It’s midnight. You continuously refresh the page until an email appears. You have received your prompt, and you have 24 hours to make a film out of it. What do you do?
Last week, I participated in the NJ Film 24 Hour Film Challenge with a few friends, and the product of those 24 hours was this film, Lemonhead.
This is the first of a series.
I am dividing the 24 hours into three segments: Pre-Production, Production, & Post-Production/Awards Night.
This series is dedicated to Matthew Calder, husband and loving father of three.
Today, I will write about receiving the prompt, planning the idea, and getting everything in order before the shoot.
The Unspoken Experience
Last year, we also participated in this contest. Under the team name Dolly Zoo Crew, we worked for around 22 hours making the film Unspoken.
Then, we were not nearly as experienced in filmmaking as we are now. I didn’t know my camera even had a white balance feature, this was the first time I tried color balance, and we plugged the microphone into the headphones slot.
Yeah. We did better this year.
Luckily, Gabriella Diaz filmed the entire process, so you can see that full experience (including when I thought my camera was broken and was about to use a screwdriver on it) here:
Assembling the Team
Last year, our team consisted of Logan Calder, Gabriella Diaz, Beth Polito, Lauren Polito, and yours truly.
This year, the Politos were not available, so we had to find new team members. We added Ian Dugan, whom we met at NJ Visionaries (a film festival), and Caroline Lidz, who goes to my school. Because of the running joke of metaphorical duct tape from last year’s production, we decided to call this new team Metaphorical Duct Tape.
For old time’s sake.
The team came to my house at around 10 so we would all be together when I received the prompt via email.
The Clock Strikes Midnight
My inbox was open. 11:58.
This email would set us on a path for the next 24 hours. 11:59.
Any second now.
I refreshed refreshed refreshed until ding! the email appeared. Here’s what it told us:
- Required Line of Dialogue: “Close your eyes”
- Required Prop: A key
- Less than 5 minutes
- Posted on YouTube or Vimeo and shared by midnight
Ok. We can do this.
Last year, we didn’t have a fully planned idea until around 2:00. This year, it happened much quicker.
At 12:15, Logan thought of a kid drawing a customer back to his lemonade stand using a “special ingredient.”
We all fell in love with this idea. It was fun, unique, and, if done right, very funny. I am not great at writing comedies, but this is the type of script that has a funny situation rather than relying on jokes.
With good planning, that is.
Plotting the Plot
We spent the next hour and and half developing the story, using what we had learned in English class to plot out the whole story, from intro to outro. (Thanks, school.)
The story developed as we collaborated. There was originally a father in the story, for example, but we replaced him with a brother.
We discussed a lot about whether the boy would know that he was using an addictive substance. We wanted to preserve his innocence, and play off of the tonal irony of the situation. Black humor. We eventually decided that he mistakes it as sugar, but continues to use it when the customer responds positively to it. He doesn’t know that it’s bad stuff; all he knows is that it draws the customer back to his stand.
At least, that’s our interpretation of the character.
The most difficult part to figure out, per usual, was the ending. How do you end a comedy in a satisfying way (an aha! moment) without breaking the tone of the film.
One idea Ian thought of was a more dramatic ending in which we discover that the boy has been donating all of his earnings to the Salvation Army. However, as the story developed, we decided to go with the humorous ending of the boy’s brother realizing that he stole his…angel dust.
Let’s keep it PG, kids.
Writing on a Screen
Taking that awesome idea you have in your head and smearing it onto the page.
With the document projected onto the screen, we began typing up the script, editing each other’s work as we go.
We decided on a name: Aidan. Get it? Because it sounds like lemonade. Also it’s just a cute name for a kid.
That’s really the only logic that went into his name.
Another name we had to think of: that of the film itself. That actually came pretty quickly. Since the customer becomes addicted to the lemonade, we decided to call the film Lemonhead (not to be confused with the candy) as a twist on crackhead.
We discussed the script as we went along, evaluating lines of dialogue and determining whether certain events were necessary to the story.
This is when we first split up: Logan and I changed lanes to begin drafting a shot list.
I Am Not Throwing Away My Shots
It’s always helpful to plan, right?
Shotlisting is a necessary, albeit tedious, task for a successful shoot with a time constraint. While spontaneous shot ideas during the shoot can be great, it makes the shoot easier and quicker to have some planned out beforehand.
For each shot idea, we wrote the scene, the shot number, a description, the mount, motion, angle, lens, actors present, and any extra notes. This is especially useful for the director (Gabriella) to understand each shot during the shoot. Having a shot list on set also ensures that no shot is accidentally forgotten.
Many scenes used similar shots (Wide Master, OTS Aidan, OTS Customer, & Money Transaction Medium), so those were easy to whip out. I did change the OTS Customer shot for the final outdoor scene, by making the customer just a small corner of the screen, and filling the rest with the back of Aidan’s head.
This is meant to establish the power dynamic, as Aidan holds full control of his addicted customer. It also creates a claustrophobic feeling, so the viewer feels as closed in as the customer does in his situation.
Logan and I considered how to best transition from scene to scene. For one scene transition, we used a similar shot of the lemonade jar for a nice cut.
For another, we used a 360-pan (and a change of clothes) to indicate that a day has passed.
Check out the production and post-production posts in the near future to learn how that cut was done.
Then, we put the shots in order for the path of least resistance. We ordered them so all outside shots were first (gotta use that sun while you still can!), then sequenced those so that the actors’ clothing and the camera’s mount could go a few shots without needing to be changed, as each change takes time.
After, we gave each shot an estimated time, accounting for set-up time and outfit changes.
The end result was daunting for a 24-hour film challenge. 64 shots. 7 hr 40 min.
I can ensure you that we did not finish the shoot within 7 hours and 40 minutes.
But I’ll save that for the next post.
We all went outside and read the script on my lawn as the sun rose above us. It was truly a beautiful sight and a great way to read the script through for the first time.
After the table read (lawn read?), we took a break and went to my neighborhood playground to have some fun before the long shoot ahead of us.
We had bagels for breakfast.
Then we gathered supplies before the big shoot. My dad brought me to Rite Aid, where we bought poster board and markers. Caroline, who does graphic design (cf. Markers) designed the Aidan’s Lemonade poster.
We thought about locations. We eventually decided on the corner right near my house, because our neighbor let us place the table on her lawn and the street made for a nice background. We also wanted consistent sunlight, so we avoided trees, whose shadows would move as the day passed.
Sure enough, as soon as we finished planning, our main actor, Grady Calder, was here.
But you can learn more about that in my next post, in which I will discuss details of the shoot itself, for which I was the cinematographer. Spoiler: It was scorching hot.
Speaking of interesting weather…
Last night, I was a production assistant and extra for a really hilarious (and action-packed) short film by Awakened Films, titled “The Spoils.” The shoot was outdoors in the cold, pouring rain. I was drenched and out from 6 PM until 1:15.
Needless to say, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
It was an amazing experience being part of such a cool production. There was a sword fight with skilled stunt fighters and a chopped-off arm spewing blood. They used smoke machines and cool lighting and they really knew what they were doing. Observing the decisions they made really taught me a lot about filmmaking.
The experience definitely confirmed that filmmaking is my passion. Just being involved in such a cool shoot was so energizing.
I also learned some filmmaker slang, like underbooming, which could be very helpful in future shoots. Just like my shirt in the rain, I absorbed as much as I possibly could.
Cut to black.