The TSC After Thoughts on Web Series

I just wanted to share a few of my afterthoughts from the Toronto Screenwriting Conference last weekend. Let’s go back to the web series session. I had a chat with Tommy Gushue, one of the winners of the New Voices Award at the TSC. Gushue made several good points about the concept of a webseries. He said: “Web series are basically the open mic of the internet.”

And he’s right. They’re scripted and have no standards. Clicking on a web series on YouTube is the same as going to a standup session at Absolute Comedy on a Wednesday. You have no idea what you’re in for and there is no guarantee it will be good. In one sense, you can have unlimited crap, in another you have the opportunity to have your vision come to life the way you want it.

Who is watching web series? How many times do you watch an unsolicited web series? Probably not too often. People usually only watch a series if you or someone you know was apart of its’ creation.

The web series is such a weird animal. It is an unfiltered medium. Anyone can post footage of anything–good/bad, draft/polish. (This would never happen on TV.) I encourage everyone to watch more web series, however more content means more crap.

The lack of requirements:

  • There is no set format. (But you may want to stick to one for a season.)
  • You can do whatever you want.
  • The jokes can be as dirty as you want.
  • There are no limitations.
  • It doesn’t have to fit into a genre or an age group (but these things may be good to help pull people in).
  • Above all else, it doesn’t have to be good. If your web series sucks, so be it. It can live on forever, even if no one is watching.

Some things to consider when developing a web series with almost no budget:

  • Actually go through with it.
  • Figure out which of your friends are interested, if not passionate, about the subject matter so they will genuinely want to help you (for free).
  • Don’t feed people garbage. Put some effort into it.
  • Be organized.
  • Have all the necessary roles for a crew filled, so no one gets overexhausted by filling several roles.
  • Make sure everyone knows what he or she is doing. (It is the worst when only one person knows what’s going on and needs to explain everything to everyone else.)

Some questions to keep you thinking:

  • Is this the poor man’s TV?
  • How many people are regularly plugged into a web series that they are not affiliated with?
  • How many people are trying to make money off of their web series?
  • Has the web series replaced the short film format?

The TSC 2015 – Day 2

Today we kicked off the morning with four giant caterpillars. And by that I mean Eugene Levy and Dan Levy!

After many years of rejecting help from his dad, Dan finally asked Eugene to work on developing Schitt’s Creek with him. It took them two weeks to flesh out the idea into a premise and another two weeks to break down the characters; then about two years to get on the air. CBC loved this show so much that they greenlit a second season the day before the pilot aired.

Dan had a very clear idea of what he wanted and how he wanted the story to unfold. The actors collaborate with the writers before they go to camera. Dan is aware that every actor is able to bring something to the character. They all work together to make the story stronger.

Their writers’ room is a combination of older and well-seasoned writers as well as younger new writers. They looked for a diverse writers room to match the diversity in the characters. Their motto for the show is “keep it real.” They aim to have real relatable stories with believable characters.

Other important aspects of the show that the Levys mentioned:

  • Wardrobe affects the storytelling. On Schitt’s Creek, it’s an indication of the wealth they come from.
  • Make the viewer want to know your characters. If people don’t invest in your characters then something like a love triangle can seem foolish.
  • They are very lucky that CBC has given them so much creative control.
  • It’s good to have a premise with a broad appeal with a high diversity in characters.
  • When you do a character-driven show, it’s more about the characters than the jokes.

Ted Braun, a professor at the University of Southern California, discussed the technique of scene writing. He stated that technique enables us to express ourselves with clarity and originality. He also defines “a scene” as:

  • A presentation of an action with purposeful movement forward.
  • Cutting a chase or an escape.
  • Two truths coming together and changing each other (the need for polarity and transformation).
  • When someone has to make a decision.
  • When someone wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.

“A scene can become interesting if there is a discrepancy between words and actions.” – Ted Braun

Aspects to consider when writing the beats of a scene:

  • Is your character active or passive?
  • Are they moral, immoral or amoral?
  • What are the objective stakes?
  • Does the audience have an exterior or interior perspective?
  • Is the tension being conveyed to the viewer or just for the characters?
  • Open conflict – characters driven by open objectives and are explicit in opposition.
  • Hidden conflict – the true objective is unconscious or hidden by one character to another or one to him or herself.

“Using indirection can lead the viewer to assume something correctly or incorrectly.” – Ted Braun

  • Indirection is omission, whether partial or complete.

