Insights into making a web series – three years in the making; when actors and filmmakers collaborate.
It’s Mel! is a six part web series about a guy from small town Putaruru in New Zealand trying to make something of himself in the city of Auckland.
Viewfinder talked to Writer/Producer Lisette de Jong and Ash Robinson (who shot and edited the series with Dale Stevenson).
What was the inspiration for It’s Mel; how did it come about?
Originally we talked about shooting some sketches. Mark (who plays Mel) and I had written and performed a bunch of sketches over the years. Ash and Dale are filmmakers who were keen to shoot some things. As actors and writers we can do a lot of waiting and hoping for our talents to be used. And probably the same goes for the crew. This way we could act and write, and show our own work that otherwise might never be seen. At some point I suggested making a web series instead.
“Use real actors and get a second opinion on your script, just to check it’s not crap.”
And why did you decide on a web series format? (iso of a short film etc)
As a writer I’d learned about writing for television more than film, because I had a TV drama that I wanted to get made. Producing a web series occurred to me as the smart thing to do, as the industry was burgeoning. And I figured I could write one. One of the sketches we’d planned to film became the basis for the web series. It’s the scene in episode three of “It’s Mel!”, where Mel tells his friend (Lisa) he has decided to be a spy.
The series was self-funded?
Yes, completely self-funded. Everyone worked for free. I checked out some crowdfunding sites early on, but felt that the project was too half-formed and we didn’t have a showreel to start with. It seemed more viable to try that route if we did a second series. Likewise with funding opportunities, and there was no specific funding for web series at that time. Also, previous experience has taught me that not being well-known and lacking credentials makes it difficult to garner funding. The same goes for potential sponsors, although I did try. Ultimately we were just keen to make it regardless. It cost a few hundred altogether, just in paying for some meals and a couple of inexpensive props. That was spread out over the shoots, and between the four of us. Fortunately Ash and Dale had their own equipment or access to gear, so there were no costs there. Just everyone’s time.
In the end we kind of rushed to get it online because Ash was going overseas in March, so he was lumped with that responsibility, having some knowledge of all that techy stuff already. Fortunately for us.
“Over a year, you would be lucky to get $20 back at the current rate of views from YouTube advertising revenue.”
Will you make revenue from YouTube views?
I didn’t make a great game plan for being seen and getting revenue. We paid $100 for a Video Ad Campaign through YouTube and that paid 1-3 cents per genuine view that came directly from the ad I believe.
At the moment it’s not monetised on YouTube. Ash has said to make .01 cent back (if someone actually clicks on the ad), and risk annoying the audience to the point where they go away, is kind of pointless…until each video gets well past 10,000 views, and has been released for a while. Over a year, you would be lucky to get $20 back at the current rate of views, and only if you let Google play entire ads before your video, without the option to ‘skip in 5 seconds’.
I’m happy to have a ‘clean’ video without all that advertising in the way. Mostly I’m just really pleased that we made it. Although I’d love it if everyone involved could get some payment, I’m glad not to be all ‘give us some money’ over it.
Can you tell us about the timelines; from conception, though to uploading online?
It took a rather embarrassingly long time. Our first shoot was episode three in August 2011. Then I had to write the rest of the series. I ended up writing two episodes to go before that one, as I felt we needed an introduction to the character of Mel and lead up to that point. Various life issues then took priority for me, and Ash and Dale would get busy with proper paid work, as would Mark. Also, John Palino was overseas for some of 2012. So we’d all be doing different projects and earning a dollar, until I made an effort to get the ball rolling again.
We shot the first two episodes at some point in 2012, over a weekend, then the last three we packed into one weekend in January 2013. Ash and Dale started editing a rough cut together when they had time, and then Mark and I had to source some music. So it took another few months while we nutted out what we wanted with the musicians Kristie Addison and Adam Willis. We met with them three times I think. And they got busy during that period too, with quite important things like paid work and getting married. We finally got it edited early this year. We had a deadline, as Ash was going overseas in March. Mark and I sat in on the editing process with Ash for about four days watching the rough edits, seeing if there were better takes for a few scenes, choosing transitions, getting the editing tight to make dialogue snappier.
Ash says: Editing timeframe? I think I spent a few days total transcoding, syncing etc, then Dale spent a few days making rough assemblies, then I spent a few days tightening things, then [Mark and Lisette] came over and we spent a few more days getting it all finished.
Can you tell us about casting – how you got people involved?
We have a good pool of actor friends so we didn’t hold any auditions. Everyone was happy to be involved, and they were all really good.
And similarly, how did you get crew involved?
Mark knew Ash and Dale pretty well. Originally we both met Ash when he was behind the camera for a 48 hour film we did (Lost and Found), that Mark wrote. Mark worked with him again for another 48 hour film and they were all keen to shoot more things together.
Can you tell us about equipment? Cameras used, sound, lighting – and editing software?
Ash can: The first (3rd) episode was shot on Canon 7D, and all the rest on 5D2.
A total crew of two or three depending on requirements, (camera and audio/cam assist).
I think over the whole time it was a total of six filming days.
Lighting was just using a tungsten Lowel DV Creator pro 3-point kit, or just available light where possible.
Camera support was an unbranded counterbalanced shoulder rig for all handheld shots, and a Manfrotto 501 for all statics.
Audio was recorded with an H4n recorder with a Sennheiser Me66 boom mic, and Sennheiser radio mics when needed.
Sound synced using PluralEyes for FCP, and all editing done in Final Cut Studio.
What has been the biggest challenge creating It’s Mel?
Everyone was great to work with, so it was actually really painless and fun. All the challenges were just exciting parts of the process and I think we’re all experienced enough in our fields that the process was smooth. There were standard challenges like co-ordinating availability of about ten people to shoot scenes over a weekend, and we did have some sound recording challenges at St Heliers beach.
