they have no idea how to pirate, they wouldn’t agree with it ethically and they hate going out to bars because the noise is too loud and they are filled with pissed kids. Have we explored all audiences fully? Are we blind to the potential of other audiences because we are so fixated with the system the way it is now?

Whilst the script was critical in securing our star, Kate O’Toole, it was the process that had particular impact. She’d joke that actors get paid big money for the inconvenience of sitting around and being bored. But in all seriousness, if you are an actor, isn’t there an appeal in spending a high ratio of time on-set actually acting instead of waiting around?! Organising a shoot to be faster means it can be cheaper for producers and more rewarding for actors, but it requires the maximisation of effectiveness from the effort inputted, something I’ll explore further tomorrow.

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – Getting Funded (Pt. 2 of 5)

Fourteen months ago at the Galway Film Fleadh in Ireland, my producer Gary Hoctor and I sat opposite Ted Hope. We were pitching our 72 Hour Movie project and Ted was listening intently. The majority of the producers and financiers we met in the large hall that day listened intently, but unfortunately none could offer us money. Admittedly, Ted helped us a great deal by giving a few pointers, along with fellow American Richard Abramowitz; many of the Europeans only offered tea and sympathy. A year later our 72 Hour Movie project ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ was in the audience top ten at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). So how did we get from the rejection in Galway to Melbourne in those twelve months? The project we pitched in Galway was a unique package. Gary Hoctor’s company Hello Camera had been invited to shoot, edit and screen a feature-length movie in three days at MIFF 2010, one of the largest film festivals in the southern hemisphere. The screening at the festival was guaranteed. We had a few key partnerships lined up. We had developed a proposal and treatment. All we needed was some cash to get the project going. But the ‘unique selling points’ of the project were also the sticking points for potential investors. “We don’t want to finance a process, we want to finance a product” was a common complaint. “We can’t really commit without a script” was another. This was all understandable. We were approaching companies with something that did not fit neatly into their core business. Whilst our innovative project got us a slot at the festival, our non-existent business plan didn’t indicate how people would buy into it.

Describing the 72 Hour Movie project as innovative has become a nice way of saying that ‘it isn’t usually the way we do business’. In a market that is currently risk averse, financiers are looking for sure-shots not belly flops. Despite the 72-project being offered a guaranteed slot at a major festival; that is never the start point of a traditional deal, whereas it might be a possible end-point. The financiers always ask the same questions which are based upon their experience of potential markets and previous successes. If your project doesn’t fit into that model – forget it. If you are being truly innovative, then all traditional avenues are most likely closed to you. You are rewriting the rulebook and you are on your own. Whilst our project wasn’t so unique that it was incomprehensible, it was different enough for most funding streams to walk away. Therefore we had to become innovative in all areas to succeed. What began as a project for innovative production workflow in a tight timeframe became an innovative project in production finance also.

We worked out a strategy of who would be interested in our project. What were our assets? We have a platform for exposure. So who wants to advertise on this platform? Who would want to be associated with film, digital technology, innovation and workflow? We developed lists upon lists of potential sponsors. We developed a matrix of what we could offer them, from the whole deal to the sponsorship of a crew meal. We went about organising meetings and pitches. This took up most of our time in 12 months before production and we only found one third of what we had originally intended. But we got enough from a gamut of sources to make it happen, from research grants and corporate sponsorship through to private contributions from our Facebook supporters.

But let’s go back to why a lot of people couldn’t see what the point of our project was. “So what if you can film a feature in three days?” “If the story is shit then there isn’t a product. Furthermore, if it were a good script, I’d rather raise more cash and see you film it properly than rush it.” These arguments seem valid from the traditional perspective. The major cost problem within film and television tends to come from two particular elements – the writing and the star performer, and both are seen as ‘must-haves’ if the film is to succeed. The cost of actual production isn’t the greatest headache, so the three days seems pointless.

However, this is a very linear approach to thinking about filmmaking. It is based around the dilemma of the production triangle, a concept whereby we all live with our wants and needs challenged by the parameters of time, quality and cost. If you want something fast and cheap, it won’t be good quality. If you want something cheap and quality, you’ll have to wait. If you want something quality and fast, it won’t be cheap. You can only ever have two sides of the triangle.

It would therefore seem inconcievable that you could make something of quality that quickly and cheaply. But like I said in yesterday’s post – the problem is that the creators cannot determine the quality, the audience dictates quality. Just because you spend $100million on a movie, it doesn’t mean it will be any good. We asked investors to believe that we could break that triangle, shooting quickly and cheaply yet still making something of quality. Common sense would suggest that it isn’t possible, but there is no common sense in a paradigm shift, all traditional ways of thinking are challenged!