When writing a scene, consider the following as to leave clues for the viewer:

  • Include a reaction to a previous scene.
  • The props can tell the viewer where the characters are from, much like wardrobe.
  • How does a conflict escalate? Does it start/end, verbal/physical?

“Boredom is created when a scene is incomprehensible or predictable.” – Ted Braun

The entire session he encouraged people to engage and ask him questions. This is a man who genuinely cares about his craft.

After lunch, Brice Mitchell of Meridian Artists introduced Aron Dunn and executive Eric Homan. Homan is the VP of Development at Frederator, a small animation company willing to take risks. He takes pitches as well as sees projects through development. First and foremost, he said, “It’s my job to say ‘no.’”

Homan also drew a lot of attention to the visual aspect of animation and pitching for such shows: When pitching animation, we are going to want to see a visual or a beat board. It’s the same if you were a musician, you couldn’t just hand in the lyrics, and people would want to see sheet music or what it’s supposed to sound like.

This is what Homan (and Dunn) would like in a pitch:

  • A comedy.
  • An 11-minute pilot, script/beat board or shown as a five-minute stand alone piece.
  • Show him a character he wants to be or be with.
  • Make the pitch memorable, make them laugh, make it light.
  • Give an idea of what the season arch would be.
  • What is it that the character wants in the episode and what do they want as a whole?
  • In your springboards, don’t bring in a new character every episode to create a conflict; you should be able to find conflict within your primary characters.
  • When writing for animation, consider the amount of drawing time it will take to produce your script. Things don’t just appear, someone has to draw it.
  • Make your character special. Don’t make them the average loser.

In general, when pitching for animation, make sure you have a visual component. Either pair up with an animator or be so amazing that the production company will want to find one for you.

The Greatest Show Not On TV is a webseries created by Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair. Jay Bennett moderated this session and they spoke about how High Maintenance became such a hit from almost nothing. Blichfeld had worked in production for years as a casting director while Sinclair was an actor who could only get cast as a homeless man. High Maintenance follows a nameless marijuana deliveryman called The Guy as he delivers his product to clients in New York City.

They chose this engine for a webseries for these reasons:

  • They are constantly surrounded by marijuana culture.
  • They needed to be able to rotate actors out because they could not pay them for extended periods of time.
  • It created a structure for a story that they could tell in five minutes (later these episodes became 12 minutes and will later be 20 and 30).
  • It was something they were able to produce themselves.
  • They were able to take stock of what was available to them to shoot.

Over the “cycles” of three episode long releases, their budget went from $450 to $600 to $750 to $1,400 to an undisclosed amount from Vimeo. Blichfeld said she was so excited because now they were going to be able to pay their cast a crew. They had never dreamed that more than 100 of their friends would even notice their series.

“It’s about making your webseries attractive and easy to play with out pushing it too hard.” – Sinclair

They did this for them. It didn’t matter whether people saw the show or not. They just wanted to put on their own show.

“Know what you want to make.” – Sinclair

Would this be able to work on TV? According to Blichfeld and Sinclair, High Maintenance would not transfer to TV; the act break would be detrimental. They did not want to tailor themselves to TV formulas, they just wanted to continue doing what they were doing. Even when offered a script writing deal with FX, they were wary that they would have to give up. Ultimately, they made a deal with Vimeo which allowed them to carry on doing what they wanted. No notes.

Blichfeld and Sinclair, like Eugene and Dan Levy have all said that they are very lucky to have been able to have little to no creative interference from their distributors/networks. We should all be so lucky to find a nurturing and creative space such as theirs.

After two days of this conference, I know I am not the only one exhausted but excited to sleep on all the information. I am more than inspired to continue working on my current projects and start new ones. I hope to see you guys at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference in 2016!

Inside the Chaos: How to Eat Healthy on Set

We’ve all been there.

You know what I am talking about–the great divide that is your health and the workplace. It’s no different for the industry of film and television. Oh wait… yeah it is. Juggling health, cost and time is always a hassle. And let’s not forget those five to ten servings of fruits and veggies followed by that roughly 90 minutes of cardio at least once a week.

CONS:

Long working hours

You’re probably working a 12-hour day plus lunch and commuting. So lets round that up at a 15-hour day. (One hour lunch, plus approximately one hour in commuting each way.) Add an average eight hours for sleeping  (and yeah, who REALLY gets that much?!) and you have–drum roll please–one extra hour in your day! One whole hour to do everything else in your life like showering, checking emails, paying bills, answering personal calls, seeing your friends and/or family, maybe unwind with a glass of wine and somewhere in there maybe fit in some step aerobics.

