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Race to the Screen

Filmmakers square off against the clock and a thousand small disasters.

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It's Friday night, July 12, and more than 100 filmmakers are packed into Atomix, a coffee shop at Chicago and Damen, waiting for the phone to ring. It doesn't. Someone shouts, "It's 8:12 and since the call hasn't come, can we turn in the films at 5:12?" Sean U'Ren puffs out his cheeks and sighs, biting his lip and staring at the answering machine that is serving as a speaker phone. "This is not an exact science," he announces. Then, at 8:15, the phone rings and the room goes quiet. The phone rings and rings. Ten, fifteen times. The answering machine does not pick up. Finally, U'Ren grabs the receiver and hands it to Atom Paul, whose mother is on the other end.

"No, Mom, just tell me right now. Yes, really." Paul puts a finger to his right ear, a puzzled look crosses his face. There is a long pause before he finally addresses the crowd. "You're not going to like it. The topic is 'What Happened to Group 18?'" The sixth 5 x 8 Video Festival begins with a chorus of groans.

The first 5 x 8 festival unspooled in March 2001, after U'Ren and Paul, who met at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, decided to update a 12-hour film festival they'd participated in during college for the digital age. U'Ren, an assistant editor at Cutters, a video postproduction house, and Paul, who owns Atomix, believed they knew enough people with video cameras and access to editing systems to hold a contest. What they came up with is equal parts Iron Chef and Project Greenlight.

The basic rules are simple. At 8 PM participants meet at Atomix. A topic is announced and they have until 5 PM the following day to create and deliver a finished video about three minutes in length. That evening the results are screened and judged. The top prize is Avid Xpress DV editing software, worth about $1,700. Second prize is $80, and third place takes home $50.

After organizing the first five festivals, U'Ren and Paul wanted to step behind the camera, so Paul's mother was charged with selecting a theme. Participants submitted suggestions via E-mail. After rejecting ideas such as "a chase ending in a confrontation," "your first drug experience," and "summer romance," she picked the cryptic Group 18 theme. As the crowd disperses, U'Ren calls back those within earshot to explain that the group 18 in question had shown up on the Friday night of the fifth festival, paid the $15 entry fee, got the topic, and vanished--never to be heard from again. The participants aren't exactly overjoyed, but they head into the night seemingly in good spirits.

Handicapping this event is like trying to pick the winner of the Calgary Stampede. About a third of the teams have some affiliation with downtown commercial editing houses such as Cutters, Superior Street, and the Whitehouse. The rest are amateurs or first-timers, one of whom says she's participating "for the wonder of it."

Tyler ("just Tyler") is probably the only filmmaker in the room whose stated ambition is to become a farrier. This is her third 5 x 8 and she's upset by the vibe inside Atomix. Tyler and her teammates--Clare Windhack-Nolan, Sarah Davis, and Harley Gambill--escape to Chicago Avenue to toss around ideas and get away from the video professionals, whom they feel are dominating the festival and destroying the spirit of the event. The team, which they've dubbed Rainbows 4 Jeebus, is at a disadvantage, as none of the members know how to edit. They have to edit in the camera as they shoot. The group's first idea is something of a revenge fantasy. "I don't want to get sucked into the vortex of Lincoln Park," Tyler explains, referring to the pros inside. They discuss shooting stop-motion footage of the group changing out of their overalls and work boots and "becoming consumers," but soon reject this idea as too hostile.

Serena Schonbrun, a copywriter at Leo Burnett, and Galina Shevchenko, an assistant editor at the Whitehouse, met at a 5 x 8 last year. Today they are best friends and head up group 30, aka Gushing Artery Productions. Schon-brun, who also organizes a monthly film collective called Group 101, calls the creative exercise of making a film in 21 hours "sport art," and she and Shevchenko have participated in every festival but the first.

As Atomix clears out, the eight members of the Gushing Artery team take over a table near the front of the cafe. Charles Leslie, an orthotist at the Rehabilitation Institute, runs through a series of scenarios about loss--death scenes, missing persons, suicides. Schonbrun interrupts to suggest that group 18 may have talked themselves to death. Sid Froelich, an architect, proposes that group 18 disappeared because the filmmaking process is cathartic and by participating in the festival, group 18--once sickly--became healthy. Elizabeth McNaughton, an actor and improviser, picks up on Froelich's idea and suggests the members of group 18 never made a film because they could not agree on a concept. After 45 minutes Gushing Artery comes up with something: a Behind the Music on group 18.

