Near the end of 2015 a friend of mine embarked on what could be considered a crazy venture. He decided to enter the 48 Hour Film Project. It’s a global competition where people write, film and edit a short movie in just 48 hours. The photo above shows the director, cameraman and some of the actors getting ready for filming.
I was lucky enough to be welcomed on the filming day to take a few photographs and generally hang out and observe. What I saw that day and what I observed in the weeks after really made me reflect on successful teams and what makes things work. There are a few of the things you would expect from any advice on how to build a successful team, but what stood out for me was something I’ve learned from practitioners of improv that made a massive difference to this team. Here are five things to remember the next time you are in a team.
1. Have a common goal that everyone is subscribed to – We always hear this, and that’s because it’s true. This team knew exactly what needed to be done. In 48 hours a film had to be made. (You might be wondering how the organisers can ensure it all happens in the 48 hours allocated. Well, each team is only given the character, line of dialogue, prop and genre they must use once the clock starts ticking.)
2. Have the right people doing the right jobs – And don’t be afraid to reach out to experts. The director gathered excellent people around him for this project, including people he’d never met before. He wasn’t afraid to draw the right people in to give the project the best chance of success. Consequently, there were professional engaged people in all areas - actors, camera crew, sound, and editing.
3. Have clear direction but allow some autonomy – The director had the story and a clear idea of how he wanted the overall film to look and feel. But he kept the script flexible, allowed input from the actors on how they felt things could work better, collaborated closely with the cameraman on designing the scenes. I’m sure everyone felt respected and listened to, and that their own expertise was valued.
4. Don’t waste people’s time – People were only involved when they were needed. The actors weren’t needed to help write the story on the first night of the project, so they weren’t there. Some were only needed for a particular scene and could only carve out a small amount of time in their day. They were still able to contribute effectively. The editing team were only needed at the end. This makes perfect sense, but how often do team members waste time attending meetings they add no value to?
5. Make your teammates look good – This is the big one for me. This is what improv practitioners strive for all the time. And this happened a lot in this production. The actors worked hard to support each other and make all of their characters look good. They supported the feel of the film, and the director, by making suggestions that would improve the final cut. The cameraman, director and sound guy discussed ways to get the vibe they wanted and the best out of the filming location. Importantly, there were no egos. I think the director signaled this early on by inviting people to join Team Zissou rather than to help him make a film – his name isn’t Zissou. Everyone worked to make everyone else shine.
A week after the film had been submitted, there was a screening of all 42 films from Singapore, and then an awards ceremony. I liked the fact that the two people that had probably had the most input (writer/director and cameraman) couldn’t make it and were happy for other members to represent Team Zissou. Like I said, no egos.
You could say this team was successful because of the way they worked together, and I would agree with that. The mark of a great team however, means that they function well and also achieve what they set out to do. They made a film in 48 hours! Great. They didn’t fall out with each other. Great. And then, they won the competition!
Below is the six-minute film, which, having won the Singapore event, has been sent off to compete against all the other international winners at Filmapalooza in Atlanta, USA. Well done Team Zissou!