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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

50 Hour Slam: One team’s experience, hour by hour

On a Friday night in March, hundreds of people streamed into KSPS Studio for the 50 Hour Slam Kickoff, an annual event that challenges teams to create a short film in 50 hours.

They were there to learn the secret criteria, typically a prop, location and theme, they must incorporate in their film.

This year, organizers Juan Mas and Adam Boyd explained teams have to include in their film a seed, a shot of the skating ribbon and, depending on the number they received when they signed in, inspiration from a piece of art created by a local artist (Vanessa Swenson, Reinaldo Gil Zambrano or Lisa Waddle) touching on the theme of growth.

“We started with the idea of growth of the city, and that’s where the idea of the seed came from,” Mas said a month after the slam weekend. “Likewise, the skating ribbon because it’s the growth of the park.”

The folks at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture and Spokane Arts connected the slam organizers with local artists.

Boyd then explained an optional, divisive element of the 50 Hour Slam, the Easter egg, which awards teams extra points if they complete a challenge.

This year’s batch was particularly rough; half of the eggs contained a challenge (“No one in your film can talk,” “Someone in your movie must milk a cow,” “A goat must appear in your film”) while the other half automatically deducted a point from the team’s score.

“At first, it was to add another level of ‘C’mon, you can do this,’ bring it up to another level for the filmmakers,” Mas said. “But so many people are grabbing the eggs that it was taking away the novelty of it. Now it’s like ‘Alright, if you grab an egg, you could already automatically lose a point.’ We wanted to see if that would discourage them, but it didn’t. I would say more than 80 percent of teams grabbed an egg.”

By the numbers, 380 people participated in this year’s slam. Six teams didn’t turn in a film, and four turned in films after the deadline.

Seven judges – Dan Webster, Carolyn Lamberson, Melissa Huggins, Josephine Keefe, Sandy Williams, Breean Beggs and Wesley Jessup – reviewed the films and selected the top 15 to be screened Friday at the Bing Crosby Theater.

The team with the best tweet from the weekend will also have their film screened at the Bing. Organizers plan to announce the top 16 films today at 8 a.m. on the slam’s website and Facebook page.

Forty teams are in the running for the judge’s choice and audience choice awards, which will be announced at the screening along with the Spirit Award and the awards for best actress and actor, best editorial and best cinematography.

After the screening, all eligible films are put on the slam website, and the film with the most votes will take home the Slammy Award.

This year, The Spokesman-Review followed Noir Bizarre, a 14-person team featuring both slam veterans and first-timers, many of whom have worked together before in one capacity or another.

From concept to completion, this is how their film “Update in Progress” was created.

Friday, March 23

8 p.m.

The 50-hour countdown clock begins.

Right off the bat, director/producer/writer Tony Hines is feeling pretty good about the required elements.

“The seed’s got a metaphorical feel,” he said as the team members walked to their cars. “Now that it’s empty, the ice ribbon could be a cool, creepy location.”

9 p.m.

Members of the team – Hines, director of photography/editor/producer Trevin Spencer, actor/producer Rebecca Cook and actors Tabatha Brooke, Amy Hille and Jon Jordan – are seated around a conference table at BHW1, the advertising agency where Hines and Spencer work.

On the table: a bag of M&Ms, containers of trail mix and peanut butter-filled pretzels, cups of coffee and cans of Diet Pepsi.

Noir Bizarre must take inspiration from Zambrano’s work and chose not to pick an Easter egg.

“I didn’t want to have a 50 percent chance of penalizing the team,” Hines said, about a month after the 50 Hour Slam weekend. “The Easter eggs tend to lend themselves to a more comic solution, and we were exploring a different avenue.”

After watching a video about Zambrano and his work, the team discusses themes like memory and nostalgia, and ideas, both literal and metaphorical, for incorporating a seed into the film.

Hines then tells the team about an experience he had during which he fell asleep with YouTube videos autoplaying on his TV and woke up to hear a woman in a commercial whispering.

“It feels like my TV is whispering to me,” he said. “It reminded me of ‘Black Mirror’ or ‘Twilight Zone.’ ”

Hille brings up a recent episode of “The X Files” in which FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully encounter tech issue after tech issue during and after a visit to an autonomous sushi restaurant.

“The tech decided ‘These two are problems for us’,” she said.

The team then starts talking about personifying operating systems, like Siri and Alexa, before filling out the required paperwork (location release forms, city filming notification form).

10:30 p.m.

The team disperses, and Hines goes home to write.

Hines, a novelist who used to run his own ad agency, is no stranger to writing screenplays.

“I always wrote the books as screenplays so I knew where the story was going,” he said. “I’d have a 90-page outline and have key scenes and key dialogue.”

