Independent filmmaking is hard. It’s time consuming, stressful, and worst of all, expensive. Continually creating is worth striving for, but for your first project you probably called in all the favors you had available, and now you’re wondering… what next?
Not every project needs to be The Last Jedi. My latest web series, Sam and Pat Are Depressed, was conceived, written, and shot in under 6 weeks, and was released about a month later, exclusively on the indie streaming service SeekaTV. I’ve always enjoyed reading case studies, so I figured I’d share my process with you all to remind you that making something cheap and efficient isn’t inherently lower quality, and might be a great way to bulk up your portfolio without filling your Facebook feed with crowdfunding pleas.
Step 1: Idea.
Since my last (much more production-intense) web series, I’ve been trying to write a script that A. is set in a single room, B. has less than three characters, and C. would only take one weekend to film.
In that vein, ‘Sam and Pat’ is based on conversations my friend Chris Cherry and I would have after therapy in our old apartment. It’s simple, about two depressed friends deconstructing the inherent awkwardness of therapy, but it’s also funny, poignant, and a story I felt was worth telling. Mental health awareness and representation is something I’m really passionate about, and something that doesn’t require a Hollywood budget to address.
It took me three days to write the script. Because I was keeping it simple, each episode was essentially a single scene, covering a different weird therapy topic, so 9 scenes total wasn’t a huge undertaking, either for writing or for production. I immediately sent the script to Chris, since it was based on us, and he loved it.
Takeaways: Having my limitations in mind all year didn’t always lead to the best writing but eventually things connected because I just kept going. You just need ONE good idea.
Step 2: Table Read/ Hiring.
I don’t know that I’d call what we did a table read, exactly, but two days after I finished the script, Chris and I read it out loud together. We knew before we brought anyone else on board we needed to decide: would we be playing “ourselves” or did we need to start casting? After reading it with each other once, we knew no one else could do it. It was us, it was ours, and now we needed a crew.
For as small a project as it was, we needed a director, a DP, a sound person, and an AD to keep us on schedule. I sent an email to our friends Andrew (director of Brains, my first web series), Michele (producer of Brains season 2 and the 2nd AD of my short film Ace and Anxious), Brandon (DP of Brains season 2 and Ace and Anxious), and Tai (sound for Ace and Anxious) to see if they’d be interested.
Takeaways: Find your team and stick together. The ideal world has everyone getting paid for their work, but this isn’t the ideal world. A solid bartering system based on mutual respect and passion can work too, if you’re ok with keeping your shoots small and efficient.
Step 3: Scheduling.
When I reached out to our potential team, a group of people we’d worked with many times, I also sent a tentative weekend shoot date, about a month away. I’ve found it’s easier to get people to concretely commit to things when you have a date in mind. We figured that given the script’s simplicity, we wouldn’t need too much time in pre-production, and I felt confident in the tentative timeline.
Tai, our sound technician, was out because he’d already booked a gig during that time, but everyone else immediately accepted and we were OFF. We’d worked without a sound person before, and though it was a pain, this was going to be a much easier shoot than literally anything else we’d ever done, so we accepted that loss and moved on.
After everyone agreed to the shoot, I sent out an official calendar invite along with three others: one, for Chris and I to go art shopping at Goodwill for weird production design elements, a second, for our first official rehearsal with Andrew, and and a third, our first official production meeting with Brandon. All of this was solidified within five days of my original idea.
Takeaway: SCHEDULE IN ADVANCE, POSSIBLY EVEN BEFORE YOU TELL PEOPLE YOU’RE MAKING SOMETHING.
Step 4: Pre-Production.
Everyone has their own system, but when I’m producing a project, my pre-production is structured around a series of spaced-out meetings that always end in a set of actionable to-do lists for every member of production. To guide these meetings I made a basic breakdown of the script. Learn how to do a break down here.
First meeting. At our first production meeting for Sam and Pat, it was me, Chris, Andrew (the director), and Brandon (the DP). I made copies of the script and we basically went through episode by episode to talk about what equipment we needed, what complicated shots Andrew wanted to get (as opposed to the classic wide shots and over-the-shoulder shots), and how we were going to make staying in a single room interesting for viewers. We didn’t make any major decisions here- we just went through the whole script and took notes about what everyone was thinking.
Second meeting. After that first meeting, the Thursday before Labor Day, we agreed to meet up as a group again on Labor Day at my apartment, our shooting location, to do an on-location rehearsal with Brandon standing by with his camera to test different shots we’d talked about. The goal of this second meeting was to see the scenes in the space and start a shot list based on them. This also served as a blocking rehearsal for Chris and me, as we had previously only run lines together.
