By: Aaron Brzozowski
Photo Credit: Adam Goral
It was an all-nighter to end all all-nighters. It included a garbage-can fire, two car crashes, and only one of those things was caught on camera. It culminated in a Redbull-fueled, uninterrupted five-hour editing sprint to meet a hard deadline precisely 24 hours after kick-off.
This was my first time participating in a 24 Hour Film Competition.
In the fall of 2012, the town of Ypsilanti, Michigan had its first ever 24 Hour Film Competition, and I was hell-bent on entering. I got four of my friends involved, one of whom is a professional photographer and agreed to be camera operator (and DP). I directed and made my acting debut as the main character, acting alongside three other friends of mine. The rules were simple – make a movie 5 to 8 minutes long in under 24 hours, utilizing no footage shot or cut anytime before that 24 hours. You could use any music you like (with a license), and do any planning and location securing before the kick-off.
Needless to say, the idea sounded very enticing – to push yourself, collaborating on something artistic, that you would then have to show to whomever you like for the rest of your life. How cool! Mostly, I think the appeal was in that since graduating, I hadn’t done anything at all exploratory or creative just for the sake of doing it. I was looking forward to having that little “push”, and the excuse that the competition gave me to recklessly forsake everything else in order to make art.
I have a tendency to romanticize things – and that’s just what I did with my film’s concept. It was this: a young man returns from a semester studying abroad in France, suddenly finding himself with a concussion, discontented with his American girlfriend, and unable to let go of the idea of an imaginary, perfect French girl he “met” overseas. The movie starts with the man, John, talking to his psychiatrist. His head is bandaged, we learn of his imaginary phantom girl, and the biking accident he had which led to his concussion.
A fight between John and his American girlfriend ends with John going up to their shared apartment, and his girlfriend going out behind the house to… what is she doing… OH MY GOD SHE’S BURNING PICTURES OF THE FRENCH GIRL! She’s not imaginary, she’s real! But did John actually have a biking accident, or… did she hit him in the head?!
Or at least, that’s the story that I wanted to convey. Unfortunately, I was so busy trying to subtly hint at the underlying story without coming out and strong-arming it in the nose that at its screening, I’m relatively certain that the sober half of the audience didn’t pick up on my intent, and I know that the blitzed half didn’t.
The entry was, simply put, a little bit of a disaster. Remember that bit that I said about the car crashes? That wasn’t made up. Before we even shot frame one, a friend of mine who’d agreed to act for me slid her Dodge up the rear-end of another car in the rain. As the director of an entry in such an event, let me tell you that you feel strangely responsible for any little thing that goes wrong, so naturally, I felt positively awful. We had to wait a full hour after for the residual spin-off drama to slow to a simmer, and I found myself wondering what kind of stress my little experiment had driven my friends to.
We trudged on. After shooting our opening scene in the psychiatrist’s office (for about 3 hours), we left in search of somewhere to burn garbage. Unfortunately, talking about finding a suitable alley around town in which to burn garbage is entirely different from actually burning garbage in an alley. When you feel like any and all eyes might be on you while you torch some photos on a public street, it doesn’t seem too implausible that you might be hearing your Miranda rights from the backseat of a police interceptor later in the night.
So we found the most inconspicuous and private place we could, regardless of how little it looked like an appropriate backdrop, and kept the shots tight so that no one could spot us for fakes. After we’d exhausted our photographic fuel (we ended up burning photos of my actual girlfriend), it was about time to head to the river and wait for sunrise to shoot a “dusk” scene. We hopped in two different cars, all stressed, tired, and hating our unfortunate, unanimous decision to commit to the competition, and headed for the river.
That’s when car crash two happened. It was worse, because it happened to involve both of the cars that we had taken to the location! My sense of guilt and personal responsibility ballooned to the extent that I was utterly unable to look either driver in the eye for the next several hours. Luckily, as in the first crash, no one was injured and the cars’ performance was not damaged. But precisely no one came out of that a happy camper, and those are the best kind.
But still, we trudged on. We got to the river, and my one actress (who played John’s American girlfriend) was, after two car accidents, a trash bin fire, and an exhausting shoot, too emotionally and mentally exhausted to continue. So we made a last minute decision to record her voice, and insert it disembodied-style into the dusk scene in which she was supposed to appear. She left, and we waited. And waited. And waited.
Finally, the sun came up, and we shot our last scene. We hit our first spot of good luck all night and day, when a train just happened to roll through and we got the camera set up just in time to catch it, making for a great establishing shot. Then we set up for a take. A man and his son, apparently off on a fishing excursion, came and inhabited our turf during the shoot. I can only imagine what they thought was going on when I ran my hands through the thick riverbank mud, occasionally talking to myself, with a camera in my face. “Son,” he explained, pulling his kid aside, “that is no way for a grown-ass man to act. But this is Ann Arbor. And sometimes people are crazy here.”
Well he’s not wrong! Having shot all we could shoot, we sped off to my apartment to edit. And straightaway, another problem sprang to light; our audio had a constant, incessant, loud hiss on both tracks. If you’ve ever worked with audio in post, you know that loud hiss as just about the worst-possible obstacle (well, besides no signal at all). Too aggressive a noise removal scheme, and the audio sounds like it’s coming from underwater. Too little, and you haven’t fixed anything.
After spending entirely too much time getting my panties in a bunch over the wretched signal-to-noise ratio, I settled on a scheme somewhere in the middle of both problems, and trudged on. (Since this competition, I’ve found a new manual method to reduce hiss that involves duplicating the audio channel, inverting the duplicate, and then changing the equalization of one of the two to amplify the frequencies you want to preserve). And after several more hours of the RedBull shakes, having drenched my faux-leather computer chair with my faux-human stress sweat, I had a cut that was (somewhat) ready, with half-an-hour left to drive it back to HQ. We submitted it just in time.
All-in-all, in spite of everything, I’m happy I got to participate in an event like this, I’m forever indebted to my friends for helping me get my crazy concept onto a real, physical big-screen somewhere, and honestly, I’d do it all again in an instant.
Never mind the whole “mistakes are how you learn” speech; it went deeper than that. See, every person has a threshold of just how much BS they can take before throwing their hands up and laughing it off, and I passed that mark by a mile. And when you pass that threshold, it’s like hitting the wall when you’re out for a long run. You don’t care what happens any more, and in that moment of realization, you find a certain invulnerability, one which feels far superior to any runner’s high.
At the onset, I took this project too seriously. It was a joyless, melodramatic, and lifeless affair, and nothing fixes that noxious pretense quite like having everything blow up in your face. And even more than that, I enjoy the challenge of trying to bounce back from the train-wreck. I like being stuck in the middle of something that’s gone terribly rotten, because it’s then that you wake up and start thinking clearly about what has to be done, how to do it, and most important of all, the great people that are stuck in it with you. Just don’t bother looking for this movie on Youtube or Vimeo; it’s not on either… yet.
After all was said and done, I grabbed myself a beer, and passed the hell out. For twelve straight hours. It was phenomenal.
You can visit the official site of the Ypsi 24 Hour Film Shootout at: http://ypsi24hourfilm.com/