Ryerson alum, Shannon Litt is no stranger to web series having created her own during her university days. Today her work spans across multiple fields of directing and is more popularly known for her work with Cherrydale Productions and helping bring The March Family Letters and All For One to light! Check out what the kickass director has to say about the industry, All For One and more!
netTVnow: How did you get involved in the series?
Shannon Litt: I actually worked with Cherrydale Productions before on The March Family Letters, a modern adaptation web series on of Little Women. They brought me on board halfway through that series when they lost their director but in addition to getting to direct, I got to do a bit of writing as well. I wrote a majority of the Joan/Meg scenes, they’re my babies!
netTVnow: Oh I love that storyline! Alejandra Simmons is amazing!
SL: Yes! She is amazing as Joan. You can tell that I love her because she’s in All For One as Alex and has a role in my latest short film as well [laughs]. I send her all my scripts! She’s also a director, so we get along really well!
After working with Cherrydale on that, they brought All For One to my attention and it was just full steam ahead from there. I read the scripts and remember thinking, “What a thrill to be able to be involved in something like this.” It spoke to me so much and the way they ended each episode with a bit of a cliffhanger, I was completely gung ho for!
netTVnow: What was a typical day like for you on set?
SL: Well, [laughs] it started with me getting up ridiculously early!
netTVnow: Oh boy, how long did you guys shoot the series for?
SL: One week! We had one load in day that was just the crew bringing in all the equipment and getting the set ready. Filming began on a Monday morning and we shot for four days in the loft space, a.k.a. Dorothy’s apartment. Then we had a day off before heading to the second location, which was the sorority house, and we shot there for one day. That was perhaps the longest day because we had to fit in five episodes, but it was awesome. At that point the cast and crew had bonded and we sort of had our flow and rhythm. So we knocked out those five episodes and they did a pretty damn good job!
netTVnow: Having worked on web series before, how does that filming style differ from other styles you’ve done? For example, you just shot a short film.
SL: The biggest thing is probably that the camera is locked off in All For One. I think that we had only one, very small camera movement and our Director of Photography (DP) Josh (Allen) was so excited to do it [laughs]. It was in Episode 30 when Dorothy sits down and she tilts the camera up - that was his moment! Probably the biggest difference is that shooting a web series is a bit like theater. Being able to keep the show engaging and fun while trying to fit anywhere from one to eleven characters in the frame all at once. So figuring out how to fit them and make the blocking work was the most exciting and challenging part and the Chatties.
netTVnow: Was there anything else that was particularly difficult?
SL: Thinking about it now, the Chatties were definitely difficult. The thing that drew me in most was the inclusion of them. It was just a different way of doing the whole vlog format and something that you and I grew up with, with MSN or messenger. So having all the chats pop up in the corner was really unique and coordinating them with the actors and showing them how it was going to play out in the final product.
netTVnow: I thought that was such a great idea on the creators’ side because no one’s really thought to do that yet.
SL: Which is surprising because it fits so well. You don’t have to have the actors re-tell what’s happened. You can be there, see it happening and be in the thick of action with the characters which allows our audience to become our Inseparables.
So when you’re shooting, is someone off screen reading the Chatties and queueing up when you need a reaction? I’m sure that affected your directing method a bit.
Definitely! We actually had Sarah (Shelson) for the most part because she knew the Chatties so intimately. Before we started shooting she wrote the Chatties out in very short form so that we only had the ones written up that the cast members had to respond to. The Chatties were lined up to the camera so that the actor’s eye level was correct when looking at them. That’s something we also did with the live episode. We had a teleprompter setup, where we would send the Chatties live to the actors and lined it up with the camera to keep the eye line consistent and keep that world reliable.
netTVnow: I did notice that! It was very natural and fluid for characters to be reading and reacting to the Chatties.
SL: That’s something we really wanted to do when we were figuring out the world, which is super important for web series because you don’t want to establish something with your audience and then go back and be like, “Oh wait!” You always want to establish that trust even if it’s something as subtle as the characters reading it from one point but not beyond that. We sort of drew a line on set and established rules very early on about how an actor should respond to a Chattie, where their eye line should be and such.
netTVnow: You talked a bit about your experience, can you give a brief background on yourself in the industry?
SL: I remember incorporating videos in any way that I could in high school and it irked my teachers so much [laughs] but they were lovely and really fostered my love for it. I went to Ryerson RTA, School of Media. I specialized in the digital media stream, so I learned more of the technical part of it. I remember in my fourth year, doing my practicum project and I did a web series, I had this sort of existential moment when I was close to graduating where I was going, “I have to find a job, I need to have a life plan, I need to get on that,” [laughs] so I applied everywhere and was hired by RTR Media which does income property. So I was shooting and editing all of their web content for their YouTube channel. It was all lifestyle, edutainment, How-To type videos. I did that for about two years, doing five episodes a week. It was very much a crash course in how to do video.
At the same time my sister and I created a web series called Ron Lit, she’s an English PhD student, so she shared her views of books and added a bit more educational spin on literature. From then on I went freelance, started my own company with a couple of business partners, a small digital agency called Sore Thumb. That’s when I really started doing my own projects and then became involved with Cherrydale Productions.
I also went to Ryerson with the Cherrydale folks, they were a year younger but we got along swimmingly and I jumped at the opportunity to work with them again.
netTVnow: I'd like to talk about the live episode a bit, what did you do to prep for that? In the event something were to go wrong, did you guys have a backup plan?