Third meeting. Our third and final meeting, the Tuesday before our shoot (Friday evening- Sunday evening), was just me, Andrew, and Brandon, where we took what we’d talked about in the first two meetings and actually made our concrete, in-order shot list. What episodes were we most concerned about? Should they be shot first or last? Which shot within each episode should be shot first or third? In the end, it looked something like this:
Takeaways: Even though we had less than a month of pre-production, having heavily focused meetings kept us on schedule. We always knew what the meeting was about, what we wanted to accomplish, and what every teammate needed to do before the next time we saw each other.
Step 5: Shooting.
We had exactly two and a half days to film 26 pages of script, which, ordinarily, is insane. It’s “typical” for productions to average about five pages per 8 hour day, perhaps one or two more for a 12 hour day (which we were looking at). Thankfully, due to my planned script simplicity and our intense pre-production planning, we were confident we could pull it off.
Friday: Since we were filming at my apartment, we used Friday, our unofficial day, to load in all our equipment (borrowed from Brandon and Andrew), dress the set, set up all the lights, and film all our MOS shots. MOS is “motor only sync,” meaning that there’s only camera, no audio, which is much easier to shoot. This meant we’d have minimal set up the next morning and would already have a few more ambitious shots completed which made us feel successful after only a few hours.
Saturday: Our long day, allegedly. We were shooting 5 of the total 9 episodes this day (so we would have an easier Sunday) and it went pretty well, all things considered. The shot list definitely helped, in addition to our two separate rehearsals (one with just lines, one with blocking), and because it was such a small group (5 people total, cast AND crew) we managed to keep things moving at a brisk pace.
Sunday: Our shorter but more complicated day, because we were doing the more ambitious episodes with more prop work and set up and because our friend Masha was guest starring. Her scene was another MOS one and wouldn’t take more than an hour total, but adding a person to the schedule who isn’t already on set is always complicates things. In the end, it was actually perfect- we’d shot all but the final shot of the show just as she arrived, so shooting with her was a fun break for everyone before the end of the day. We wrapped and had pizza as I organized the footage, realized we’d forgotten an insert shot and set up a single light and my dinky tripod to get it, everyone went home, then I set about editing.
Takeaways: Having a shot list is good, but having a shot list in order of what you want to shoot and when is a lifesaver when you don’t have time to make those kinds of decisions the day of. And if you can set up a day early, every subsequent early morning call time feels a little less exhausting.
Step 6: Editing.
I edited the full series, after splitting our crew into two groups: “red” and “blue.” I’ve found it’s easier to edit if you’re not showing cuts to the same people over and over again. Keeping certain trusted people from seeing earlier cuts allows them to see later ones with truly fresh eyes, which especially helps with quality control towards the end. Blue team was Andrew, the director, and Michele, the AD, then I did a round of editing just with Andrew. Red team got a bit muddled because it was the holidays and everyone was traveling, so I just had Chris over early for Thanksgiving and he made some tweaks. Andrew, Chris, and I looked them over one last time (all remotely because of travel and work) before I sent the final files to Seeka.
Takeaways: Don’t have every crew member watch the edit every time you have a new version. They’ll get numb to jokes which is always disheartening and will often notice the same things every time, as opposed to giving new insights.
Step 7: Distribution
After Brains, my first web series, was chosen as an official selection at the Minnesota Webfest last year, I was extended an offer to distribute that show with SeekaTV, an indie streaming service that shared a founder with that webfest. I said yes, of course, and the experience was so lovely it got me thinking: what if I didn’t release Sam and Pat on YouTube at first, and instead offered it to Seeka for exclusive distribution through the end of the first season?
I did this because it makes us look way more legit, it added clout that the series had distribution prior to being released, and I knew SeekaTV would help us promote, which was a big help given that we had so few people working on the show that our social media outreach would be limited.
After sending along the rough cut of the pilot, Seeka was interested, and after sending them rough cuts of the rest of the season, they were on board completely. We worked out an uploading schedule, I sent them the final files for the videos and thumbnails, and less than a week later, we were officially premiered!
Takeaways: I’ve really enjoyed working with Seeka, and their support has helped tremendously, but I’ll be honest- they’re not super established, and you have to make an account to watch episodes, which has limited our initial viewings. Many friends (and even fans of our previous works) have stated that they’re holding off their viewing until we put the series on a better-known site like YouTube or Facebook.
The following guidelines were the only reason Sam and Pat was possible:
- A single location I had easy access to (bonus points for it being indoors and not having to contend with weather changes)
- A script short enough to be shot over a single weekend
- Less than three total characters
- Less than four total crew members
- Scheduling the shoot date before starting pre-production so that we had a finite deadline to plan meetings around
- Keeping meetings focused and being concrete with goals and tasks
By keeping my limitations in mind and being clear with expectations and deadlines up front, we made an entire web series, from idea to distribution, in under two months for about $75. Not every project you make has to be crowdfunded or agonized over for years. Sometimes, it’s enough to just create.