Attack of the 50 Foot Reels

Camera on the Tracks

This afternoon I joined a group of people to make a Super 8 film. This is the old style of home movies that existed before home video cameras. One of the organizers of my independent film watching group signed us up for the Attack of the 50 Foot Reels contest, which is sponsored by the Flicker Film Festival, a bi-monthly showcase of short films, where all entries must be shot on film.

For this contest, every filmmaking team is given a 50 foot reel of Super 8 film Saturday morning and is asked to make a film that relates to the theme of Hot Hot Hot. That is enough film for 3 minutes and 20 seconds to tell your story. And the trick is that all editing must be done in camera. That means you shoot in order and every scene only gets one take. What you shoot is what you get. And you don’t even have the chance to see it until the film is shown at an upcoming festival. And finally, the film needs to be turned in by 7:00 that evening.

So we met in downtown Durham at the American Tobacco Historic District, next to the Durham Bulls ballpark at around 1:00. This seemed like a good place to shoot, with lots of interesting spots to set our scenes. We went to a pizza place for a bite of lunch and to discuss the film. Our basic schedule was to target completion by 6:00 so our organizers had plenty of time to pack up and turn the film in. The clock was ticking.

We were all asked to think about a character we wanted to play in the film and come prepared to talk about it. Our fearless leader was hoping for a series of linked character sketches that told a story, and that story would be built from the characters we literally brought to the table. I was more interested in helping to make the movie rather than be in it, so I figured if I offered a lame character, I would not be included. So I suggested that I could be “Sweaty Guy” and sit nearly completely still, maybe just move a finger or tap a foot, but be dripping in sweat.

Nobody really thought much of my character, but because of my black shirt and my goatee, I was nominated to be the bad guy. My camo shorts didn’t hurt either. During the course of the afternoon, this changed from me being part of a love triangle, to a personification of evil, to the burning embers of evil (with a character that was briefly called Smoldering Hot Briquets of Evil).

The difficulty of a project like this is that 10 people have 10 different ideas of how they want to make the movie, so unless the director insists on his vision, consensus takes a long time. We talked for quite a while about different stories, different characters, and even different ways to tell stories. And since we are all film fans, we referenced classic films in our discussions and great directors like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. We considered telling the narrative backwards like Memento, or even in realtime like High Noon with a clock showing the time. The language of film is easy to talk about, but it can be hard to implement in an afternoon without any equipment. We did commandeer a guy in a racing wheelchair to help us with a dolly shot, but his availability did not meet our shooting schedule. The shot he could’ve done for us would have been gratuitous and inappropriate, so we passed on the dolly shot.

We finally settled on a film tentatively called Hot Pursuit that would feature a chase scene that ends with a killing. We also discussed the recurring theme of one of the characters eating hot peppers throughout the film. Since I was the bad guy, I was the one who was would be both chased and killed. With a basic narrative, now we had to work out the details. I would steal a purse (a gaudy, hot, red bag) and take off running. We decided that as I was running past other characters, each would get added to the chase, so that by the end, everyone in the film would be chasing me. We also decided that, in cheesy 70s action movie style, as each new character was introduced, we would cut away to them holding a title card. This meant everyone needed a name and a title card. We thought names with hot in them would be good, and people chose names like Hot Mama, Hot Pink, Hot Tub Girl and Hot Pepper Smuggler.

Just after 4:00 we shot our first scene. This was after a warning from the yellow-shirted security guards who told us that we couldn’t shoot our film on their property and if they saw us doing so, they would call the police. The police would escort us off the property. And the security guards proceeded to turn around and walk the other way. This was after we managed to convince them that we were basically shooting a “home movie” for a film festival project and we were not professionals. They were apparently freaked out by the tripod. So now we had time pressure and security pressure. We needed to shoot.

We set up and shot the purse snatching scene, and began working out the order for adding the other characters. We were basically alternating shots of the chase with shots of the character introductions. We were progressing well with planning, shooting and conserving film, until we were approached again by security around 5:20. They asked us to leave. We were not allowed to shoot on private property, and now they were ready to call the police. This was different from our earlier “warning” where they just wanted to make sure they told what would happen if they saw us shooting. And, really, what would guerrilla filmmaking be without the threat of arrest?

We now needed to address the continuity issue of continuing the chase scene on the public property of the streets of Durham. At the end of the long mall-like walkway was a staircase. I suggested that we shoot all of the character coming up the stairs and running out of frame. This would allow us to cut to anything. We were not longer rehearsing scenes, but just planning and shooting. We got this shot and walked to the street to plan where we would continue shooting. Our yellow-shirted security guards were hovering at the edge to make sure we left.

We began walking away from the American Tobacco District towards downtown and the train tracks, looking for locations to add a couple more characters and shoot the final scene. As we stopped to consider including the Lucky Strike factory chimney, a perfect inclusion in a movie with the theme of Hot Hot Hot, an SUV pulled into the driveway next to us. It was the manager of the American Tobacco District. The security guards called him at home. He basically told us that he would be happy to let us shoot there, but we needed permission beforehand. He told us to call the office on Monday to get permission. We told him the film needed to be finished in the next hour. It was a bit of a heated discussion, but we all moved on. We needed to finish the film.

So now in addition to a time crunch; no firm plan; no location; people getting tired, hungry and thirsty from the long afternoon; we were getting “hassled by the man.” At least one person left due to this additional frustration. Just to keep things interesting, the sky started to darken with the threat of rain.

We set up a shot on the train tracks, but we couldn’t agree how to introduce the additional characters in a way that made any sense. Lightning flashed in the sky and a few more people left. We shot everyone running through the shot with the train tracks in the background and began planning the final scene with my demise.

Here’s how it went: I ran around the corner and was stopped by a woman in a red dress. We see the pepper eating guy sitting on the steps in the background. I throw the purse in the air and woman whose purse it is catches it (done with an edit), since she is immediately behind me. She continues past us while the rest of the pursuers tackle me and continue to pummel me. The pepper eating guy joins the crowd and beats me up with his cell phone. While I am lying dead on the sidewalk, all the characters eat hot peppers.

It was a great way to spend the afternoon and one of the fun things about this kind of filmmaking is that much of it is solving problems (locations, continuity, etc.). Sure it would have been nice to have coherent story and a plan to shoot it before you start, but this definitely gives us all a better story to tell about all the challenges of the day. The only slight disappointment is that when things get so tight on time, you wind up focusing much more on working out the plot details, rather than the high-minded symbolism and meaning that you started with. In the end, I am really looking forward to seeing the film when it is shown.

UPDATE: The finished film will be shown Sunday, June 29 at 8:30pm at Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC

Here’s a link to my set of photos from the shoot.

Jeffrey L Cohen

Jeffrey L Cohen