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A challenge for the ages.

By Michael Hennings

It all started a few months back when John, my post-production supervisor, approached me with an idea. “What if we did a 48-hour film challenge with our team, just us, to challenge ourselves to work together on a creative project where we have complete control?”

My head flooded with questions and potential roadblocks. When will we find the time? Will the rest of the team want to do this? And most-importantly, the classic question we creatives face off with every day, what if we fail!?

Yes, fear of failure was a part of it. I asked John for a little more information. We discussed the possibilities of what the project could look like, how the prompting process would work, how to assign roles, source talent and locations, and what things we would need to line up to execute correctly.

Then I got to thinking. This could be a really good opportunity to use our strengths as a teamwork-based company. Teamwork is one of our values. We have a full-time in-house production & post-production team of 8 people. Most video production companies tend to rely on freelancers, so having that many people in our little studio on a daily basis is kind of uncommon.

After several conversations, I decided to share this plan with the team and see how they reacted. The initial response was… mixed. But everyone was interested. This would be a new thing for all of us.

So we set a date, ordered food, booked friends & colleagues to use as talent, and as the day approached, there was a sense of nervous excitement. Facing the unknown is to me one of the more exciting aspects of producing film, but in this case we were facing ourselves.

Thursday, December 3rd

9am – We all arrived wide-eyed and bushy-tailed to the film challenge. The scent of coffee wafted through the air as we drew our prompts. Lucky Matt Williams did the drawing, and the result was a thriller. I was pretty excited about this. After all, this is a very definite style with a lot of flexibility. On to concepting.

9:30am – Concepting took longer than we thought. WOW. After going back and forth quite a few times on the character’s motivation, the villain’s motivation, and the basic bones of the story, we were finally ready to get to work, but we’d lost valuable time.. precious time. The pressure was on. Fortunately, brunch arrived during our discussion, so that kept us moving when we were in the thick of it.

1pm – We were ready to move onto the next phase. We broke up into teams for scripting, props, and locations. These three parts had to happen simultaneously if we were to shoot on schedule. This required massive communication and foresight. John Baumert and Matt Williams scouted locations, while Julie, Christian & Alex gathered props and supplies. Jessica, Chris & I broke out to work on the script. Using a Google doc, we wrote collaboratively. Mostly, I would write lines, and Jessica and Chris would shake their heads no. Then they would write lines, and I would shout YES! As we went, we would have to work with the props and location teams who were out and about to see what was possible. Oh yeah, somewhere in here we also had to do callbacks for actors. It was stressful. We all stress drank a couple beers to help keep the creative flowing.

Concepting Beer please ConceptingConceptingConceptingConcepting fun

7pm – By this time food had arrived, and we were finally ready to shoot. Actors who had agreed to work for free food and booze arrived (bless them). One friend had agreed to play the protagonist, and one friend agreed to play the villain. Jessica would play the protagonist’s wife. Julie’s husband would be an extra. Unfortunately, we were behind schedule by 1-2 hours already, so activity hit frenzied levels.

8pm – We arrived downtown to shoot our first scene (scene 3a). It’s a part in the story where the protagonist is walking down the street in the dark, aware that someone is after him. He receives a note from the villain in the form of an envelope from a nondescript street walker. The scene called for a follow shot, and after the encounter, the camera arcs around to his face.

It was cold, and there was no one in the street we were on because it was closed-off for some construction. The park lights added a nice touch. We did a few practice takes with the extras and everyone walking at different intervals down the street. We even hid our villain in the shot. Chris watches Eric in the background of the scene, and walks out of the shot after the hand-off. Of course, you’ll never see it, but it’s there. Production value. We did 5-6 takes, got a solid take and a safety, and headed back to the Mastercraft.

Scene 3 on the street Scene 3

9pm – The mood after our return was ecstatic, maybe unjustly so, as we had a long night ahead of us. The feeling of exhilaration of pulling off our first scene made the production feel that much more real. We began setting up for our next location: scene 2. The protagonist is home from work, still on his laptop talking to his wife. A package arrives for him. Guess what… it’s from his stalker.

Jessica stood in as Eric’s wife. We decided she was a strong female character, and their relationship wasn’t close… so she went off to work at the lab, and we kept a lot of distance between them both physically and emotionally. Our scene went smoothly, especially given the style we’d adapted of long, unbroken shots to add to the tension. But time kept ticking on. By the time we got done, it was already after 10pm.

10:30pm – I grabbed Chris & Eric and took them off to shoot scene 3b while the rest of the crew set up for scene 4. In this small, two shot combo, Eric follows the note he received to an empty warehouse. He opens the door, only to be smacked on the back of the head as he peers into the darkness. The prop for this was particularly quirky – a lead pipe which we had sitting around from some old desks we made. Cool, right? Whodoneit?? It was the photographer in the corridor with the lead pipe. We only took a few takes for each shot, but the hardest part was getting the effect of being smacked by a pipe to look real. Unfortunately, it was also becoming apparently obvious that it would be a late night. The hardest scene was yet to come.

