You know what’s fun? Asking 20-30 people ranging from your best friends to total strangers to help you make a web series with no money. Just kidding! It’s terrible.
Other than not knowing what the difference between a director and a producer was, the biggest surprise when I decided to produce 2 seasons of a web series was how expensive filmmaking is, even for the simplest project. Not that my project was simple, but, you know. It wasn’t Thor: The Dark World.
For the two seasons that exist of my show, Brains, we ran two Indiegogo campaigns, making roughly $2500 total. The supporters of those campaigns were largely my friends and family, and I will always be grateful for that. If I could make a show off of their kindness, maybe I would have been able to make Thor: The Dark World, but alas, that is not my lot in life. Yet. What follows is the list of things I did to make the two seasons of my weird zombie rom-com without being forced to live under the Brooklyn Bridge, or worse, move home to Colorado.
Don’t pay people
To be fair, during the second season of my show, we managed to pay our principal cast (people who were there more than 2 of the total 13 days of filming) a little bit. Definitely not industry minimums, but it was something. However, paying people adds up much more quickly that you’d anticipate, especially between the cast AND the crew. Our smallest shooting days still required four people at minimum, and at union rates, paying for that single shooting day with four total people would have amounted to about a quarter of our entire Indiegogo earnings. Think of how much this would have cost if not for the wonderful volunteers:
Everyone who has been on set for Brains has an IMDb page now, and everyone who played an extra got to pick their own character name. Plus, I always made sure to have food, and pro tip: fruit snacks are the most popular snack. They don’t make a mess or leave residue on actors faces or clothes.
Ask for props for holidays
We knew we were going to try and make a season 2 of Brains around mid-December 2015, and my birthday is at the end of January, which ended up being the best possible timing. Instead of asking for clothes or trinkets for the holidays, my wish lists were full of fake machetes, zombie makeup, test tubes, and new wardrobe pieces. This meant that for season 2 of Brains, I spent almost no money from our Indiegogo on props or wardrobe, because I thought ahead. My greatest regret of 2016 is not lining up a new project before the holidays, so I had to ask for dumb things like clothes and books.
Be creative about where people are in a scene
Both seasons of Brains were largely made possible because I was willing to write people with
scheduling conflicts out of scenes, or rewrite them so that they never appear on camera. For instance: during season 1, there’s an episode in the science lab where the character Greta is manning the camera. She was supposed to be in the scene, but the actress couldn’t get off of work during the time we were filming, so I rewrote the scene for her to be behind the camera instead of in front of it and recorded her lines at a different time. Speaking of…
Remember that format can be your friend
Brains is a found footage show, meaning that the camera itself is a part of the story. This was helpful in making a no-budget web series for a couple of reasons.
1. It didn’t take as long to film. Ordinarily, a one page scene can take as long as an hour because you need to film so many different angles and reset lighting and sound and camera for each. For found footage scene, as soon as the actors say the lines right, we can move on. On Brains, we once filmed 11 pages of script in a single day of hiking around Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
2. It gives you flexibility with actors. Taking that example from earlier, if we’d been filming “traditionally,” we wouldn’t have been able to film that scene at all. It was important that the character Greta be in the scene, and the location we were using wasn’t available at the same time as the actress. But because the show is found footage, it made sense that she was never on camera, just behind it.
3. It forgives lower production quality because that’s kinda the conceit. I’m not saying you don’t have to try as hard for quality film making if you’re doing found footage, but listen. Your characters are holding the camera. If sound isn’t perfect, or if the video quality is lower, or if the lighting isn’t Oscar-worthy, it’s fine, because it’s more “realistic.”
Beg, borrow, and steal
We begged our grad school for the use of various classrooms and rooftops and dorm rooms. We borrowed or already had all the equipment we used. And I definitely stole a clipboard, expo markers, and a box of rubber gloves from places I used to work for use in the show. Spoiler alert: I didn’t steal those things from the same place. Does this make me a bad person? I prefer “resourceful.”
Final thoughts: making a web series, even a really simple one, is going to take a lot of passionate, dedicated volunteers, a lot of luck, and a lot of fruit snacks. Making Brains, definitely not a simple show, has taught me a lot, and in the future I probably won’t write a show with so many stunts or characters or apocalypse locations, at least not until I get really rich and famous. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to have learned so much so quickly, and I’m especially grateful to all the people who helped make it possible. You don’t necessarily need tons of money to make a great web series, but it sure doesn’t hurt.