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48 hours Apr 19

Two weekends back, I took part in the Sci-Fi-London 48 Hour Film Challenge 2009. The name gives a pretty good summary of the objective: make a science fiction film from scratch in 48 hours.

There now follows a very laborious discussion of how we made our film. If you just want to watch it, I’d skip to the end…

On the Saturday morning, Simon and I joined the hoards at the Apollo cinema in Lower Regent Street for a briefing and to be assigned the three elements we would be required to feature in the film (mainly to prove that it really had been made that weekend).

Eagle-eyed viewers may spot us fleetingly at the beginning of this video about the challenge made by the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival team:

So the three elements I skilfully plucked from the metaphorical hats were:

  • Title: Pressure Valve
  • Line of dialogue: “I do not speak your language and you don’t speak mine”
  • Prop: Five ring doughnuts

The other teams, some already laden with equipment, dashed off. Simon and I did what any sensible person would do faced with turning those three things into a film: we went to the pub.

We quickly threw together a basic concept and some key lines of dialogue (aka punchlines), inspired by our prop and the knowledge that we had no decent location in which to film (having spent most effort in preparation on choosing a team name), and then finalised the overall storyline. Matt joined us for lunch and we then headed to Covent Garden to try to source some key props, including the doughnuts. We bought a dozen in, er, case we needed, er, spares.

Shopping done, we jumped on a train back to south London and our own mini-Pinewood (i.e., my flat). Once there, I grabbed my laptop and started writing. An hour or two later the script was drafted, and that version is pretty much what we handed in at the end, save for some tweaks from the cast (they will insist) and some cuts for time (to which we shall return shortly).

Simon and I popped to his for recording equipment and to gather some more props and then we began the small task of converting a tiny corner of our garage into a secret government lab – a government lab so secret that it is based in a garage, apparently. Then Matt and I donned our costumes and at around 7pm Simon called action on the first scene.

We shot the garage scenes in order. With only a breeze blocked wall to film against, the camera angles had to be more 1970s sitcom than sweeping vistas. We recorded the scenes from several angles, ending with many takes of the final shot of the film (I think we ended up using the first). We wrapped the first day’s filming around 11pm (sorry, this is going a bit Andrew Pixley) and left the set intact in case we needed (and had time) to reshoot anything. Simon and I went back to his where he ripped the footage onto his computer and assembled a rough version of the opening.

Sunday began with more editing before we shot the two remaining scenes. Simon arrived with his voiceover (the first of two scripted) recorded and treated. We worked on fitting various shots together. These mostly worked, despite our fairly blasé attitude to continuity, and the first scene was completed by the time our one extra actor arrived to record hers. Looking at the running time so far, my main concern was now that we would run over our five minute maximum.

Watching @nimbos get ready to film us. Reshooting a scene... on TwitpicFilming in a car sounded like a fairly straightforward task but this scene ended up taking several hours. Disruptions included road noises, aeroplane noises, sirens, a car parking behind us causing big continuity problems, and, most significantly, my forgetting my lines and/or corpsing.

When we final had the scene in the can, we reviewed the rushes (as they say in the business) and decided that it would work better shot slightly differently and as one long take. We had fewer problems this time and managed at least two successful takes all the way through.

As it was a single shot, Simon didn’t have to do much editing on the scene – just trimming the start and finish and adding our flashback effect – but the one take also meant there was no scope to cut lines if we overran. We therefore chose the second, shorter take, despite some sound problems and a tiny fluff in one of my lines.

Assembling the final scene, we threw out my last line, a section of Matt pacing around, Simon’s second voiceover (the only bit of the script never recorded), and a second flashback – probably a whole page of the script in total. We had to cut back a little further so the action we had filmed still made sense without these parts. That still left us a fair few seconds over so we went through looking for any moments we could remove. We trimmed the title card, overlaying it onto the action; we reduced the beginning and end of the car scene; we shortened some shots; and finally we excised four seconds from one of my speeches, covering it by cutting to a new angle.

The film now dead on five minutes long, all that remained was for Simon to master the DVDs and then for us to get a copy to the church cinema on time. The DVDs were finished around midnight on the Sunday, resulting in this breathless 12seconds video:


We did it! #sfl09 on 12seconds.tv

I had taken the Monday off work to make up for not having had a restful weekend and so delivered the film to the Sci-Fi-London team with an hour or two to spare. And this morning, I went back to the Apollo and saw it on the big screen. There’s something quite cool about seeing yourself on a cinema screen, even if you are hamming it up. (Once all the films submitted are online, I’ll post up a link.)

So after that deeply insightful behind-the-scenes romp, you’ll be left wondering where this magnum opus is. Wait no longer. The Middlemen present Pressure Valve:

Update: Read about the making of another entrant, the Pink Bear Club’s Kromwell’s Theory on Robin Fry’s blog.

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