Preparing for this feature article led me to follow the term “Web Series” on TweetDeck. My “extensive” research process led me to this one thought: “Holy crap, there are a lot of Web shows.”
There are many, and they are varied, not just in content, but in quality as well. Some are very polished, like Dating Rules From My Future Self from Alloy Entertainment and 20 Dollar from Morph Syndicate, while some are more rough, like the DVX100-shot Needle Boys from Elias Ellison.
Regardless of the image quality, the common thread is the Web is, in a sense, the Wild West of content. You no longer have to be greenlit by a big network to tell your story, and everyone has one.
Did you know that Jerry Seinfeld has a Web show? It’s called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and it’s funny. It’s essentially Jerry calling up his friends and driving around in cool cars and laughing a lot, which will make you laugh. Much of the footage is shot with a GoPro Hero attached to dashboards.
So the Web series is not just for the little guys; everyone’s doing it!
DATING RULES FROM MY FUTURE SELF
Tripp Reed is VP of digital production at the Warner Bros. Television Group-owned Alloy Entertainment (www.alloyentertainment.com), which produces books, films and TV series, like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars. Their digital division has currently produced seven original Web series, including Dating Rules From My Future Self, Wendy, Talent, First Day, and Hollywood is Like High School With Money.
“The digital division came about as another avenue to explore ways to get our properties out to the entertainment world,” says Reed. “Web distribution is a great way to get different content out there, not just as a stepping stone toward a broadcast network.”
If you take a look at some of Alloy’s Web series, you’ll quickly notice the quality of the productions. Reed comes from an independent film background and felt strongly that he could bring that same look and feel to digital content for the Web. “The Alloy brand has a definitive look and feel that I wanted to continue on the Web.”
For Alloy’s Web series production, Reed chooses between Red and the Arri Alexa cameras, which are typically used on big-time features as well as television episodics. “We could shoot on lesser, more consumer type cameras,” he says, “but we want to deliver the best quality we can.”
Alloy doesn’t kid around. For Dating Rules From My Future Self, Season 2, they shot Red 4:2:2 and had a DIT on set to color balance the cameras and transcode the footage. “We don’t have the money for all the bells and whistles, but the technology is so advanced we get great images,” Reed reports. The data is then backed up and handed off to assistant editors who take them into Avid Media Composer at DNx36. They file share off of an ISIS system so the editor and assistant can work simultaneously.
Dating Rules, Season One, had more of a dramatic slant than the current season. “For the second season we wanted to go for a more comedic look and feel, so after talking with the DP, Greg Harrington, we decided the Red MX camera was the best fit for the show,” says Reed, who is an executive producer on the series and directed five of the six episodes in season two.
“One camera isn’t necessarily better for comedy or drama, it just comes down to budget and aesthetic choice,” he explains. “With season two, we knew we were going to shoot it wider and light it brighter to push the comedy, and the Red MX gave us all the horsepower we needed while still being cost effective.”
After the edits are done and approved, it’s sent to the post finishing team at Sonicpool. The color grading is done on the Da Vinci Resolve, and it gets a full stereo mix. “We have a great post team at LA’s Sonicpool, who have been working on our shows for over two years; they have the workflow down to a science. We all feel very comfortable with the process.”
Alloy often calls on actors from broadcast TV to star in their Web series. Dating Rules, Season One, starred Shiri Appleby (Life Unexpected, Roswell), and this season features Candice Accola from the CW’s The Vampire Diaries. “We brought them in as creative partners and we all pulled favors to build a strong cast around them,” he explains.
Alloy is able to get these prime-time actors, according to Reed, because in addition to producing high quality content, they can sometimes offer actors the chance to flex their creative muscles behind the camera. “In season one, Shiri Appleby signed on partly because of the strong material, but also for the opportunity to prove herself as a producer. Candice was enticed into season two for similar reasons.” She played a big role in terms of casting and script development.
“Our digital series have evolved over the two years we’ve been doing them,” says Reed. “No one knows what’s going to make a digital hit, but the freedom of the Web gives us a chance to push the boundaries creatively and continue to produce cool, entertaining content.”
Matthew Ashburn, who runs Beverly Hills-based Morph Syndicate (www.morphsyndicate.com) with his partner/wife Athena Ashburn, calls their self-produced 20 Dollar a “digital series” as opposed to a traditional Web series. This modern-day Twilight Zone is a proof-of-concept sales tool for networks that might be interested in a sci-fi anthology series.
The self-funded series consists of four episodes (each costing about $20K to produce) along with a dedicated Website (www.20dollarshow.com).
According to Ashburn, the reason they consider 20 Dollar a digital series and not a Web show is “because the show format is similar to a broadcast/cable show, with a beginning, middle and end to each of the episodes, as well as distribution across all digital platforms, such as HDTV streaming technologies, third-party Internet download and streaming and 4G Wireless.”
As opposed to, he points out, a Web series, which offers one scenario that is stretched out over 12 episodes.
20 Dollar’s host, reminiscent of Rod Serling at the opening of the Twilight Zone, pops in at the beginning of the story to tell the viewer something about the upcoming episode. The storylines are pulled from today’s headlines, but given a sci-fi twist. “At the end of the show the host comes back on to discuss nuances of that particular show. The host, played by Russell Rinker, is really the thread passing the 20 Dollar baton from person to person as the story starts to evolve in every episode,” explains Ashburn.
The shows, which range in length from 10 to 15 minutes, are shot on the Canon 5D because it gives Morph Syndicate the quality they want with the ability to be nimble. “We shoot about 15 pages over two days,” he explains. “Sometimes we need to work in a low-light situation, and in post I’ll add solar flares and light effects in order to bring the production quality up to broadcast standards.”
