Video Producer

Start Simple

I’ve written a lot about video. From finding inspiration from my favorite YouTube content creators to getting a crash course in the basics of production. I even tried my hand at creating my own videos. Multiple times. But I always got stuck somewhere in the process.

I think I was starting too big and too complicated. I dove into the deep end when I should have been wading out from the shallows. I was already considering making another attempt at video production, but this time with a much simpler format. Then, during my interview with him, Tasi Alabastro brought up a good idea: why not do a slideshow video to the narration of one of my blog posts?

I really liked the idea. It made use of existing content (my blog posts) and relied on a relatively easy format. Programs like iMovie make it easy to splice together photos into a film. And it wouldn’t be too hard to record myself reading one of my blog posts.

Well, I did it! … kind of.

I didn’t start with my blog posts. I actually started with the piece of writing that I’m most proud of: my wedding vows.

You see, yesterday was my wedding anniversary. And instead of buying Ryan more stuff, I wanted to put together something special. So, I gathered photos of us from throughout our relationship and put them together in a film to the narration of my wedding vows and an instrumental version of our first dance song.

And before you get your hopes up, I’m not sharing that video in this post. I gifted that to Ryan, and he wants to keep it to himself.

But I can talk a little bit about the process.

Creating the Video

This was definitely a learning experience. Since I was combining existing content elements, a lot of the production mirrored the editing process that had stalled my previous projects. And there are steps that I would do differently in the future.

Narration

I knew I wanted the film to be a photo slideshow to the narration of my wedding vows. Ryan’s uncle had filmed our ceremony, so I tracked down that video to try to extract the audio. 

But as I reviewed the footage, I realized I wouldn’t be able to use the audio. There was just too much background noise, and I didn’t have the skills to clean it up.

No problem — I would just re-record my vows. I used my headphones and the iPhone Voice Memos app to record. I did notice a little bit of background noise, likely from me jostling the microphone on my headphones. I made a second attempt using Ryan’s Tascam recorder, but (a) it picked up street noise, (b) I realized I didn’t know how to transfer files from the recorder to my computer and (c) I preferred my rendition from the first recording on my iPhone.

So, despite the small background noise, I opted for the iPhone recording. And all I had to do was simply Airdrop the audio file to my laptop.

Music

Listening to the recording of my vows, I knew they would need to be paired with music. At first, I was just going to use some of the built-in music that GarageBand provides in their library. But then I had the idea of using music from our wedding.

Our first dance was to the rendition of “No Day But Today” that Idina Menzel sang during one of her concert tours (we bonded over musicals, so it seemed appropriate). I searched YouTube for an instrumental version and found this piano version. Since this was just a private gift, I didn’t worry about copyright, but obviously if this were a more public video, I would have sourced different music.

I found an online tool to extract the audio from the YouTube video, and then set out to make some adjustments and sync it with my vows narration using GarageBand.

I first slowed down the music to about half speed.

Then, I simply added the audio file from my vows recording as a second track.

Photos

Sourcing photos for the video took a lot longer than I originally anticipated. The first step was to type out my vows and mark which lines would have their own photo. Then I looked back through my Facebook photos and my iPhone photos to find the pictures that best matched the text.

It was a long process, but I finally came up with a selection that I was happy with. Then I uploaded all of the photo to my project in iMovie, the program I used to create the video.

Putting it all together

When you use photos to create a video in iMovie, you simply upload your pictures and then drag and drop them in the timeline.

iMovie will automatically set the image to display in your video for four seconds, but you can adjust that length. I listened to the recording of my vows and marked the timestamp for each line so I knew how long to display each photo. 

iMovie also allows you to create some movement with your photos, using the Ken Burns tool. You simply choose your beginning frame for the photo and the ending frame and the movement will happen during the time length you set.

So, I inserted in all the photos, adjusted their length, and set the movement. Then, I added the audio to make sure everything lined up. But wait, there was one more step — adding transitions! 

Transitions took a lot of trial and error. From choosing the appropriate type of transition to setting the best time length, it took a lot of time fiddling with the options to get the look and pace I desired.

But after a lot of adjustments and fine-tuning, I had a finished video. That’s right, a FINISHED video. I finally completed a full video project from start to finish!

While the video took longer to create than I anticipated, the tools I used were pretty intuitive. I’m definitely inspired to do more of these type of slideshow videos in order to get more practice and improve my skills in the process. I’ll use the learnings from this project to improve future videos!

