Seen any panic-stricken people with cameras and boom mics scurrying around the city lately? There were 48 of them — teams of filmmakers, not simply individuals — frantically making short films over the weekend of July 16-18 for the 48 Hour Film Project, an annual contest and screening that gives people the chance to make movies in only 48 hours and show the results over a weekend to audiences.
If you could see the people struggling to make their movies under intense pressure and without sleep, that would be at least as interesting.
Filmmakers Mark Ruppert and Liz Langston started the project in 2001 by wondering not only if such a movie would be makeable, but whether it would be watchable. Evidently the answer to both questions has been a resounding yes, as 76 cities besides Richmond held such events in 2009, in places as far flung as Albuquerque, N.M., and Mumbai, India. This is the fourth installment to be held in Richmond, which will screen the results July 24-25 at the Byrd Theatre.
This is the largest year for Richmond, says organizer Ellie St. John, who says the cap of 48 teams fills up quickly and results in what she calls “a very Richmond waiting list.”
St. John is in charge of it all, and has been since she answered an ad for the Richmond expansion four years ago. Her only help after keeping all 48 teams registered and organized comes from editor Rob Collins in mastering the print that will be shown to audiences. St. John has been at it since the project's Richmond founding, in 2007. That year's winning team included former Style Weekly Arts and Culture editor Brandon Reynolds.
St. John says the teams can range drastically in makeup, both in size and background. Theoretically you can have a team of one, who turns on the camera, acts, then turns it off. But most are groups. Some are made up of amateurs hoping to make their first movie, while others, St. John says, feature professional filmmakers such as Kevin Hershberger and employees of local commercial production agencies. Some of the movies offer impressive special effects. One involved horses. There are also teams made up of high school and college kids. But don't judge a filmmaker by his or her stature, she says. “You never know who's going to come out on top with the best film.”
The project gets going like this: Everyone gathers at a headquarters where teams draw one of 14 different genres out of a hat, everything from horror to road movie. Every team gets the same prompts to get them going on the story, including a character, prop and line of dialogue. The uniformity helps the audience but also adds to the challenge. St. John says there are always teams who forget to include the line, or accidentally cut the prop out of the final edit, and are subsequently disqualified from awards eligibility.
Teams then typically churn out a screenplay, shoot the footage as fast as possible and then edit the results. The final movies must be 4-7 minutes long, but that's an eternity to put together in a weekend. St. John says many of the filmmakers simply go without sleep, one of the reasons she prefers to remain in the background.
“I actually don't think I could do the 48,” she says. “It's way too intimidating.”
The 48 Hour Film Project screens at the Byrd Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, July 24-25, at 1:30 and 4 p.m. each day. $7 per screening; $12 for pass. For information, go to 48hourfilm.com/richmond.