A 24-hour whirlwind weekend with Broken Zebra

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by Eric Ginsburg

There is nothing particularly glamorous about working on a film set. Even during a blitz weekend like the 48-Hour Film Project, planned timetables expand like blowfish. Editing, troubleshooting unforeseen problems and standing around eat up time faster than Cookie Monster.

Broken Zebra, a production crew primarily made up of high school and college students, knows this all too well. The team, which has expanded to about 30 people over the last three years, wrapped up a two-day tornado of writing, filming and editing for its entry in Greensboro’s 48-Hour Film Project last weekend with pretty impressive results.

The unpredictability and surrender of control are part of the annual project’s attraction: Entrants pull a genre out of a hat and are assigned a character, line of dialogue and a prop that must be incorporated into a film that lasts 5-7 minutes.

The film crew, which is loosely affiliated with Grimsley High School’s film club and theater program, gathered at the school last Friday night awaiting its assignments. The younger participants mostly sat around several tables that had been pushed together, while the few adults lounged nearby on a couch during the calm before the storm.

Aaron Ashby, who just finished his first year of film school at the University of Southern California, was eager and noticeably excited. He had acted as the group’s director in previous years, but this time around held the role of producer, coordinating everything from restaurant food donations to setting potential filming locations.

As a Grimsley student, he helped start a student film festival, took every theater class available and pursued his long-held interest in film. The team includes an amalgam of people from Ashby’s life, including his dad Robert who starred in this year’s production and his close friend Joshua Leonard who was jumping into film for the first time.

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Several Broken Zebra members are somewhat seasoned at this point, including UNC School of the Arts student Gray Underwood, Grimsley teachers Charles Flynt and Matt Ringrose and this year’s director Samantha Bailey. For Flynt, the group’s keystone member, the 48-Hour Film Project is tremendously enjoyable, but it’s about more than that.

“What I’m trying to do is get kids interested in filmmaking,” he said, referring to the Grimsley film club. “We kind of culminate it with the project.”

The team’s guidelines this year came in around 7 p.m. — Broken Zebra wound up with science fiction, a retired athlete named Paula Percival, the line “I’m not into that kind of thing” and a hairbrush — just as Robert Ashby arrived with donated dinner from Chick-fil-A.

After briefly laying out the plans for the rest of the night, Aaron Ashby split the team into groups based on interest to begin scriptwriting and practicing with editing software. Later with the writing team, Ashby suggested they start by developing characters and then formulating a plot.

The five people sitting around the table, including Emily Epps-Dawson and Abby Fisher who would end up acting in the film’s lead roles, started discussing how to approach a science-fiction piece without a large budget, and wouldn’t finish the script until around 2:30 a.m. that night.

With Saturday designated for filming and Sunday set aside for editing, the team wasted no time getting rolling Saturday morning, shooting the opening scene at Bestway grocery. Next they moved to the Green Bean, where the crew set up at an outside table while Bailey gave directions from atop a stepladder.

“I want you to run those lines again a couple times right now until you are more comfortable with them and then we’ll shoot it again,” she said.

Bailey, in her second year with Broken Zebra and the former co-president of the film club, hopes to minor in theater at the University of South Carolina, where she starts in the fall. Flynt’s assertion that she and Ashby are talented at managing people held true on scene, but next year younger members will likely fill their shoes to learn about different facets of creating a film.

As the team arrived at the downtown Renaissance Plaza building to shoot at Underwood’s dad’s office, time started evaporating. It was mid-afternoon and there was a decent amount left to film, but small things kept holding up the production. Someone needed to wait for make-up. A contract, part of the script, needed to be picked up from Grimsley. Poles for an improvised camera dolly were too big to fit in the elevator up to the 18th floor. And so on.

Despite unanticipated issues, Broken Zebra managed to turn its film “Poster Child” in before the 7 p.m. Sunday deadline.

The film isn’t without its flaws — including a short transitional scene the group forgot to film due to fatigue on Saturday and a few audio mishaps — but considering the rapid turnaround it is nothing short of fantastic. The acting, particularly by Fisher and Ben Gardiner, is remarkable, the camera work strong, plot cohesive and the ending satisfyingly depressing.

“Poster Child” will be screened this week as part of the 48-Hour Film Project, with an awards event next week. Visit 48hourfilm.com/en/greensboro/ for more info.