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Cover Story

48 Hour Film Project


Nick Wilson and Sarah Noll Wilson at Interrobang Film Festival screening, Friday, June 27.

Nick Wilson and Sarah Noll Wilson at Interrobang Film Festival screening, Friday, June 27.

The list of things couples should avoid to ensure a happy marriage is long and treacherous. Topping the list are the common hotspots of long-distance relationships, airing dirty laundry in public and, of course, working together. One of the more stressful shared work experiences a couple can endure is the monumental task of producing a film, a venture that requires a creative mindset, technical know–how, business acumen and unending patience.

Even with all the potential pitfalls that come with filmmaking, Des Moines couple Nick Wilson and Sarah Noll Wilson have been successfully producing short films together for seven years as participants of the 48 Hour Film Project, as the leaders of Team Team (a redundant name they never expected to stick). While it isn’t the marathon task of producing a multi-million-dollar feature film, the 48 Hour Film Project is a stress-filled weekend that puts local producers’ storytelling prowess to the test. Yet for the Wilsons, the experience is not a challenge of wits but an opportunity to collaborate and relish one of their long-shared interests — being creative.

“We started doing this together in college, and it’s part of what we enjoying doing together,” states Nick Wilson. “Does 48 add a different layer of stress? Yes. Some of us manage the stress better than others…”

“Some of us have to get sleep,” interjects Sarah Noll Wilson.

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Nick Wilson, who is now a professional freelance videographer, began his filmmaking adventures in junior high school in the mid-1990s. However, he didn’t get hooked on it until he met Sarah Noll while attending University of Northern Iowa.

“We did a lot of short films in college and a pseudo-feature,” says Sarah Noll Wilson, whose collegiate theater experience perfectly complimented her future husband’s technical skills. “You have a lot more time in college to play and be in that creative space.”

“We’ve been making an effort in the last year,” relays Nick Wilson on the couple’s attempt to recapture their creative college energies. “We shot a short film outside of 48, which we’re in post-production on — delayed post-production. Which is the perfect case and point for why 48 is so good for us. Because if we have no deadline, it quickly becomes low priority.”

The 48 Hour Film Project — or simply “48,” as its participants commonly refer to it — has been a fixture in the Iowa filmmaking scene since it first debuted in the state in 2005. Giving filmmakers only two days to make a short film, the competition amplifies the usual tension of filmmaking by requiring teams to include a specific character, prop and line of dialogue. Keeping participants on their toes, none of these elements are supplied until the competition kicks off at 7 p.m. on Friday night. To level the playing field for professional and amateur filmmakers, 48 requires teams to produce all materials within the competition’s 48-hour window, and it ensures this by making teams pull genres out of a hat at the start of the event. Filmmakers such as the Wilsons have no clue as to what type of film they’ll be making before the event actually begins.

“Sometimes the 48 Hour Film Project is referred to as ‘cinema designed as sport,’ and I really believe that,” says Samuel Pace-Tuomi, producer of the Des Moines 48 Hour Film Project since 2006. “There’s a lot of sporting elements to make the process of making a film really more exciting. The deadline does put pressure on you, but it also forces you to focus your vision and complete that piece in a short amount of time.”

Of course, even with these requirements, teams are allowed to take certain liberties. If a team selects science fiction for its genre, members are allowed to “bend” the genre however they wish. If the team is more comfortable writing comedy, it can produce a science fiction-comedy film. The Wilsons view the genre and required elements as creative springboards, not obstacles to overcome.

“We’re real sticklers; it’s like a non-negotiable for us,” says Sarah Noll Wilson, whose team has produced films in six different genres out of the rotating list of 20 possible. “We’re not going to do it unless we pull it. I really want musical, desperately. But we’re never gonna do it unless we pull it.”

The Wilson’s cite Team Team’s strict adherence to its genre as a possible weakness but also a factor in why they joined the competition in the first place in 2008.

“We went and watched films the year before we did our first, and I remember thinking it was a really cool event,” says Nick Wilson. “I remember sitting and watching them and starting to have conversations figuring out, if we were going to do this, how would we?”

Sarah Noll Wilson believes a major factor that draws filmmakers from across the state to participate is the project’s requirement to be creative, collaborate and produce a film.

“We always have a desire to do creative stuff but never make it a priority,” said Sarah Noll Wilson. “So there’s something really beautiful about packing it all into one weekend, and in the end we know we’ll have a film that’s creative. It’s a nice way to force the hand into doing something.”

48 Hour Film Project screening at Interrobang Film Festival, Friday, June 27.

48 Hour Film Project screening at Interrobang Film Festival, Friday, June 27.

When the competition kicks off at the Des Moines Art Center on July 25, it will mark the 10th year of Iowans competing in the international 48 Hour Film Project. Originating in Washington, D.C., in 2001, the competition has expanded to include more than 120 cities across the globe from Des Moines, Iowa, to Paris, France, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In the past nine years, the Des Moines event has produced 350 short films and more than 1,000 filmmakers. With each film ranging between four and seven minutes, that’s more than 25 hours of cinema — some of which has gone on to win international acclaim.

Pace-Tuomi believes filmmaker interest in the Des Moines event stems from the incredible success of the event in 2005. “The first year we had 19 teams in Des Moines, and the team that won (best film in Des Moines) went on to win the international competition. So that sets a pretty big precedent and also expectations for years to come,” says Pace-Tuomi.

In 2005, “Mimes on the Prairie,” an off-beat western produced by John Hansen and Team Last to Enter, took the highest 48 Hour Film Project prize in the state and later went on to win the grand prize in the international competition. Team Team’s first 48 Hour film, 2008’s “Looking Glass” — a science fiction, police procedural — had a very similar experience to Team Last to Enter’s “Mimes,” winning best film in the Des Moines and advancing to the international competition.

“It was amazing to win it, and I think we recognized how special it was to win on our first try,” says Sarah Noll Wilson. “It was also a really eye-opening experience, because when we went to the international field, we got to see what the quality was internationally — especially the foreign cities — and there are some amazing films. It really pushed us to not settle.”

And the Wilsons have not settled. They describe their team as a family affair, having a core crew of family members and old friends who have creative talents.

“We’re very sort of protective of the experience we want. To the point that we’re a little gun-shy to let new people come in, just from the standpoint of we want to make sure it’s fun and enjoyable, we don’t want to throw in an ingredient that will rock the boat, “ says Sarah Noll Wilson. “As stressful as it is, we always have fun together, and we strive for that.

“We’ve all worked with people on a project who we don’t see eye to eye or personalities clash. If you start on that foot and then introduce hour 39 of no sleep, things are not going to be pleasant for anybody.”

The Wilsons’ cautious preparation has rewarded them with continued success throughout Team Team’s seven years in the competition. Out of the roughly 30 prizes awarded each year, Team Team’s films have received 12 of them, including Best of City award in 2008 for “Looking Glass,” Best Directing (twice), Best Use of Prop, Best Sound Design, Best Actor, Best Use of Genre, Best Original Song, Best Graphics, Best Ensemble Acting and multiple audience favorite awards.

Still, Nick Wilson believes the best way to make a film and enjoy the weekend is not to enter the competition aiming for awards.

“If you go into 48 expecting to create some masterpiece or win Best of City, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. To me, the goal is to just get something made,” states Wilson.

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According to Pace-Tuomi, Team Team’s mindset and preparation is exactly what teams need to find success and enjoy the 48 Hour filmmaking experience. Film teams that have an organized workflow and have spent at least one meeting before the actual event weekend to talk about how they’re going to produce their short film are the teams that usually do better because they’re anticipating the curves ahead.

Over the nine years producing the event, Pace-Tuomi has worked hard to make the Des Moines version of the competition special. Months before the event, he is doggedly looking for event sponsors and partners while drumming up prizes and award money. His hard work has established an event where filmmakers return year after year, and many have participated every year since its 2005 Des Moines debut.

“I really believe the level of talent in Des Moines outshines some other cities. If you look at the entries as a whole and the screening experiences, I think there’s a real culture here,” explains Pace-Tuomi. “I’m very proud to be living in Des Moines, and I think that’s what keeps me doing this. It (48) does really contribute to the cultural expansion of the state of Iowa.”

Pace-Tuomi’s efforts to build a creative environment are being recognized by the filmmakers as well.

“I think it’s become like a community, too,” said Sarah Noll Wilson. “A lot of people who have teams get to know each other through 48, and some of us have gotten to work together from other teams that we didn’t know before. That coupled with Sam being a really good producer make it something people really want to be involved with.”

The growth of the event also comes at a time when there are fewer barriers to making a film.

