Film Challenge Month

Top Five Reasons Why We Love Film Challenges

Hey gang! Andrew here…

Welcome back to Film Challenge Month at TwoJackets.com! Last week, we wrapped up our nine-part Film Challenge Retrospective series. If you haven’t had a chance to read through all of those articles, I highly recommend it. Together they form a detailed account of our most influential film challenge experiences so far, including all the mistakes made, lessons learned, and victories victor-ed! So go ahead, check ‘em out! I’ll wait while you get caught up.

All finished? Good! Now, you’re probably wondering - with all of the stress and frustration, the lack of sleep, the constant pressure of the clock, and the probability of failure - why do we continue to participate in these film challenges? What compels us to throw ourselves into this gauntlet time after time after time? 

Well get ready to have those questions answered! I’ve compiled the top five reasons why we love film challenges!

#1 - Embracing the Unknown

Going into a film challenge weekend, we don’t have a clue what kind of a movie we’re going to be making. We’ll assemble a team and pool together our available resources beforehand, but for what? We don’t know! And we find this very exciting! Going in with a blank slate means we’re truly making a film from idea to completion in just two days. That doesn’t allow any time for second guessing. We’re also likely to make something unlike anything else we’ve ever done before. I don’t think Two Jackets would have made films like Put a Ring on It or All Dressed in White in any other context, but I’m so grateful for those experiences. They allowed our creativity to manifest in exciting, unforeseen ways!

Actor Bill Dablow as former football star Reggie Thomas in  Put a Ring on It , our entry in the 2012 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project. Drawing "silent film" as our genre that year required us to communicate a story entirely through visuals, which was an unexpected, but enriching experience.

Actor Bill Dablow as former football star Reggie Thomas in Put a Ring on It, our entry in the 2012 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project. Drawing "silent film" as our genre that year required us to communicate a story entirely through visuals, which was an unexpected, but enriching experience.

#2 - Instant Gratification 

We get to make a film in just two days! A finished one! With a beginning, a middle, and an end! We don’t have a clue what it’ll be about, but we can tell you now, without hesitation, that we’re going to have a new short film ready for your viewing pleasure on Sunday, June 7, at the end of the 2015 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project. Film challenges are minimum time commitment for maximum creative return.

We went into the 2013 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project with an empty office and some chairs, and we came out the other side with  All's Chair in Love and War  - one of the oddest films in our oeuvre. I wouldn't have it any other way!

We went into the 2013 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project with an empty office and some chairs, and we came out the other side with All's Chair in Love and War - one of the oddest films in our oeuvre. I wouldn't have it any other way!

#3 - Team Building

Film challenges bring people together! Back in our early college years, the Jackets participated in the National Film Challenge. Going into those first few events, we hardly knew the other members of our teams. However, we quickly learned that when you’re together with a bunch of people pushing their artistic abilities to both a mental and physical limit, friendships bloom! To this day, we continue to work with people we met back in those formative times and encourage each other as artists. In addition to these stalwarts, we try to bring in new collaborators on the cast and crew each year in order to add fresh voices to the mix. For this year’s event, we’re welcoming three new collaborators into the fold! We hope it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

Eric was very happy to team up with some of our favorite collaborators for the recording of "The Money Song" from our film  I Stole a Lot of Money! , which we made for the 2014 Four Points Film Project. From left to right: Eric, the foot of Emily King, Tyler Michaels, Reed Reimer.

Eric was very happy to team up with some of our favorite collaborators for the recording of "The Money Song" from our film I Stole a Lot of Money!, which we made for the 2014 Four Points Film Project. From left to right: Eric, the foot of Emily King, Tyler Michaels, Reed Reimer.

#4 - A Public Screening

The fun isn’t over after the filmmaking weekend. The film that you and your team created with your collective might, that you sprinted to complete, is going to be put up on the big screen in front of a living, breathing audience! This is a rare gift. Filmmakers aren’t used to seeing how their work affects people. We can put it online for an anonymous crowd, but that doesn’t provide the instant feedback of being there in person. Another unique aspect is the composition of that live audience. Almost everyone in the room with you, watching your film, has a film of their own to screen, made as part of the same grueling experience. And even with that great equalizer, those films are going to be so different from one another, even if their makers received the same assignment as you. This is a special experience that doesn’t happen at any other type of screening.

