It’s 2015, and I’m in the passenger seat of a Toyota 4Runner that's accelerating through the streets of Portland as assertively as is legal, while a chunky video editing laptop in the backseat whines like a dentist’s drill. At each unreasonable traffic light our deadline looms closer while Final Cut Pro’s progress bar inches along like a dyspeptic Leopard slug. We’ve had 48 hours to create a short film from scratch, and are rapidly approaching hour 47, minute 59. We’ve written, shot, scored, and edited the thing, so now it’s just a matter of waiting for the computer to extrude the final product onto a USB drive that we can deposit at the drop-off.
The rest of the weekend is a bit fuzzy, thanks to sleep deprivation, but the memory of racing to the finish remains particularly vivid. We were participating in the 48-Hour Film Project, a now-international collection of timed film competition-festivals that’s been driving local filmmakers into a frenzy for almost 20 years. It began at the dawn of the millennium, in Washington DC, but in 2004 Portland became an early adopter.
“I met one of the executive producers at a Burning Man party,” recalled Rob Hatch, one of two organizers——dubbed "city producers"—of Portland' competition. Hatch asked why they didn't have a competition in Portland; he’s been setting the stopwatches here ever since.
The 48-Hour details are pretty simple: Teams of any size and skill level can enter, providing they pony up an entry fee of around $200. The goal is to produce a four to seven minute film by the end of the weekend. Then the results are screened at a real life movie theater—this year at Clinton Street—and a panel of judges votes on a winner to go on to nationals.
Each team receives a random genre assignment, from silent film to sci-fi to the dreaded musical or western. Each city is assigned a prop, a catchphrase, and a character, all of which must be included somewhere in the film. Hatch said these assignments are transmitted each year from 48-Hour's headquarters, although they’ve been known to take his suggestions. There’s often some regional specificity to the prompts (weed, bikes, that sort of thing), but the point is no creative work should be done before hour one.
More than a hundred cities, in a dozen different countries, participate in a given year, representing a significant population of amateur, independent, and just hobbyist filmmakers. Hatch said the fundamentals have remained more or less the same, but technology improvements have streamlined the process. Gone are the handycams and burned DVDs, as filmmakers mostly shoot on iPhones and upload the finished product online. Though, he admitted, the old photo finish days were pretty exciting.
The swath of participants 48-Hour draws in is especially remarkable. Celia Nappi and Erin Lyon are two Portland service industry veterans who’ve been running the 48-Hour gauntlet for the better part of a decade, with a squad called Team Wolf. Lyon works in the film industry, but Nappi is a full time bartender and beer brewer. For Nappi, the tight turnaround is a big part of the appeal. Independently producing a short film might take months, but the 48-Hour fits easily into her schedule. “I can just be like, ‘Hey, I'm off this weekend.'" she said. "I have some of the fondest memories of being so ridiculous on lack of sleep, making the dumbest jokes. You get together with all your friends and make something creative, and it’s lovely.”
For Lyon, the small scale represents a chance to be in charge. “Being the boss, as a female director, is quite an experience,” she said. “And they listen! It’s fabulous!” Her biggest takeaway is to keep things moving: “Once you get it set, no more ‘what ifs'. Because you don’t have time,” Lyon advised.
Another pro tip: “Have a beginning, middle, and end,” Lyon said. While it seems pretty basic, not every film clears that bar.
Kristina King (who, full disclosure, directed the film I worked on in 2015) is a full-time tech worker and captain of Fetus-in-Fetu, a long running collective of filmmakers who participate in pretty much every timed film festival within city limits. She described her reasons for taking on her first 48-Hour, saying, “initially, it was curiosity, right? Like, what's really going to happen?” She stayed with it out of love for the competition and the feat of endurance. "It's just a testament to your will and stamina,” she said.
For King, the 48-Hour was also about trial and error. She picked up the project in 2006, as a college student in Eugene. “When you’re in that stage you don’t know what you lack… you’re just in it to have a good time,” she explained. “It was like, ‘well, we have a couple women on the team, let's do a lesbian love story.” Armed with sapphic undertones, a graduation gift handycam, and some graffitied boxcars for backdrop, her team managed to hand something in before time ran out. “It’s an incredible bonding experience,” she said, “I've rarely spent 48 hours in a row with somebody unless we've done a movie together.”
She offered useful advice for building a team. "Find somebody with a hookup to a coffee shop,” King said. “You can have the coffee maker going all day, but when you’re scrambling, getting from location to location, you don’t want to deal with that.”
48-Hour Film Project will accept team registration through Friday, when the Portland competition begins. The completed shorts screen at Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton, Sat Aug 12, 3 pm & 7 pm; Sun Aug 13, 7 pm.