Group 19 is calling itself Ow MyEye. The leader, Joe Winston, works at Superior Street, where he edits programs for HGTV and Oprah. He went to the last 5 x 8 screening and wanted to participate this time around. Winston is taking things very seriously. "I would definitely like to win, but it's not about a prize. I already edit on an Avid." Ow MyEye has 14 members including two film instructors from Columbia College, a sound designer, and an art director, not to mention an animated Ow MyEye logo. "I arrogantly thought we could raise the bar," says Winston. "I don't know if we'll do that, or just raise the expense account."

After the topic is announced the team congregates outside on the corner of Damen and Chicago. As group 19 they feel a responsibility to meet the problems of group 18 head-on. Finally, they settle on an "advertising-based" concept--something to do with group 18 fever sweeping the city. "We're leaving a little bit of room for it not to be understood," Winston says to no one in particular.

U'Ren and Paul have to wait till closing time before they can begin to work. They're also busy making arrangements for the following night's screening. They only have one 40-minute Mini-DV cassette, and Paul can't edit on Saturday because Atomix is expecting a shipment of an energy drink.

When Atomix closes they sit down with some iced coffee and brainstorm. They kick out what they think are six good ideas, but in the end they decide to just put on costumes, walk around, and see what happens. Their cameraman, Christian Matts, says, half-asleep, "They are going to go out there like a sail without a ship." U'Ren and Paul head out the door.

It is 1 AM in Humboldt Park and things are not going well for Rainbows 4 Jeebus. Windhack-Nolan has to leave for Indiana, for reasons that are unclear. They still don't have an idea, and Tyler has locked her keys in her car. They call AAA and wait, though all sorts of volunteers offer to break into the car for them. One man tries earnestly to unlock the door, but he soon gives up and asks if they have any beer. They give him some money and he walks away. When AAA shows up two hours later it takes seconds to open the car. The three remaining Rainbows pile in and head to a nearby apartment.

Across town, Gushing Artery is having a blast. They are shooting in front of the adult bookstore across Hubbard from the Whitehouse offices. Leslie plays a group 18 member forced to take a small role in a porn film to make ends meet because Dick, the group 18 leader, has absconded with their film. When they wrap, they quickly move across the street into the editing room.

Froelich plays Dick. He sits behind a desk complaining that if he hadn't stolen the film the other group members would have ruined it. McNaughton stands in Whitehouse's kitchen in full makeup. She is Dick's former wife; her character has an eating disorder so McNaughton feigns vomiting into the sink. She says she likes her character, and would "like to develop her into something bigger."

By 1:30 in the morning they're finished. Schonbrun and Shevchenko both have cameras and between them they have nearly two hours of footage for their three-minute video. The entire team packs up and goes to Shevchenko's apartment to watch the rushes.

Ow MyEye doesn't begin shooting until after midnight. T.W. Li, a Columbia instructor, is the director of photography. He feels there is perhaps an embarrassment of riches on his team. "We could shoot with any camera," he says. "We are editing with an Avid. We could even finish in an on-line room." Li thinks less technology might be the way to go.

At 12:35 AM, U'Ren and Paul are standing at the bus stop on Division and Leavitt dressed in fright wigs and aviator glasses. They have five minutes of tape left when they begin to bicker about the direction of their film. It's good material, except they aren't in character. Their creative differences take up the rest of their tape. They decide to try to save their piece in postproduction.

At 3 AM Rainbows 4 Jeebus finally settle on an idea. They want to make as much of their film as possible with their own hands, so they start drawing pictures and making collages. Gambill says she has some old Super 8 footage she wants to incorporate. Tyler says the film will be a "bizarre parable with a moral that is kind of creepy and might offend some people."

The Gushing Artery team left Galina Shevchenko's apartment at 4:30 AM. She slept for a couple hours, and began editing at 7. For Shevchenko, an artist from Moscow, this is her new medium. "I used to buy paints," she says. "Now I buy hard drives." She participates in the 5 x 8 because "it is a challenge. Like running a marathon, it's a way to check yourself, and there is a great party afterwards." By 11 the film starts to take shape. There are a lot of funny scenes in the middle, but no clear beginning or end.