Team Two Jackets after the Best of Fest screening for the 2014 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project. From left: Debra Berger, Eric Carlson, Andrew Neill (ME!), Katie Vannelli, Craig Larson

Team Two Jackets after the Best of Fest screening for the 2014 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project. From left: Debra Berger, Eric Carlson, Andrew Neill (ME!), Katie Vannelli, Craig Larson

#5 - Community Involvement

Film challenges bring the members of a team closer together, but they also bring the teams of a community closer together. In Minneapolis, the city producers work hard to organize mixers and workshops ahead of the event weekend with the goal of forming new friendships and collaborations. At public screenings, filmmakers get together in the lobby before and after the show to commiserate and share their experiences. We’ve been participating in the Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project since 2012, and each year we make new friends and colleagues. Events like these make me realize that film isn’t only what goes into a production or what ends up on screen. The community forming around the art completes it, and we’re so glad to be part of it.

I snapped this shot of City Producer Austin Anderson at a recent mixer for the 2015 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project.

I snapped this shot of City Producer Austin Anderson at a recent mixer for the 2015 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project.

As I wrap this up, I’m going to cheat and add a sixth, overarching reason for why we love film challenges: They’re fun! We get to hang out with some of our favorite people, meet some new people, tell a story from scratch, try something new, and see our work on the big screen! For those who participate in film challenges, it’s easy to see only the blood, sweat, and tears going into them. However, when you take a moment to step outside the pressure and exhaustion bottled up in these weekends, and you see the creativity and community behind it all, then it makes sense. There’s so much heart and drive in it. This is why we love doing it. 

Andrew

Film Challenge Retrospective: I Stole a Lot of Money!

How now, lords and ladies? Eric here, as your ghost of film challenges past, with the final installment of our retrospective series!

If you’ve been keeping up with Two Jackets Productions this month, then you’ve noticed we’re feeling nostalgic. This week, Andrew got spooky-scary with his review of All Dressed in White, and Marcus made us all want to go outside and make friends in a retrospective of his one-man-film, The Home Office. Unfortunately, I wasn’t on set or creatively involved in either of these films! To make up for that sad fact, I decided it was high time I direct something. After all, I hadn’t stood at the helm of any film project since A Lutefisk Western way back in 2010!

Luckily, there was one film challenge I hadn’t done since college and was dying to revisit: The Four Points Film Project (formerly the National Film Challenge) - an international free-for-all pitting teams from all over the world against each other in a 72-Hour filmmaking frenzy! Prizes! Glory! A worldwide stage! I said, “We have to do this!”

Marcus and Andrew said, “Yup okay.”

So, we signed up!  We gathered a small cast we knew could handle anything we could throw at them, from melodrama to comedy.  The roster included Emily King and Allen Voigt, who you may have seen in our short You Only Die Once!, and James Griffin, a local Minneapolis actor we scouted after seeing his fantastic performances in a handful of films. I directed AND shot (more on that later), Andrew produced, and Marcus wrote remotely from Ohio. Check out I Stole a Lot of Money! below:

Was that song about money? I feel like maybe that song had something to do with money.

As with all the other film challenges Two Jackets has been involved with, Four Points assigned us a set of required elements based on our time-zone:

Character: Martin Burley, ATM Technician
Line of Dialogue: “I heard you the first time.”
Prop: A balloon
Genre: Comedy

We were VERY happy with this assignment. The fact that we were given comedy as our genre meant that we knew we could make something silly, and boy did we.

