Saturday 30 June 2012

Common Mistakes Made by Webseries Creators

I was in the process of writing a post about the problems I have observed in web series after web series. And I was planning to complement my ideas with a survey of the many filmmakers I've come across during the last year.

Then I ran across an article written by Yuri Baranovsky, following a stint as a judge at the International Television Festival. I couldn't improve on his work, so...

Things I Beg Web Series Creators to Please Do and/or Not Do - Yuri Baranovsky

As one of the Executive Board Members (EBM) for the ITV Festival, one of my responsibilities is to vote on the winners of specific categories. This year, I was one of the EBMs (what we call ourselves when we meet in our underground castle) to vote on this year’s comedies.
    I don’t get to watch a lot of web shows because, unfortunately, I just don’t have enough time between writing, working and living in underground castles, so watching fifteen or so series in a row was interesting for me.
    The thing I noticed is that many creators tend to make the same mistakes. Which led me to... this:

1. Please stop... the city montage transitions. This is not a necessary element to your series. We don’t need to see cars driving by and people walking on the street. We especially don’t need to see this eight times in a seven minute show. The street montage has been done to death by television for far too long and, if you’ll notice, most series don’t do it anymore. It’s a tired technique and feels slightly off-putting in a new genre. Yes, sometimes it helps a transition, but mostly, it makes your show feel like Dharma and Greg. Stop it, please.

2. Please stop... the drum roll to a scene. You know, that moment when a song finishes and the drummer is like, “I’m going to finish up with a groovy beat, man?” And then you put that drum into your show, usually after a particularly enthralling street montage, and then as the drums hit and end, you cut into the action? Stop doing that. It makes your show feel like a '90s sitcom. I should not feel like I’m watching Saved by the Bell when I’m watching a show in a genre often referred to as “new media.”

3. Please audition your writers. Audition your writers like you theoretically audition your actors or hire your crew. If you’ve never written before and think, “I have a fantastic idea. I’m going to write a full series because ANYONE can write!” then you’re setting yourself up for potential disaster. Or, at least, a bad series.
    Writing is tremendously undervalued in entertainment. I’m not sure how that happened, considering our art was built around brilliant writers (for what is theater, and of course, film, without Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Tony Kushner, Shakespeare and others), but at some point, everyone decided that writing is easy and, hey, they’d love to show you the screenplay they just wrote that’s in the trunk of their car and is formatted in Wordpad.
    Writing is a craft. Writers take years to perfect it and “perfect it” is a strong word, because I think good writers never stop learning to write. Just like most people who make a show don’t say, “And I will be the director of photography!” when they have no idea how to turn on a camera, someone who has never written shouldn’t decide he’s going to write an entire series.
    Love your show, respect it, and find a voice that can bring it to its maximum potential.

4. Please... get a sound guy. Or a microphone. Or just put a lot of time into your sound. This was our problem when we started Break a Leg, and it’s a major issue in many of the series I saw. The problem with bad sound is that it can completely ruin all the other good elements – acting seems worse, writing seems worse, cinematography seems worse, so on and so forth. I completely understand restrictions, but be aware of those restrictions when you’re shooting. If you don’t have a great mic, don’t shoot outside, don’t shoot in echo-ey buildings, find places that optimize your sound. It really goes a long way into strengthening the look and feel of a show.

5. Please... get a funny editor. If you’re doing comedy, you need a funny writer, you need funny actors, and, equally as important (and sometimes more important) you need a funny editor. Many a joke is not only fixed but made in the editing booth. An editor editing comedy must have impeccable timing, they must know how long to wait for each beat, they must know when to cut out to a wide because it’s funnier, and, most importantly, they need to know what’s not funny so they can chop it out of there.
    Having a funny editor is almost as important as having a funny writer – so when you’re hiring one, make sure you see their comedy reel. A slam-bam-sexy-reel might be pretty, but it doesn’t mean he can make you laugh.

