Film Challenge Retrospective: Cosmic Questers '97

Hey there, Questers! Marcus here...

It was great looking back over our old projects during Film Challenge Month last May. Now, six months after our latest film challenge was completed, I’m pleased to be able to share a retrospective on the making of “Cosmic Questers ‘97”!

 In the green room at our location,  rehearsing the script with our talented cast. 

In the green room at our location,  rehearsing the script with our talented cast. 

Unlike our past projects, we shared a lot of the details of this production before it began. You can find our cast and crew announcement and our planned schedule in previous blog entries. I won’t repeat those details in this post, but I will talk about how the production differed from our expectations.

Before getting critical, I have to say I couldn’t be happier with the contributions everyone brought to this film. I gushed about them in the announcement back in May, but the cast and crew brought their A-game to this project, and Andrew, Eric, and I are very proud of what the team came up with. 

Check out the film on your viewscreen here before we dive into the production details:

Pretty rad, right?

Okay, so how did the actual weekend differ from our plan? It all started at the genre drawing. Right there at the beginning, the odds were simply not in our favor. 

Andrew went up and drew "Film de Femme," which requires a female lead. This was literally the only genre we didn't want to use. Normally, it wouldn't be a problem, but we had lined up Bill Dablow, Lucas Vonasek, and MJ Marsh as our actors—three guys that we had been aching to work with for ages—and we didn't want to discard the opportunity to showcase them together. So we reprimanded Andrew and sent him back up to draw a wild card genre.

We were excited for the wild cards. We could make do with any of them except “Period Piece" because our reserved location was a production office space with a very modern look. Guess what we got?

Yeah. Andrew isn't allowed to draw anymore.

We were left with the following elements after taking our wild card choice:

Character: Kevin Whitefish, Club President
Prop: A coat hanger
Line of Dialogue: "You choose. I can't/cannot decide."
Genre: Period Piece

I’ll freely admit that we weren’t thrilled by the genre selection. Our location wasn't going to work for any distinctive period, and it was set to rain that weekend, which meant it would be hard to do an outdoor shoot—woods look the same in most periods. As a rather risky play, we decided to change our location to a more versatile studio space and double down on the period elements. The film would take place in the late 90s during a public access production inspired by a 60s era sci-fi show—in an homage to the original "Star Trek" series and Minnesota’s own “Mystery Science Theater 3000."

 With "Cosmic Questers '97" we won our first “Best Use of Prop” award for our coat hanger monster! We affectionately call him "Coatie"!

With "Cosmic Questers '97" we won our first “Best Use of Prop” award for our coat hanger monster! We affectionately call him "Coatie"!

Our risky move to fulfill the "Period Piece" genre really began to throw us off balance come Saturday morning.

While I rehearsed and refined the script with the cast, our concept's need for period props and costumes pulled Andrew's attention away from his co-director responsibilities to more of a producer's role. He spent a majority of his morning on the phone with our production assistants, arranging the acquisition of materials. Due to the last minute change of location, Eric was forced to run to our unused location to pick up a bunch of equipment. He also had to stop by a couple of places for additional props and costumes. As a result, neither Andrew or Eric had much time to plan our shots for the day, and we started shooting late. Once we got going, the team made up for lost time by working quickly, but at the expense of more deliberate blocking and visuals, which could have better communicated our characters' motivations. At the time, the stakes were clear to Andrew, Eric, and me, but I don’t know how well they came across in those first few crucial minutes of the film.

Our expectations for the weekend were exceeded when we got into post-production, thanks in huge part to our pre-production sessions with Ben Pimlott (editor), Eric Pagel (sound mixer), and Reed Reimer (composer). With these meetings before the weekend, we established a clear and effective post-production plan and encouraged frequent communication. As a result, everyone knew what was expected and each role was executed beautifully. We were able to have the film ready early enough to export safety copies several times before turning in our final, which really helped reduce anxiety at the end of the weekend. Ben and his workmate Cody Rowan, who assisted with visual effects, went on to be nominated for Best VFX—believe it or not, it takes a lot of work to make something look that (intentionally) bad—and Eric P. won for Best Sound! The film itself was nominated for Best Film and screened at the Best of Fest!

The big lesson for us here is to better plan how the three of us are going to collaborate and then reflect that within the schedule. This time around, we isolated ourselves too much in order to address the challenges of the production. When we finally came together to plan shots, we didn’t have the time to make the best of our collaboration. I had spent too much of my time rehearsing the cast off stage, not aware of the need to get the blocking down on stage early enough for Andrew and Eric to work on the shot planning.

In the end, we’re still very happy with the film we made. The 2015 Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project was a great experience! We keep learning more every time we run a production, and I for one can’t wait for our next film challenge! Hopefully that retrospective will come along a bit sooner…

Marcus