Once we were given the elements via email, Andrew and I video-called Marcus out in Ohio (it’s the future, people!) and had a quick, productive brainstorming session. The planning was so successful because we employed all of the lessons we had learned in previous Film Challenge brainstorms, keeping it to just the three of us and using the required elements as our primary source of influence. Beyond that, we made a rule that I could veto any concept without argument as the director, and Marcus could do the same as the writer.  Marcus then led the brainstorming session, and I trusted that he would write something we could produce after we agreed on the concept.  Me letting go of the script that night was a huge boon to the production.  Within an hour, Marcus was writing, and I was able to get rest for the next day’s shoot.

We ended the film with a visual message instead of dialogue.

We ended the film with a visual message instead of dialogue.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, I decided that I would shake things up a bit for this competition by taking on the dual role as director and cinematographer. The impetus for this decision was a desire to focus more on visual storytelling. The gang over here at Two Jackets loves (and I mean luuuurrrrves) our dialogue. We’re a wordy group, but I felt that we had been lacking in strong visual storytelling. I thought that by being in charge of the image on screen as well as the performances of our actors, I could simplify the translation from script to screen. I could make all the creative decisions, cut dialogue in favor of blocking and action where I could, and streamline the crew to keep us moving quickly.

It was stressful.

My focus on the cinematography and camera work made it much more difficult to give the actors the attention they deserved from a director. The first scene we shot on Saturday, which involved Emily and James walking along the train tracks, sharing their dreams for what to do with their new-found fortune, was technically very challenging for me as a camera operator. I had to track backwards as smoothly as I could, keeping both actors in frame while trying not to step into a hole or trip over a curb. We tried several times before we finally had a take I was happy with, but what I didn’t realize until reviewing the footage was that the performances I captured were not consistent at all. I gave Emily and James a vague direction about “being happier with their mouths way more open,” and the resulting scene features Emily practically vibrating with giddy excitement while James is dreamily pontificating to the cash gods in the sky. As the director, I should have seen the differences and molded the performances to fit one another. I should have established a strong narrative voice and a consistent rhetoric and tone for the piece. Instead, I was trying not to fall on my ass while operating a camera.

I didn't fall down.  On this take.

I didn't fall down.  On this take.

This was made more difficult by the fact that I didn’t have Andrew or Marcus on set with me to help me catch these mistakes. Marcus, as you know, was in Ohio. Alright fine. There’s nothing I could have done about that. Andrew, however, got stuck in his role as a producer staying with our gear at the location we were using as a home base.  We found out when we arrived that we couldn’t keep our equipment inside, and had to protect it from people wandering by outside. I could have used his critical eye on set while I was distracting myself with cinematographer duties. If I had planned better, I could have found a different home base for the shoot, freeing up Andrew to be on set.  I realize now that I Stole a Lot of Money! would have benefited greatly from having the entire Two Jackets team present.

I love I Stole a Lot of Money! for being an upbeat, silly, and successful little film (it got into the Top 20 in the worldwide competition!), but it could have been handled better. I was not up for the dual task of shooting and directing, and keeping my best collaborators at arms length meant I was wearing blinders the whole time, unable to see the mistakes I was making. Also, we didn’t have a designated editor at all for this project, which meant Andrew and I were doing everything ourselves, and didn’t have any footage cut together until after we wrapped.  This caused me to miss another opportunity to take a critical eye to our work while we still had a chance to reshoot, as we did on Keeping Up with the Cloneses. We were definitely stretching our abilities towards the end of a grueling 72-hour filmmaking marathon.

Directing balloons on very little sleep.

Directing balloons on very little sleep.

That’s why we’re all going to be in-town and on-set for the 2015 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project! I will be acting as cinematographer, and Marcus and Andrew will co-direct. We decided on this configuration as a direct result of our experiences of the last year. Not only did all three of us direct film challenge pieces in 2014, but we all over-reached our grasp. We attempted to do too much without the support of the other two Jackets. In The Home Office, Marcus faced the unique challenge of trying to direct a film while also having to provide the driving performance. In All Dressed in White, Andrew realized that producing the film caused enough stress to affect his ability to also direct it. And in I Stole a Lot of Money!, I learned that operating a camera is distracting enough that I can lose my ability to effectively direct performances.

