New Haven’s local filmmaking scene gathered Friday, July 30th at the Beeracks to celebrate the kick-off of the 2021 New Haven 48 Hour Film Project.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of discovering it yet, the 48 Hour Film Project (or 48HFP, for short) is an annual, international filmmaking challenge run through locally-hosted film festivals. In every host city, teams are assigned the same, weekend-long challenge: to create a 4-7 minute-long short film in the span of less than two days. From these, the best films in every city are selected to compete at the national and international level. The ground rules of the 48 Hour Film Project are simple enough:
The Friday night check-in of every 48 Hour Film Project Weekend holds special significance for participants. Not only are the teams’ film genres and required elements not revealed until Friday night, but the teams must wait for those reveals to occur before they can begin their work at 7:00PM Friday evening. As a result, it’s become customary for local 48HFP staff to host a kickoff party at the check-in.
Every team is required to send at least one representative to their respective kickoff event by 7:00PM Friday night in order to check their team in with the organizers and receive their genre assignment.
Each filmmaking team is randomly assigned two film genres from a list by the local 48HFP staff. Their films must be made in the style of one or both of the assigned film genres - for example, drama and comedy or horror and romance.
Each teams’ film has to noticeably contain three pre-selected required elements: a character, a prop, and a line of dialogue.
The films must be created solely during the filmmaking weekend. No creative work can be done on the films until the festival officially begins at 7:00PM Friday night, and work stops when the films are submitted at 7:00PM Sunday night.
This year, the New Haven Kick-Off took place at the Beeracks, an East Haven brewery that has hosted the Kick-Off party the last three years it’s been held in-person. Only a few minutes’ drive across the bridge from downtown New Haven, the Beeracks feels like it’s out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by thick vegetation and only accessible via a winding, mostly deserted side street. The building itself is squat and gray, its roof strung with party lights and a cheery graffiti mural scrawled on the side of the building. Coincidentally, the mural had once been used as a backdrop in a 48 Hour film. The oversized parking lot was stuffed to the gills with dozens of cars from the New Haven 48HFP’s cast, crew, and staff. Not only were they an indication of the scale of the New Haven 48 Hour Film Project, the cars were also a reminder of just how different last year’s celebrations had been.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 New Haven 48 Hour Film Project had gone completely virtual, the first time in the festival’s history this had ever occurred. To ensure the safety of participants, all events were held remotely. This year’s kickoff was the first step in the festival’s gradual return to in-person events, a hybrid of live and remote designed to accommodate the comfort levels of all the participants. A Facebook Live stream of the Kick-Off (another first for the New Haven 48s) was set up so that people who couldn’t attend in-person could still follow along with the event in real time while the genres and elements were selected, soaking up the atmosphere as if they were there themselves.
This year’s party was held outdoors, sprawling across the Beeracks’ patio and tables and overflowing into the parking lot. Upon arrival, the teams trooped over to the staff table to check in, but once that was done they were free to mingle. In honor of hosting the kickoff, the Beeracks created a custom drink for the event, playfully entitled “Sleep is for the Week '' in a nod to the many lost hours of weekend sleep sacrificed by 48 Hour Film Project contestants in search of the perfect film. Teams were only required to have one member show up for check-in, but most came in a group, and the party was a tangle of masks and bare, vaccinated faces as people chatted, ate, and drank. Some clustered around the patio tables for a better look at the plinko board that had been set up for the genre drawings, while others spread out into the parking lot, forming little rings with their teams as they took a break from the crowd. The next day they would be heading off to locked-down sets, with in-person contact limited almost exclusively to their teammates in an effort to avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus. And because the dropoff is virtual this year, many teams would not see each other in person again for weeks, until either the premiere screening on August 7th or awards night on August 28th. But Kick-Off night was a chance to safely relax for an hour, for friendly in-person contact without worrying about the pressure of the weekend to come. It also proved to be a great opportunity for networking with people from other teams, swapping business cards or social media handles and parting on friendly terms with people who hours ago were strangers.
With such an intentionally created, close-knit community, it’s ironic to realize just how accidental the creation of the New Haven 48 Hour Film Project itself was. Looking at the festival today, one would never know that, had its creation gone to plan, the New Haven 48s would never have existed. In 2010, the 48 Hour Film Project team was looking for producers to establish a Connecticut-based 48HFP in nearby Hartford. But the Hartford festival never took root, and was instead replaced with the New Haven festival. So, what convinced the organizers to change their minds and relocate the festival to New Haven?
At about the same time, producer Trish Clark moved to the New Haven area. She had already developed an extensive film career living in New York City, having worked (among other things) as part of the production team of the Rosie O’Donnell Show. After so long away from New York, she missed producing work. When a friend mentioned the local 48 Hour Film Project opportunity to her, Trish jumped at the chance. Impressed by her work, the 48HFP hired Trish as their event producer, a position she has held since the festival’s foundation. But the city of choice for the newly-created festival bothered her. Trish was baffled as to why Hartford had been chosen as the host city. Why not a city like New Haven, a place she considered the “arts capital” of Connecticut? She went to bat for New Haven, and persuaded the 48 Hour Film Project to change the location. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Now in its eleventh year, the New Haven 48 Hour Film Project is the only 48HFP event in the state of Connecticut. And as it attracts more notice from local talent, its ranks continue to grow. This year, thirty-four teams of filmmakers -- industry professionals and novices alike -- competed in the festival; of those 34 teams, nearly half were first-time entries. In fact, there were so many teams that the August 7th premiere of this year’s finished films at the Bijou Theater had to divide them into three screening groups - A, B, and C, each with a different start time.
2. The Genres
A process usually conducted by randomly picking two genres off a list, the organizers had decided to make a game of genre selection in an effort to make the process more fun for the contestants: Genre Plinko. A massive plinko board was propped up on the staff table, with pockets numbered from one to six that each held a bundle of tiny, numbered envelopes. When it came time for a team to pick a genre, Trish would place the plinko ball and let it roll down the pegs of the board, then draw a numbered envelope from whichever pocket the ball landed in. The envelopes contained a set of two genres, which were announced to the waiting crowd. And no sooner had their genres been announced than a team would go huddle up in a corner to assess their options.
Picking genres was perhaps one of the most important choices the filmmakers would make the whole weekend, because it would be difficult to reverse course down the line if they changed their minds. Most 48s groups only work with one genre or the other -- it’s simpler, and often more easily understood by the judges -- so it just came down to choosing which genre they liked and understood best. Sometimes, this choice was an easy one. One team, after drawing the choice of either western or soap opera/telenovela, immediately ruled out telenovelas because they didn’t have experience with them. For other teams, the choice was more difficult, about picking the lesser of two tricky options. Some parts of the list dove into more obscure categories that filmmakers had less experience in, such as multi-generational films, mockumentaries, or film de femme, and if filmmakers got stuck with two tricky categories they could find themselves in a bit of a pickle. For most teams, though, it was simply about choosing which of two great categories they were most eager about. Once they had a genre picked out, they could set about drumming up possible story ideas and filming locations.
Through this whole process, teams were determined to ensure that those who couldn’t attend the kickoff in-person were included. Absent teammates may have been able to watch the livestream, but representatives took it upon themselves to broadcast the events for everyone at home in real-time as well. Nearly everyone had a phone in their hand during the assignment process, sending teammates notes, videos, and photographs of the genre selection. One man even walked around with a FaceTime call going as he and his teammate debated the particulars of their movie.
On and on the drawing went. Comedy or period piece. Horror or time travel. Superhero or holiday and vacation film. The only sounds were the babble of happy voices, the rattle of the plinko ball, and the calls of team names, genres, and group letters as Trish fought to make herself heard as far back as the parking lot over the din. Teams shuffled too and fro, moving from the lot to the patio and back again as each screening group was called up to crowd around the plinko board. As every team received their two genres, the crowd reacted to the drawing as if it had been their own, tittering with enthusiasm if it was a great pairing, or letting out a sympathetic groan if it wasn’t. When one team was unfortunate enough to have landed the tricky double combo of social commentary and film de femme, another team’s representative came over to express their condolences.
“You guys got social commentary?” he winced. “Good luck.”
To pass the time, the filmmakers toyed with the genre categories amongst themselves, wondering what they would have done had they been given the same pairing as another team.
With fifteen minutes left to go, the crowd became restless. Genre assignments could only take them so far in their planning without knowing what the required elements were. Throw themselves too deeply into one idea and they could find their plans upended by an element that didn’t easily fit into the story. At this point, all they could do was sit, wait, and enjoy the rest of the party.3. The Required Elements
Finally, the magic hour arrived. Seven o’clock. Everyone settled into their positions, suddenly the picture of concentration as Trish pulled out a big tan envelope with “TOP SECRET” emblazoned on the front. Video chats and phone calls to absent teammates were reopened, phone cameras were prepped, and info pamphlets were propped against the wall, pencils in hand. Even though the required elements would be posted online later, no one wanted to miss them. As soon as the elements were announced, the weekend’s filming could begin. The quicker the whole team was on the same page about what the required elements were, the more time they had left to plan their films. Conversation faded to a murmur as Trish pulled out the sheets of paper with this year’s elements and read them aloud.
In honor of the ongoing Tokyo 2020 Olympics, this year teams were required to use the character of either Victoria or Vincent Bolton (teams are allowed to decide the character’s gender), an Olympic alternate, in their films. In order to fulfill the requirement, the character’s name and career must be clearly understood by viewers.
A sigh of relief went through the crowd when this year’s prop was announced: a microphone. At the news that the prop would be one of the most common items on a film set, one audience member shouted sarcastically, “Where are we gonna get one of those?”, to which Trish replied with an equal amount of sarcasm: “I don’t know where you could ever find one of those on such short notice”. A ripple of laughter went through the crowd.
Finally, Trish revealed the line of dialogue: a variation on the phrase “I’m kind of a big deal”, which also elicited a few chuckles and whistles.4. Filmmaking Begins
With that, the required elements were finally out in the world for everyone to see, and teams could finally get to work. But even though the clock had started ticking on their project time, the filmmakers didn’t let the pressure get to them, or allow it to dissolve the night into chaos. Instead, the filmmakers reacted to the start of what was potentially one of the most stressful weekends of their lives with unexpected grace and poise. A few teams made a beeline for their cars, but they walked slowly, like they had all the time in the world, and sent up scattered cheers as they left. Some teams even hung around at the brewery long after 7:00PM had passed to keep chatting with one another, simply content to be in one another’s company after so long apart.
Even after three or four years of experience putting together the New Haven 48s, the New Haven 48s alums and their work have never ceased to amaze organizer Mary Cannata. How they are able to create such incredible work in such a short period of time, under all that pressure, all the while keeping a cool head, was beyond her. Most of the people leaving looked like they were going home to bed rather than staying up all night planning the one-day shooting of a short film.
“Do they have all these things in their closets, so that they can just pull them out [when they need them]?” quipped Mary.
It takes a special kind of filmmaker to thrive at a challenge like the New Haven 48 Hour Film Project: one with exceptional creativity, who can plan and adapt on the fly. But it also takes a real, genuine love for the art of filmmaking to make a challenge like the 48s just as rewarding as the films it produces, a passion that was evident among the filmmakers of the New Haven 48s. The experience of sharing a day with these filmmakers was an immeasurably enriching one. With such a talented group of filmmakers, and the promise of more on the way in the coming years, things are looking bright for the New Haven 48 Hour Film Project, both this year and heading into the next.
Curious about how this year’s films turned out? The best films made at this year’s New Haven 48 Hour Film Project will be screened on Awards Night, Saturday, August 28th at 7:00PM at the Bijou Theater in Bridgeport, CT. There’s still time to book yourself a seat! Tickets to Awards Night are $12, and can be purchased on the Bijou Theater’s website using this link.Want to learn more about the New Haven 48 Hour Film Project, or interested in entering the festival with a team of your own? Use this link to access the New Haven 48s website for event details, rules, and requirements. You can also find the names of the teams who participated in this year’s festival, if you’d like to learn more about them and their work. If you aren’t from the New Haven area and the 48 Hour Film Project still interests you, use this link to search for 48 HFP events closer to you on the global 48 Hour Film Project’s website.