The family film
The family film "Owensville" by the Shaolin Monkeys won "best of D.C." honors at last year's 48 Hour Film Project.
Giovanni Calabro

Camera's Rolling, Clock's Ticking

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

That cine-mob swarming in front of the Warehouse Theater on Seventh Street NW Friday at 7 will be there for "The Random Drawing" and "The Allocation of the Elements."

That's not an art house double feature but the ritual launch of the 48 Hour Film Project. Celebrating its seventh anniversary, the Washington-originated event will challenge 100 area filmmaking teams to create a short film (four to seven minutes), with all the creativity -- from writing the script, rehearsing and designing costumes and sets to shooting and editing -- taking place in, you guessed it, 48 hours.

That's what folks will be there for: the random drawing from a hat of assigned genres, which can be anything from horror, comedy or romance to musicals or buddy films, and the unveiling of the required elements -- a specifically named character, a particular prop and a single line of dialogue that must appear in every film. As with figure-skating competitions, the elements give judges and fans a common point of comparison and give aspiring local filmmakers something that's equal parts challenge and headache.

The madness usually starts with cellphone calls to teams, which have no idea what kind of film they'll be making until the genres and required elements are drawn. By now, there's a general pattern: Most teams brainstorm and write the script Friday night; rehearse and film Saturday, often sending scenes to editors as they're finished; and leave Sunday for further editing, postproduction, scoring, credits and paperwork. Usually, there's more drama and comedy off camera than in front of it.

One frequent participant is Matt Neufeld, news editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda. He has acted in four films for four directors and was a crew member on a fifth. His account could serve as a manifesto for the 48 Hour Film Project.

"Besides just being suspenseful, adrenalized fun for an entire weekend, the experience is a great educational, trial-by-fire initiation for inexperienced filmmakers. It's also a good exercise for experienced filmmakers, too," Neufeld says. "It is communal, in that the project brings together disparate factions of the local arts communities -- not just directors and producers and actors, but writers, film editors, cameramen, special-effects practitioners, musicians, costume and makeup people, and even, in some cases, PR people.

"The weekend provides a seat-of-your-pants introduction to the act of making quick decisions and snap judgments; it is an excellent exercise in teamwork and collaboration . . . an exemplary study in brainstorming and improvisation; and it's a great instant, on-the-spot class in filmmaking."

Mark Ruppert and Liz Langston founded the 48 Hour Film Project in May 2001 after Ruppert read about a 24-hour play competition in New York and realized the concept might translate to film, albeit with a slightly larger time window. Ruppert, who had been making films around town for several years, met Langston, a traffic safety researcher, when they created a film from one of her scripts.

The first event featured 10 teams, mostly local filmmaker pals, and no great expectations, "not knowing whether you could make a film in 48 hours and, if you could, whether it would be watchable," Ruppert admits.

A screening was held at the now-gone Visions theater the same night the films were turned in, and through word of mouth alone, there was a full house, Ruppert says. "It was all super exciting, so we did a repeat performance in October, still word of mouth and with people we knew in the filmmaking community."

"After it became so popular in D.C., we knew we were on to something," adds Langston, particularly in terms of the project's underlying purpose: to spur camaraderie and networking opportunities. Ruppert estimates that the event attracts "more people who are in the profession than complete novices, but we do have both."

The event expanded to five cities in 2002, including New York, and it kept growing from there. The first two years, Ruppert and Langston set up 48 Hour Film Projects remotely and flew to various cities to run the weekend competitions and screenings. By 2004, "we couldn't do it, just the two of us, so we enlisted local producers to run the events." Last year, there were 33 festivals, including some overseas.

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