The job of a director is challenging. It requires the utmost focus. It is often said that a director is a craftsperson who wears many hats on set. She/he must be an actor, a cinematographer, an editor, and a producer all in one. The director must be able to understand every part of the process in order to effectively oversee the creation of a film. However, and I can’t stress this enough, more important than being able to do all the jobs on set is the ability to let go and have someone else do them.

This past year proves that the strength of Two Jackets lies in collaboration. What I think is so unique about this group is that all three of us are storytellers, but we really need to rely on each other so that each member can focus on their particular task. A director can’t do everything themselves. Keeping the vision consistent and the filmic voice strong is the most important thing a filmmaker can do. Allowing oneself to be distracted by other tasks, like shooting, acting, or producing, can be detrimental to the directing process. The film can suffer because of it. We at Two Jackets work well together because we know how to fill in each others’ shortcomings and keep each other focused. For our looming entry to the 2015 48HFP, we are doing as much as we can to ensure that all of our bases are covered. Marcus is focusing on actors, Andrew is focusing on coordinating the crew, and I’m focusing on cinematography. Not only that, but we’re bringing other fantastic talents together to fill in the rest of the gaps (more on that next week!).

Before I leave you, I just want to thank you for watching and for taking this trip with us back in time to film challenges gone by. If you haven’t yet, please take a look at the rest of our Film Challenge Retrospective series, and tune in next week as we explore why we keep coming back for more of these competitions! We’re more excited about this next project than we’d like to admit, and we can’t wait to share the whole experience with you here at TwoJackets.com!

Film Challenge Retrospective: All Dressed in White

Hey ghouls and goblins! Andrew here…

Things are about to get a touch spooky and a tad scary here on TwoJackets.com! For this penultimate entry in our Film Challenge Month Retrospective series, I’m going to reminisce back to October 2014, when Two Jackets participated in the first-ever Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Horror Project and brought our film, All Dressed in White, to life!

Horror movies require moody BTS photos. From left to right: Joe Filipas, Rachel Palashewski, Erin Granger.

Horror movies require moody BTS photos. From left to right: Joe Filipas, Rachel Palashewski, Erin Granger.

The 48 Hour Film Horror Project was Two Jackets’ third film challenge of 2014 (and it wouldn’t be our last)! For our roles on this project, I directed, Marcus wrote and assistant directed, and Eric was mysteriously absent - perhaps off chasing a man-beast with an insatiable hunger for the most bizarre of cuisine. In order to fill the Eric-sized hole in our hearts, we assembled the largest team we’d ever assembled for a film challenge. I’d list every one of our team members’ beautiful names here, but I’m feeling rigor mortis set in. You’d best just watch the film (available online now for the first time!) and stay through the credits...

As long as we’ve been participating in these film challenges, I’ve longed to draw horror as our assigned genre. When the announcement went out that Minneapolis was to host its first-ever all-horror 48 hour film challenge, I was thrilled! This meant that every genre we could draw would be a subgenre of horror. My dream of horror (very different from a nightmare) was about to come true!

I devoured short horror films before the event weekend. I wanted to learn all the in’s and out’s of what made a short horror film successful. I took extensive notes, listing what techniques worked and what didn’t. I had extensive conversations with Marcus and our frequent collaborator and friend, Craig Larson, about the elements that worked best for each of us. By the time the event weekend arrived, I felt comfortably prepared for the challenge ahead. At kickoff we were assigned the following elements:

Character: Eileen or Ethan Diness, Caterer (this threw us for a loop)
Prop: A broom
Line of dialogue: “Never again”
Genre: Asylum/Insanity

The production of All Dressed in White is an example of how one can go into a 48 with plenty of preparation, experience, and a cracker-jack team in tow and still make a ton of mistakes.

In the retrospective articles for Mostly Attractive Monsters and Put a Ring on It, we’ve well covered an important lesson: play to your strengths. Going into the Horror Project, I had discussed with Marcus and Craig that I wanted to make something truly scary. However, although I had done plenty of research, the execution of effective horror techniques was still uncharted territory. Two Jackets had never made a straight-up horror film before. We were willingly venturing into the unknown, accepting failure as a possibility.

