You may be a visionary, and a one man crew with a camera. Or you may have something bigger in mind. No matter how “produced” your series is going to be, there’s a certain amount of work – and a process – that needs to happen at the front end to ensure the success of your project. If you’re not a details person, hire someone who is. They will act as your producer. A good one will save your butt – and make the whole process a whole lot easier. For all you do it yourself-ers – here’s a basic “how to” guide to the pre-production process.
A web series is a collection of web episodes that are held together by consistent branding, style, and release schedule. Shows can be fiction, or non-fiction. The depth of production varies – but those one-man production units are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as the quality level for online video production gets better. While online series are very different from television series, the production basics follow the tried and true Hollywood/commercial format, the differences become apparent at the back end – distribution – in the publicity and promotion areas where fan bases and social networking technology are crucial to getting the word out.
Pre-production is defined as the work that needs to happen before the camera starts rolling – the work you have to do before shooting starts – scripts, rehearsals, raising money, and scouting locations.
Production is the actual shooting of the content.
Post-production takes place after the shoot with the editing, sound work, special effects, and music.
Money Doesn’t Talk Online. Yet.
For web series, there seems to be a budget for every project so it’s hard to get specific for you. The only real difference between a digital budget and a commercial or television network budget is the number of zeros. But that is changing. How long web series can stay low budget is hard to tell. Suffice to say that $30,000 to produce a multi-episode web series on a professional level is pretty good. How those costs break down, and where you’ll be spending that budget is a real trip – one we will go on at a later date.
This article is written on the assumption that you have been chasing your dream of producing a web series, and that you already have a concept and some form of financing in place, and you’re looking for a big picture plan for pre-production. If you’ve pitched your idea to a production company and you’ve got a deal in place and you’re going to be part of a bigger team – congratulations. You probably know all this stuff already.
Once you have your concept, you’re going to have to think about how many shows you want to commit to. Many web series productions follow a typical TV production schedule using production seasons to allow for crew and development downtime and to allow shows to get ahead of their production schedules. This may or may not be relevant to you, but I wanted to put it out there – you may be ambitious.
Production Timelines & Release Schedules
Before you enthusiastically jump into production you need to really decide how you’re going to carve out production time. Most of us have day jobs and have to juggle the commitment to production against life demands.
How big is your crew? How much equipment are you planning to shoot with? Guerilla shooting is the fastest and easiest, lighting set ups, location changes and complex wardrobe changes will eat up a lot your production time. Remember that once your show is shot, edited and exported you still need to write descriptions and tags, create thumbnails and test your upload.
Most of you have some shooting experience, so figure out your production timeline estimate per show and then multiply it. Things usually take a third longer than you thought possible – and even seasoned pros underestimate shoots and the time needed for post. You may be able to make a show in half a day, but you’re going to need to do it week in and week out – with crew illness, equipment failure and bad weather so better to go big – than go home.
Now think about your audience – once you hook them with your brilliant concept, they are going to want regular, predictable installments. You need to determine a release schedule, and now’s the time to figure out if you are going to release episodes on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, depending on how many episodes you plan for your “season.” The worst thing you can do is attract an audience and leave them hanging … they might not come back if they don’t know when you’ll be back.
Who is going to edit your show? Estimate your post-production time and add it to your production timeline. Best guesses if you’re not sure. When you start a work back schedule you’ll be able to make adjustments once you have the details nailed down.
A Word On Scripts
It sounds kind of basic, even if you’re producing a personal video blog, you should still have notes about what you’re going to talk about – things to prompt you during stand-ups etc. If you’re doing interviews, do some research and write down some questions in advance. Documentaries and dramas – even comedies that look improved – are usually scripted.
BTW – most scripts with written dialogue benefit from “reads” – assemble your actors and have them read through the script together – that way, if anything you’ve written sucks, can be fixed before the production is officially on the clock.
Storyboards and Shot Lists
A shot list is a written description of the shots that you have planned.
A storyboard is a visual drawing of each shot so that camera angles and perspectives, and framing for actors can be worked out. The more complex the show, the more you’ll want to storyboard or at least make a shot list. Storyboards are really handy when you’re planning multiple takes, angles or doing stunts. Trust me, if you don’t storyboard your shots, you will think of a dozen shots that you should have done – and you’ll kick yourself if you miss the chance – rarely do you get a second chance to go back. Here’s a cool storyboard app for those who can’t draw.