Content Creator, Video Producer

And the Winner Is …

During this sabbatical, I’ve written a lot about exploring film and video. I mean, Video Producer is one of the careers on my list.

I got a crash course on the entire filmmaking process. I tried my hand at making my own video, only to get stuck at the editing stage due to the frustrating limitations of my technology. I helped write lyrics for a musical short film that went on to win the Best Use of Genre. I got more experience in front of the camera. And I’ve connected with other video producers to understand more about their creative process.

Through this exploration, I’ve not only learned a lot about filmmaking, but I’ve also gotten more insights into the parts of the process that really energize me. Screenwriting was never something I thought I’d get into, but it’s been an amazingly fulfilling creative outlet. I also really enjoyed set decorating (no big surprise, I suppose, given my interest in interior design). And though I don’t have much experience yet on the video side, my work on the podcast makes me think I’d like being a producer on a film.

Well, I was back at it a few weeks ago, when I volunteered to be a co-writer for a team competing in the San Jose 48-hour Film Project. For those who missed my earlier blog about the 48-hour film project, here’s an overview of how the competition works:

  • Filmmaking teams sign up to take on the challenge of creating a 4-7 minute film in 48 hours (one weekend).
  • Friday night of the competition weekend, teams draw two film genres. Their film must be one of those two genres.
  • All teams also have three elements that they must include in their films: a specified prop, line of dialogue and character. Unlike genre, these required elements are the same for every team for that city’s competition.
  • Fully finished films are due Sunday evening.
  • Films are judged and eligible for a number of awards.

Well, I am proud to announce …. we won Best Film

As winner, the film will go on to be screened at Filmapalooza next Spring. The film also won Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor (Angie Higgins as Tonya). And to top it off, we also won the Audience Favorite award.

Check out the film:

The success of this project has reinvigorated me on video, and I have a few upcoming goals around that:

  • Write more scripts! I have a ton of ideas floating around in my head, many of which came out of our brainstorm session for the 48-hour Film Project. 
  • Work on a film that isn’t time-sensitive. A lot of the videos I’ve helped out on have been on a bit of a time crunch. It’d be interesting to see what I can help produce when we have the luxury of more time.
  • Get more experience as a film producer.
  • Execute some small, easy videos. Inspired by my conversation with Tasi, I think I need to scale back on the complexity of the videos I attempt to produce all on my own and just start simple. Maybe an easy to-the-camera video or a film with a slideshow of images and a voiceover.

In the meantime, congrats to the Ovation Pictures team on their win!

Content Creator, Video Producer

Making a Video, Part 4: The Trials and Tribulations of Editing

We’re back with another update on the saga of producing my own video!

After planning out my script and shots and then shooting all of the footage, my video project was stalled while I waited for my computer to be upgraded with enough memory to download the editing program and handle all of the video files. In the meantime, I did take the opportunity to film a second video, using a lot of learnings from my initial shoot.

Well, my computer finally got upgraded and I was able to dive into editing.

Syncing video and audio

After waiting so long to get started on post-production, once my computer was upgraded, I was raring to go … and immediately hit a snag.

Because my camera doesn’t have an audio input (it only has the option to use the built-in microphone) but I wanted to use a better microphone, we ended up recording audio on a separate device as the video. That meant, in post-production, one of the first steps was sync up those video and audio files.

I am using Adobe Premiere to edit the video. When I inserted a video file and audio file into the editing bay to line them up, I ran into issues with getting a true sync on some clips because when I would drag, say, the audio file to try to match the video, it would snap to a grid and not be completely lined up.

You can drag your audio and video lines separately, but it’s hard to make a small movement because it snaps to the grid up top.

My husband ended up synching all of the video and audio files on his computer using Logic and then transferred the new clips to my machine. Some of the original clips I left as-is because there is no accompanying audio, but rather, I will be adding voiceover or music in those sections.

Adjusting file formats

With the video and audio synced, I was ready to jump back into editing … and once again stumbled.

When I added the freshly synced clips to the video project in Premiere, the video would not play back, and instead all I saw was a green screen. The clips that were not altered played back just fine. All clips were .mov files, so it was a little perplexing why I would have the issue with the synced clips but not the unsynced clips.

A friend suggested that working with mp4 files was probably better. I converted one of the synced clips into an mp4 file, and that solved the video playback issue. Then I had to go through the slow process of converting all of the files to the new format.

