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Teams to Compete in “Film Slam” Competition

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by John O’Brien

Have you ever made a seven minute video? I suspect many readers can respond in the affirmative to this question. It’s not all that difficult to record your cat for seven minutes. Or to shoot your child in the chorus at a school concert. Or to “film,” with your iPhone, a friend dancing to “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Have you ever made a seven minute video in 48 hours? Again, if you answered “yes” to the first question, I would bet that you made your short film in less than two days, mostly likely in about seven minutes.  I’ve never done an exhaustive study of it, but I would guess that most videos on YouTube or Vimeo are done in a single take, or at the very least edited “in the camera” — meaning that the filmmaker shot the video sequentially without loading the footage into an editing program and selecting the best material.

These shorts go something like this:  First shot — my cat eating Friskies.  Second shot — my cat licking its paw and then using the wet paw to wash its head; my cat doing yoga, or maybe he’s just stretching. Last shot — my cat sleeping on my laptop keyboard. GRRRRR! My seven minute cat film took me 17 minutes to make. Maybe I didn’t need four whole minutes of him eating, but it’s too late to trim it now — I’ve already posted it on Facebook. Admittedly, the story wasn’t really planned out; the actor was indifferent; the cinematography is shaky — too much coffee for the director of photography; the audio is full of the director’s unheeded suggestions.

Photo Courtesy of Green Mountain Film Festival
Photo Courtesy of Green Mountain Film Festival

Once your cat video is in distribution — it’s been “liked” and “shared” on social media — and you’re thinking a  seven minute short film is a piece of cake, maybe you should try a film slam. You’re in for an education.

On Friday, March 20, at 6 p.m., seven teams of five members each will assemble at the Green Mountain Film Festival box office. Shortly after 7 p.m., the teams will race out into the night, assignments in hand. In the next 48 hours, each team will write, shoot, and edit a short film that must come in under seven minutes and be screened before a packed house on Sunday, at 7 p.m., in the Pavilion auditorium.

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I’ve judged film slams before but I’ve never been part of a participating team. This year I’m the film slam coordinator, which means I get to be the human information booth for the seven teams while they’re making their short films, and then I host the grand finale.

As already discussed, it takes a cell phone and no special talent to make a seven minute video. However, to make a really good seven minute video, whether it’s comedy or drama, takes talent, collaboration and most likely, experience. To make a really good seven minute video in 48 hours requires pulling an all-nighter or two. Sleep deprivation is not the friend of talent or collaboration.

As Yogi Berra might say, “There’s no better experience than having done it before.” Some of this years’ teams have done many slams, not just the GMFF. This years’ rookies include two high school teams from Randolph Technical Career Center and a gang from Middlebury College.

To guard against teams arriving with ready-to-shoot screenplays, or already-shot elements, the GMFF Slam Committee has added a twist or two. First of all, you must pick a genre out of a hat and make your short film in that genre.  If you picked it, you’ve got to make a “Musical,”  or maybe a “Western.” Your love of fake blood and squibs may be tested when you select “Family.” Second, every film must include three prompts:  a specific Montpelier location, a Montpelier-centric prop, and a line of dialogue. For example, last year, the location was the blinking light at Elm and School; the prop was a parking ticket; the line was, “you have to go out the back.” One of the pleasures in watching the final films is to keep an eye out for the prompts and the creative ways they are incorporated into the stories.

Of course, sometimes those creative types get carried away. One year, the location was the closed-for-the-season Dairy Creme on Route 2. Mid-Slam, the owner called the box office and asked if the people with a camera on the roof of his business had anything to do with the festival.

OK, let’s say you and your team have completed a “wickedly clever” or a “beautifully heartfelt” short in the allotted time. Is your short better than the six other shorts? The 48-Hour Film Slam is a competition. Three industry professionals judge the final results. Thanks to the generosity of the Doran Family Foundation and Montpelier Alive, the winning team walks away with $2,000.  Second place is $750; third is $500. With real money at stake, and the rush that comes from showing something to an audience for the first time, not to mention a collective apprehension of last minute technical failure, there is a buzz in the room that makes the Pavilion feel like the Barre Aud at tournament time.

Who will win the evening’s top prize? I don’t know, but I have a hunch. Filmmaking is storytelling.  Whoever tells the best story is the favorite in my mind. Filmmakers have a lot of tools at their disposal to help with their storytelling:  Writing; photography; sound; editing; art direction and set design; costuming and makeup; and most importantly, acting.

The next time I make a cat video, I’m going to cast my dog — I only want to work with actors who take direction.