End of Term is a young adult Sci-Fi/Thriller web series that premiered at NZ Web Fest.
From Wellington-based filmmaker Chaz Harris, End of Term is about a disparate group of High School teens who are caught up in a viral outbreak forcing them to confront their differences and band together to survive.
Chaz also created the award winning web series 101 Dates four years ago, so we talked to him about his latest web series and the changing web series landscape.
How did End of Term come about? What was the inspiration?
I’d been developing a feature film project called Endurance and while working through rewrites of that, I decided I wanted to spend some more time in that story universe. I wanted to get a greater understanding of the world, and you don’t always have time to explore that in a feature film story, so I thought about telling a story about the same event from a different perspective. Instead of focusing on just one teen protagonist, what would happen in a conflicting ensemble? I gave myself the brief of mashing up films like Goonies with series like The Walking Dead and The 100 which I more recently discovered. I wrote a pilot episode, developed a series bible for a sixpart mini-series and that was what formed the narrative foundation for developing our web series episodes.
And why a web series format?
I wanted to tell a slightly longer, more expansive and ensemble based story than a feature film format could offer, so that couldn’t be done as a short film either. I was interested in showing glimpses in a nonlinear way of a bigger story to create intrigue and hopefully sow seeds for a miniseries by introducing audiences to all our teenage main characters. Based on that brief, a web series was really the only suitable format for doing so without incurring the significant costs of making a full TV pilot episode.
What was the budget? How did you fund the web series?
I took a loan out and self-funded the essential material costs of it all myself. The budget all up has probably been a cash cost of $5,000 to $6,000. However, the material cost of my own time, other people’s time as well as donated services is easily $50k and likely double that in terms of the production value on screen. I might have funded it myself, but I certainly didn’t do it by myself!
How do you develop a show to suit a low budget approach and make it ‘doable’?
I think keeping it simple helps. We did some pretty complex things requiring costume duplicates and jumping around the continuity of our timeline, but we shot the majority of it over one weekend in a single location. Being able to shoot at Avalon Studios for our 1-11 continuous take episodes over Labour Weekend was invaluable, they’ve been amazing supporters of the project and I don’t think it could have been made so fast and for such a low amount otherwise. With 101 Dates, we also used a single apartment location and quite often were using the least amount of coverage or angles required. For the most part, the angle used was the webcam, but we often cheated by adding close up coverage to blend in. With End of Term, episodes 1-11 are all continuous take one-shots to sell the found-footage approach. It makes for a bigger technical, performance and directing challenge, but it speeds up some of the post-production effort and means less time had to be spent on coverage/setups (a lower number of camera angles).
Can you tell us about timelines; from conception to publishing online?
In July I hadn’t even thought about doing this. NZ On Air had a web series fund deadline and we’d just been turned down for some feature film funding to create proof of concept material for that.
So I just ended up going “f**k it!” and decided I was going to make a web series version to introduce the universe in my head and that could act as a proof of concept for both the film and miniseries. I teamed up with the wonderfully talented Bea Joblin to work on the scripts and we developed those from mid-July until mid-August when we went into pre-production. We shot over two weekends: October 24/25 for episodes 1-11 at Avalon Studios and our finale episode on 31 October at Scots College in Wellington. There were just 12 days of turnaround time between our main shoot and our NZ Web Fest premiere screening to select the takes, colour grade, sound design, score and mix episodes 1-4. If my calculations are correct, that means it was three months and two weeks from first thinking about it to premiering it at NZ WebFest on 7 November.
“It was three months and two weeks from first thinking about the web series to premiering it at NZ WebFest.”
Tell us about working with teen actors (they say never work with children and animals!).
