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Fly By Night


Fly By Night

by Kenneth Lyen

Forty-seven groups of filmmakers were unleashed all over Singapore during the weekend of 19-21 November 2004 for two days of fun and madness! It was the second year of the Fly By Night 48-hours short film competition held in Singapore, the brainchild of Tan Pin Pin and Yuni Hadi. Participants ranged from 14 years old to over 50, and several nationalities and ethnic groups were represented.

Last year, I assembled a team, and we struggled day and night at breakneck speed to complete an entire short film which normally takes a week or more to make. We enjoyed ourselves, but didn’t win on that occasion.

This year, I assembled another team for the 2004 Fly By Night competition. Am I crazy?

Our team consisted of Kenny Tan, a 22-year-old film graduate from Temasek Polytechnic, currently serving his 2½ years of National Service. He had recently won the top prize for his short film "Lorong 27," about the comic adventures of an exchange student in Singapore’s notorious red light district. His prize was a digital movie camera, which we needed for our Fly By Night competition. And he’s a pretty good director.

Another young Temasek Polytechnic graduate, Yvonne Tan, agreed to be the editor. She had to tear herself away from her freelance documentary film project, to work instead on our far more prestigious project.

Philip Sim, a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic in design and film, who was with me in the last Fly By Night, immediately jumped at the chance of producing and art directing again. He had a home office which housed a couple of Mac computers and Final Cut editing software. There’s no worse fate than having a film crew invade and convert your cozy little home into bedlam. Philip and his family were most supportive.

My role was that of a cheerleader and keeping everybody fed and watered. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) uttered the axiom, "An army marches on its stomach," but he forgot to include filmmakers in his pronouncement. My role as nourisher of stomachs and minds is readily replaceable by any Tom, Dick or Harry. Fortunately the team was too distracted by the food I brought, to mount a coup d'état.

The stage was set for maximum creativity. We had a well-defined goal, we were forced to work as a team, fighting time to reach an impossible deadline, and there was intense competition between the teams.

The filmmaking technique we employed is akin to guerilla warfare. We are a small band of irregulars defying the filmmaking establishment by employing unconventional, ingenious, and low-cost materials. The common denominator is to use surprise to best advantage.

This year’s Fly By Night theme was "Fever." We brain-stormed ideas. Right at the outset we decided to avoid the obvious, which was to do a film about raised temperature. We considered various obsessions as sources of fever. Examples were shopping fever, exam fever, and football fever. We settled on gambling fever. What would be a visually exciting form of gambling that we could easily film in one day? Cards was possible, but we felt that being in Asia, mahjong was more appropriate.

Quite early on, we had to decide which genre to adopt. Was it going to be a tragedy or comedy? Was it going to be a ghost story, a film noir, science fiction, coming of age teenage film?

We settled on comedy. Originally we considered a romantic main storyline but felt that was going to be too formulaic and predictable. So we decided on a dysfunctional family and worked out a twist ending.

A major blockbuster film would not be possible without major stars. And we were extraordinarily lucky in persuading some new young talent who turned down potentially lucrative Hollywood job offers in preference of the privilege of starring in our short film.

Pat O’Hara has a teenage face which belies the fact that she has two children, Kean and Keagan, who were the junior stars of our show. She plays the role of a mother addicted to playing mahjong to the extent of neglecting her children. Playing the role of her screen husband is Joe Zahari Tibrani, a tall handsome house-husband, who is harassed, trying to balance housework, cooking, and looking after the kids. His mother is played by talented actress Nancy Tan. Mahjong partners are played by the dashing Sean Wong who is famous in Singapore for his mellifluous singing voice in Sing Singapore. The fourth mahjong partner is played by producer Philip Sim.

Then Murphy’s Law started to make its presence felt. First we discovered that we could not get all the equipment we wanted because most of it was already rented out. We could not start shooting until late afternoon because the actors were all working half day on Saturday morning. The battery inside the microphone had run flat, and we had to roam around Singapore to buy a hard-to-find square-shaped battery. Time marched on relentlessly. Night fell, and without warning, it got late, very late. The kids were getting tired, bored and upset. Misunderstandings reared its ugly head and there were heated exchanges.

We finished shooting at about 1:00 a.m., and we had to send the lead actors and the fast asleep kids home. At this point the post-production was commenced. The editor discovered that the editing program Final Cut Express was different from Final Cut Pro which she was used to handling. The digitizing process took inordinately long. Murphy was having a field day. Part of the soundtrack inexplicably disappeared, and it took a while before we found it hidden elsewhere. The sound had to be adjusted so that the dialogue could be heard clearly and that there was consistency in its volume. The color had to be adjusted, the soundtrack had to be laid, the titles designed, the spelling of the participants’ names checked and rechecked.

Nobody slept. I had a relatively simple job of buying dinner, breakfast and lunch, while everybody else worked night and day without stopping. Eyes were drooping. Short naps were taken with heads lying on top of the computer table.

Then, when we were about one hour away from the final deadline, Murphy dealt one more blow. The computer crashed! When we rebooted, we found that some of the edits had not been saved and were lost. This included the soundtrack that had been displaced to another part. The titles and credits were lost, the soundtrack had to be replaced. Then we discovered that we had overrun by one minute, and further cuts had to be made so that our film fitted the regulation five minutes. We spotted many mistakes. No time to correct them. I was getting very depressed. We would surely lose.

I waited with bated breath. The instant the film was transferred from the hard disc to a Sony mini digital video tape, I took it and drove it to the deposit station at the Singapore History Museum. We were fifteen minutes late, but luckily the organizers gave us a fifteen minute grace period. Whew!

We grabbed a bite for dinner. Out of the 47 participants, only 44 managed to submit a completed short film. We then sat down to watch all the films, together with the judges. Even though most of us had not slept except for brief catnaps over the past 48 hours, we managed to stay awake watching all the films.

The standard was higher this year compared to 2003. I especially liked the hilarious documentary done as a PowerPoint presentation on Panadol, the assassination of a girlfriend by an obsessional lover, a couple of students participants making a film about their participation in the Fly By Night competition but plagued by filmmakers’ block, an obnoxious hypochondriac in the waiting room wanting to get a medical certificate for an imaginary fever, a person demonstrating how to manufacture fever such as placing his head against the hot tarmac, and a couple of people deliberately setting out to break a whole series of Singapore laws. Our film turned out surprisingly well. It was extremely funny (hey, I'm not biased), and the audience laughed at all the right spots. Nobody seemed to notice the mistakes. I was immensely proud of our gallant effort.

When it came to the announcement of the winners, we were absolutely overjoyed when our team was named. We had won one of the prizes! Congratulations poured in.

As is customary in Singapore, we all went for a celebratory supper. It was 1:00 a.m. on Monday morning, but we were no longer sleepy. Winning woke us up.

Most of our team had not been home for 48 hours. All were dying to go home to have a shower, a change of clothing, and a well-earned sleep.

It was 48 hours of hell. We were under incredibly intense psychological pressure. Nerves came to breaking point. We battled against sleep. Our meals were irregular. We were sweating and stinking. What made us do it? Certainly not the paltry $300 prize money that was absorbed by the rental of some of our equipment. Fame? Nah... nobody watches short films. Masochism? Yes, close.

Will we do it again next year? You bet! Filmmaking fever is totally addictive!

Meanwhile, allow me to catch up on some sleep. Zzzzzzz!

Monday 22 November 2004