 IMG_0170 IMG_0166 IMG_01651IMG_0196

11:30pm – Much later than we wanted, we began scene 4. This is the confrontation between the protagonist and the villain, where we find out that the hero is not so veneer and the villain gets another dimension to motivate his actions. Eric wakes up, bloodied and beaten, chained to a pipe. This is also the one with all the lines. Needless to say, we were a little nervous, and everyone was pretty exhausted by this point.

But we pushed. Our actors worked incredibly hard. The scene opened with a shot of just Eric waking up alone (scene 4a), he then drifts back off to sleep again, and is awakened by the big reveal of the villain slapping him. For a few of the takes, I actually worried that Chris was hurting Eric. But both of them were indefatigable pros, despite the amount of takes it required to get through all the dialogue. The scene closes with Eric offering Chris money, but we find out he’s wayyyy beyond that. He’s going to enjoy torturing this man. He laughs, walks away, closes the door, and turns out the light.

Somehow, Chris managed to reach a level of maniacal potential which I hadn’t anticipated. I was a bit shocked, but appreciative. I’ve seen worse performances out of villains in actual cinema (*cough*WilsonFisk*cough*). And Eric played into it perfectly. Pompous and self-involved until the end. Just the characters we’d written.

Setting the mood I can't reach my drink! Getting prepped Matt Williams, Cinematographer Scene 4 Cast and crew

Around 1:30am we finished tearing down and turned out the lights for the night. We still had our work cut out for us.

Friday, December 4th

11am – People started trickling in. Weary-eyed but still eager, we started piecing together the footage from the day before. John had arrived a bit early to organize clips, and Matt, John, and Chris split the different scenes among themselves. We had one more scene to shoot in the afternoon (scene 1), and we were missing a prop for it. A whiskey bottle. Whoops. The one I bought was too big.

2pm – We were finally ready to shoot scene 1. Our clock was ticking; we had to show the film in 5 hours. This is the scene where we first meet the protagonist, and we find out something is wrong. He is at his work when he receives cryptic photos, and then a mysterious text. It was another long take, with only one over-the-shoulder pickup shot, and after 4-5 takes, we felt we had an excellent scene. Eric executed very efficiently and hardly missed a beat. We were lucky to have such undiscovered talent at our disposal.

3pm – Now it was up to our editors, but Alex and I decided not to waste time. We identified spots in the script where some audio engineering could be useful, and we used the tools at our disposal to create foley sound. Now, maybe you don’t know what this is, but that means that someone did a good job. One of the most important things to accepting a scene in cinema as a viewer is hearing convincing “sound effects.” I’m not talking about laser beams, necessarily, but simple things, like punching noises during a fight scene, chopping carrots, pens scribbling, etc.

You see, the microphones they use for dialogue (which, even that is frequently re-recorded in post) don’t pick up all the sound in the room. If they did, it would sound terrible. So I ran around with a boom pole and had Alex hit things, recording dripping water, light switches, door slams, etc. It was actually pretty fun. By the time we finished, we had 8-9 little sound dings that really added to the final product.

5:30pm – We started setting up the projector in our studio. A buddy of mine kindly volunteered his. The edit was still progressing. We wanted to show the thing by 7pm, but it was really coming close.

6:00pm – Pizzas showed up! We began eating and drinking, and we started entertaining the masses with YouTube videos while Chris finished the final pieces. Whew.

7:00pm – NOOOOOOO! The export failed. Then it failed, again. Then again. We attempted 4-5 different exports of the project. Time dragged on. It was nearing 8pm, and we were becoming desperate. Then, we got lucky. Someone thought to change the file directory for the export, and it worked. We began the showing around 8:30 pm. An hour and a half late, but still well-within 48 hours!

8:30pm –  And the premiere began. We were all blown away by what we had created. The final piece was over 7 minutes in length, complete with credits, and even more excitingly, it cut pretty well and had a coherent story! There were very few continuity issues for such a short time-frame production, and the characters really felt like they’d achieved some sense of identity.

Filled with pride, we watched it again. I think all of us were surprised by the level of bonding that taking on this feat brought out in us, and it was a prime opportunity to push our creative skill sets to the limit to execute something we can truly own.

Film is one of the most powerful mediums in the world. It is the combination of the efforts of many to create one cohesive vision. A major objective of our company is to remind people that Omaha can be a home for creatives, and that you don’t have to be in LA or New York to do work that is impactful. I believe this 48-hour film challenge was a step in the right direction.

A special thanks to all of you who participated in this project. We owe you a lot, and we’re looking forward to continuing to live creatively with you.

Eric Juszyk, Chris Tierney, Jessica Clem, Rich King, Julie King, Chris Dinan, John Baumert, Alex Kirts, Christian Turbes, Matt Williams, & Charlie the Dog

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