Notes on How We Made Our Web Series HITMAN 101

**My notes are in regards to our experience, which I’m sure will vary with others.

Long Version:

Upon deciding I wanted to make a Web Series:

First things first was research.  I watched web series... a lot of them, which isn’t too time consuming because entire seasons tend to range anywhere between 30 to 90 minutes.

 

I watched all types of series, good and bad.  All genres.  I took notes on the things the good ones did well and on things to avoid in the bad ones.

I looked into what series were popular and what popularity meant.  It didn’t take long to realize that if I was going to make a web series in the hopes of achieving fortune and fame I’d more than likely be setting myself up for great disappointment.  There are many web series in existence but only a few ever get the type of fan base / exposure that equate to monetary success.

What appealed to me to make a web series despite the knowledge that chances were slim my series would ever make an impact?  The fact that someone/anyone would have the ability to watch something I created.  The Internet is a distribution platform. The Internet allows access for anyone to showcase art.  It is a place to potentially showcase ones art in perpetuity.  That appealed to me.    

In my research, a web series issue I came across on many occasions were unfinished series.  Either series just ended abruptly a few episodes in or ended on a cliffhanger to be resolved in a season two that... never happened.  I found it frustrating as a viewer to become invested in a series only to have it end without resolution.  So I determined very quickly that I would tell a full story in my 12 episodes, that I’d create a series with the potential to continue but not a necessity.

Story:

I did not base our story on genre popularity.  The types of series that tend to get the easiest views would be Fan Films, Science Fiction / Fantasy, and combining Sci-Fi or Fantasy with Comedy.  Series that appeal to “Geek” Culture are probably the safest bets.

For our series I decided I wanted to tell a story that involved a Hitman.  I didn’t care if it would have a built in audience, I just went about trying to create an engaging story.. I tend to have Eureka moments when it comes to story ideas and it didn’t take long to have one and the spine of the story took shape.

I wrote it as one script, but this script contained 12 episodes.  The goal of each episode was to move the story forward yet be interesting enough to just watch on it’s own.  I wanted to have variety in the episodes, not pigeon hole us to one tone or genre - mix it up so that the audience could find some originality in each episode.  I wanted every episode other than the finale to end on some sort of event that would hopefully pique the viewers interest enough to want to “see what happens next.”  

But before I got too far into the writing process I wanted to make sure I had my ducks in a row in order to shoot what I wrote.

We made Hitman 101 out of pocket and the pocket was not deep.  Microbudget filmmaking could be the term used, but I prefer to use  the term Making a Movie Within One’s Means.

I took stock of Locations we had at our disposal.  Props we had, could borrow, or could afford.  What kind of crew we would be able to work with and what type of equipment we had available to shoot it on.  And possibly the most important thing - who could play the roles I wanted to write?

Major productions happen in Vancouver B.C., so we are fortunate to have many aspiring actors and actresses in the area wanting to build their portfolios.  We held auditions before I wrote the series.  It is quite hard to find the perfect actor for a part written.  It is a lot easier to write the perfect part for the actor.  I had ideas for characters, so we wrote mock sides for the actors to audition with.  We held many auditions and callbacks* and I either adapted characters I began writing to fit actors better, or I created characters specifically for an actor.

*Part of the reason for holding numerous callbacks was to try and gauge the actors personality and integrity.   Being a volunteer project that could take months to shoot, if someone decides to quit halfway through, the production could be destroyed.  So we did as much due diligence as we could to not only cast good actors but good people.  Maybe we just got lucky, but out of 35 roles only 2 actors left us high and dry but luckily they bailed before they were in the movie and though it affected the production, it was resolvable.

(In regards to whether one should use aspiring actors or friends to shoot a web series, I’d lean toward actors mostly because part of the allure of acting is being on set.  They want to be in the trenches of a 15 hour shoot trying to get the perfect moment.  An actor whether aspiring or pro also tend to care about their reputation.  Most, when they commit to a project are accountable.)

