Students Produce Film in Under 40 Hours in Burlington Film Slam

By Hye-Jin Kim

The night before Halloween, Hannah Marks ’15.5, Ali Salem ’16, Danilo Herrera ’18, Sofy Maia ’16, Eric Benoit ’16 and Sasha Schell ’15.5 pulled up to the swanky Courtyard by Marriott overlooking Lake Champlain. Active in the film department, they had all heard of each other, but were vague acquaintances at best.

Not for long. Their next 40 hours would be spent together, mostly awake.

Chosen by Ethan Murphy, a staff member in the College’s Department of Film & Media Culture, these students represented Middlebury in the “Sleepless in Burlington” film slam hosted by the Vermont International Film Foundation last month. Competing with teams from Burlington College, Champlain College and UVM, teams of four to six students had 40 hours to write, shoot and produce a short film that met bizarre criteria such as referring to the year 1985, using an apple prop and including the line, “Put down that hat.” The judging panel was led by Burlington-resident Colin Trevorrow, director of the blockbuster hit Jurassic World and the forthcoming film Star Wars Episode IX (planned for release in 2019).

Although Burlington College won the “Best Film” award, the College’s team film, Next Caller, won three awards: “Best Actor,” “Best Actress” and a new impromptu “Storytelling” award that Trevorrow presented. The “Storytelling” award includes a campus visit and discussion with the famous director.

“After working so hard for 40 hours, winning ‘Best Film’ would have been gratifying,” said Marks, who directed the film, “but I think we’ll get more out of meeting someone successful in the field and learning from them.”
The biggest mental challenge for this team of high-achieving film majors was overriding their perfectionist nature in order to meet the 40-hour time constraint. Salem, who operated the camera as the director of photography, said he was used to getting the very best shot possible, “no matter how long it takes.” However, he and the rest of the Middlebury team were forced to change their approach that weekend.

“We can be perfectionists,” Marks said. “When we want to do a take again, but we know that we have another few scenes we have to film, we had to sacrifice.”

However, the team did not let the time constraint limit their imagination when it came to brainstorming Next Caller’s plotline. It featured an anonymous caller and a radio station interview with a controversial thriller author. The story was crafted and written so well it that inspired Trevorrow to award the team with a new “Storytelling” accolade.

“When we were developing Next Caller’s story with Sofy [Maia, the team’s screenplay writer] on Friday night, we were all immediately hooked on the idea,” Marks said. “Our imaginations ran away with it. Our mantra was: go big or go home.”

The biggest logistical barrier that the College’s team faced was being relatively far away from campus. Commuting back to Middlebury to use equipment and film scenes would have wasted two hours of precious time, so producer Danilo Herrera spent much of Friday night and Saturday morning trying to find a private radio station in Burlington for him to use. After a night of uncertainty, he eventually secured the Burlington College radio station. The team and their hired actors filmed for over 16 hours on Saturday starting at 8 a.m. and finishing at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. They ended up with over 300 GB of raw footage in high quality 4K format.

Schell, who was in charge of editing, did not sleep on Sunday night. He worked from 1 a.m. right up to the 10:30 a.m. deadline. Salem and Marks stayed up with him, meticulously reviewing each scene.

In the hotel room at 2 a.m. on Sunday, 8 hours before the deadline, Salem was unsure whether they would even finish a cut. “It was a challenge to edit all the material,” said Salem. “Especially challenging for our MacBook Pros [due to the large file size].”

At 10:25 a.m. on Sunday morning, the team handed in their multiple award-winning submission. Watching their final cut for the first time in its entirety at the screening that afternoon, Schell was impressed by the sound work done by teammate Benoit.

“I think we had the cleanest sound out of all the movies, which is pretty swag be- cause it adds the little extra that makes a movie flow,” Schell said.

Although the initial demanding 40 hours are over, the team continues to work on editing Next Caller, with a possible on- campus screening in the works.

“In hindsight, a little simplifying might have been wise [given the competition’s time constraint],” said Salem. “On the flip side, we now have a project that should enjoy a solid life beyond this 40-hour film fest.”