“Better cameras are cheaper and more easy to get, but the tools to make composing from home easier are better than even seven years ago, I think,” says Wilson. “Beyond that, the stories have gotten stronger, too. Everyone’s not only upping their game from a technology standpoint but from a storytelling standpoint and from an acting standpoint.”

The films in the 48 Hour Film Project have a whirlwind birth, and for many, a short lifespan. Following the initial screening at the Fleur Cinema & Cafe, about a dozen films move on to a second Best of City screening where they are eligible for winning awards. Almost every team posts its film to online streaming sites such as YouTube and Vimeo, but for many, that’s where the story ends. Organizations such as the Iowa Motion Picture Association (IMPA) urge 48 participants to share their work outside the competition.

“Forty-eight is very important to the state,” says IMPA Vice President John Brockhohn, who has been a member of three different teams throughout his participation. “You get all these actors, production members, editors and writers together working for two days. That’s very significant. Forty-eight may just be an experiment for someone, and before you know it, they might produce an independent film.”

The IMPA, which promotes, showcases and rewards films that are produced and distributed in the state, is a major supporter of the 48 Hour Film Project.

“There are several board members who are involved in it, and this will be my seventh year doing it,” says Brockhohn. “I’ve been a professional actor for 20 years. I’ve been in over 75 movies, TV shows and commercials, but it’s really cool to do the 48 hours because it really gets your creative juices going, and you may get two hours of sleep during the whole production. It’s very intense.”

Team One Genome Short, who John Brockhohn has been acting with for the past three years, submitted its 48 hour film, “S.T.U.F.F.E.D.,” to multiple festivals last year and was screened across the country and won several awards.

“Some teams will enter their film in as many festivals as they can afford. Other teams will expand on it and shoot additional scenes,” says Pace-Tuomi. “We had one film team that won the city in 2006, Presto Video out of Moline, Illinois. They went on to a second competition and made a short which they felt didn’t really turn out, but they loved the characters. So they went on to rework it, and they actually ended up reshooting it as a feature.”

Presto Video’s reworked 48 Hour short film not only became a feature-length horror film — titled “A Cadaver Christmas” — it went on to gain international distribution.

The dream of making a feature may be out there, but what brings producers such as the Wilsons back to the 48 Hour Film Project is the chance to catch lightning in a bottle and collaborate with others.

“If it was just me deciding year to year whether to put myself through the pain of no sleep, I’d probably have opted out a while back,” says Nick Wilson. “But we’ve got enough people who commit to doing it, not only out of obligation, but it’s something they look forward to and put on their calendar.”

Sarah Noll Wilson looks to her brother, Dominic, one of Team Team’s sound composers, to see what competition means to its participants. Wilson compares Dominic’s anticipation for the competition to someone waiting for a major holiday.

“This is like Christmas to him,” she said. “So much so that last year he got married the weekend before 48, and they delayed their honeymoon so that he could participate in it. It’s just such a fun time. We’ve been really fortunate to be surrounded by people we enjoy and who are also really talented. There’s a lot of pride in Team Team.”

So even with the stress manufactured by the short production window, getting little sleep during the competition or the anxiety of screening a film to an audience of strangers, the Wilsons can’t foresee a time when they will walk away from the event — except the moment when Nick Wilson sits down to edit the film.

“You ask me the day after we make our movie, I will tell you this is the last time we do it,” he said. “It goes in phases. Like early Sunday morning, second rough cut, no music yet… the film is garbage, I don’t even want to finish it.”

“Every Sunday morning, I wake up to Nick telling me ‘I don’t know, Sarah, I need you to look at this,” laughs Sarah Noll Wilson. “And then music gets added to it, and it tells a story that’s a movie.”

Ultimately, whether their films win awards or stress them to the point of contemplating quitting the competition, the experience is about creating something.

“The real challenge is completing a film in a 48-hour time frame, particularly something you’re proud of,” says Nick Wilson. “Awards and everything else, that’s all icing on the cake. Anybody who finishes a film has something to be proud of.”

All of Team Team’s films are currently available to view online at

The 48 Hour Film Project comes to Des Moines Friday, July 25 through Sunday, July 27, with completed films premiering Aug. 5, 6 and 7 at the Fleur Cinema & Cafe. For $175, filmmaking hopefuls can still register to compete in the event by visiting CV

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