Toronto Web Fest 2017: A Reflection

It’s been a week since TOWebFest and I find my memories of the event softly spinning through my head like clothes in a dryer, finally tumbling to conclusion. I’m a watcher; the quiet observer who wants to understand before interacting and, even as my phone is filled with pictures, tweets, and interviews, it’s those quiet moments watching that keep falling into place.

The series were amazing and my list of “I need to watch this” web series has grown substantially. However, it’s not the media itself that ultimately strikes me.

It’s the people. The writers and actors and producers and beyond.

In short, the creators.

I watched the ladies of My Roommate’s An Escort sit in the front row of every event and proudly cheer on literally everyone and everything with an energy that had me smiling. I had a complete twitter conversation with Here We Wait only to look over and realize that they were sitting four seats to my left. I had a dark conversation in the screening hall with a shadowy face and watched it appear under the spotlight the next night as That’s My DJ accepted their award. I grabbed pizza with the All For One team and accidentally got into an impassioned discussion about my favorite sci-fi shows (sorry). 

On and on and on, people just being people.

It didn’t feel like polished press packages and promo, it just felt like hanging out in real life. Which, I came to realize in the early Saturday screening, was exactly what web series are all about. Screenings are always something of a fascinating case study because you so rarely have context. Inside, creators just throw you inside episode 6 and tell you to swim. Surrender to the flow and just enjoy the ride.

Stop worrying about the plot and go with it. Feel the feels and let yourself slip into this character’s head.

Let yourself drop into what appears to be 18th century Australia and feel this guy’s pain when the girlfriend he gave up everything to follow rejects him (Bruce The Series). Come with us to 1990’s India and ache while watching these two lesbians love each other in the quietest of ways (The Other Love Story). Hop into an old man’s living room and howl with laughter as he helps his 25-year-old roommate practice calling girls (My 90-Year-Old Roommate).

Just love the character. Feel what they’re feeling and don’t worry about what happened in the five episodes before. Just be here with them now. Enjoy the people being people for the small time you get to spend with them.

My favorite question for creators is always, “why web series?” Perhaps it’s my novelist/story structure nerd background rearing it’s head but I want to know why creators think this format is the best one to tell their story. When every story is born, an inkling of an idea, we have to ask ourselves what to do with it. Do I write a book? Turn it into a podcast? A movie? TV? Short story? Short film? Web series? What’s the best way to tell this fundamental thing that I want to get into the world so that people understand it?

The most common answer? I wanted to give this character a voice.

Web series have become the place where character lives and breathes. Diane Chen from Here We Wait put it this way for me, “Web series are the place where we can do whatever we can. Giving ‘the other’ a voice. Me a voice. This is the arena to blow it up and see ourselves on television. Other’s won’t do it? We’ll just make it.”

Character first. People first. Plot second.

Web series seasons tend to come in at around the same length as a long feature film but their stories are completely different. Their scripts place emphasis on entirely different things. While films tend to focus on plot and allow small character beats between bigger moments, my viewing experience through TOWebfest and my time with netTVnow has seen that in many web series the plot is just a way to move the characters to their big moments. We pause on the character build of an individual and the progression of relationship.

The fact that there’s zombies or a deadline at work or a party just seem incidental; a framework to move inside. It’s the character building work that makes us love them. This is TV characters made inside the space of a movie.

That’s not an easy task to pull off yet web series do it amazingly well.

I recently rewatched the Lord of the Rings trilogy and while I love the movies, I find myself caring about Frodo’s wellbeing only because I deeply want the ring to get to Mordor and be destroyed. Plot-first. In a web series, I have to wonder if this wouldn’t be reversed. If I’d only care about the ring because I care about Frodo and want him to get his happy ending. Character-first.

With TOWebfest in Toronto and my Twitter feed exploding, I’d be remiss not to give you an example from Carmilla series - a three season web series that is currently filming a follow-up movie. I can’t speak to the movie but Carmilla series itself was all about the character. It’s one camera vlog set-up meant that nearly every action related sequence related to plot happened off-screen and was only relayed back to us in character recaps. We rarely saw any conventional plot at all.

What did that leave for the screen? The characters. The small moments in between the action where the characters simply exist. They plot and plan and pester each other and viewers fall in love, not with the strange school and kidnapped girls that drive the plot, but they fall in love with watching the leads fall in love. They fall in love with Laura herself, Carmilla herself, until the plot comes second and you just want to watch these girls grow. The plot matters because you care about the people inside it. It’s not plot for plot’s sake.

You just want to watch them be people. Living, breathing, existing people.

To me, that’s web series.

People first is all across web series. As fun as it is to try and solve the mystery, Poe Party is more about enjoying the antics of the larger than life literary personalities. The classic Lizzie Bennet Diaries is all about the viewer loving Elizabeth Bennet and her family more than wondering if she’s going to finish that degree while The Guild was always about the gamer’s relationships with each other rather than the game itself.

I’m not saying that plot isn’t important. It is. You need your story exist in a way that makes sense with stakes that continue to rise and there are certainly going to excellent web series that exist with a plot-first drive.

But.

These web series fill a hole I didn’t know I had in my viewing. A hole where I’m encouraged to unabashedly love people for being people rather than because they’re saving the world or getting up to mischief at their small town diner. Web series are a format that have lots to do in very little time and yet still decide to show me the small moments that make people, people.

These web series worlds are achingly and beautifully human. A running joke of TOWebFest was that pretty much every single web series was eligible for the ‘diversity award’. The space for people to be people has created series that showcase every walk of life. That on-screen diversity, in turn, calls more people to step up to the plate and tell their own, very human, stories.

Web series are ours. They are our stories on a screen and showcase us being ourselves while still wielding magic or panicking about exams or battling homelessness. They don’t shy away from the in-between messy character moments and simply ask us to sit down and feel with the people on our screens.

Whatever the story around them, people are people and web series are the medium that let us love humanity for everything that it is.

Human. 

Written by Aria Bauer