As a first semester freshman, I often heard upperclassmen talking about something called “Prairie Grass.”
“It’s so fun, Annie. You’d love it. You have to do it this year, okay? You have to!”
“Okay,” I’d hesitantly agree. “But what is it?”
“It’s a film challenge thingie.”
So even though my freshman self didn’t truly understand, I tentatively allowed some friendly upperclassmen to recruit me as an actress. And I loved it. Our film She Loves Me Not was the runner up in our category, which was encouraging.
The next year, I was invited to both act and assist with screenwriting for the team that She Loves Me Not lost to the year previous: Player 2 Productions. And after 48 hours of crazy hard work and energizing collaboration, our team took Best of Show for our film Parallax.
We were honored, and we hope to defend our title this year, though the competition will be tough this go-around.
But wait, what is Prairie Grass? And why is it such a big deal around here?
In production teams of four or five members (give or take), Prairie Grass participants create a five-eight minute film conveying an original narrative. The catch? Groups only have 48 hours to do so.
So PGFC is crazy difficult.
Further, each film must include a quirky detail or two – usually a specific character, specific prop, and/or specific line – that the judges predetermine. To assure that participants are using only their given 48 hours, these specifications aren’t released until the first minute of the 2,880 minute challenge.
So PGFC is crazy, crazy difficult. But PGFC is also crazy entertaining – for participants and viewers alike.
The Challenge itself is usually the second weekend of January, but Dordt waits a month to host a red carpet awards ceremony in the BJ Haan. All production members dress up to have their work premiered before a real audience on a real big screen. Attendees from all over the Northwestern Iowa area (and sometimes from all over the country) meander around various classrooms to see as many movies as possible in the few hours prior to the awards ceremony. Once everyone has made their way to the BJ Haan, the panel of judges announce winners in High School, College, Post-College, and Best of Show categories, all culminating in a balloon drop and sometimes a raffle for brand new film equipment. For one evening every year, Sioux Center feels like Hollywood.
So PGFC? It’s arguably my favorite Dordt tradition. And we're about to launch the 2017 edition...
Here', I'll chronicle a play-by-play of my team’s creative process. Though you won’t be reading our updates in real time, trust that I wrote them in real time. In turn, they’re infused with the stress of the real-time time crunch that is Prairie Grass.
We just received the email with our stipulations, and they’re likely the strictest we’ve ever been dealt. Hhmm. Wouldn’t be a film challenge without a little challenge though, right? Time to begin brainstorming as a group, pulling out our inspiration journals and our lists of potential characters and our Google machines to find specific historical facts and possible inspiration images. It’s go time.
(Unfortunately, I can’t reveal our exact details on this blog at this time. You’ll just have to come to the screening, it seems!)
The goal was to have our plot entirely storyboarded by 5:30. It’s an hour and a half past our self-set deadline, and we’re still spit-balling. I think we’re starting to nail down a coherent idea, though. We’ll take a dinner break at the commons (YAY FOR PANCAKE NIGHT WITH ALL SORTS OF FUN TOPPINGS) and make our final plot decision on full stomachs. Everything’s more productive on a full stomach, right? Hence, all-you-can-eat college cafeterias?
We’re basically done writing our script, and we’ve contacted all the actors we’ll need. They’re all in. Now we just have to put the finishing touches on our written portion and sleep to prepare for tomorrow’s lengthy filming session…
Well, we realized that our script is not exactly our best work. In fact, if we want to contend for the victory, it’s not even viable. Time to go back to the drawing board. Ugh. It’s okay. We’ve still got this.
We’ve now consumed an entire box of Cheez-Its, come up with five brand new script ideas, and decided to return to our already written script. But we’re going to put a twist on it. Somehow. It’s okay. No stress. We’re not even sleepy yet.
Well, evidently I was sleepy. I don’t remember falling asleep, but my team members promise me that I contributed a little bit before abandoning them for personal slumber.
I’m still asleep on the couch. My team finished the new script, though! They head to bed, leaving me a note to say that we’ll begin filming at 9:00.
I wake up dazed and confused. Um. What. Where am I? Whose couch is this? Once I gather my bearings and read the note they left for me, I pull out my computer and take a look at the script. I make a few edits and then begin the icy trek to my own apartment, which will be our first filming location. I have to clean up the space and clean up myself so that I’m camera ready.