The biggest ongoing challenge for me is how to find the audience that I believe is out there somewhere.
And the highlights?
The whole thing. We did get the giggles shooting episode six when Mel is packing for his first job. In the same episode Mel’s celebratory dinner is a winner. Mark came up with the dialogue and I just wrote down what he said. I love the John Palino episode. We shot it when he was known for The Kitchen Job, before he ran for Mayor. Even though he’s a friend and a fellow actor, it’s like we have a Special Guest Star, and I just really enjoy the scenes. Also, that piece of music that Adam and Kristie made for the beach scene in episode five is fantastic. It’s just the two of them doing all the instruments and vocals. And Pinot the cat’s screen debut.
“I learned that internet audiences are less patient and you need to keep them interested.”
How are you promoting It’s Mel and finding an audience?
When we uploaded the series we released an episode each week. I think that’s a good idea, as people are more likely to watch each one as it comes in, instead of having a bunch of episodes that they’ll get around to when they have time. We also spent that aforementioned $100 on YouTube’s scheme to help bring watchers to your show. Later I had some flyers made and dropped them in various places around town. Basically any suitable groups or sites that I can find, I’ll submit to.
What is your vision for It’s Mel – what’s next?
I need to research festivals more to see how viable and useful they might be. After I realised you had to pay to enter them, I kind of balked. My cheapness can disguise itself as integrity to an extent, but I’m also unsure of which ones could be worthwhile, and I wonder what are the chances of getting any awards. I have spent some hours looking at such things on the net but then I have to go to sleep. There are no doubt some more clued-up and organised people than me on this sort of thing. It would be nice to be able to do a second series, but I’d be hoping for funding next time. Time and availabilities permitting.
Did you research web series and learn from what other web series were doing?
I did for formatting and creating the series. I learned that show timings are flexible, which is great, and that short is better. Some web series go for 3-5 minutes, but I stuck with less than ten minutes per episode. I learned that internet audiences are less patient and you need to keep them interested. As viewers we don’t want to waste time waiting for something interesting to happen.
As far as promotion goes, I’ve looked at a couple of web series’ sites. Some are really involved in everything, which is great if it’s like their job and they are producing webisodes regularly e.g. Tweets and Facebook posts from the characters can be fun for fans, as well as letting them know any news and when new episodes are up. With Mel, our production had so many locations and cast and a real crew that it is not easy to churn out lots of episodes in our spare time.
“Before you title your series, check if there are any others with a similar name, so that yours is the first to come up in search engines.”
Would you change anything in hindsight?
I’d try to shorten the gaps between shoots! And do more research about promoting the series before getting it online. We were in a rush, so that all came after it was online. However, things can still be done after the fact. Which is the great thing about a web series.
Ash: I would probably get all the scripts together at once, then shoot it over a couple of weekends, rather than over two years. Then momentum can be maintained, and locations used more efficiently as well. But then it would have been a different outcome, so maybe it’s nice that it was spread out.
Can you offer any tips and advice for others looking to make their own web series?
Use crew who know how to get good picture and sound, edit well and preferably do a shot list with time allocations. Use real actors and get a second opinion on your script, just to check it’s not crap.
If actors veer from the written lines at all, make sure you get at least one take with your words, if they are important to you. Unfortunately we lost a little primo dialogue at the beach because of the audio difficulties, and I couldn’t always hear the actors when we were filming, to be able to check that we got all the words right.
The YouTube address for It’s Mel! was all random nonsense until I found out we could change it to have ‘itsmel’ in the title. I learned things as I went along, and I still look on the net when I can, to see how or where else I might be able to promote the series, but if you can look into such things sooner, you’ll be better prepared.
Before you title your series, check if there are any others with a similar name, so that yours is the first to come up in search engines and not confused with other things. If you search for It’s Mel! you might find Mel B’s reality series, and there’s another female with the same moniker on the net. But we’re cooler.
Ash: Just do it, don’t waste valuable energy on looking for sponsorship, fundraising etc, otherwise chances are it won’t happen at all. It’s cheap enough to do it without money getting in the way, and more fun anyhow. And when you’re done, maybe the next one you can get money more easily as you’ve proved you can do it.
What are your fav web series?
Henri Le Chat Noir – Hugely successful (well-deserved) and unique entertainment.
Lifeswap – It’s a smart and entertaining animated Kiwi series about a New Zealander in Germany and a German in New Zealand.
I Hate Being Single & Rob’s Room – It looks like he made the IHBS series first then scaled down to do the more simple Rob’s Room. A good example of low-budget making stuff for fun. The title of one webisode “You don’t watch Homeland”? is almost enough in itself.
Farmed and Dangerous – This is a “branded web series” made by a healthy food company in the USA. It stars Ray Wise and is very classy and fun.
Tea, Biscuits and Incest – Funny, melodramatic Aussie series.
Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – Stars Neil Patrick Harris. Written by Joss Whedon. They made it during the writers’ strike in LA. I haven’t watched the whole series but I love the first scene.
What are your thoughts on the future of media consumption? Is TV dead?
TV is so alive with quality programmes, I can’t keep up! I prefer to watch TV shows on a television (and free) rather than the internet and I’ll keep doing that. I don’t do any illegal downloading but obviously it’s rife. There’s the desire to watch shows straight away and avoid spoilers. But viewers are also sick of overpriced and exclusive pay-tv channels and excessive or intrusive advertising. I’d be happy if we the viewers could effect change in those areas. Networks and other providers need to cater to the viewer or they’ll do it themselves.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Please don’t tell me what’s happening on Homeland.
Thank you for asking about It’s Mel!
Watch the web series here: