By Joe Riina-Ferrie
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

In the end we had 16 films that, in many ways, were better than anything Hollywood produced last year. And it only took us two days.”
—Joe Riina-Ferrie
College fourth-year

To someone unfamiliar with how much work goes into making a movie that is only a few minutes long, 48 hours might sound like plenty of time.

I assure you, it is not.

As co-chairman of the University’s student-run Fire Escape Films, I recently witnessed one of the most beautiful things imaginable—dozens of University students abandoning their schoolwork as finals approach to make absurdly ambitious movies.

Our group recently hosted the third annual 48 Hour Film Festival, which asks filmmakers—seasoned and novice—to conceive, shoot, and edit a movie in just two days. A March 3 gathering of nearly 200 University students at Max Palevsky Cinema celebrated the work of more than 80 student filmmakers who had made the last edits to their movies just days earlier.

As images of magical pirate-genies, frolicking puppies, removable moustaches, and gory murders flickered across the screen, audience reactions ranged from a few hesitant chuckles to roaring laughter to silent appreciation.

In the end we had 16 films that, in many ways, were better than anything Hollywood produced last year.

And it only took us two days.

Prompts and Plans

On Friday, Feb. 27, more than 80 students and alumni gathered in the basement of Stuart Hall, brimming with enthusiasm and visions of filmmaking immortality. At 6 PM students pulled prompts from a hat—a location, object, and famous quote meant to inspire and obstruct the participants. Imagine your location is Obama’s house, your object is a bathrobe, and your quote is “Get your paws off me, you damned dirty ape.” Now you have to make a movie. Reactions ranged from laughter to resignation.

As the groups brainstormed over dinner—some were scheduled to shoot early the next morning—we on the committee dragged over carloads of equipment to the base of operations in Stuart. With 10 editing stations, 10 tripods, and 10 cameras with accessories, we thought it would be a miracle if we didn’t lose anything. (If anyone has seen a Sony battery charger or an HV camera operation manual, send me an email.)

Later that night everyone went home to catch the last brief sleep they would see for a long time.

Rise and Shoot

At 8 AM Saturday, people started filming. Groups only had the camera for five hours, and most needed every minute. Saturday was cold—those of us who weren’t handing out equipment inside were gripping cameras with frozen fingers. There were other challenges as well: Puppies wouldn’t cooperate. Large amounts of fake blood needed to be brewed.

People filmed all over the Hyde Park map, from apartments to Mandel Hall, to under the Metra tracks. Some, like the group making a Slumdog Millionaire parody, went from their game show set in Mandel Hall to the laundromat, while others constructed elaborate and bloody interrogation scenes, as in the cop thriller Panopticopolis.

By 8 PM both camera shifts were over. Exhausted from shooting, everyone settled in for the editing endurance trial. Once people got over the initial rush of seeing what they had shot and started to arrange it into a movie, they realized that it was going to take a really long time.

The building was open all night, and many of the groups took full advantage. Arranged in a semi-circle on one side of the room, the groups formed a village of video editing while we on the committee tried to do some homework as films by Herzog and Singing in the Rain were projected onto a hanging sheet.

Crunch Time

There are some people who cannot stand watching people make movies all day without having a chance to hold a camera themselves. A few Fire Escape members and I had been unable to shoot a movie during the day.

About 3 AM Sunday, most groups were either sleeping or settled comfortably into their editing stations. A small troop of us headed to Midway Studios without any idea of what movie to make, only a fervent desire to make one. We spent the next three hours shooting an absurd, improvised horror story.

We trudged back to Stuart at 7:30, exhausted. We found some editors sprawled on benches, sleeping, and others still staring blearily at their screens, more dead than alive.

By 5:55 PM Sunday, about half of the groups were still making last-minute changes. Surely some wished they had more time, but that is how the 48 Hour Film Festival goes: What you make won’t be perfect, but it will be frenzied and exhilarating.