6. Please stop... with the long opening intro. I get you want to introduce all of your actors. I think that’s great. I’m a huge proponent of giving everyone due credit. But, can you do it quickly? Unless you’ve got big name actors that will make us go, “Ooh, really?” your intro should quickly explain the story in 15-30 seconds (less, less, less is the mantra) and go on to the far more important part of your story – which... is your story.

7. Please, for the love of all that is good in this world, cut. Writers, cut your scenes, editors, cut them too. Web shows already have the unfortunate problem of being forced to be short (for some strange reason), it doesn’t help when you have a six minute scene in a seven minute episode that takes place in the same location.
    In a screenplay, a scene should be no longer than 3-5 pages. Sometimes, sometimes you can push it to 7, if it’s climactic or you’re Quentin Tarantino and think that every scene should be 25 minutes long and then everyone should die at the end.
    A screenplay, though, is 90-120 pages long. A web show is, at its best, 10 pages long. Create movement, create a sense of story, don’t stick us into one location, and make the same joke over and over again.
    A very wise man once told me to know when to kill my babies. I’m pretty sure he was talking about my dialogue and not my future babies, and it's good advice.
    Much like a good joke, a good comedic scene is told fast, hits hard, and moves on before you can stop smiling.

... and those are the things that I noticed. By all means, don’t feel like you have to listen to me
in the end, I’m another douchebag making stuff and while we’ve had success, it doesn’t mean that you have to listen to anything I say. I have been doing this for a good while now and, having made all of these mistakes myself, I feel like I have at least some kind of advice to offer.
    But I’m still some guy on the Internet.
    What’s more important is that the work is ever growing and ever getting better, and I applaud every single person who picked up a camera and took the step to make something.
    I very much applaud the effort; I think you should all be proud of yourselves. But I think you should be proud of yourselves for a minute or two, and then I think you should watch your project and say, “How do I make this better?” and do that, infinitely, until you’re dead or have gone insane.
    Good luck and good job.

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Yuri Baranovsky is one of the founders of the production company Happy Little Guillotine Films. HLG Films created one of the first web series, Break a Leg. Yuri and his brother Vlad are currently writing a college textbook called Writing for New Media, to be published by Holcomb Hathaway.


Kathy said...

Love this guy's focus on writing and editing. Story, story, story.

Anne Flournoy said...

The author was making edgy web content before the term web series was even coined. Let's hope people listen to his excellent suggestions...

Sketkh Williams said...

I'm sorry but I don't see how these are problems that only plague webseries, these are story and technical elements that affect film and TV as well, what About Community Building or Mistakes in understanding Niches and how simply posted to youtube is a fraction of a webseries creator's job?

Yuri B. said...

Thank you for the post, Sibley! Much appreciated!

Ironically, I broke two of my own rules for Leap Year ( for some of the later episodes, and our intro is like 28 minutes long.

Why did I do this? It just worked for the series and felt right. The intro is so damn cool, we had trouble cutting it down, and the city shots just fit.

Thank you for your kind comments, guys! I really appreciate it!

Sketkh: A lot of these target quality and quality is something most TV and film producers have down. Yes, writing is not always good. But, they hardly have trouble with sound, etc. etc.

Your suggestions are good. I was focusing more on the actual production value of a show, but there are, of course, many, many other aspects that make a good online series. To cover them all would take a long time and a lot of letters.

Thanks for reading me, guys!

Anonymous said...

You could do worse than take advice from Yuri Baranovsky I say.

I think you make some good points Sketkh, what's your thoughts on marketing a web series?

For my two cents, if you follow NeeTeeVee/Gigaom, then you'll know web series reviewer Liz Shannon Miller. She has a great list of web sites that review sites and offers up some advice as well. Check it out here:

Btw, nice blog, found it via MZPTV, keep up the good work.

Unknown said...

I'm late to this party. Can I just agree that FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, perfect the script before you even switch the camera on.

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