The quick and dirty video

There’s an entire mini-industry around short, crappy films… and when I say industry, I don’t mean that the filmmakers themselves are making any money off it, but groups like the 48hr film fest have been staying in the black for years… with many spin-offs and other short competitions.

Why is this?

Not as much because people really want to watch them (despite the efforts of at least some streaming services to create a market for shorts), but more because we need to make them, and we need a kick in the pants to get it done.

Nobody is born a great filmmaker, and most budding filmmakers have no real idea if they’re any good or not. Trust me, I worked for my fair share of indie filmmakers in my time that were convinced they were going to be the next big… whatever… and… weren’t.

But as a learning project, there’s few things that can beat just getting out and doing it, provided you approach the project with reasonable expectations, communicate those expectations to your team, and make a deliberate effort to actually learn from the process. This means opening yourself up to criticism on what I’m sure isn’t your best work. That’s hard, but it’s also how we get better.

Been thinking about this a lot this last month or two, and I have some examples I can share.

First, this short, shot a few years ago, in under five hours with a couple volunteers who hadn’t ever really done screen acting or stunt work before, and with a crew of… me. Written, shot, edited, armed, choreographed, lit, location managed, everything else. Is that ever how I’d want to shoot a legit project? Oh heck no, and there are things in this that, were I focused on one of my usual aspects, like fight coordination, actor training, gun handling, etc., I never would have let slide. But that’s the nature of the beast. At the time, I was working on The Screen Combat Handbook, and was wondering what I was forgetting – as well as feeling a bit like it’d been too long since I did some of these aspects of production, so I needed to test myself again. I also tried staging a few image ideas for the book (which counted towards that five hour total), most of which I ended up not using (although a picture of my Final Cut Pro timeline for this is in the book). Thanks to Dusten and Cody for being willing to play.

More recently, I was asked this summer to both help with a Cleveland 48hr Film Fest project, and to head up the inaugural Filmmaking intensive for the 10th annual CombatCon.

The 48hr film project was an invitation/request from B.J. Halsall and the Freke Show team, some of whom I’d met previously at Cleveland Indieclub meetings (a decent way to try to get a feel for the scene when you move to a new town). Nobody else on the project was stunt or stage combat trained, but they were interested in having that be an element of the project this year, and I had some time, and was itching to spend more time on set; all I’d done so far this past year in the realm of film/tv/video was acting (two industrial/training video scenarios for Steamfitters – playing a bar manager – and a day on Mayor of Kingstown, which was actually pretty cool). So I showed up, bringing a couple mats and my thinking cap, and ended up being both fight coordinator and one of the actors.

The short was well received. Brad’s New Job won 7 Awards, getting the most nominations and the most awards.

*Best Film – 4th Place

*Audience Choice Group B

*Best Ensemble Cast

*Best Use of Character

*Best Use of Line

*Best Of Screening

*Best Trailer

*The Danny Bass Award

Additional Nominations: Best Editing, Best Supporting Actress – Celine Kowall, Best Special Effects, Best Choreography (for my fight choreography)

Perhaps even more important, it was a fun and validating experience.

Then the week after that I went to Vegas for CombatCon, where the filmmaker’s intensive was set up basically as a “48hr film fest… with knives!” (in the words of one of the convention coordinators). Frankly I’m not sure that was the best use of the intensive, from a learning perspective – making it project instead of process focused made it less valuable as a learning experience, less educational for the students paying to be there, and it also was a bit of a logistical mess as we figured out how to make it work this first time. Number of writers/scripts was changing up until the day before shooting, casting was a mess up until halfway through shooting day (I ended up stepping in as cast, having not intended to do so, and taking off my mask for that is probably why I came back with COVID), and the hotel conference center made for a very limiting venue. The overlapping intensives included a McLemore system martial arts tomahawk and bowie track, so that also kinda dictated the weapons. We had less time to shoot these projects than any 48hr film project I’ve worked on or heard of (basically 11am-5:30pm) and each project essentially had a crew of one once production began. That said, both filmmakers in attendance completed projects in time to share at closing ceremonies, and hopefully learned from the process.

In a world of YouTube and Vimeo and TikTok and ubiquitous video it’s easy to put stuff out there. Maybe too easy, because there’s plenty of stuff out there that’s just not great work, whether it’s amateur shorts or people’s stage combat test scenes. From a curating-your-online-brand perspective for performers, why bother making things like this, let alone sharing them? Why would you want stuff out there of you being mediocre due to crazy time constraints, new and untrained colleagues, etc.?

Because we need to learn. Because learning comes from vulnerability and sharing and accepting critique… okay, maybe not random YouTube commenter @butthurt6969 who just says “haha you suck and you’re ugly go die in a fire”, because posting things online opens us up to stupidity like that as well, but solicit honest feedback. See what you’re embarrassed about still a year later, and make sure you never do it again. See what actually holds up, and do that more. See what you wish you’d done different, and go out there and freaking do it differently. Besides, most gigs will not be your best work anyway – there’s always something, from time constraints, to a bad partner, to weather issues, or an editor who butchered your work, or whatever, so there’s something to be said about what you do in bad circumstances being just as much who you are professionally as what you can do when given all the right tools and time.

…but also try to curate a ‘best-of’ demo reel, and make sure that’s the one you actually promote more widely, if you’re trying to make it as a performer and not just someone who got to do a fun project over the weekend. Yeah, an update to mine is definitely on my to-do list…

For what it’s worth, here’s a share of the BEST of the 48hr films I’ve ever worked on… but this one was insane in the amount of money and other resources they poured into it (and yes, I did get paid to work on it as a gun wrangler etc.). It’s extremely rare for anyone to pour those kinds of professional and financial resources into a non-paying project like the 48hr film fest… but it does sometimes happen, and I feel sorry for everyone else who had to compete against it. I’ve done 48hr films in Seattle, Richmond, and Cleveland, going back at least 13 years, but this was a highlight, quality-wise:

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