At two in the afternoon Joe Winston sits behind his Avid at Superior Street, waiting for one scene shot earlier to be delivered. Finally, at 2:35, Ted Hardin, the other Columbia faculty member on the team, arrives with the missing footage. It's of a young girl on a swing who says to the camera, "I know what happened to group 18. It's a secret." Winston promises that this scene "will tie the film all together."

In Sean U'Ren's apartment he and Christian Matts (who lives nearby) edit what they have. They are upbeat. When they returned to the neighborhood from Friday night's shoot, Matts's drunken neighbor agreed to be interviewed on camera, sharing his feelings about the disappearance of group 18. Matts rewound and taped over the bus stop argument. U'Ren grabs a CD of accordion music and plays it behind images of the neighbor. But despite the unexpected boon of the interview, U'Ren thinks his film still has some problems: "There is not great audio, and it's lacking a plot, clear characters, and any hope of resolution."

Just before five a mini traffic jam forms on Chicago in front of Atomix, as bleary-eyed filmmakers scramble to make their deadline. Contestants leave their cars in the middle of the street and race inside, waving their tapes at Paul. Since Rainbows 4 Jeebus cannot edit, theirs is the first entry in. Tyler has shaken the bad vibe from the night before, and she's feeling pretty good about her film. "It is our best one yet, and I think people will like it." By 5:30 all 28 groups have returned a tape for the screening.

Around 250 people wedge into the Buddy Artspace at 1542 N. Milwaukee. They sit on old couches, lawn furniture, and folding chairs. They lean against the walls and sprawl on the floor. Two video projectors are set up at right angles--one pointed at the north wall, one at the west--so everyone can see. Before the screening starts, though, the owners of the building tell U'Ren and Paul the crowd is a fire hazard, and newcomers are turned away. At 8:15 U'Ren and Paul roll a video they produced to explain the rules and provide some context for those in the audience who didn't participate in the festival. It's a lot funnier than the film they entered.

The first film casts group 18 as a guerrilla commando group finding it difficult to make the transition into guerrilla filmmaking. It's funny, and when it's over there is a big round of applause. The second entry is by Rainbows 4 Jeebus. It's perhaps the most experimental of the bunch, and is received politely. No one seems offended by their parable.

The videos play one after another. Most are funny; several are mockumentaries. If the MPAA were involved it would rate the evening PG-13 for language and mild violence. It's almost impossible to differentiate between the work of the professionals and the amateurs. Many pieces, including those by Ow MyEye, Gushing Artery, and U'Ren and Paul, fail to impress the crowd.

By ten the screening is over. It's now up to the judges--a painter, a restaurant manager, an actress, a Web designer, and a playwright--to decide the winners. Six or seven films stand out from the pack, most exhibiting attention to props, wardrobe, and art direction. "Stoned to Death," featuring a giant joint, takes sixth prize--a jar of Nutella, some butter wafers, and coupons from Pizza Metro. A piece featuring a guy in a clown suit smashing a watermelon, "Seven Short Films About Group 18," comes in fourth. The creators get a windup dog.

At the end of Hearts of Darkness Francis Ford Coppola says the great films of the future will not be made by Hollywood, but by a "little fat girl in Ohio" who borrows her father's video camera. Coppola might be onto something. The winners of the sixth 5 x 8 Video Festival are not professionals. They are architects.

The winning group, Secretly Blonde, is led by Deborah Chase. Of the finalists, their piece is the least wedded to the prescribed theme. Secretly Blonde finished fourth in the last 5 x 8 and this time, says Chase, "we knew we were badasses."

The (very funny) film follows a member of group 18 as he makes a series of mistakes and bad judgment calls while repeating the phrase, "What am I doing?" It also features the most interesting shot of the entire festival: using a wide-angle lens, the camera is mounted in a shopping cart as it moves through a grocery store. It looks like it's floating through space behind two giant cans of tomatoes. "We got our asses kicked," says Ow MyEye's Joe Winston.

Secretly Blonde hadn't been able to agree on a concept so they drew ideas from a hat. They shot with a borrowed camera and edited on Chase's home computer with iMovie.

She'll get the editing software because she paid the $15 entry fee.

Chase says the festival "was the most fun I've ever had, almost." Secretly Blonde plans on entering the next 5 x 8, in the fall, but first Chase is going to make copies of her house keys so her teammates can use the software.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Hawley.

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