In the Blog

Go Make Your Web Series!

April 3rd, 2018     by Melanie Butler     Comments

Image: Hotel Ghost, Melanie Butler

“Go make your movie. We need your movie. I need your movie. So go make it.” – Greta Gerwig, The Oscars – Represent Montage, 2018

When I was 19 years old, I bought an outdated camcorder at a pawn shop and a bus ticket valid for unlimited travel anywhere in Canada. I was moving across the country from my hometown of Sooke, British Columbia, final destination Toronto, via a detour through Montréal. I had never traveled east of Saskatchewan, but from reading Margaret Atwood novels I was pretty sure that Toronto was the kind of cosmopolitan hub where a budding filmmaker like myself belonged.

My plan was to document the whole journey, cinéma vérité-style. I had taken an introductory film studies class, and had come to the radical conclusion that while thousands of films had been made about teenage girls, there were no films (that I knew of) made by teenage girls. I was going to change that. My film would be a pioneering, authentic portrayal of a teenage girl’s life on screen. It would be raw and honest. It would be self-reflexive, defying (somehow, I was sure) the tyranny of false objectivity. It would not only document my truth, it would act as an open call for other teenagers to do the same. In short, it would inspire a feminist teen filmmaking revolution.

Four and a half unwashed days and 5,200 kilometres later, I arrived in Montréal with six hours of footage too cringe-worthy to revisit to this day. A few years later, YouTube was born.

It’s now become a cliché that in today’s digital age, anyone anywhere can make a movie. But in practice, it takes connections, experience and a lot of money to make a feature film.

Despite working in media for the past ten years (and carting around those video cassettes, kept safe in their original Le Kitt pencil box, to every place I’ve moved since), it wasn’t until I started working on a friend’s web series that telling my own stories—the ideas that made me want to make films in the first place—began to seem within reach. I shot my first fiction project last year, a web series called Hotel Ghost, about the friendship between two young women (one of whom may or may not be a ghost). The feeling of bringing a fantastical story out of my imagination and into reality was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to magic.

Image: Still from Hotel Ghost

You should still make your movie. But what I’ve learned is that a web series is a much more accessible (and less daunting) way for aspiring media-makers to get our voices and stories out into the world. So my current call to action is: Why not try making a web series?

If you’re not sure where to start, here are some steps:

1) Get an idea

If you’re reading this, you probably already have some ideas percolating. And if you think you don’t—well, I don’t believe you. The beauty of a web series is that anything goes. Fiction, non-fiction, animation, interview-based, political, musical, sketch comedy, fan zines, collage—whatever. There are no rules regarding topic or format or length.

What do you like to do or talk about? Are you on the search for the best roti in Winnipeg? Are you annoyed with how a certain issue is portrayed on your otherwise-favourite TV show? Are you obsessed with acrylic pouring?

Take whatever you’re passionate about, big or small, and structure your series around that.

Remember, this isn’t television or film. No studio executives have to approve your idea. In fact, in the world of web series, the more unusual the idea, the better. So instead of thinking about the kind of stories, characters or ideas you’re used to seeing in mainstream media, think about what you wish you could see.

The only important thing about your idea is that you are excited to bring it to life.

2) Write it

Even if your series is non-fiction, it’s a good idea to sketch it out before you begin. Think about the general structure and length of each episode, what the narrative arc will be, and what elements each episode will have in common. For example, if you’re doing a food review series, what will your judgment criteria be? If you’ll be interviewing people, write out and practice asking your interview questions. Do your research to make sure your questions are up-to-date and relevant, and go beyond simple answers the person you’re interviewing is used to giving.

If you’re making a fiction series, the writing stage will be a much bigger portion of your work, but also the one that gives you the most freedom to let your imagination lead. That said, it’s a good idea to keep in mind the technical limitations you’ll be dealing with once you start production. When I was writing Hotel Ghost, for example, I ended up downsizing my setting and slashing my original cast number in half, knowing that each member of my hotel’s fictional staff would be an extra person to feed and house during production.

If you’re new to fiction writing, like I was, there are screenwriting classes and programs available through continuing education and non-degree programs, at a fraction of the price you’d pay to enroll in a film degree program. I researched many options before deciding to take online classes through the New School’s Screenwriting Certificate Program, and had a great experience learning from top-notch writers, some of whom are also faculty at NYU and Columbia’s much more competitive—and expensive—film schools.

You can also learn a lot (for free!) from books and blogs. One of the books I’ve found most useful is The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson, whose blog and YouTube videos are also a wealth of free information.

Remember, you don’t need any technical expertise to put your ideas down on paper, so as with any aspect of this process, don’t get hung up on what you don’t know. Get your script down, ask for feedback from people whose opinion you trust, improve it as best you can, and send it out into the world.