Even a point and shoot series can benefit from a shot list, including insert shots – commonly called B-roll shots – they’re the extra shots that help add context and help make the editor’s life easier when they need visual transitions, and ways to cover awkward edit points. See the section, “Contemporary Useage” for full useage of B-roll here.
Formats and Equipment
Beg, borrow, steal – If you can afford to rent a video camera that can shoot in HD you should go for it. The world is moving away from the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio to 16 x9 – high definition. And web video is bad enough as it is – so give your product a fighting chance at looking like a million bucks.
Always rent the best equipment that you can afford, as a rule of thumb. And be prepared for anything and everything. Have a list of equipment – and check it before you head out. Make sure batteries are charged. Make sure lighting works.
Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner – It’s an Excuse For a Pre-Production Meeting
There’s nothing wrong with being professional – yet so many would-be producers/directors fail to recognize the importance of a (one or several) structured, formal pre-production meeting(s). Invite all key crew and staff. Have a written agenda – this way you’ll have thought of all the key things that need to be discussed and covered off. Assign someone to take notes – and write a follow up email that will outline what was discussed, what is happening, and who is responsible for next steps etc.
And while you’re at it – go whole hog on the professional front. At your final pre-pro it doesn’t hurt to prepare simple leave behinds that include all the essentials photocopied and neatly placed into a folder so key crew and/or staff are organized and have all the vital info in one place, and at their fingertips. When you’re shooting, time is money so the better organized you are, the better run your shoot will be.
One of the first topics for a pre-production meeting is location scouting. Before you shoot, it’s essential to ‘suss out the location to make sure it’s ideal for your shoot. You can take a video or stills camera, but try to shoot on location around the same time of day as you are planning to shoot. You are familiarizing yourself with a location. You are looking for anything unexpected that might restrict shooting, you’re looking for what the light will look like and what the ambient sound is like. It’s always a wise idea to take your cameraman with you so he starts the framing and imaging process in his head. At the pre-pro, share your location images with the rest of your crew so they have an idea of what the landscape is going to offer from a technical point of view. I’m not going to get into permits here, but understand that if you are shooting with more than a bare bones crew, and you are planning to put equipment down, chances are you will need a permit to do so. If you aren’t doing a point and shoot, you should look into your local bylaws for film production permits.
You’ll go over final script – notes or interview questions with the crew.
You’ll go over your shot list and storyboards. In the final stages of pre-production, your shot list will also encompass a timeline – how long each set up should be before you move on to the next set up.
If you have sets, props and art direction related materials to share with the group, it’s always nice to put together a little presentation. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but colour samples, textures and visual reference or drawings are great to help sketch the vision for everyone involved.
A call sheet will be shared – a list of contact info for the crew, talent and anyone else (like a caterer or the local take out) connected to the shoot. The call sheet should also include starting times for each crew member, so there is no confusion around who should be on set, or on location X and at what time. Nobody cares what it looks like so long as it works, but here’s a good call sheet example from Director/Screenwriter Ty Leisher’s resources that has all the basics.
I’m not going to go into detail about on camera talent in this article, but if you are ambitious enough to cast actors for your web series, bring headshots and or video demos to your pre-pro meeting so everyone can share in the vision and get a sense of who they are going to be working with.
Another essential for your pre-production meeting is a discussion around wardrobe, hair and make-up. Do you need it? What is right for each character? Will talent be bringing their own clothes – will you be supplying them? If you’re supplying them you will need to do a wardrobe fitting – and maybe have someone to act as wardrobe stylist (someone able to manage the clothes!) on your shoot day if changes of clothes are necessary
It helps to have a producer who is a lawyer, but if you’re more of a hand-made web series, you don’t have the luxury so cover your butt by carrying release forms everywhere you go. Release forms need to be signed by anyone who will appear on camera or audio. The signed form is their consent to use their image or voice in your project. And FYI you need a different release form for different media like podcasts. If you Google entertainment release forms, you’ll find lots of basic ones online.
I hope I’ve covered enough of the basics to get a dreamer started, or to offer a refresher course for the production savvy. Remember, pre-production is all about the details, and the more buttoned down you are, the better able you are to handle all the unexpected things that can crop up on your shoot. Enjoy the process. It will all be over far too quickly – and remember to enjoy it. Isn’t that what film/video making is all about?