48 Hour Film Project – “The Last Author”

by Ron Dawson5 Comments

The Last Author

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They say that if you want to be a filmmaker, then make films. I've been wanting to get back to my “filmmaking roots” for a long time. That is to say, making films just for me. Not for a client, a worthy cause, my church, or anything like that. Just little ol' me. But the realities of life are such that finding the time to actually do that is easier said than done. It became apparent that I would need a more aggressive plan to get a personal film project done. Enter the 48 Hour Film Project (48HFP).

The 48HFP is an event that takes place in major cities all over the world. As the name suggests, your film team has just 48 hours to conceive, write, shoot and edit an original short film. You can't even do any pre-preduction (other than recruiting cast and crew and picking possible locations). You don't pick a genre until the “kick off” date (Friday evening) and it's there where you are also given three key elements that must be in your film–a character, a prop, and a line of dialog. A project like this was just what I needed to kick my butt into gear. By the time I paid the entry fee and started recruiting crew members from my blog, I was committed. If the 48HFP comes to your town, I highly recommend participating. It was the most challenging yet rewarding film experience of my life so far.

Setting up shot and lighting for "Big Brother" scene. Using the Zeiss 35mm CP.2 was a joy.

Friday night, June 12 was the kick off date for the Atlanta leg of the contest. The genre we drew from the hat was science fiction. I was excited but concerned. I love that genre. But how in the world were we going to make a quality sci-fi film in 48 hours, especially when I have absolutely zero AfterEffects skills and there was no budget or time to build any elaborate sets? Ultimately, our team decided to focus on developing a great story that had sci-fi elements.

Developing the Story

We had a total of about 15 people on my team. We all brainstormed ideas from about 7 to 10 pm. Around midnight I then passed on those ideas to my core story team comprised of myself and six other people. The seven of us honed the story to a point where my official writers could take over (me, plus three of the story developers). By about 6 am saturday morning we had our official script. We were encouraged and inspired by unique sci-fi films with low sci-fi effects; film like “Never Let Me Go,”Gattaca” and “12 Monkeys.”

The Premise

Our required character (a consultant name Tom Goodwin) lives in a dystopian future where entertainment and knowledge are instantaneously downloaded into the brain. Tom's job is to find content to upload to the central computer system, where it is downloaded to the masses to satiate the needs of the public. Over the years, man has lost the ability of original creative thought. All except one woman. Tom is hiding her and getting her to write original content for him in the form of original written stories. In order to keep her creativity flowing, Tom has hidden her and keeps her disconnected from the system (which is illegal). He does this ostensibly because he's well paid for the content she supplies him. But perhaps he has other motives. At the same time, she is struggling with a decision that can destroy the society as the world knows it, but the consequences of such a decision may be too much for here to bare.

Directing the DP and actors on set of the confrontation scene.

Lessons Learned

We went into the project with our main objective being to learn. We weren't trying to win. As the leader of the team, I wanted to ensure all who participated came away learning something. If we accomplished that, then we would succeed. Here are some of the key lessons we learned.

Scarcity Pushes the Imagination. We were already forced to push our imaginations because of our lack of set or effects. But in the process, we were pushed even further. In some cases mistakes we made forced us to come up with solutions that added to the story. Not having special effects caused us to use basic filmmaking tricks. One example was how we shot the book upload scene (where Tom places the book on a transmitter that absorbs it and uploads it to the main system). We did the age-old trick of filmiing the book on the platform, kept the camera rolling, removed the book, then in editing just used added a cross dissolve between the shot with the book and the shot w/o the book.

Having a dedicated professional in a role significantly increases the caliber. This was the first project since 1995 where I had a dedicated DP to handle lighting and grip. It was so freeing to be able to focus on the actors and the shot list while someone else handled making the light design look great. Someone whose expertise in that area is greater than mine.

Original music rocks! (Pun intended).We were required to use music for which all the rights were cleared. Because it was a short film, we couldn't use any songs from sites like Triple Scoop Music or With Etiquette (there are different licenses for those songs when used in short films). If I had to, I was ready to use stock music from my Digital Juice Library, but I really didn't want to. Luckily, my line producer had an old high school friend that was a composer—Ryan Fraley. She hooked us up with him and he created four original short pieces for the film. That music took the quality of the film to a whole new level.

Have your delivery media ready ahead of time. This lesson is specifically for people doing some kind of 48 hour or similar deadline film contest. The USB thumb drive we bought was not formatted for MacOS out of the box. So when I tried to save a self-contained QuickTime file to it, after 15 minutes of exporting, it bombed because the file name was too long. I reformatted the thumb drive and re-saved it, losing another 20 minutes. We missed the final deadline by just 7 minutes!

Gear and Gadgets

Here's a list of the key gear used:

  • Shot on a 7D
  • Main lens was the Zeiss CP.2 35mm T2.1; we also used a 100m macro for a couple of shots, and a 50mm 1.2 for a few. But about 95% of the shots were on the Zeiss.
  • Main light was a Kino Flo using daylight balanced bulbs. We used a spattering of other photography lights and a couple from my Lowell digital light kit to round out the lighting design.
  • Edited in FCP using Magic Bullet and Colorista II for grading

Plans for the Future

The potential for this story is so rich. I'm in the process of working out a plan to create a web series based on the premise. Stay tuned for further developments at TheLastAuthor.net.

(cover photo credit: snap from the video)


  1. This film was kind of awful. Usually, these sorts of projects are all style over substance. The only difference with this one is, there really isn’t much style either.

    1. Author

      Tell me how you really feel Stu. 🙂

      Luckily, my ego can take a bad review. But in all seriousness, I would hope that in a filmmaking community like this, the criticism could be more constructive. I almost didn’t comment except for the fact that 15 other people worked hard and stayed up 48 hours to do this. Out of respect for the work they put in, share what you would’ve liked to see different, ideally in a way that isn’t just mean-spirited. In doing that, you can share a bad review, but in a way that respects the work that people put into it, while at the same time can help educate not only the filmmakers who worked on this (many of the crew were newbies to the biz), but the readers of this blog who’ll see your comment.

  2. having participated in two 48hour comps, i can attest to the difficulty of producing an entire project in that short amount of time. having said that, i think you did a solid job. the acting was great, the camera and lighting were good. one suggestion, on Audio – ROOM TONE. there were times were the sound would drop to dead space, taking me out of the moment. other than that, solid work.

    1. Author

      That’s what I’m talking about! 🙂 That’s the kind of feedback that makes a community strong. I really appreciate that.

      I totally “hear” you on the room tone issue. I know there were a few times when audio was not great. We actually did record room tone for the “big brother” scenes. I never used it though. By the time I got to editing, I was frantically working just to get it down. The audio is also not great when Evelyn answers the door. We had a lot of newbies on set (which was fine. I enjoyed giving them a great experience).

      Anyway, thanks again for the feedback.

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