Well, the apartment is ready and so am I. But my homework that’s due at noon today? Not ready. That’s right. We may be in the middle of PGFC, but we still have to go to class. I'd better finish my assignments…
Some of my team members plop into desks, determined to keep their eyes open for a fifty-minute lecture. They have it the worst out of us all, I think.
Assignments are done, and the team members not currently in class arrive in my apartment. Me-oh-my, they are so dedicated.
Time to start filming. This is tricky, though, because we only have two-ish hours until most of us have to scatter for class. We can’t film the entire movie in two hours, but we need the lighting to be consistent for a lot of our scenes. Hhmm. We decide to practice for now, helping the cameramen nail down the motion and the actors perfect the emotion so that filming the final cuts later will go more smoothly.
Some of us head to class, some of us head to lunch, and some of us are off to take a nap before our afternoon filming session begins. Naps usually seem like a good idea until you’re forced to wake up long before your body is ready. But some sleep is better than no sleep? Maybe? That’s a debatable conclusion.
Here we go. Three solid hours of filming. Let’s see what we can accomplish…
We finished filming all the scenes that require daylight – yay! Now our lead actor has to go work a shift at Pizza Ranch, and the rest of us will make a Walmart run for food props and midnight snacks. We’re going to need a lot of Mountain Dew and sugary treats to keep our energy up through editing.
Time for dinner! Our production team ordered-in from Pizza Ranch and, sure enough, our lead actor was the one to deliver it to us. Funny how things work like that…
Back to filming. We’re gonna knock out the rest of our shots right now, no matter how long it takes. We don't exactly have another option.
It’s only 11:30, which means the Friday night is just starting for many college students. But because we slept so little last night, it feels much later. In turn, we’re starting to lose our collective sanity. Our film is a drama, but based on the way we’re laughing between shots, you’d think we were working on a comedy. Everything everyone says is hilarious, even though none of our comments wouldn't be funny under normal circumstances. We’re making puns left and right, and we’re being super snarky with one another (out of love – and sleepiness – of course).
Before beginning every shot, all crew members confirm that their equipment is functioning by saying, “Rolling.” Then we slate to confirm which shot we’re doing and which take this is, and then we wait for the director to say, “Action” before starting to act. But, in the words of our lead actor, we’re not only “rolling,” we’re also “rotflol-ing.” (Rolling on the floor laughing out loud, in case it’s been a while since you’ve encountered that particular text lingo.) He’s right. That’s an accurate assessment of the situation.
WE ARE DONE FILMING. Now it’s time for our slap-happy selves to begin the editing process.
We have twelve hours until our final product is due, so we’re doing quite well on time. I’ve baked some peanut butter chocolate chip cookies for the team, and I think that qualifies me for a three-hour nap. The boys continue to edit, though, pressing on and producing quality work despite exhaustion. I’m amazed by their passion and their work ethic.
My team members shake me awake, reminding me that I have play practice soon. Ugh. But I’m exhausted and my brain is too sleepy to recall any of my lines. I shouldn’t be complaining, though, since I got some sleep while the rest of my team did not. And I’m getting a break from this particular story to go live in the world of another story, while they’ll stay in the apartment until the editing is done. Wow.
I just finished rehearsal, which went surprisingly well for so little sleep. I trudged back to the apartment to see how my team is doing, and I found three of my four teammates asleep. Only our head editor was still awake, and he was just putting the finishing touches on. He exports the final file, and then we wait for our other team members to wake up and watch the final cut. If they see anything that needs changing, we’ll alter it quickly. Otherwise, we’ll take the file over to the campus center and submit it before 4:00pm.
We did it. We feel so accomplished.
Our movie is submitted, and we’re all finally headed to bed. We might wake up to have dinner all together as a team. We might not. Eating out would be a fantastic way to celebrate, but sleeping in our respective beds also proves an adequate means of celebration.
Regardless, we’re proud and we’re privileged to have worked together for the last 48 hours. There’s something so special about collaborative creativity, especially when it’s concentrated into a short amount of time and space. I’m grateful for my team and for the opportunity. And after a nap, I think I’ll be ready to do it again - next year, of course.
If you want to see our final film and all the other remarkable entries, be on campus the night of February 17th for the red-carpet event. And if you can’t make it out to Sioux Center, you’ll be able to watch the winners via livestream.
Hope to see you there! I’m going to bed now…
All the in-progress photos below were taken by the lovely Emi Stewart (@camcodafilm). She's got an eye for what looks good through a lens, friends.