20 Dollar is truly a team effort. In addition to funding the episodes themselves, the Ashburns cast and crew the show, write the show, shoot the show (Matthew shot the last two episodes), post the show and put it online. “It’s Athena and I through the entire process, and we lean on each other for our individual skill sets. We completely immerse ourselves and learn something new every time.”
They do call on others for music, which is entirely original, reports Ashburn. “Athena did the theme music, and I did music on the last two episodes — the first two were done by a great composer, but he wasn’t available, so I picked it up and just did it.”
They use Avid Pro Tools for their audio needs, edit on Final Cut 7, and use After Effects for graphics as well as “to bring up the quality, if the imagery is not what we want.” The Red Giant plug-in Knoll Light Factory is used for lens flares. “A lot of it is just layer upon layer to get the effect and the color I am looking for in After Effects,” he says.
If you spend any time viewing shows on the Web, you’ll notice that the quality of images tend to vary from show to show. This is something the Ashburns feel strongly about since the show is their calling card. “These shows, no matter if it’s one person or 100 people, it should look and act like broadcast quality. That is our mission.”
Their ultimate goal is to fund a slate of shows. “We want to spit out several per season and ask the networks to take a look. You can grow these show’s organically to a point, i.e., just for their digital distribution, and then that audience could grow organically to their network.”
If you check out the series online, you’ll find Athena Ashburn starring in the very first episode, which is a nod to her aunt, actress Inger Stevens, who starred in The Twilight Zone episode “The Hitch-Hiker” in 1960.
“We did this as an ode to her — Athena plays a character that was in the same emotional state that her aunt’s character was in on The Twilight Zone, but the storyline is different. That’s how we kicked the series off!”
NEEDLE BOYS: LIFE OF A TATTOO STUDIO
Dallas-based Elias Ellison (Facebook.com/needleboys) shoots, edits and produces the Web series Needle Boys: Life of a Tattoo Studio. His long-time friend Clint Cummings is owner/artist at Mansfield, TX’s Sparrows Tattoo Company. At press time Cummings was in NYC competing in the upcoming season of Spike’s Ink Masters, a tattoo competition show. According to Ellison, Cummings and his unique personality is what helps make Needle Boys compelling and very real.
“The series kind of grew out of my hatred for reality-based tattoo shows,” explains Ellison. “Clint and I know a lot of people from LA Ink, and we’ve heard stories and watched the show, and it’s all scripted, and it’s crap. They always add in drama. I know that’s not how it is in real life. Needle Boys is more like Jackass in a tattoo shop than a soap opera.”
For Ellison, this non-funded series is very much a labor of love. He had shot some timelapse pieces for Cummings, as well as his grand opening, and then he just started hanging out at the shop. One thing led to another and Needle Boys was born.
While Needle Boys features all of the artists at Sparrows, Ellison admits that Cummings is the show’s main attraction. “He’s been tattooing for 17 years and has an ego. Clint is hard to get along with, but that helps provide the content. He gets in arguments with customers, and is really big headed. The other guys at the shop are great, they just don’t antagonize like he does.”
Because Needle Boys isn’t scripted, there are times Ellison will shoot for 10 hours and only walk away with two 10-minute episodes. He has to have the camera rolling constantly, waiting for magic to happen. He points to an episode called “Nipples” as an example. “I was hanging out all day, and this guy came in and wanted to have his nipples tattooed so his areolas looked bigger. That turned into one of our more popular episodes!” Of course.
Since the show is self funded and vast amounts of footage is needed, Ellison has called on the Panasonic DVX100. He acknowledges that the quality of the shows so far “isn’t the best,” but as it has taken off he’s been ordering new gear — most recently some GoPro’s with Wi-fi BacPacs for the artists to wear throughout the day. Also he’s been looking at the Panasonic AF100 as his main camera.
“I had been shooting independent films and local commercials using the Canon 5D Mark II. It’s great quality and good for shooting for short periods of time, but with the tattoo show I need to shoot for hours and hours. So I went back to my roots. With the DVX 100, I can film for hours without having to worry about drive space or processor overload. Some days there is literally so much going on I will film for eight hours straight and all I have to do is change tape and batteries.”
Ellison acknowledges all that footage puts a heavy load on him during editing, but he has no choice since it’s all unscripted. “Because of this, the show doesn’t really take shape until post. I use Final Cut 7 to edit, Red Giant’s Mojo, and Instant HD to increase the quality of the pathetic DVX footage.”
According to Ellison, editing for YouTube viewers means keeping episodes in the five-to-six-minute range. “They want quick and interesting content; it’s different than anything else I’ve ever shot or edited.”
For the show’s audio, Ellison uses friends’ recording studios during off times. He calls on Pro Tools|HD to record the music. He also turns to Apple Logic for music recording at his home studio for more simple pieces, as well as the show’s audio.
The show’s logo was designed by one of the tattoo artists, Cody Dresser, in Photoshop. For the animated version of the logo, Ellison used Apple Motion.
Considering Ellison has spent more money than he’s made on Needle Boys, his efforts are impressive. He’s had offers from cable networks, but they all wanted creative control… not something he is ready to part with. “I turned them down because it gave them the rights to buy it and turn it into something that is scripted and overly produced...exactly what I am fighting against.”
The show is part of the YouTube partners program, and with Clint Cummings about to get ink of another kind via his stint on Ink Masters, he is expecting to gain viewers and even some investors.