We recently sponsored The Detroit 48-Hour Film Project and took the opportunity to speak with one of its winners.

The crew behind the film “1 2 3” shared with us their lessons learned from seven years competing—lessons they heeded this year to take home awards including “Best Cinematography,” “Best Choreography,” and “Runner Up for Best Film.”

Lesson One: Look (Far) Ahead

In previous years competing, the crew at Midnight Oil Productions had restricted all talk of concept and story to their brief 48-hour production window. They decided on roles and resources in advance, but otherwise viewed it “in the spirit of competition” to enter the contest with a blank slate in terms of subject matter.

This resulted, of course, in a fair share of complexity and chaos that threatened their practiced efficiency elsewhere.

Rookie producer Eric Hill set out to simplify things this year. After double-checking the rules, they secured acting talent, locations, and the film’s general slant all in advance of the competition. This gave them a much larger percentage of the 48 hours to allot to actual writing, filming, and editing. Subsequently, Eric says, it also gave them a significant edge.

Lesson Two: Look for Uncharted Territory

It’s always tempting to base recruiting choices on factors like convenience and friendship. (E.g., Who deserves a favor? Whose number do I already have?)

However, Hill and his crew recruited differently this year than in years past, soliciting a nearby professional wrestling school for both talent and location. Their rationale? Wrestlers are used to improvising, memorizing lines, and building chemistry together:

“We were amazed at how quickly we ran through the production this year. The wrestlers were easier to work with than a lot of actors we’ve worked with in the past and memorized our script within minutes. They took direction perfectly and really understood the process.”

They also, of course, came with a photogenic stage with built-in lighting, which added significant value as well.

Lesson Three: Look Inward

Among writers, to “murder your darlings” means knowing when to let things die even if they’re dear to you—or, more accurately, particularly when they’re dear to you.

Being a lifelong wrestling fan, Hill recognized his potential to sabotage the process if he started making decisions as a fan rather than producer. Wisely, he avoided this conflict by sitting back and letting his writer and director carry the concept independent of any bias.

Putting his faith in his talented crew and trusting them to do what they do best, he says, was paramount to their success. The result is a film that appeals to a wide audience, not just wrestling fanatics.

Lesson Four: Look for Flexibility

Aside from requiring that projects be written and produced within 48 hours, the competition had another twist: each film had to follow a theme not revealed until the start of the competition.

At first, this made Eric understandably nervous. What were they going to do with a ring of wrestlers if assigned a sci-fi or western theme? But he ultimately embraced the challenge, trusting his crew’s eagerness to show adaptation and flexibility.

After learning the theme would be “fish out of water,” director Scott Allen and writer Shawn Jackson sat with it and brainstormed ways to be less literal than in years past. Their first ideas centered on first-time referees and audience members pulled into the ring. But they pushed the concept until they came up with something more dynamic and compelling—a seasoned wrestler struggling with the decision to turn bad:

“I was initially unsure whether it would fit the concept and was a little apprehensive,” admits Eric. “But in the end, it was a lot less predictable—and, thereby, a lot more successful.”

Lesson Five: Look for Economy

Any time you film, there are so many variables to get right: lighting, gesture, framing, focus, sound effects, dialogue.

To make things easier this round, they leveraged the advantage of voiceover in place of dialogue. This gave the crew a few less things to worry about while filming. Without live dialogue, they didn’t have to think about keeping their voices down or perfecting the timing between speech. They just had to focus on visuals.

Meanwhile, it also gave Scott and the post-production team more lenience to edit out of sequence—which became a key strength of the film.

Check out the result by watching their award-winning film, 1 2 3.

Matt Siegel writes about film tips, stock footage, and short film festivals for VideoBlocks.