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Student filmmakers sweep NFFTY’s 48 hour film off

Digital filmmaking students unite to make a movie in two days

Lena Bowe, Staff Reporter
Originally published May 6, 2015

Photo courtesy of Michelle Ann Henley

Juniors Leo Pfeifer and Meagen Tajalle accept a check for $1500 after winning NFFTY’s 48 Hour Film Off competition. The money will go towards the Digital Filmmaking Program.

It’s a Saturday night and juniors Lyric Gonzalez, Bergen Johnson, Leo Pfeifer and Meagen Tajalle and senior Stephanie Shao are sitting in Pfeifer’s basement, munching on Doritos and crowding around a TV and a computer.

Pfeifer’s mother brings down a pot of homemade soup, much to the delight of the team. Lighting equipment and camera bags are scattered around the floor. Short film clips in the process of being edited are projected onto the computer and TV.

The team is working on a short film for a competition called the 48 Hour Film Off run by the National Film Festival For Talented Youth (NFFTY). Each of the Seattle-area schools competing is represented by a team of five filmmakers. The team has 48 hours to make a three-minute film including a character, theme, and line of dialogue given to them by NFFTY and Seafair (the main sponsor).

After receiving their prompt the previous evening, the team hit a wave of filmmaker’s block.

“We needed to include a pirate, the line ‘it’s a state of mind’, and the theme was ‘see summer,’” Tajalle said. “For a while we threw around ideas, but nothing came up that we really liked. We called Lawrence [Digital Filmmaking teacher Matt Lawrence] for some advice, but we were really kind of stuck.”

Ultimately, a breakthrough came when the team decided to make their character a pirate in the movie-downloading sense instead of a traditional seafarer.

“The film is about a guy who pirates movies who’s really excited for this movie ‘Summer’ to come out-so he can ‘see summer,’” Tajalle said. “But he can’t download it because he drops his laptop overboard. The rest of the film is basically him wandering around, eating ice cream and fish and chips, sitting on the beach, doing all of these summery things, and at the end he says sadly ‘I guess I’ll never get to experience summer.’”

After choosing their story, the team made the choice to shoot their film in a mockumentary style.

“The reality of these things, just because it’s really hard to make a movie in 48 hours, is that people have to sit through a few pretty bad movies when they go to a 48 Hour Film-Off screening,” Pfeifer said. “So because there’s some that they just kind of have to get through, I think people enjoy things that are really funny, or things that are really cute, or things like that. And mockumentaries lend themselves really well to that.”

When I join the team, they’re resting in Pfeifer’s house after a day of shooting in 65 degree sunshine. Gonzalez, Johnson and Shao are sitting by the computer making edits while Pfeifer and Tajalle are watching the clips on the TV and giving feedback on changes that need to be made.

“We were thinking of things we could add to add more physical comedy,” Tajalle said. “One of the things we decided on was having Sean [Sean Payne, the actor who plays the movie pirate] talk about how in the movie there was going to be a huge dog, and then as he walks away, we zoom in on a gigantic dog in the background.”

The team decided to use senior Coleman Andersen and his dog as extras for this scene. After watching the takes, the team debates on which take to use — Shao and Pfeifer want just Andersen and the dog, while Gonzalez and Tajalle prefer a take with Andersen and Tajalle walking the dog together through the background. Ultimately, the take with Andersen alone wins out.

Not every aspect of shooting went so smoothly, however. “We were shooting outside the ice cream store by the bathrooms at Golden Gardens, and the vendor kept eyeing us,” Shao said. “Eventually he came outside and asked ‘is there a problem?’ We weren’t doing anything illegal, but thankfully we had the shot we needed and we could just get out of there after that.”

As the editing process continues, the team debates more and more over which takes work best — not just in terms of time constraints, but humor too.

“I really don’t think you need the laptop in the water,” Tajalle said of a shot where Payne accidentally drops his prized laptop overboard. “You already have him dropping it, and you have his reaction. We don’t want too much.”

According to the team, adding too many visuals to a short film is a common flaw in student productions, and something they try to avoid. The laptop-in-the-water shot does, however, end up in the film.

One thing the team can agree on is that Payne’s acting fits the mockumentary style. “Oh good, she thinks it’s funny too,” Shao said as I laughed at a shot of Payne describing himself as “the best movie pirater in the United States…Northwest…Seattle…Ballard area.”

After making a few more edits, the team calls Lawrence to update him on their progress. Lawrence, who is delighted that the process has been smooth so far, makes plans to come by the next morning to check on the rough cut. The next day, the team will submit their film before the 5 p.m. deadline.

A week later, at the festival itself, I laugh along with the audience as I watch the film. When it comes time to cast votes, mine goes to BHS without any question.

And the next day at the awards ceremony, when the presenter announces BHS as the winner, I cheer loudly with the rest of the audience as the team heads to the front to accept a check for $1500 for the digital filmmaking program.

When the team comes back to their seats, Tajalle informs me that they are the first school to win the contest twice. I ask her how that feels.

Beaming, she says “Pretty great.”

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Student filmmakers sweep NFFTY’s 48 hour film off