Listening to artists like Beck, Phoenix and Lorn, Hines spends the night writing “Update in Progress,” which follows a woman (Brooke) who is being instructed by the operating system on her phone (Cook) to get rid of, or prune, non-beta users through “System 23, Code Name Germinate.”

Saturday, March 24

1 a.m.

Hines shares the script for “Update in Progress” with Noir Bizarre through the private Facebook group the team created for the event.

“When I first read the script I was excited,” Brooke said in an email. “It felt very much like a ‘Black Mirror’/‘Twilight Zone’ concept, and that is right up my alley.”

“To me, that’s one of the best scripts we’ve had,” Cook said. “I loved the part he gave me. I thought the script was so solid, and I was so excited to play that character.”

“(Tony), by his own admission, tends to have that ‘Twilight Zone,’ ‘Outer Limits’ bent, so that obviously came through again but it was nice to have that modern twist on it with our dependency on electronic devices and social media and the voice of Siri,” Jordan said. “Really good social commentary in there.”

8 a.m.

The team arrives at Hines and Brooke’s home to film.

Noir Bizarre also includes gaffer Bryan Gosline, special effects makeup and scenic artist Tresa Black, hair and beauty makeup artist Kara McCollum, craft services/wardrobe Robyn Urhausen, boom operator Izzy Girtz, grip/still photographer Devin Harper, actor Kristen Moon and composer Kevin Graham.

Cook spends the next four hours in makeup, where Black applies cell shading, comic book-esque makeup to transform her into a human-like figure.

The shading is exaggerated and Black paints bright blue eyes onto Cook’s eyelids, which makes more than one team member think Cook is looking at them when she’s actually not.

Hines wanted to recreate the face that’s prominent in Zambrano’s woodcut, making Cook appear to be “in that uncanny valley between human but not quite human enough,” and wanted her hair to be “severe and Soviet.”

“I was super excited because I knew I could stretch my creative legs,” McCollum said about creating Cook’s beehive hairstyle. “I’ve been working with Rebecca’s hair since we were kids so I knew I was in for a treat and a challenge.”

Neither Black nor McCollum were too worried about the 50-hour time frame.

Black loves timed competitions because they allow participants to see the end project so quickly, and McCollum said being on a deadline can make it easier to choose an idea and run with it.

“When you have to make decisions so quickly, sometimes I find my creativity surfaces in the best way possible,” she said.

Jordan too finds the timed aspect of the 50 Hour Slam to be invigorating.

“It’s still stressful, but it’s really quite refreshing because you don’t get caught up overthinking the process,” he said, looking back on the slam weekend. “You just punch that clock and make your moves like in speed chess. It’s really wonderful to see what people come at you with with raw instinct and talent.”

In the meantime, the crew films Hille, Brooke’s first victim, and Jordan and Moon, who, like Brooke’s character, are instructed to prune non-beta users.

Sometime during the filming of these scenes, a fog machine causes the smoke alarm to go off, despite the person who lent the machine to the team assuring Spencer it wouldn’t.

At the same time off set, Graham starts working on the score, which he writes to the script. Hines sent him music from “Gone Girl” and “Inception” as reference material.

12:38 p.m.

The fog machine sets off the smoke alarm again.

12:50 p.m.

Lunch arrives from Pizza Rita.

When planning craft services, Urhausen tries to provide a variety of food and beverage options while taking food allergies and intolerances and the team’s budget into consideration.

“When it comes to crafty, I was taught that a well fed crew is a happy crew,” she said in an email. “It doesn’t matter how long the project is because each day of filming is almost a sprint. Every person is focused on their craft to create the film and meet the day’s goal. Crafty provides snacks and beverages throughout the day so those artists can stay focused without having to worry about what they can eat or drink.”

1 p.m.

The fog machine sets off the smoke alarm again. At this point, the team resembles a NASCAR pit crew, with members of the team taking mere seconds to run to open the front and back doors to air out the house.

Hines reveals the most intricate scenes are done. Since Cook was in makeup all morning, he’s interested to see how her look translates on camera when she is filmed in front of a green screen.

1:41 p.m.

The fog machine sets off the smoke alarm again.

1:42 p.m.

The fog machine sets off the smoke alarm for the fifth and final time.

2 p.m.

The crew films Moon and Jordan waking up, changing the blanket on the bed in between shots to make it look like two different locations.

“I’ve done a lot more stage work than film. They’re different disciplines,” Jordan said. “On stage, you have more overall awareness of where you are in the story. With film, I have to focus more on ‘Where am I and where is the character in this scene?’ because that doesn’t happen naturally.”

2:15 p.m.