I then wrote the series, doing my best to write within my means using locations I knew I could use with props I had access to and characters and dialogue somewhat tailored for the actors.

Locations:

As mentioned, the bulk of our locations were locations I knew I had access to through friends and family.  I did write the last two episodes around a location I didn’t have... which ended up being a huge stress and time stealer trying to find a location suitable for what I’d written.  I lucked out and got a great location in the end, but it took a toll on the project because a lot of pre production was spent location searching.  We did not get permits to shoot anywhere.  We did get property owners to sign location agreements where it felt necessary.  We did do some guerrilla shoots, but we had such a skeleton crew (me with camera, sound guy, actors) that we were able to shoot without making much of a footprint.

Equipment:

There were two YouTube “Stars” I watched as research since my series was going to have Visual Gun FX.  - Corridor Digital and FreddieW.  Both groups of filmmakers make short action films that usually involve video game tie ins.  They also include a lot of behind the scenes videos of how they make their movies.

They both continually preach - shoot with what you have access to.  And I now agree with them, especially for the web platform where the bulk of the viewing will be done in a small video viewer.  I put myself through the ringer trying to figure out which camera I should use to shoot the series.  I contemplated going in huge debt to buy a camera and looked into hiring a camera operator who would rent us his equipment at costs I really couldn’t afford.

In the end a friend had access to a camera.  I used it, the rest is history.  It was a Prosumer Camcorder.  I love the look of DSLR’s, but without a crew, it helped to have a robust camera that didn’t require lens changes, focus pulling or structured shooting.  Most of the shoot the camera was either on my shoulder or a tripod.  I had a boom operator and a makeup artist for the crew.  Having a good boom operator was very important.  We didn’t have a mixer nor did we monitor the sound very often (though I do recommend that you do if you can).  We recorded the sound directly into the camera via XLR.  **Indie Filmmaking Advice - Get the Sound on the Day! - after a scene is completed shooting - Get Wild Lines from all the actors  Get any Foley Sound Effects that take place during the scene - ie. Footsteps if an actor walks.  The opening and closing of a door. Sitting in a chair, rustling of clothes etc.  Get lots of roomtone and get roomtone from the various places in the room the scene takes place.  Cover your bases so when you get to post production you do not have to try and recreate or find all these sounds in order to make the scene.  Getting the sounds on the day will help either save time and/or money in post production. (basically learn from our mistakes...)

Lighting helps.  Even if you are like me and do not have any idea on how to light a scene, adding some lighting will make the image look nicer.  We used natural lighting, practicals, construction lights, and some professional lighting equipment we were able to borrow every now and again.  Our go to lights were a couple LED Lite Panel Mini’s and when used they were mostly handheld just off camera pointed at the actors adding just a bit of light to help accentuate the scene.  

What are the minimum requirements to shoot a webseries?  A Camera, adequate amount of batteries for said camera to never have down time, enough storage media for each days shoot,  and a quality microphone - ideally on a boom, if it’s on camera best make sure you get numerous takes of wild lines to ensure you have decent sound.

One other aspect of equipment is be prepared for post production.  Have your workflow set before you shoot.  If you can, do some camera tests and send the footage through your pipeline to ensure that the workflow works.  Ballpark how much space will be required to store the footage AND to back it up - we bought 2 large capacity Harddrives.  One holds the footage we edit, the other holds a backup of the footage.

Financing:

As mentioned earlier this was done out of pocket so I did my best to try to keep costs down.  I felt that given my research on the success rates of series, that throwing money into a series wouldn’t automatically equate to more success.  So I picked a number I felt wouldn’t bother me to lose and that was $500 per episode.  If I critiqued my own work I’d say one of the most lacking things about the series is production design value.  That is an area where more money could have gone to raise the look and feel of the series.