They do say that. I’d agree on the animals (unless you have a Hobbit sized budget) but I’d revise the other to ‘never work with the wrong children’. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with a number of young people in my work so far and they’ve all given wonderful performances and had a genuine passion or interest in acting. If the passion or interest in doing it is coming from the parents and not them, that’s when things go awry I think. I enjoy collaborating with young people, I read somewhere that we almost completely stop using our creative right-side brain after the age of 18. Maybe it’s because they haven’t had their imaginations destroyed by the real world yet? I think in some ways I stopped growing up after I hit 12 as I find myself more at home in the realm of the fantastical, I think I’ve managed to retain some of that childhood excitement and enthusiasm for making stuff up.
In terms of how we cast the series, I work-shopped the series through Rata Studios’ Teen Acting course run by Miranda Harcourt. I met Ruby Hooper through that process and cast her as Georgia. The others came from my being aware of them from past projects I’d worked on, or from seeing their work elsewhere. I specifically wrote the roles of Fletcher and Annabel with the intention of approaching Peter McKenzie and Thomasin McKenzie to play those parts and then prayed that they’d want to do it, so it was pretty thrilling for me to see that go from my mind’s eye to showing up on screen.
I have my own rule that trumps the animals/children one though: never work with assholes.
Tell us the rehearsal process?
I gave the cast the pilot episode of the series along with a continuity timeline and the series bible outlining what the characters go through over the course of the miniseries. I then had one rehearsal with our Wellington based cast a week prior to our shoot and the rest was a case of me talking to the actors and us working together on the day. Because two of our cast were in Auckland, we couldn’t do a table read or rehearsal with everyone so it was all very much about relying on everyone to be prepared and get in touch with me if they had questions (which I welcome) or if they wanted more information to build their characters. I think I maybe gave them too much information on this one!
“I think marketing and promotional plans are something they should teach in film school now.”
How do you use the power of what you don’t see to create fear and suspense?
I think we’ve lost sight of this as a storytelling skill because we can create anything on screen now with visual effects - as filmmakers we need to remember to stop and think if we should show something or not. In horror, showing a lot of blood and guts might be horrific, but it’s not really scary, definitely not as much as what your imagination comes up with. With films like Jaws and Alien you rarely saw the ‘monster’, and what you don’t see on screen becomes far more terrifying. It can create suspense, mystery and terror… tension is everything in my opinion, even in comedy. Even though it’s considered an action movie, in Aliens you don’t even see a single Xenomorph for the first hour! It’s all suspense.
Episode 4 of End of Term is a good example of how I used that technique. We used framing to very carefully hide things that could be implied with sound design and from the other characters reactions on screen. It’s quite gruesome, and yet you only hear it, you don’t see a thing. The imagination does the rest.
Tell us about how you used sound and music, fragmenting them to build a bigger picture at the same time as the visuals?
We designed the score to be a mutating piece of music that eventually comes together with our finale episode. My brief to our composer and sound designer Tane Upjohn-Beatson was that it should feel like different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in a similar way to how our episodes combine and come together to give an idea of the bigger picture.
What are the pros and cons of working within the found footage genre and continuous take approach?
I’d say both a pro and a con is that sound design becomes your score because you can’t use music to aid the audience’s emotional experience. You also can’t choose everyone’s best performance moments in a single take as you have no way of cutting between them, so you have to try and pack as many good moments into the takes you select (and often do more takes to try and get everything in the same one on the day). It only makes sense to cut to multiple angles in found footage if there’s more than one camera like in Shyamalan’s The Visit, and even then it makes you wonder who assembled the footage so it can lose the visceral feel of realism you’re trying to portray.
“A brand sponsoring the cost of making a web series as a unique way to get in front of customers seems likely to replace TVCs as we move to an On Demand model.”
How are you building your audience and promoting the series?
We’ve experimented with Facebook ads, mostly through Facebook sharing and other ways of leveraging the content of each episode and the characters themselves. We had a great article from DNA Magazine in Australia when we revealed an LGBT character, for instance. We also made our world premiere at NZ Web Fest a key part of our launch activity, you have to find ways to make these things newsworthy I think given the noise they’re up against online. Having a couple of high profile cast with their own followings helps a lot too.