Whilst it is valid to use the quality of a script as an indicator of financial feasibility of a project, it should not be the deciding factor. Firstly, placing too higher emphasis on the script is what drives up the price of writers! Secondly, and this was the case in the 72, the script won’t always be the starting point of the process in future. Technology enables us to make films cheaper and quicker than ever before, and it is that immediacy and transparency of process that created quality, not the script. The process is the product. With the 72, followers could invest as much or as little time and attention in our process as they would like. They could engage and discuss story ideas, suggest locations and put forward their music or their acting resume. There was a sense of ownership and growth in the process that meant people had an invested interest in seeing it succeed. The idea that we can engage and collectively share an event only moments after it was made has the same level of appeal that audiences had 100 years ago seeing the places they recognised on the silent screen. The process can be magical too... but more importantly, the script was dictated by the process; not vice versa, as I will explain further tomorrow.

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – The Aims & Objectives (Pt. 1 of 5)

By James Fair One month ago I led a team of filmmakers (of varying experience) into shooting and editing a feature length movie upon RED in 72 hours, and then screening it to a festival audience at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) in Australia. The purpose was to demystify the filmmaking process and illustrate that it could be done differently. The film ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ has been deemed a success by those involved as it successfully played to a sell-out audience at the Australian Centre for Moving Image and made it into the Top Ten Audience Favourites of the entire festival. This is no small feat considering we only screened once, with only a fraction of the budget of the other films, and filmed within three days of our screening. Over five posts for Truly Free Film, I want to share some of my findings from the process.

Let me provide you with some context. I first found myself making a feature in three days at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2008, after I had made a drunken bet with a producer in Dublin that it was possible. Once that film was successfully completed, we screened it out-of-competition at Berlinale in February 2009 and whilst there, MIFF invited us to repeat the feat in Melbourne. As micro-budget filmmakers we didn’t feel that we could turn the opportunity down, despite the fact that making a film on the other side of the world with no money is pretty hard.

From the very outset, producer Gary Hoctor and I roughly organised certain aims and objectives that would infuse the culture of the project:

Do as much production through freeware as possible.

  • Communication will take place through Skype.
  • The script will be written and drafted in Celtx.
  • We’ll share documents through Google Docs.

Make a quality film.

  • Shoot on RED at 4K resolution.
  • Try and get star power.

Be transparent about the process. • Develop a website (built by www.pointblank.ie) that is content heavy with our tweets and vlogs. • Develop a Facebook fan page where we will post news and interact directly with supporters. • Write guest blogs for various established sites (TFF included) that will help channel new audiences to us, whilst offering the chance to get our ideas across.

Exploit the project more than before.

  • We needed more publicity in order for the project to have value outside of Melbourne. ‘Watching & Waiting’ was a success but had little impact outside of Galway.

These objectives were our guiding lights throughout. You’ll notice that there isn’t a great deal about the film in there, other than ‘shoot on RED’ and ‘try to get star power’! It seems a little ludicrous to write an aim like ‘make a quality film’, as if anyone writes ‘make a bad film’. It was a general assumption that we wanted to make a good film, but these two objectives were things that we felt identified a tangible barometer of our success. I don’t actually believe that ‘quality’ can be defined by the image resolution of the picture or the 7.1 sound mix. I think this is a misunderstanding with a lot of filmmakers – they believe ‘quality’ can be translated as ‘good production’, ‘neat finishing’ or ‘smooth camera movement’. Quality is an attribute assigned by the audience, not something that can be bought by the producer. I decide whether I think something is quality or not, not the packaging of the product that I buy. I think has film has been quality if I feel like my $20 ticket was worth it.

I digress. These aims and objectives were essential to us because they became points of reference throughout the production. When problems occurred (and they always do) we had a set of common goals that we could refer to. Interestingly enough, I can identify one textbook mistake with our aims and objectives that are causing headaches now – we never had an exit strategy with what to do with the film once done. And now we are faced with the same predicaments of regular filmmaking; ‘where do we go from here?’ In our defence, it felt like a probable jinx to plan a future for the film beyond the production as it could have gone horribly wrong, but it seems a little stupid to hide behind superstition in something otherwise so methodical.

Aims and objectives are a critical part of the scientific method. I have become increasingly attracted to this approach to filmmaking as we delve deeper into the paradigm shift of the digital evolution. I believe the rules are changing within the film industry and therefore I see great value in identifying a hypothesis and then working towards it through trial and error. Otherwise I believe it is difficult to establish effective results, and we find ourselves trying to draw conclusions from examples that don’t necessarily present the whole picture.

Let me give you a clearer example. My motivation was to prove a feature film could be made in 72 hours, and I identified ways of fulfilling it through the redesign of organisational structure. But let’s say your hypothesis was to make a film that made a clear and demonstrable profit of 125%. How would you do it? Can it be done? I believe it can, because I believe anything is possible. But can it be repeatable? Can it be done so that I can do it and you can do it too? That is harder, right?

Well I’m sure that people have these personal aims in their mind. But do they have the objectives: the ways of achieving it? Do they approach the movie with the 125% as their starting point? Or do they start with the assumption that the only way they are going to make that profit if they start with a good script? My point here is about process. We always use pretty much the same process regardless of our aims or objectives.

Revisit our objectives for the 72 Hour Movie project. Where did we ever write that we wanted a good script? That was the first hurdle that we came across when it came to getting funding for the project, because everyone wanted to fund a film, not a process. I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.