The Moving Picture: Adventures in Extreme DVD Making
Posted Jan 30, 2004

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Pioneer Electronics again announced the finalist and ultimate winner of its second annual Pioneer Project 2880. This year, University of Washington's Casual Delivery won the $10,000 top prize as the best of an imaginative group of short DVD-Videos from 13 different universities and film schools. But this year's submissions also included DVD "Special Features" that offered some intriguing, often revealing looks behind the scenes at this unique competition.

Pioneer calls the contest "Extreme DVD Making." If you're not familiar with it (see the March 2003 Moving Picture, http://www.emedialive.com/Articles/ReadArticle.aspx?ArticleID=5061), 2880 refers to the total minutes in 48 hours and the amount of time each competing team had to turn a single sentence or phrase synopsis into an up to five-minute short film. Improbably, that means writing a script, shooting footage, editing, and burning it to a DVD using Pioneer's DVR-S606 DVD burner (the external FireWire version of the 4X DVR-106D) all within the 2880 minutes from first reading the supplied synopsis.

For the University of Washington, that synopsis was simply "a blind date." The resulting 3:49 short offers an intimate vignette about the anxiety and innocent joy of an otherwise simple first date and is the deserving short film winner.

The processes inherent to making Casual Delivery make a great story in and of themselves. Many of the other submissions have great "Making of…" stories, too. 

This year Pioneer anticipated that the 2880 competitors would end up with great stories to tell from these 48-hour whirlwind production cycles, and smartly added a requirement that each submission include a DVD "Special Feature." This could mean an interview with the producer or a behind-the-scenes documentary about making the film. Pioneer posed a group of stock questions to help overtired producers recording an interview at the end of two days of intense creativity and little sleep. But several groups went beyond the supplied "stock," and the results are often fascinating. 

Adam Hart of the University of Washington reported that one of the "biggest challenges" of the 2880 project came in realizing that with such a short production schedule "once you make a decision, you have to stick with it. At some point," he added, "it becomes just as much a test of resourcefulness and determination as it is creativity and talent." 

With Casual Delivery, that ultimately meant throwing away almost all the original dialogue half way through. The resourceful solution, random voiceover ideas from everyone in the production, ultimately made a more powerful statement by bringing the viewer inside the characters and thus drawing the viewer's own personal experiences to the worries and smiles on the actors' faces. 

Ball State University was one of several groups that had the camera rolling at the moment they read their synopsis: "The one-sided conversation between patient and dentist during dental work." As you watch the documentary you see nervous laughter become brainstorming that eventually transforms the expected dentist's monologue into the interconnected lives of three different patients, jumping between flashbacks, comments from the dentist's chair, and scenes from the waiting room. 

Several teams took advantage of some of the more sophisticated capabilities of the DVD medium. Ball State, for example, tried DVD's multi-angle feature during waiting room scenes. Northwestern University included a Director's Commentary audio track, as well as a version of the film with storyboards interjected. And of course, several teams took the time to create handsome DVD menus. 

That any team would be able to go beyond just making the film in 48 hours is testament to the passion of the student groups. In her insightful Special Feature interview, the producer of the Boston University entry, Elizabeth Newman, spoke directly to that dynamic of "seeing everybody get excited about their individual parts, whether it's lighting, working with the actors, editing, or seeing everybody living their passions."

With that, Newman concisely made the best case for Pioneer's contest as a noble, creative endeavor. But tucked into a couple other interviews, there were also some nice comments about DVD that brings it all back around to contest sponsor, Pioneer. Justin Barber, of runner-up Florida State University, effectively said all at once how this short time-frame contest would not have been possible without the publishing speed of DVD and how, too, DVD ultimately changes the creative dynamics of film and video making at almost all levels... 

"The cool thing was that we were able to shoot something on the camera we were going to use, prior to making the film," Barber said. "We shot something, we threw it into the computer, then laid it down on the DVD and we took it out of the DVD and watched it on a television. So, within the same hour we were able to see what our film was going to look like. That," he concluded, is "impossible" when you're working with "traditional" media. 

Having seen all 13 entries I'm pretty sure Barber's Just Vibrations was runner-up on merit. He made great use of the limited time allotted and shrewd use of the DVD medium. But with astute comments like that—and the visibility Pioneer accorded them--he also showed how Project 2880 was shrewd marketing.