The crew prepares to film a scene in which Brooke peers through glass panes in the door before opening the door and walking inside.

But first they have to figure out how to make midafternoon seem like night.

Thinking on their feet, Harper and Spencer use black fabric to create a backdrop around the front door, which Harper holds up for the entirety of the scene.

Inside, adding to the effect, Gertz holds up the black fabric-covered green screen while standing behind Spencer as he films.

2:45 p.m.

The crew moves the green screen to the end of the hallway and prepares to film Cook’s closeup.

“1863 will be pruned because of socialist sympathies. 9854 because she has fewer than 100 social media followers. 9032 demonstrated anti-technology bias,” she says.

Cook, a skilled voice-over artist, has the soothing, Siri-like voice down pat.

3:41 p.m.

Graham shares a rough score with the team via Facebook.

“I had to try to picture how it’d look based on the script,” he said after the team turned in its film. “It’s not ideal. You’d want them to shoot it first so I could score it but when it’s a timed thing, if we want it to be good, I have to get a head start.”

4:30 p.m.

A majority of the cast and crew heads down to the skate ribbon to film a scene between Cook and Brooke in which the former drops an avocado seed into the palm of the latter’s hand, thus recruiting her as a seed sower.

The team encounters a handful of other teams filming at the park and ends up momentarily loaning a light reflector and Gosline to another team, an act of, to use Hines’ word, “co-ompetition,” a portmanteau of cooperation and competition.

“It’s wonderful to watch our digital content community working together and supporting each other,” Mas said. “Everybody’s competing and trying to get it done, but they’re still there to support each other.”

5:45 p.m.

Noir Bizarre returns home where Black has been creating a poster inspired by Zambrano’s piece that will serve as the backdrop during close up scenes of Cook.

“It was the bright colors that I wanted to recreate …,” she said after the slam weekend. “I wanted to add more things about growth … a caterpillar and butterflies, flowers and I also added a seed.”

6:10 p.m.

Spencer uses Adobe Premier to create a rough edit of Cook’s monologue that they can screen on Brooke’s phone in the scenes in which Cook is giving her instructions.

7 p.m.

The team reviews the music from Graham.

“There’s something beautifully sinister about that,” Cook said.

“It’s got a little bit of an ‘Inception’ feel to it,” Hines said. “I can see people carrying axes.”

7:15 p.m.

The crew films a series of scenes with Brooke.

She sleeps as Cook’s monologue plays; wakes up, puts her hair in a ponytail and zips up a black hoodie; grabs her phone and walks toward the camera then down a hallway and out the door.

The 50-hour time frame didn’t present too big of a challenge for Brooke, who credits the experienced team for making her job easier.

“As long as the actors and the director are able to communicate clearly and come to an understanding of a scene, everything will be golden,” she said in an email.

8:10 p.m.

“That’s a wrap!”

9 p.m.

Hines and Spencer, in the editing bay at BHW1, begin working on a rough cut of “Update in Progress.”

Spencer starts editing the film in sequential order before Hines reminds him that the script tells the story in reverse.

11:57 p.m.

Hines posts in the Noir Bizarre Facebook group: “We have done a rough cut and sent it to Kevin for music refinement…and it’s looking freaking awesome!”

Sunday, March 25

10 a.m.

Hines and Spencer return to the editing bay. They’ve decided to add more full-screen shots of Cook to really show off her makeup, and Spencer has to color correct the film.

12:30 p.m.

Cook arrives with, as per editing day tradition, Thai food for lunch.

She suggests they add a sound effect or fade to black each time the story is reversed. It’s around this time that Spencer’s color correcting software decides to malfunction.

“Problems always happen when you’re on deadline,” he said about a month after the slam weekend. “The technology knows.”

1:21 p.m.

The trio screens the film with Graham’s soundtrack, which he has been tweaking all morning.

“Since the story went backwards, we thought the music should go backwards too,” Hines said. “The music softens with the story.”

The trio spends the rest of the afternoon making minor edits to the film, eventually coming to a stopping point.

“It really comes down to how big does it affect the film,” Cook said about knowing when to stop making edits. “Is it an obvious thing we have to fix and everyone’s going to notice or is it just bugging me?”

6:45 p.m.

About half the team shows up to Saranac Public House to turn in the film before the 10 p.m. deadline.

When it’s all said and done, Spencer likely speaks for most of the team when he said “I’m ready for a beer.”

Though he’s hardly had time to reflect on the weekend, Hines couldn’t be more grateful for the work each member of Noir Bizarre put into “Update in Progress.”

“As writer and director, you have a certain vision and when it ends up being better than you saw it in your head, it’s indescribable,” he said. “Juan mentioned the size of the team, and that puts it in perspective. That many heads are better than one.”