3) Gather your team

Make a list of everything that needs to happen to make this project—from costumes and props to lighting and set design—and then decide which of these things you want to do yourself. Even if you don’t know how to do these things now, you can learn. (Tip: online video tutorials are your friend.) For everything else, look at your circle of friends and family, and think about who you enjoy collaborating with. Is your best friend an awesome musician? Ask her to do the soundtrack. Is your sibling an aspiring actor? Ask them to star.

Avoid working with anyone you don’t get along with, or who doesn’t share your creative vision for the project, no matter how talented they are. It will probably take you longer, but it will ultimately be more rewarding for you to learn whatever expertise they could potentially offer, or to work with a friend who’s excited to learn that skill. At the same time, don’t overlook people you don’t know very well. Some of my best friendships have come out of creative collaborations with people I would have never met if I weren’t looking for a sound technician/editor/makeup artist. If you’re willing to put yourself out there, you’ll often be surprised by the people who understand and want to help bring your ideas to life—and might end up improving on them in ways that you’d never think of.

4) Shoot!

Before you start filming, ask what kind of shots do you want to include, and how will you set them up? You might even want to create a storyboard, or simple visual map to help visualize and plan each episode. Whatever you can do to prepare before the cameras roll will save you much-needed time when it comes to shooting and editing.

Image: Storyboard for Hotel Ghost

Beware of camera envy: the equipment you use is the least important aspect of this step. You could use the fanciest camera in the world, but if your shots are poorly framed and out-of-focus, your series still won’t look good. The first web series I was part of, Radical Resistance Tour, was shot by my friend Kathleen entirely on her phone. I’m biased, of course, but I think the cinematography is beautiful—which has everything to do with Kathleen’s use of composition and light. If you don’t have access to a smart phone, use the camera on a computer. If you don’t have your own, see what’s available at your school or local public library. Whatever you use, take the time to learn to use it properly. Even if you’re just speaking directly into your laptop camera, consult some online photography and cinematography tutorials for help setting up the shot. Adjusting your lighting and headroom can make a huge difference, even with the simplest camera angle.

Image: Filming on location for Hotel Ghost

One rule of filmmaking is that audiences are much more tolerant of poor visuals than poor audio, so don’t forget about sound. Test the microphone you’re using, and make sure you have solid audio for each shot before moving on to the next. No matter how beautiful your shots are, people will tune out if the sound is unclear or inaudible.

5) Edit

If you’re in school, you probably have access to computers that have professional editing software such as Final Cut or Adobe Premiere. Programs like iMovie and YouTube’s video editor are available for free online, and tend to be more user-friendly for beginners. Pick the one you like best, and dig in to some online tutorials for whatever aspects you don’t know. Again, the calibre of software you use is far less important than what you do with it, so instead of investing in expensive programs, look at what you already have access to and learn to use that, or work with a friend who already does.

When it comes to adding music to your project, don’t be tempted by commercial artists. No matter how convinced you might be that Formation is the perfect soundtrack for your pilot episode, using copyrighted music without permission could cause your video to be blocked or taken offline by the host platform. More importantly, the video won’t be unique to you, and the content will never be fully yours. Sites like Free Music Archive, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud are great places to look for original music, much of which is free to use with proper attribution. Many of these sites also allow you to contact the artist directly. When I was looking for music for Hotel Ghost, I discovered and reached out to an artist I love, Lolique, via her Free Music Archive page. Not only was she incredibly happy to hear from me and to let me use her song in the pilot, she now wants to make original music for the rest of the series. That never would have happened if I’d gone with music from a major label.

6) Share

Your video is done—congratulations! Time to get it out into the world. If you don’t already have a channel on Vimeo, YouTube, or another free video streaming platform, you can easily set one up (usually all you need is an email address). But before you go posting your first video, think about how you want to space your series out. Are you going to post a new episode every two weeks? Month? Bi-monthly? Depending on your schedule, you might want to make a few episodes in advance before launching. Letting people know when to expect the next episode, and posting new episodes on a regular basis, will help build your audience.

Speaking of that audience, who are they? Are they your peers, family, friends? If so, you’re probably already connected on social media, so use those connections to let them know about your awesome new project. If you’re hoping to reach a more specific group—say, transfeminine teenage soccer players—make it easy for them to find your series by tagging with relevant keywords, and sending a clear message about who your series is for in the video’s title. Think about where your audience is online: who they’re following on social media, what Facebook groups they’re part of, what other videos they might be watching. Post in those places, letting people know there’s a fresh new series they might like.

Avoid the urge to compare your series to anyone else’s, and don’t get discouraged if you don’t get thousands of views and likes right away. It takes time to build an audience. Even if just twenty people watch your show, that’s twenty people more than you’d get from letting your footage sit in a pencil box.

So go make your web series. My inner 19-year-old and my grown-ass current self want to see it.

DIY Resources to get you going:

Do you have an idea for a web series? Have you already made one? Post it in the comments!

Tags: diy, media savvy

« A Letter to Stephon Clark’s Family

Shameless Podcast Camp: Meet Farin »