I used VLC to convert my files from MOV to mp4.

It’s like the starting pistol had gone off only to discover my running shoes were stuck in tar.

Dealing with playback lag

Audio and video synced … check.

Formats displaying properly in the editor … check.

With my shoes unstuck from the tar, I was ready to sprint to the editing finish line … only to trip over the first hurdle.

Using Adobe Premiere is pretty easy and relatively user-friendly. You start by adding your media (clips) to your project.

Add your media files from your computer or directly from your camera.

Your uploaded clips are now in your project assets, and then it’s as simple as dragging and dropping the clip you want to work with into the editing bay.

Drag clips from the Project Assets folder into your desired location in the video timeline.

Once placed in the timeline, you can play your clip and decide where you want to cut it. Making cuts is as easy as dragging from either ends of the clip.

Drag from either end of the video clip to trim to your desired length.

But this is where I’ve run into some issues. Once I edit a clip, suddenly the playback is very choppy, with lags in the video. This makes it close to impossible to see if I actually like the way I’ve edited the clip.

I’m still trying to troubleshoot this issue, but in the meantime, I’m powering through. However, it’ll probably be a long process.

Good learnings despite technology issues

Sometimes shorter is better

Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a 1-2 second video clip can go a long way. When we shot our original footage, particularly the B-roll that will be used under voiceover, we did these long shots. Once I got into editing, I realized that I only needed a few seconds of each clip to create my visual narrative.

Plan your edits like you plan your shots

One thing the playback lag has forced me to do is be a little more thoughtful in my editing plan. Because I can’t easily just trim and test, I’ve had to view my original clips in a separate video player and then make notes of sections I might want to include, and what I would want to cut away to in between those sections. It’s been a good exercise in trying to visualize ahead of time the final product I’m looking for.

The magic of storytelling is editing

Creative editing and combinations of clips has opened up what I can do with my visual narrative. For example, for the food video, we set up the camera and just let it run while I ate the meal and gave natural commentary. There are some good bits, but taken as a whole, there are lot of awkward silences throughout the video. However, by taking the clips that work and splicing in cuts from other footage, suddenly I have a snappy storyline.

I cut different sections of the “Laura Eats” clip and combined it with cuts from other clips.

Next Steps

I’m going to trying editing in a different program, like iMovie, to see if I have better luck with the preview playback. If I still run into issues, I’ll have to go through the long arduous process of troubleshooting.

It’s been a little frustrating that technology has been such a barrier to this phase of the filmmaking process. I feel like I have the artistic vision in mind, but I’m handcuffed by technical issues.

I hope to be back with more updates once the technical issues are resolved!

Actor, Video Producer

The Other Side of the Camera

For the last couple of months, I’ve been doing a lot of exploration into video production: planning a shoot, learning about the different equipment needed, editing the video. I’ve even had the opportunity to work on a full film shoot and try my hand at putting together my own video content.

Well, this past Sunday I found myself in another position – in front of the camera. I booked a small acting gig filming a training video to be used by the Stanford School of Law. I played a woman being interviewed for a job.

When you think about pursuing acting as a career, you probably think of three major outlets: feature film, television or theater. But in many cities — especially the Bay Area — there is a lot of opportunity for corporate or training videos.

About the gig

The process of booking this job was pretty easy. I’m a member of a number of Facebook groups where auditions are posted. These are mostly theater auditions, but you’ll occasionally see film auditions, as well. It was in one of these groups, that I saw a post about this video.

From there, I emailed the contact with my headshot and resume; eventually, it would be good to put together a reel of my on-screen work.

About a week later, the contact from the video production team reached out to those actors they were interested in with a script and asked us to film ourselves saying the lines so that the client (in this case, Stanford School of Law) could review and choose who they’d like cast. I’ve been on the other side of this when I helped manage some video production at Facebook; I remember listening to submissions for voiceover artists and choosing my favorites.

And then, a week after that video audition, I learned I was cast!

It was a short, two-page script, and it only required about 2.5 hours of my time. It paid $200, which is a decent rate. I’m not sure if these type of gigs pop up enough to make a full living from it, but it’s a good way to make some extra cash and could pair well with another part-time job.

Pursuing future gigs

I want to research more outlets for finding these types of video gigs. I’ll explore more Facebook groups for free postings. I know there is also SF Casting, which requires a paid membership.