My advice to anyone thinking of making a series and funding it themselves - do not bank on making your money back.  Shoot the series on a budget you are comfortable never getting back and still walk away happy.  If you do have time, look for sponsors and local companies who might want to advertise either as an ad before your series, or on your site or as product placement.  If you have friends and family that are supportive, try crowd funding or an actual fundraiser.  Just do not lose your shirt trying to make a web series!  

In General:

What can filmmakers expect to go wrong?

- Everything!  Filmmaking is problem solving.  Preparation is ammunition to fight the unexpected.  Be prepared to do re-shoots.  Be prepared to make script changes.  Accept that compromise will happen but work as hard as you can to keep compromises to a minimum.

What are the advantages of this approach to filmmaking?

- I found that making a web series was an exceptional way to gain experience as a filmmaker.  Essentially we made 12 short films in 8-9 months.  Everything from writing condensed stories to fit the short episode lengths to creating a weekly schedule and meeting our deadlines were all great challenges that felt very rewarding to achieve.  Then in the end, having a portfolio piece that is online for people to see the result of our hard work is quite satisfying.

- though I’m only starting to realize this now that I completed my series, the Web Series Community is really cool.  Like minded people who care about and support each others projects.  There is a spirit to online creators, one of positivity and encouragement.

Greatest Pleasures?

- one great thing about being an online series is the audience can easily reach you and give feedback.  The pleasure for someone like me is the creation of a story.  The Bonus Pleasure is when someone “gets” the story and can easily communicate with you via social media.  

Greatest Headaches?

- People can easily communicate with you via social media.  It’s a double edged sword.  No matter what expect there will be people who dislike your project and that some will go out of their way to try and hurt your project.  Accept constructive criticism ignore destructive.

- You must Supervise your Post Production Crew.  You won’t want to, you’ll want to trust them and their talent and give them room... it will come back to hurt you.  If someone accepts a job even volunteer to be on your project they should be professional enough to be accountable and keep you updated on progress - and show you said progress.  We were blessed with 3 awesome people who were part of our post team who worked diligently and in sync with me and the post went well.  But we also had 1 person who I let do his own thing and essentially wasted a month of our time and caused undue stress on the project.

- This isn’t a headache per say, but “build it and they will come” does not work.  You have to market and promote your series in order for people to watch, even if your project is the best series ever you may have to work just as hard to convince people to watch as you did to make it.  A well prepared series will begin promoting itself before it is shot.  It will begin to build the fanbase in advance.  If you have the manpower I’d suggest having one team member who’s sole job is the marketing and social media management of the series before and during production.

Showing Brands and Copyright Materials?

- If you aim to make money off your series whether it’s through ads or dvd sales or t-shirts, I’d recommend doing your best to avoid showing or using Brand Names.  If not it could come back to bite you.  For our series we didn’t overly concern ourselves with that because we do not aim to make money off our series.  We did digitally remove the name of a Hotel off a sign because the Hotel asked us to (we let them know we had shot the outside of the hotel).  And we altered a Home Security Sticker on a door, but other than that we just shot the movie.    

One thing for sure though is make sure you have approval to use someone else’s music.  If you use copyrighted music you may end up having your audio removed from your video or Ad’s will be attached to your video that someone else will make the profit on (*this is on youtube).  Use Original or Royalty Free Music (I recommend incompetech.com) or have Licenses or Releases for the Copyrighted Music you use.    

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One last thought is in regards to pre-production.  The longer you give yourself to prepare the less it will cost.  I was somewhat forced to go into production because of actor availability, and I paid for it with a lot of spur of the moment spending to fix things I wasn’t prepared for.

 

Short Version - more direct answers to your questions:

Story: How much should it be developed before one starts? Did you create your story based on genre popularity? Considering the condensed time of most webisodes,  is there a formula for keeping the viewer engaged?

- There are essentially two styles of web series, the kind that shoot while they release episodes and there are those that shoot the entire season at once, edit, then release.