How many cast and crew involved? And do you have any publicists, or social media helpers etc?
I think it’s about 50 people when combining the cast and crew together. No publicists or social media helpers at this stage though, that’s one of the many hats I’m wearing myself. I haven’t slept since September!
And what equipment were you using?
We shot on the Canon 5D Mark iii and the series was edited using Adobe Premiere.
Tell us about your release schedule – releasing twice weekly vs all at once for binge viewing?
We’ve been releasing new episodes on Wednesdays and Sundays allowing us to stretch out our release and promotional plan for the series to build initial awareness. However, when we launch on TVNZ On Demand audiences will be able to binge watch them all in one go.
What’s next for End of Term?
We’re holding a series finale premiere fundraiser event at The Roxy Cinema in Wellington on 13th December supported by the Miramar Events Trust, it’ll be great to see it on the big screen. It’s also on the eve of our TVNZ On Demand launch on Monday 14 December, perfect to give bored teens something to watch over the Christmas holidays. We’ll be working on pitching the miniseries version early next year using the web series as material to sell the concept, characters and continue building an audience for it.
What do you like most about the web series format?
I like that it allows you to showcase storytelling in shorter and more manageable bursts than the commitment of making a full feature film. If you shot a feature film across multiple weekends, you’d have continuity issues to look out for and all kinds of other challenges like holding on to your cast and crew for that long. I think you can play and experiment in the web series realm in a way that TV and film can’t offer and at a much lower risk and price point.
Over the past 4-5 years since you created 101 Dates; what changes have you noticed in web series?
There are certainly a lot more platforms out there looking for content along with many more web series festivals. When we did 101 Dates, the only festival was LA WebFest which we got into and won awards at, and even then they were only in their second year of existence. The perception of value on short-form content has yet to trickle down. Short-form content like a web series is worth paying the creators for, but that will likely evolve in time and I think brands will be key in terms of where the money needs to come from. A brand sponsoring the cost of making a web series as a unique way to get in front of customers seems likely to replace TVCs as we move to an On Demand model.
Why spend $200k or more to produce a 30 second TV commercial and then thousands more buying slots to play them when you could be creating 30 minutes or more of content that’s directly associated with your brand? If you do it right, you’re not just selling your product, you’re creating entertainment that people will associate with the brand. Connecting an audience with emotive content is the key to great advertising I think; don’t make them think things about your product, make them feel things about your brand.
And advice for other web series creators?
Just do it. And, in the interests of full disclosure, this interview is not sponsored by Nike. If you have an idea that is ‘doable’ with very little upfront cash required then find other collaborators who want to make cool shit and go make it. It’s a far more sensible thing to self-fund (or approach brands to help you fund) a web series to showcase your storytelling skills than it is to mortgage your house and fund a feature film. There’s also Crowdfunding to consider as an option if you can’t fund it on your own. None of that existed when we made 101 Dates which we made for a cash cost of about $2k. It’s easier than ever to go around the gatekeepers who might be telling you it won’t work or who simply don’t have a big enough pocket to fund everything they want to. So if you have the intestinal fortitude and that burning desire to tell your story, just make the decision to start and you should be able to find a way.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I was having a discussion about short films versus web series the other day. With a short film, you put it in festivals and see if it gets in. It’s a very passive process for filmmakers and often they’re leaving it up to festivals to be the conduit between their content and getting it in front of an audience. As a web series Creator or Show-runner, you’re going directly to the web to find an audience. I think marketing and promotional plans become a major thing you need to be thinking about from an early stage with web content, most likely during development. Most filmmakers go cross-eyed around this point in a conversation, but I think it’s something they should teach in film school now, something that everyone should be thinking about. Who is the audience? How will you reach that audience? From there, you can approach brands and promotional partners because they are going to want to know that information before they’ll put any money on the table.
Watch on Web Series Channel: http://webserieschannel.co.nz/webseries/end-of-term/