It’s also good just to network and keep in contact with people you’ve worked with before. For this video shoot, the production team was really impressed with me (for most of my shots, we only had to do one take). I told them to keep in touch and let me know if they work on future videos where I might fit one of the roles.

I also want to set up my website and put together a reel, which will help when submitting myself for castings.

Learning more about video production

Though I was there as an actor, it was interesting doing a little reconnaissance from the video production standpoint. It was a pretty small production team — just three people. In addition to the shoot, the team was also in charge of putting together the script and working with the client to get approval. And I saw that they had also created storyboards, which I assume they also reviewed with the client.

For the equipment, they just had a DSLR camera with tripod (and different lenses), a shotgun mic hooked up to a recorder, and a couple of box lights. The cost of equipment does seem to be a barrier when starting your own video production company, so it was comforting to see that they were working with equipment that isn’t too expensive.

It was nice that this gig allowed me to explore two of the careers on my list — actor and video producer. Maybe my future path will see me on both sides of the camera!

Content Creator, Uncategorized, Video Producer

Making a Video, Part 2: Shooting

I'm ready for my close-up!

This past Sunday, my husband Ryan and I shot the first part of my DIY project video, featuring the handmade Christmas gifts we are making this year. Armed with the draft script and shot list I had put together earlier in the week, along with some basic equipment, we were ready to go!

Filming in workshop
I’m ready for my close-up!

Equipment

Since this is my first video shoot running on my own, and it was just two of us working on it, I kept the equipment pretty simple.

Nikon D3400 DSLR Camera

Nikon D3400 DSLR Camera

RØDE VideoMic

RØDE VideoMic

Tascam DR-07 Digital Recorder

TASCAM DR-07 Digital Recorder

Vidpro LED-330X Light

Vidpro LED-330X Light

Tripod

Vista Explorer Tripod

Organizing the shoot

We started with an overhead shot, featuring all of the supplies needed for the project. As you can see, this definitely required a lot of Macguyver-ing, as we didn’t have an overhead camera support, so we had to attach the camera to the tripod and then secure the tripod legs to a ladder.

Setting up overhead shot
Sometimes you have to get a little creative when setting up your shots.

From there, we shot the actual steps of completing the DIY project. Ryan had done a prototype of the project and talked me through steps, which is how I was able to write the initial script and create my shot list. Once in the actual space, I had Ryan walk through the actual motion of each step in order to figure the best angle to shoot and to light the shot.

While the narration of the video will be a voiceover and can thus be recorded separately, I did want to capture sounds of the tools, so we also recorded sound for those shots.

Learnings

This first project was a lot of fun. It definitely took longer than I expected, and we hit a few snags, but that all resulted in a lot of great lessons for my next video project

#1: Do a test project first

While I had a basic understanding of the steps in the DIY project before the video shoot, I wasn’t familiar with all the tools and how they worked. That meant setting up each shot took a long time, as I needed to first see the action and then decide on the best angle.

If I do future DIY videos, I’ll want to complete a test project before even writing the script so that I can prepare a more specific shot list and make the filming day go more quickly.

#2: Prioritize the video shoot (or accept that it will take longer)

The DIY project I’m featuring in this video is for actual Christmas gifts, and we are making ten of these items. So, obviously, that made the process longer because for each step, we worked on all ten. If I wanted to focus on just getting the video done, I could have gone through and made one item first and filmed that.

#3: Figure out where you can simplify

Another factor that slowed down the shooting process what that I was obsessing over all the details – getting exactly the right angle, setting the perfect lighting, trying to capture the sound of the tools, and getting multiple shots for certain actions to give myself options during the editing process.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to care about those little details, but with this being my first video, I could have scaled back and really put my energy into one thing. Toward the end of our first shooting day, for example, we ended up ditching the Vidpro LED light and just used the existing environmental light. And I also scaled back on the amount of shots I captured per action.

#4: Embrace the things you didn’t plan for

No matter how much you prepare and how much you plan, something unexpected is bound to come up. Instead of beating yourself up over it, it’s better to just pivot and make the best out of it.

Our shooting day started off with one of these unexpected moments when I realized I left a key supply for the DIY project at home and we had to drive all the way back to get it, significantly delaying our start time. Instead of bemoaning my mistake and how much time I’d wasted, we actually decided to feature the mishap in our video, infusing a lot of humor and personality that I think was missing in the first draft.