We were the latter.  We shot all 12 episodes at once like one would shoot a feature film.  We did this style to try to ensure we released the episodes without fail and to ensure we kept our schedule on time.

As for development, we didn’t do this, but a lot of successful series have done this - they begin promoting the series well in advance of shooting.  They do stuff like attend Comic Conventions and Spread the word of the upcoming series.  They do Viral Campaigns, create a fanpage and website... Pre-Market the series to build the foundation of a fan base.

We did not base our story on genre popularity.  Which will mean less views.  Sci-Fi / Fantasy is an easy genre to “sell” as are Fan Film Series or Comedies involving Fan films, Sc-Fi or Fantasy.  Geek Culture Niche’s are a good starting point if someone wanted to create a series that could develop a following.

As for a formula, I wanted every episode to push the story forward but still be engaging on it own merits.  I wanted each episode to have some originality, and to always end on an event - such as a cliffhanger to hopefully get the viewer to want to know what happens next.  I wrote it as one script with the 12 episodes in that script.

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Actors: Should they be aspiring pros, or will friends work?  Any unique concerns regarding actors and web series?

- If you have creative friends who can act and want to act, then friends would work, but for our series I cast up and coming professional actors.  Luckily in Vancouver B.C. we have a strong acting community so I was able to cast 34 roles.  Professional actors are ideal because they should be like minded and ready for long days on set.  Not that this is too unique, but since this was a volunteer project that could takes months to shoot, we did our due diligence to attempt to cast good actors who were good people.  Having someone quit halfway through the project on a whim could kill the series.  

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Equipment: I don't want to get too technical. What are minimum requirements in your opinion?  How important is lighting and sound? Explain.

- Minimum requirements - A Decent Camera with enough batteries and recordable media to get you through the day on set. A Good Microphone - Ideally a Good Mic on a Boom with a Competent Person on the end of the Boom catching the voices of the actors while they speak.

- Sound is probably the most important aspect.  Bad sound is distracting and can turn a viewer off from a video on a subconscious level.  Good sound plus good sound design can make an ok episode good and a good episode great!

- In regards to lighting, it is an art form that I wish I was good at but unfortunately am not.  What I try to avoid is having the picture look too dark or too dull.  Whether it’s natural or practical lighting, construction lights or studio lighting, or even handheld LED lights from Home Depot, adding lighting helps enhance the picture.

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Location: Are you pulling permits or just using locations supplied by families and friends?

- We were a “Shoot Within Our Means” Production, which meant using locations we could attain without cost - which mostly meant through family and friends.  What I did was stockpile all usable locations in advance of writing the script, then used many of those as locations in the script with the idea of creating a story I knew I could shoot.  We also did some guerrilla shoots which were fairly easy because the crew was me with a camera and my boom op.  We did get people to sign standard location agreement releases even though we knew there wouldn’t be issue.

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Financing: This will vary from production to production, but can you offer some estimates in your case? Maybe a general cost per episode?

- From doing my research on web series I came across a few too many series that over spent thinking there would be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  I set a budget I was comfortable losing which was $500 per episode.

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In General: What can filmmakers expect to go wrong?  What are the advantages of this approach to filmmaking? What are the greatest pleasures, and the greatest headaches, other than the content mentioned above? Finally, as a tertiary concern, are you careful not to show brands on products?

- like pretty much any production, there will be roadblocks that will make you want to run and hide.  Perseverance and patience are key to seeing it through.  A supportive team will help.  As will loads of preparation in advance of production.

- for pleasure and headaches, probably the same as what I wrote in the longer version.*

- We didn’t go out of our way to avoid showing Brand Names - unless it could make the brand look bad.  We are not trying to make money off our series with ad’s or dvd sales or anything so we weren’t too concerned with hiding Brand Names.  If you want to make money off a series, best bet to avoid Brand Names just in case.