Wednesday, June 08, 2005

How to Make an Award-Winning Movie

Everyone knows that you can't make a movie in just 48 hours. Everyone also knows that you can't make a movie completely alone on an ordinary Windows laptop. Everyone is wrong.

To prove that point, I entered the 48 Hour Film Project's New York competition (, a breakneck contest in which caffeine-crazed filmmakers are challenged to dash off a finished movie in just two days. To stretch the point, I decided to go it alone, using no crew or cast—other than myself. I'd be writer, actor, editor, photographer, everything! I also limited myself to consumer-level gear, which I defined as a store-bought Windows laptop, no cameras costing over $1,500, and no software costing over $600. To top that, I decided to make my movie a musical. Everybody thought I was crazy.

On a Friday evening at 7 P.M., I joined 22 filmmaking teams; we drew lots to determine the genre of each of our films. I drew science fiction. Every film had to include three compulsory elements: a character (M. Montclair, housekeeper), a prop (a checkbook), and a specific line of dialogue ("I can't take much more of this").

Not to spoil the ending, but I was pretty pleased. My film took the Audience Award and two judged awards. It's called Area Two Slash Two, and you can view here. Only six of the 22 competing films won any award at all. Nobody else worked solo.

Can you complete a movie from scratch in the next 48 hours? I think you can! Read on to learn how I did it.

Friday, 7 P.M. to midnight: Creating songs and script. In a movie musical you create the soundtrack first, while in a nonmusical film the soundtrack comes last. I sketched out several songs with Band-in-a-Box ($88,, which creates a fully orchestrated arrangement from chords that you enter. My first few efforts fell flat, but after a few hours two tunes worked well, so I used the program's Render to WAV to convert the tracks directly to WAV files. I opened these in Sound Forge ($400, and cut and pasted parts to give the songs the shape I wanted. I also did some pitch shifting, adding key changes to make the songs feel more dramatic. I then burned each song to a separate CD in order to record the vocals.

Sound Forge Saturday, midnight to 2 A.M.: Recording vocals. I don't have my own home recording studio; in fact, I live in a tiny one-room apartment in Manhattan, so I had to devise an acoustically isolated spot in the apartment for recording the vocal track. I picked a hallway near the bathroom and a closet. With the bathroom door closed and the closet door open to expose the clothing and linens inside, I created a small echo-free zone for recording vocals in the wee hours without bothering the neighbors. I used the built-in microphone on my camcorder, a Panasonic AG-EZ50U (discontinued, bought for $1,399 from as my vocal mic. I plugged a set of earbuds into the camcorder and another set into a CD player, on which I played the instrumental track I had burned. With a bud from the camcorder in one ear and a bud from the CD player in the other, I held the camera in one hand, rolled tape, and recorded the songs. Then I connected the camera to my computer, opened my video editor, Vegas ($559,, and captured the recording I'd just made. I deleted the video track, leaving only the unaccompanied vocal track. Then I added the instrumental tracks I had created earlier and mixed the two tracks together. Now I had a full vocal soundtrack, which I burned to make a new soundtrack CD.

Saturday, 2 to 7 A.M.: Sleeping.

VegasSaturday, 7 A.M. to 6 P.M.: Shooting main video sequences. Only 36 hours remaining and I still hadn't created any video. I had to shoot full takes of each song in a variety of settings. Each time I found a location with light that was bright enough but not too direct, I'd set up the camera on a tripod, frame a shot, play the soundtrack from my CD player, and lip-sync while the tape rolled. I normally kept the CD player on Repeat mode, and repeated each take several times without stopping. With so little time available, I didn't memorize lyrics; I taped a large-type copy of them to the tripod right near the lens so I could read it.

Saturday, 6 to 8 P.M.: Logging footage. Before capturing footage to my laptop, I logged everything I had shot, writing down time codes and descriptions of each scene, along with notes about which scenes were usable and which had technical problems or were otherwise messed up.

Saturday, 8 to 11 P.M.: Editing main sequences. Once I'd logged all my footage on paper, I connected my camera to the computer, fired up Vegas, marked the scenes I'd selected for batch capture, and pulled them into the computer. Now I could pick which takes of each song worked best visually and marry them to the soundtrack I'd created earlier. To create credible lip sync, I opened the WAV file in the Vegas trimmer, located a syllable that's easy to lip-read on the screen (the T sound in the word "Take") and placed a marker on it. Then I marked that same spot in the video track and dragged the two tracks so that the markers matched. Now the video and audio tracks looked perfectly synchronized, although they were created at different times.

Saturday, 11 P.M. to Sunday, 5 A.M.: Sleeping.

Sunday, 5 to 10 A.M.: Shooting cutaways. I'll admit it's a bit embarrassing to be seen recording a video of yourself in public. But with only 48 hours to finish, you can't be fussy. That's why I prefer to shoot at sunrise on weekends—the light is great and almost nobody's around to gawk.

Sunday, 10 A.M. to noon: Assembling cutaways/rough cut. Now I could add the goofy takes I had shot Sunday morning. Few were essential to the movie, but they added visual variety and a sense of pace.

Sunday, noon to 2 P.M.: Editing the finished cut. All entries had to be between 4 and 8 minutes long. Shorter is usually better. I'd shot far more footage than I needed, but I wanted to trim it as tightly as possible. The oldest rule in show business is "Always leave 'em wanting more."

Sunday, 2 to 5 P.M.: Creating titles and credits. Contest rules limit films to a 30-second credit roll, but how many credits does a one-man moviemaker need? Plenty! I added a full credit roll (one more chance for a cheap laugh). I also used Ulead Cool 3D Production Studio ($129, to add a grandiose opening title.

Sunday, 5 to 6 P.M.: Burning to tape. All that was left was to burn the final result to tape. Burning to tape is easy —except when it's not. We know how computers love to crash when you're on deadline. This time mine didn't. In about 20 minutes, my 41/2-minute film was ready to go.

Sunday, 6 to 7 P.M.: Racing to turn in the tape by the deadline.

What's my secret? Knowing my limits and tools, and not overreaching. A simple story, well executed, can usually satisfy an audience better than an ambitious film that falls short. Some acting experience was essential in my case, as I was also the cast. If you know people who have appeared on stage, even in high school or college, maybe you can persuade them to star in a custom-made movie that you knock out over a weekend.

For help in making anything you shoot work better for your audience, see "Make Digital Videos Worth Watching".

You can do a lot with the digital-video tools that you may already own. Even if you have to resort to some weird workarounds, as long as the audience has fun, all is forgiven.

See the finished film!

1 comment:

Mario said...

Hilarious!... Nice work.