So, what’s next?

Laura at computer
Checking my shot list

I’m hoping to finish shooting by the end of the weekend. And then it’s on to editing, which I know is going to be a loooooooooong process because I have some pretty fun, but time-consuming, ideas of how I want to cut together the footage. I’ll definitely be able to use a lot of these learnings from the first day of shooting as I film the rest of the video. And my mind is already abuzz with even more video ideas!

Be sure to check back here for more updates on this video project. And if you missed it, you can go back and read Part 1 of this series, where I talk about writing the script and preparing my shot list.

Content Creator, Video Producer

Making a Video, Part 1: Scripts and Shot Lists

I'll shoot two options for the intro of the video, so I've included both in my shot list.

Inspired by my Filmmaking 101 lesson earlier this week, I set off to get started on my very first video project. A perfect blend of my exploration into video production and content creation, I will be shooting a DIY video featuring the handmade Christmas gifts Ryan and I will be making this year.

This is my opportunity to not only scope out how much time and resources are required for these type of videos but also to start feeling out the style and tone I’m going for.

Scripts

The first step was to draft a script. As a DIY video, most of this script will be the instructions for the project.

I will likely narrate the script as a voiceover rather than speaking to the camera as I go. This means, that the final script will likely change, depending on what the final edit of the video is like or if something happens during the actual DIY project that requires us to change some of the text.

However, it was good to have a tentative draft of the script in order to plan out the shots I want to capture during the filming process. This will make filming go a lot smoother and help make sure I don’t miss any important shots.

Since this video will simply be me speaking, I just drafted the script in a Google doc. However, when drafting more narrative scripts with characters, dialogue and actions, I like to use the online tool WriterDuet. This tool makes formatting a breeze!

Script in WriterDuet tool
WriterDuet allows you to easily mark text as action, character, dialogue, etc. and will apply the proper formatting.

Shot Lists

With my tentative script ready, the next step was creating my shot list. Again, I could just wing it and just set up my shots on the fly, as I completed the DIY project. However, I may miss an important angle I wanted to get.

And there might be shots that are good for the video but not necessarily a natural part of the DIY project. For example, I’d like to get an overhead shot of all the required tools laid out.

There are a lot of shot list templates available online. I used this one as a starting point and customized to my needs.

There are a few places in my script where I actually want to film a couple of different ways and then decide during the editing process which version I’ll use, so I’ve included both options in my shot list.

Shot List spreadsheet
I’ll shoot two options for the intro of the video, so I’ve included both in my shot list.

Ready to shoot!

With my script and shot list in hand, I’ll be doing the first shooting on Sunday, when we’ll be actually completing the DIY project. Look out for the next post, where I’ll be talking about filming the action.

Content Creator, Video Producer

Filmmaking 101

Yesterday, I got a crash course in filmmaking from my friend, Christian, who was the director for the Four Points Film Project I wrote about. A film major, Christian has done gigs ranging from filming weddings to making corporate videos, but his real passion lies in narrative filmmaking.

We did an overview of the entire filmmaking process, with some deeper dives on some of the technical aspects, like choosing lenses and using the camera. In this post, I’ll go through the topics we covered, highlighting some of the learnings that were particularly interesting.

Film Project Types

Before we dove into the production process, we went over the three overarching types of film projects Christian has worked on:

  • Narrative
  • Corporate
  • Events

It was interesting to look at these three types of projects because there are different considerations and requirements for each type.

Event filming is more of a documentary style. It’s important to know the event timeline and important aspects you should capture, but you don’t have much control over the action.

The content of corporate videos can range, but the big thing here is that you are working with a client. That means there is a whole phase of understanding the client goals, scoping the project and managing expectations. The thing that really stood out to me here is the importance of being very specific with the client what you will and will not deliver.

Narrative film — depending on the level of quality you’re going for — can be the most complex with regards to roles and steps in the process. But this is where, at least as a director, you can really have the most creative control.

When I put video producer on my list of careers, I was thinking more about corporate videos, working in-house, as a freelance video producer or as part of a production company. I’ve also been focusing on video when talking about my exploration of being a content creator, which could include a lot of elements of the narrative filmmaking process, depending on the style of videos I’m going for.

Pre-production

We looked at pre-production, mostly from a narrative film point of view. There’s everything from securing your talent and crew to preparing your equipment.