SL: We had plans A through Zed [laughs]. We started by sending the scripts out, giving the actors some time with it, I had long email conversations with everyone about their characters and where they were at. At that point, we had already finished the entire series so we needed to get them back into the headspace and remind them of where their character needs to be for the episode.
We had the cast and crew rehearse a few times before, we had a whole tech rehearsal where we actually tested all the tech side of things for the episode. Sarah was really the master at that and was instrumental in all the coordinating of that stuff. We were lucky enough to have the 8th floor of Corus Entertainment, a huge production company here in Canada. The night before I remember just thinking of the most ridiculous apocalyptic scenarios and then we rehearsed it three times right before we actually went live.
netTVnow: Wait, three times in the same day?
SL: Yes! Three times before we went live and we filmed each of them. What we found when we were actually shooting the series before was that take number four was our magical one. So I like to think it was intentional but it totally wasn’t [laughs]. So it was the fourth take that we went live on and the cast just nailed every single thing they had to do. It was flawless.
netTVnow: As a director, what are the types of things that you take into consideration when setting up to shoot a series?
SL: The first thing is probably the audience. I find that if you don’t have an audience mind then it’s way tougher to find the audience in post-production. WIth All For One, we were super specific as to who our target audience was which made it very easy to figure out things like how quickly the Chatties should go, small details like that, to larger things like which channel we should distribute the series on. I think that’s why web series thrive is because you can appeal to those niches and they’re so supportive and engaged that you want to target them and make a web series for them.
The other thing to take into consideration would be how to keep them engaged. I mentioned it before but having a cliffhanger for each episode really kept audiences coming back for more. Finding a way to really hook people in and make them feel something for the characters so that they feel invested in their journeys is super important.
Then there’s the more technical side of things where we had countless production meetings covering absolutely everything. We had multiple meetings with Amanda Wong who was our incredible costume designer. She put together mood boards for every single one of the characters. We had meetings with Giovanna Gatto and Hannah Martin who are our set decor team and just talked about how Dorothy’s apartment would look. They went above and beyond and went as far to take out certain levels of dish soap per episode [laughs] even though our shooting schedule was a bit all over the place! They had a master chart to follow for each episode, so that continuity would be good.
One of the things that was new for our team at least was working with a network. The series also showed on ABC Spark and they had a really hands on supportive team who came out to set everyday and even to our wrap party and live episode!
netTVnow: As someone who re-watches episode to try and find little tidbits here and there, I was wondering if the camera was tilted in any way. I noticed that you have so much space in the apartment that it looks like the set is almost slanted so you can fit more in the background.
SL: I love that you noticed! We actually had the camera set up looking straight at the kitchen at first and then we were like, “No! It’s going to cut off the doorway which we desperately need!” So we actually shifted the camera a little bit to the right. So it does look like it’s on a bit of an angle but Loft 404 where we shot the series, if you watch any of their videos online, their spaces are really eclectic and everything is shaped a little bit differently than it would normally. So with the wall that juts out that’s “the bathroom” is actually one door over and the door where you see Dan Mousseau who plays Miller, enter is actually the broom closet [laughs]. We actually had our gaffer put a light in there to make it look more like a bathroom.
But yes! The camera was angled a bit and I think when you have the ability to do that, to help make the story stronger, then why not? No one’s going to care if things are perfectly symmetrical, it makes things so much more interesting!
netTVnow: I really noticed the angle when you had scenes with majority of the cast in the shot. You have some pretty tall and some pretty short cast members!
SL: [Laughs] We do! The short thing helped quite a bit because all of our four Musketeers range between about 5’1” to 5’2” [laughs] and so we drew like an imaginary line where we had the carpet lined up, for how far they could go into frame without having to bend down and get their head cut off. But with Dan, that was definitely a challenge. He was great though, he’s a theater kid and he would just figure out ways to open his body up and make sure that we were getting as much of him in the frame without overpowering Gwenlyn (Cumyn). Especially when you see them standing next to each other.
netTVnow: Advice for those who want to become a director?
SL: Make your own work. When you graduate, you can’t expect there to be people offering you work left and right. It’s a field that’s very competitive and you do have to create your own stuff and make it happen until you attract the attention of someone who is able to give you a project that you want to work on and is able to take you to the next level. Another thing I’d say is to learn everything you can about every aspect of film making. As a director, your job is to make sure that everyone’s thinking on the same page, that everyone is on the same page and you’re creating one cohesive, clear story.
Also knowing what each of your crew members does, not to micromanage, but in order to make sure you’re able to provide them with what they need is tremendously valuable. Don’t be afraid to get out there and talk to people in the industry to learn more about it and actually do hands on stuff. If you can get your hands on a camera even once a week for a few minutes, it’s so valuable.
There’s really no clear cut way to learn, you really have to make it what you want and learn on the job. When I graduated from high school, I had this idea of where I was going to be in my career in the industry, but that’s not how it worked out. You have to be able to pivot and really roll with the punches because this industry is changing. It’s far more valuable to know how to keep up with it than to know how to do specific niche things.
netTVnow: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?
SL: My short film that I worked with Alejandra on! We have a cast of three and a crew of about six. We filmed it in three days at a friend’s cottage and I’m so proud of it and actually cutting it right now!