High Stress- High Energy Job

Any job on set is usually specialized, and there’s normally a lot of pressure on set–get the right shot, meet a deadline, hit your mark, and do it all with a smile on your face. Regardless, while life in production has a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, and standing around, it definitely makes up for it in the times when it is go-go-go and totally hectic.

PROS:

Almost constant access to food

Enough said. Between catered meals and craft tables, on any show above a student-level film, you will likely at least be fed.

The great debate is how to manage hunger, boredom and hectic lifestyles with the constant access to food of all kinds around you!

I’m not a nutritionist, a dietitian, or even someone who claims to be super healthy, but here’s how I break down a (fairly) guilt-free day of set-snacking. While set calls vary by show, I used a standard 12+1 hour daytime schedule.

4:40 a.m.- I’m up and out the door for a 6 a.m. call. I’ve showered the night before, check my emails on the streetcar, and grab a 1/2 a banana on my way out to jump start my metabolism, wake me up and follow my grandmothers’ advice (“never skip breakfast!”).

6 a.m.- My actual call time. Hopefully your crafty is on set and has the basics out, which hopefully includes the “hot and ready” breakfast. If you have this luxury, I advise to take advantage of it. I always vouch for a high-protein option to fill me up. Eggs and bacon are my go to if I have them, but for vegetarians and vegans look for oatmeal or a granola with non-dairy milk.

8:30-9 a.m.- Sometimes you miss breakfast, and sometimes you only get the tiniest bite before you have to run off! Regardless, three hours into call, craft services should at least have the two Big C’s: coffee and carbs. In my opinion, this is the time (if you have it) to grab something carb heavy. You have the whole day to work it off, and it will keep you from being super hungry later. I’m a morning person, so I usually skip the coffee and grab some more fruit–pineapple, cantaloupe, fresh berries with maybe a small yogurt, will keep me going. Note: Also, now would be a good time to grab a bottle (or two) of water!

11 a.m.- If I’ve missed my chance to grab food, this is when I’ll grab coffee number one. As a personal rule I don’t add sugar to any beverage; sugar wiggles its way into so much food on set, I do what I can to limit it when I have the option. I usually grab a coffee with a non-dairy option (almond, rice, or soy milk). If a sub is going out I ask myself this system of questions to decide if I take the AM sub or not: Am I hungry? Do I really want this sub? Is it better to have something smaller now (like a piece of fruit) knowing lunch is coming?

1 p.m.- Usually lunch time! I fill up my plate accordingly:

1/4 plate: Hot veggies  (Steamed green veggies like green beans, broccoli, asparagus, etc.)

1/4 plate: Cold veggies (Raw veggies, salad greens, mixed salads, marinated veg salads, whatever they have)

1/4 plate: Starches (Baked yams, squash or rice. You can also do pasta or potatoes!)

1/4 plat: Protein. (There is usually a vegetarian protein option, but I often go for the leanest meat I have access to. Chicken or lamb are good options, as is fish!)

Note: Remember to grab a beverage! My recommendation: water.

3 p.m.- This is when I get coffee. And I might take this opportunity to indulge with chocolate, a cookie or maybe even a handful of potato chips. If you’re really conscious about eating healthy, can those indulgences and reach for the trail mix, some raw veggies or fiber-filled fruits that will fill you up and keep you full!

5 p.m.- I’m usually not hungry around now, but if you are, grab a handful of one of the treats mentioned above! Try hummus and crackers, raw veggies or a banana/apple/pear, or even soup if the crafty has prepared some. Also, don’t forget to stay hydrated with maybe another glass of–dare I say it–water.

7 p.m.- If all goes well, by now I am wrapped and on my way home. I try to use my time to my advantage–I check my emails on the bus, and, if I catch craft in time before they leave, I’ve filled a thermos with a sugarless herbal tea to drink on the way home.

9 p.m.- Of course as it would have it, now I‘m hungry, but trying to be good, I’m likely to grab something like cheese and crackers, hummus and crackers, soup I’ve made at home or even a bowl of popcorn. When I get home I usually make a snack, hop in the shower, call a friend or family for a brief chat, then put my feet up for 20 minutes and read or noodle around the internet until sleep time, at say 10:45 p.m.