A few things that really stood out to me:

First, it’s important to start with scheduling. With a narrative film, you’ll want to break down your script by scene locations, actors needed in each scene, props required, etc. Then, you can schedule your shoot accordingly – e.g. grouping your scenes that take place in a certain location and shooting those back-to-back.

From a director’s standpoint, an important step is storyboarding and getting your shot list. Storyboards are a good way of explaining your vision of the film to stakeholders, such as a client or producer. And the shot list is essential in running a smooth shooting schedule and making sure you don’t miss any shots. I found this good example of a storyboard:

film storyboard
Source: https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/storyboarding-film-tips-next-project/

Production

Here’s where I got a deeper understanding of all the technical aspects of a film shoot.

First, I learned all about lenses and, boy, is there a lot to learn! There are a number of settings on a lens that will affect the image you capture. Starting with the size of the lens, the higher the size, the more close-up you’ll be to the subject of your shot and the more out-of-focus your background will be.

Here’s a shot with a 24mm lens:

Screenshot from filming dog with 24mm lens
24mm lens

We see the whole dog (a very cute pup named Lily) and the blanket she lies on in focus. Then in the background, we get the TV on its console and the wall with the pictures, all a bit out-of-focus.

Here’s a shot with the camera in about the same location, but using a 50mm lens:

Screenshot from filming dog with 50mm lens
50mm lens

In this shot, we’re much closer up on Lily, only seeing part of her body and the blanket. And in the background, we’ve only captured a corner of the TV console, which is a lot blurrier than in the 24mm shot.

There were other things on the lens, like the f-stop, which affect the image you capture but I won’t get too much into that.

We also went over lighting — when to take advantage of environmental light versus bringing in your own light. Natural sunlight vs. indoor light. How to control the light with things like reflectors. One cool thing is that a lot of modern film lights will have knobs that let you adjust the temperature of the light to replicate either indoor light or sunlight, using the same device.

Finally, we looked at sound. For corporate videos you might use a lavalier for something like an interview. But for narrative, you’ll be using a shotgun microphone. When filming, it’s always a good idea to rehearse a scene to understand the volume of the dialogue and if levels will need to be adjusted mid-scene (e.g. if someone is going to yell).

And a good rule of thumb for scheduling — 1 page of dialogue is typically about 1 minute of film and 1 hour to shoot.

Post-Production

We didn’t go to deep into post-production because we will have a follow-up session all about editing.

One really interesting thing we went over is color grading. When you are shooting your video, there is a setting called Log recording, which will make the image a bit flatter and more desaturated when filming but will give you more flexibility to adjust the colors during the editing process.

Here’s an example of some color grading we did:

The original video capture used the Log recording setting. Color grading during post-production allows us to bring back the vibrant colors.

We also covered things like cleaning up audio levels and adding music. One important thing in the post-production process is thinking about where your video is most likely to be viewed — YouTube, on a blu-ray/dvd, in a theater, etc. This will have a huge effect on how you export your final product.

Putting these learnings into action

One big thing that became clear during this lesson — filmmaking can be expensive! Ok, I know you are all exclaiming a collective “duh!” at me, but I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of how much equipment you’d need and the cost of that!

But even without the most advanced equipment, I can still try out a lot of these learnings, particularly around the planning process and basic production elements.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I will be doing a couple test videos around topics that I could see myself having a YouTube channel around. I can start by plotting out the script for those videos and thinking about the shots I want to get.

I also have a short narrative film I’ve written, and I’ll start creating a shot list for that and maybe even try my hand at storyboarding!

Big thanks to my friend, Christian, for taking the time to be a pro bono film teacher. You can check out his work here.

Video Producer

Lights, Camera, Christmas!

Photo by Dawn Cates.

What do you get when you combine a musical, Priscilla the hypnotherapist, a food container, and a snide “It’s never done that way”? A 7-minute movie musical about a bickering family coming together on Christmas Eve, of course!

This past weekend, I was involved in a 48-hour film project. Well, technically this competition was 77 hours, but it’s still part of the 48 Hour Film Project franchise.

Laura looking at film camera
My friend and director, Christian, teaches me about setting focus. Photo by Dawn Cates.

These one-weekend film competitions take place in cities all over the world. However, this past weekend was the Four Points Film Project, the online-only competition with global entries.

How does it work?