A 48 hour film challenge is not the most forgiving environment for experimentation. Making Put a Ring on It, a silent film, in 2012 was definitely an experiment, but we were drawing on many other strengths to supplement the sacrifice of sound. For that project, we were wise to hold fast to the storytelling voice we’d previously established, losing the dialogue but keeping familiar elements as well as our unique perspective through which we’d filter the story.

With All Dressed in White, I struggled to reconcile the established Two Jackets voice with the darker material we had developed. The result feels inconsistent. My intention was to make something tense and discomforting, but the film’s perspective isn’t subjective enough to really place the viewer in the situation. As a result, the characters’ goals seem unclear, the tense beats are missed, and the moments of relief feel too frequent. The Two Jackets sense of humor, most apparent in the film’s finale, then arrives abruptly without any proper setup. Transitioning between tones in a 6-minute short film is tricky and, when you only have 48 hours to make that film, ill-advised.

The experience of working with a large team to make this film also taught me a great deal about communication on a film set, which is always essential, but even essential-er during the rush of the 48. I made a grave communication misstep early in this production that put us behind for the rest of the weekend.

Since we had more hands on deck than usual, I made the decision to dress the set more than we’d ever previously done. When we arrived on location Saturday morning, we made a list of set and costume items, and I sent a team out to procure them. My mistake was in not establishing a clear deadline or budget for this run. While the budget didn’t end up being a concern, the deadline most certainly was. The production design team didn’t return until close to 1pm, and with the subsequent dressing of the basement location, we weren’t shooting until nearly 3pm.

Due to the increased stress of the late start, I felt off-balance for most of the shoot. Directing requires a great amount of focus, and the stress of the day’s mistakes was clouding my focus and ability to tell the story as best as I could. I was already facing the increased difficulty of an unfamiliar genre and new techniques, and I now had far less time to work through those challenges. I was so pleased with the drive of the team once the camera began rolling, but in hindsight I can now see that we were pursuing an inconsistent and incomplete vision.

If I had taken just a few minutes with the production design team to create a schedule, I’d have shaved hours off our shoot and have prevented the chain reaction that continued to drive us behind. We wrapped shooting around midnight, which isn’t much later than normal, but the delay in shooting meant our editor, Mitch Miller, was behind in the cut. Also, in the rush to complete the shoot, I had hardly given any direction to Mitch. With this slow start, the edit came down to the wire, and we were left without adequate time to finesse sound and color. We made it to the drop-off in time, but the film we handed in (the same version you watched above) still felt rough.

Taking on the dual role of director and producer is tricky. The needs of the story and the production are complementary but different, and if you’re responsible for both, you have to strike a balance. However, that balance requires a great deal of compartmentalization and an incredible amount of focus. If you can split the responsibility, I highly recommend it. For the 2015 48HFP in a few weeks, Marcus and I are sharing the directing role as we did for All’s Chair in Love and War. This way, he can devote the necessary attention to the cast while I focus on the crew.

While All Dressed in White may not have been completely successful, I strongly believe that this experience was well worth having. For one, despite the delays, the team came to play; their commitment to the production kept me afloat. The team also came out to support the film at the screenings, where it ended up in the Best of Fest! At that event, we won the award for Best Costumes, which was a nice consolation given all the extra time we took to procure them.

This production is a hard one for me to think back on, but I won’t misconstrue it as a wasted effort. We knew tackling horror meant leaving our comfort zone. The takeaway here isn’t that we should avoid horror in the future; we just need to accept our mistakes and consciously correct them the next time around.

After All Dressed in White, I was anxious for another chance to make a film and put into practice what I’d learned. Lo and behold, three weeks later, we were kicking off another film challenge. More on that next time…

Andrew

Film Challenge Retrospective: The Home Office

Hey cool people!  Marcus at the keyboard.

