On a summer weekend for each of the past 10 years, Northeast Ohio filmmakers have risen to the 48 Hour Film Project’s challenge: to write, shoot and edit a short film in 48 hours.
Through the competition, Kent State alumni and students from the digital media production major (formerly known as electronic media production) have made their talents known in a big way, as they’ve bonded over creative work.
“It’s a unique challenge in that you don’t know what you’re going to make going into the weekend, but within 48 hours, you’ll have a completely finished film,” said Dustin Lee, ’07, who was part of the teams that earned “Best Film,” the top prize in the competition, the past three years.
At the start of the weekend, representatives from each team – nearly 40 of them participated in Cleveland in 2017 – meet to receive three elements that must be included in each finished product: a character, a line of dialogue and a prop. Each team then selects a genre at random and goes on to produce a four-to-seven-minute film that meets that criteria over the course of 48 hours (Friday to Sunday). All films screen at a local theater, and in addi- tion to the top prize, teams are recognized for best directing, best acting, best writing, etc.
Teamwork And Camaraderie
“It may be easy enough to shoot a short film within 48 hours, but to have to write it and edit it in that same time period is a tremendous amount of work,” Lee said. “Your team needs to be able to communicate well and collaborate effectively, or you’re just not going to finish on time.”
Kent State grads are particularly well-suited to do these things, said Jon Jivan, ’08, producer and cinematographer for “Clickbait” and “Early October,” the 2017 and 2015 winning films. The team that produced those films (Maple Films, a production company made up of Lee, Jivan and fellow JMC alumnus Terry Geer, ’12) and the team that produced “A Quiet House,” the 2016 winner (Family 13 Productions, led by Robbie Puzzitiello, ’13) were made up almost exclusively of Kent State alumni.
“The (digital media production) program encourages us to try new things and not necessarily shoot ‘by the book,’” Jivan said. “It makes filmmaking fun. If filmmaking’s fun, it’s something you want to do for free, which is often how we make these films. You build a lot of camaraderie through meeting people on these teams, and you want to work with them again after that.”
Amid all-nighters, sometimes-heated brainstorming sessions and editing and shooting in unexpected locations throughout Northeast Ohio – all typical for a 48 Hour Film Project weekend – they’ve learned to play off of each other’s strengths and fill in the gaps where necessary. That became particularly evident in 2015, when Jivan’s first child was due to be born at any moment during production.
“I knew I was cutting it close,” he said. “I had pulled an all-nighter (on Sunday), getting the rough cut of the film done because I didn’t know when this baby was coming.”
Sure enough, Jivan’s wife was in labor hours later, and he handed off the rough cut to Lee as he rushed to the hospital. Elliot, his son, was born a few hours before the film was due.
“You learn how to do all aspects of production; you learn how to shoot, you learn how to edit, you learn how to do sound design,” Jivan said. “We’re all pretty fluent in all of those areas, and we have our strengths. ... If something happens or goes wrong, there’s someone with the skills to pick up the slack mid-project.”
Story Is King
Kent State alumni who participate in the 48 Hour Film Project stand by the notion that a solid storyline is crucial. Sometimes, the ideas come quickly, and sometimes, debates linger into the early morning hours.
In 2016, the storyline for “A Quiet House” developed somewhat by chance, with Puzzitiello’s grandfather’s house serving as an inspiration.
“No one was living in it,” he said, “and that’s just where we decided to meet up (on Friday night). It just seemed like a good place to be creative. We could feed people, and if we had to sleep there, we could.”
But it turned out that the setting was also a perfect fit for the genre the team had chosen at random: silent film.
“Getting silent film was initially a shock, but ... that left us open to any other genre; we could make it a horror, a comedy or a romance,” Puzzitiello said. “We did this home invasion movie, but it was very personal for me because I wanted to shoot as much of (my grandfather’s) house as I could, before my family inevitably sells it off. ... When people watch it, they’re just so captivated by the cinematography.”
Other storylines haven’t developed quite as naturally. In 2015, when Maple Films produced “Early October,” their randomly chosen genre was drama. They struggled for hours to figure out how to work in the character that was required for all teams: a comedian.
How can we have a comedian fit into a drama?” Lee remembered asking. “We were trying to come up with an idea that would work. ... We didn’t start filming until 1 or 2 p.m. on
Saturday. The longer you delay shooting, the more stressful it gets, but to me personally, having a finished script first is the most important thing.”
More Than A Weekend
The 48 hours of production are almost always a whirlwind, but to those who participate, the project is bigger than the weekend itself.
“It’s a really good entry point for young filmmakers or even just people who don’t have any other avenue,” Puzzitiello said. “There’s nothing quite like it, that there’s an open door where you are guaranteed to screen. It’s very hard to get into any other screening.”
And for competition winners – like Puzzitiello, Lee and Jivan – doors are opened to even larger stages: Filmapalooza, the 48 Hour Film Project’s culminating event for all participating cities where a grand prize winner is crowned, and the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), where the Cleveland “Best Film” winner has an opportunity to screen.
CIFF is an Academy Award-qualifying festival for short films, so the Kent State alumni faced stiff competition. But the opportunity to host a question-and-answer session and get feedback from festival attendees who had just watched their film was a valuable experience, they said.
“Not many people can say that they’ve screened with something of that caliber,” Puzzitiello said.
“It gives you a lot of drive to improve upon your next product and find ways to make it bigger and better and have more reach.”
For Lee and Jivan, who work full time in video production at Kent State’s office of marketing and communications, projects like this give them an opportunity to experiment with techniques that they can then apply to their day jobs.
“They feed into each other,” Lee said. “At Kent State, I shoot marketing and promotional videos for the university. A lot of times, we have to work under time constraints. ... We can experiment with things on our films that I can then transfer into the videos I work on at Kent, and vice versa.”