When you register to compete in a 48-hour film project, your team receives certain requirements the Friday evening of competition weekend, which you need to include in your film:

  • Two film genres (you need to select at least one)
  • A character
  • A prop
  • A line of dialogue

Typically, teams will use Friday evening to write their scripts, confirm their actors, gather props and costumes and set up their schedule for the next day. Then, Saturday is the actual day for shooting, leaving Sunday to edit the film.

Winners of each competition get their films screened at an event called Filmapalooza, and the top films from that event get screened at Cannes!

So, what’s with the Christmas Eve musical?

My husband and I volunteered to be writers for my friend’s team – myself focusing on the story, with Ryan writing the dialogue. And because I want to know more about the filmmaking process, I was also slated to help out with the actual film shoot.

As luck would have it (or lack there of), the two genres our team got were Musical and Coming of Age. Now, I need to blame myself a little for jinxing our team. Leading up to the competition, I kept joking that I hoped we would get Musical as a genre because I love musicals so much. Now, this was a joke, of course, because trying to compose, write and film a musical in one weekend is incredibly difficult (more on that later). And when our director asked me what genre I really did NOT want, I said Coming of Age because none of the actors we had lined up were the right age for that kind of story line.

So, yes, here we were with two difficult genres. But with a little ingenuity, A LOT of brainstorming, and the godsend of royalty-free music, we were able to settle on a holiday movie musical.

The other requirements:

  • Character: Priscilla Powanda, a hypnotherapist
  • Prop: a food container
  • Dialogue: “It’s never done that way”

Writing lyrics at 1 am

Teams receive their prompts on Friday at 7 pm. We spent a lot of time brainstorming and looking at the resources we had available before we could even settle on Musical as our genre. Then, it was time to flesh out the story, which the director and I tackled. It was 10 pm before we had that done and Ryan could even start drafting the script.

While Ryan worked on the spoken dialogue, the director and I worked on the musical numbers. We found royalty-free music on Incompetech, selecting the scores that best matched the feeling of each song. Then, it was time to write the lyrics, which took MUCH longer than I expected — partly because we selected some pretty difficult music and partly because I’m a perfectionist (maybe not the best thing to be when you have limited time).

Song lyrics in notebook.
First draft of the lyrics for the opening number.

A little before 2 a.m. I was just finishing up the last the of lyrics, and then I quickly (and quietly) recorded a sample of the opening song, which the actors could use as a reference.

14-hour film shoot

I arrived on set (the director’s house) at 10:30 am after a fitful and short night of sleep, but full of adrenaline and ready to go. The first task was transforming the house into a holiday wonderland ready for a Christmas Eve dinner.

It’s easy to underestimate how much time set-dressing takes. There are all the little details you don’t think of — getting rid of the clutter on the shelf in the background that could be distracting or making sure the stockings have the characters names on them.

Laura painting names on stockings
Putting those crafting skills to good use! Photo by Dawn Cates.

After some quick consultation on the song recording, I helped take the lead on the set dressing. It required a lot of work and attention to detail … and I loved it! It’s no wonder I have interior design on my list of the careers to explore.

Once, we got to actual filming, I did the slate and took notes for each shot. Yes, I did get to say things like “Christmas Musical, Scene 4A, Take 2.”

Laura slates the next take.
It’s all about the digital clapboard. Photo by Dawn Cates.

And because I’m just a teensy bit bossy, I also butted in a little and gave recommendations here and there on shots. Luckily, the director is a very patient and understanding friend.

We began filming around 2:30 p.m. and finished just before midnight. It was a long, grueling day but quite the experience!

Thoughts

I really love the energy of being on a film set — everyone pulling together and pitching in where they can.

Writing was fun, but I think I’d enjoy it more if I was on less of a time crunch. Also, I realized that I’m much more familiar with theater where your script is almost all dialogue, while with film/TV you can have a lot of unspoken moments and you don’t necessarily need to pack the pages with dialogue (unless you’re Amy Sherman-Palladino or Aaron Sorkin).

This was the first time, I did set-dressing, which, as I mentioned before, I really enjoyed! I would definitely be interested in doing that more.

Because of the frenzied timeline of this shoot, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn all that much about actual filming — setting up shots, working the camera — so I’ll be looking to get more of that experience in the future.

I’ve actually had a story in mind for a short film, so I may need to get that script complete and then try my hand at directing …

In the meantime, please enjoy our final film, Four-Part Holiday, and wish us luck on the competition!