We’re nearing the end of our Film Challenge Retrospectives.  It’s sad, I know, but after this week, we’ll be switching gears to talk about our upcoming 48 Hour Film Project entry—whatever it may be!  Before we move on though, I am excited to talk to you about The Home Office!

Hand drawn as I was procrastinating on Friday night!

Hand drawn as I was procrastinating on Friday night!

This is a special film for me, because it’s a film by me, or as close as I will ever come to calling a project “A Film by Marcus Mann.”  Film is a very collaborative art, so I don’t like to claim sole ownership of a film even if I’m writing and directing.  But this is a special case.  To see what I mean, stay tuned through the credits…

I wrote, directed, edited, shot, and performed in The Home Office.  I even sung in the shower all by myself.  Why would I do this, you ask?  This film was our first and only entry to date in the Columbus 48 Hour Film Project.  Since I’m the only one in Columbus, and new people frighten me, it was the only option.  No, that’s not quite it, but I am the only member of Two Jackets living in Ohio.  I mostly decided to do a solo 48 film as an exercise, and even then, you’ve seen that I ended up including a lot of other talents in the process.

My personal goal in this challenge was to write a film that only required one person, while keeping up with all of the elements.  While I ended up using other actors through remote recording, I successfully structured the film in a way that a single actor could have played all of the roles.  My ego isn’t so great that I thought the film would be improved by only having me in it.  In fact, as a writer I had an awkward moment in the process when I realized that I would have to perform the script I had just written – a matter I had forgotten while I was composing the draft.  The good news is I can watch most of it without cringing.

Let’s take a look at the requirements:

Genre: Parody/Spoof
Prop: A Wallet
Character: Mary or Matthew Philips, Award Winning Gardener
Line of Dialogue: “There’s only one way to know for sure.”

As I talked about in my post for All’s Chair in Love and War, we now put a lot of emphasis in brainstorming on building a story out of the requirements, and I think that’s very evident in this piece.  Although, I originally drew a genre called “Film De Femme” which is described by the 48 Hour Film Project as “a film featuring one or more strong female characters.”  I thought I might have a hard time pulling that off when I was the only actor, so I chose a wildcard genre, which is an option allowed to each team if they reject their first draw.  The wildcard genres are separate from the main genre choices, and can be pretty far-flung.  I was fortunate to choose parody, a genre which I really enjoy.  With the new genre in hand, I was able to build a film around the requirements in a very organic way.

The film is a big success to me in that I achieved my goal of writing a piece for one person, and that I turned in the film on time.  But its faults are also clear to me: The film would have benefitted greatly from having more of our frequent collaborators on set.  A more practiced actor could have wrung more humor out of the script, and a crew could have greatly improved the production value.

I shot the entire film, except for one shot, on a tripod using a Panasonic GH4.  The camera records at 4K resolution, which allowed me to zoom in on the images and add a digital shake to simulate the look of a handheld documentary.  The shot running into the bathroom was the only time I took the camera off the tripod, and there I spliced in a tripod shot at the end of the look up to the shower so I could be in the scene.  The sound was all recorded with a mounted shotgun microphone, which picks up sound in only one direction.  

As difficult as this process made production, it made post production a breeze.  I remembered all of the takes I performed and was easily able to select exactly the shots that I wanted in the final edit.  I was even completely finished early on Sunday morning because I was the only one with a say in the editing process.  If I had had Eric and Andrew around to look over my edit, the piece could have been stronger, but, with only one opinion on the cut, it went by really quickly.  I actually ended up as the first team to turn in in Columbus.  Besides, I’m glad no one else had to see the awkward footage of me talking to myself when I flubbed a take.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, I am proud of the work that went into making it.  I think it’s a good illustration of the strength that can come out of writing to the assignment and trying something new!  While I don’t plan on doing another solo film anytime soon, this was a great opportunity to really focus on the importance of scripting in a timed film challenge and I was blown away when the Columbus judges selected me for Best Writing in the competition.  I can’t wait to take what I learned from this experiment and put it into our next 48 Hour Film Project!