Off the deep end
It's a few minutes before seven on Friday night at the Theatre Royal, and members of Body in Space are in the backstage dressing rooms, crowded around a battered old Nokia cellphone.
The company – directors Lisa Norriss and Dan Allan, and cast members Luke Walton, Roger Sanders, Doug Brooks, Jim Risner, Nikkie Whitehead, Damara Sylvester and Hester Phillips – are hopping with nervous energy.
It's half an hour until their show The Deep End starts, and outside people are already starting to trickle into the foyer. The company has to make up a seven-minute film onstage tonight, inventing the narrative as they go along while simultaneously putting on a good show for their 150-strong audience.
But they don't yet know what kind of film they have to make. In just a few seconds Dan's Nokia will light up, carrying a text message from 48 Hour Film Festival organisers that will decide their film's genre.
What if they get a costume drama? Or have to film it in one shot? Or worst of all, create a musical? As they wait for the text, they're warming up, collectively humming the riff to Another One Bites the Dust – you hope it's not a portent.
Getting to this stage has taken two weeks of organising – finding a technical crew of sound, lighting and camera people, borrowing computer gear, and developing a plan of attack for their improvised film, something that hasn't been tried in the festival's 10-year history. Dan and Lisa are the only ones to have entered before, and Dan's Christchurch team came second in 2009.
At 7pm there's a beep. There's squealing and grabbing – but it's just a text from Jim, saying "Hi Dan". He stands back and cackles. Comedians!
Nikkie suggests they leave the room – a watched pot never boils, after all. Sure enough, at 7.03pm there's another beep and they come rushing back in.
This time it's for real. The organisers have decreed that their prop is to be a leaf, their character an unlucky person named Nicky Brick, and their line of dialogue must be "I did that".
They're given a choice of two genres – Superhero or Erotic Thriller. For reasons of propriety, the high school teachers in the group immediately veto Erotic Thriller, so Superhero it is.
For the next half hour until the show, they warm up, jamming on the superhero theme, getting friends to bring them in a few large fallen leaves, and brainstorming with set designer, artist Che Vincent, who has just 40 minutes to build a superhero city skyline to bring onstage in the second half, when the filming starts.
They also organise their four camera people – Tim Norman, Sean Young, Nelson photographer Daniel Allen, and me. They give me just one very simple task – to sit in the middle of the audience, take off the camera's lens cap, press record, and possibly make sure no-one steals it. A task so simple, in fact, that I'm still wondering how I managed to bugger it up.
At 7.30pm the show begins and Dan comes onstage as MC, cameraman trailing him. The audience is already in full voice and the first half of the show runs smoothly, interspersed with the occasional shot from a staple gun as Che builds sets backstage.
At interval, the audience streams out for refreshments as the cast arrange their new set – several skyscrapers and an evil machine woven with electric-blue wires. The immense tower is still wet with paint and won't stand up properly, so they shove a ladder behind it and hope for the best.
In the second half it's down to action. While most of the teams around the country have just picked up pen and paper, the team turn on cameras and start filming.
They'll make three attempts at their superhero film. In true improv fashion, the audience comes up with the animals that each have to be associated with – an elephant, a goldfish and a sloth. They start with elephant, and as an audience member snaps a clapperboard I press "Record" and sit back in my seat to watch the show, content that my duty is done.
But about five minutes into the first scene the camera screen flashes "0.00" and the comforting red light flicks off. That's it for the memory card, which we were sure would be roomy enough. I fiddle with a few buttons, panic quietly, and then sit gloomily through the rest of the show, hoping the others will have enough footage.
By the time they act out two scenarios involving a heroic elephant and a mutant goldfish, the players are becoming a little desperate. Both scenes have been over the required seven minutes, and they have one attempt left.
The third comes together with all the required elements, just on time, and has a mostly logical plot taking place in Tokyo Zoo, where an evil scientist pushes a sloth and an unlucky sushi-maker into the machine and morphs them into Slothman, who then uses his superpowers to make the city safe.
By 10pm they've wrapped the filming and named their creation Slotham City, while most of the rest of the participants around the country are probably still in the throes of script development.
Editor Doug and Dan spend the rest of the weekend on the computer, searching each stream of footage – minus mine – and piecing the best shots together into a logical film, adding some dazzling special effects and superhero-style speech bubbles.
Like all good 48 Hour film attempts, it takes them about six hours of fiddling software to get the footage from the cameras to the computers, the file takes hours to render, and there are several moments of high drama when the computer crashes and Doug restarts grimly, waiting to see what has been lost.
But by 7pm Sunday they've made it, with an hour to spare.
They navigate a tricky bit of software that puts a time-stamp on their entry, and the next day post it off to join almost 100 other shorts in the Christchurch catchment.
Their heat screens tonight in Christchurch, with finals on June 10 and the grand final in Auckland on June 30. And then it'll all be over – for another year, at least.
The festival started with just 44 teams but by 2009 it was attracting 10,000 participants and 200,000 viewers across cinemas, TV and online.
This year was the biggest, with 800 teams taking part, including an unprecedented five from Nelson. That meant thousands of people running around the country last weekend, indulging their personal artistic dreams.
Christchurch regional manager Andrew Todd says although judges are looking for production value and how well the films adhere to genre, the No1 factor is telling a good story.
"A film that has a few technical issues but a really good story succeeds over something that just looks good," he says.
Plenty have used 48 Hours as a creative outlet for raw talent, and actors and directors have gone on to careers in TV and film, including Taika Waititi, the team behind TV3 show 7 Days, and Te Radar.
From its beginnings as an offshoot of the Incredibly Strange Film Festival, a fringe-of-fringe event, it's now become decidedly mainstream, resulting in an outpouring of unbridled Kiwi creativity every year. "It's really become a kind of national pastime," says Todd.
- © Fairfax NZ News