Not being able to pay your cast and crew is an issue shared by many web series creators, and here at Stareable we’ve written about that extensively. We’ve covered what you can offer instead of payment, how to fundraise so you could pay, and even how to make your second season/second project better than the first so it still seems worth pouring passion into for people other than you.
Today, however, I want to start at the source- the script. Many first time writers, especially ones burdened with producer brain and all too aware of their own lack of resources, will think only of story, character, and filming feasibility. Seems like enough, right? Not in the case of low budget projects, because you aren’t just pitching your (likely unpaid) crew on the story- you’re also pitching them on their involvement in it.
Emotional range. Even if your project is primarily a comedy, try to give an actor or character a few beats of genuine drama if you can- this will give the actor more options for their reel, or the ability to use one project for both a comedy and drama reel.
A variety of line lengths. A character who only has short, one-sentence lines won’t have a ton of options for their aforementioned reel, so having a few longer lines to showcase their performance or even monologues within episodes will go a long way. Don’t force a monologue into a show that doesn’t need monologues, but consider how you can give individual performers more opportunities to shine.
Character stakes. No one is going to want to join an unpaid project just to play “wife.” If a supporting cast member needs to be on set for more than a day, give their character stakes in the story and plot. This is just as much a story note as it is an actor one- if you find yourself with a character with more than two lines who isn’t impacting the story, ask yourself why that character is even there.
Emotional range. Directors are similar to actors in that they need to be able to prove to future employers they have the chops for all different scene tones. Depending on the project, an actor’s performance can say just as much about the director as the actor themselves, so give them something to work with!
Non-speaking scenes. Actors are obviously still incredibly important to transition or nonspeaking scenes, but these are where directors really get to shine, simultaneously proving they can guide actors beyond how to say lines as well as setting up compelling sequences that move the story visually.
Blocking opportunities. Nothing is less interesting than two characters sitting on a couch and talking, although in some cases it’s both necessary and compelling, depending on the scene. Nevertheless, try to write in character movement so that your director can play with physicality and how it impacts story and visuals.
Outdoor scenes. Filming outdoors is a super sneaky way to make a production look way more legit than it actually is, and that translates to reels as well. A DP with a reel of people talking in apartments isn’t set up for success the way a DP with gorgeous outdoor wide shots, even if the content of the scene is identical to the apartment.
Interesting interiors. Of course, I know it’s more feasible (and easier on your sound person) if you shoot indoors, where you have a lot more control. That in mind, try to find and write for locations with interesting textures, colors, and layouts. Write for locations with depth, because nothing is worse on a DP and an audience than two characters pressed up against a white wall.
Movement opportunities. Similar but not identical to the blocking opportunities you should gift your director with, there’s nothing more boring for a DP than setting up a camera on a tripod, framing it nicely, and then sitting for 45 minutes while your actors go through their lines. Narrative vlog series are especially hard on DPs, so I’d recommend either adding a lot more moments for the characters to walk around with their in-world cameras or avoiding hiring a DP altogether, maybe just asking for a quick consultation. They don’t need to be on set if the frame doesn’t change for 8 hours, but their perspective is still needed and valuable.
Shadows. It might seem counterproductive, but the folks in charge of lighting often have a lot more fun in the dark. Writing in moments where a character doesn’t have to be fully lit -night shots, dramatic reveals, etc- will give your gaffer a challenge and a thrill.
Unique colors. Often overlooked is the fact that lighting doesn’t have to just light a room, it can also color it. Are there moments in the script where a character can be cast in a purple or green glow? Can you write a scene where one character is lit blue and the other is lit red, to showcase some kind of subtle struggle?
Keep it Kwick. If someone has to give up a vacation day or an opportunity for paid work to be a part of your project, try to take up as little of their time as possible, so shorter scripts will always win you favor. Obviously this is a case by case basis kind of thing, and the first time you ask for a favor you’ll probably be able to get more from people. Once you get past that first passion project, though, repeat teammates will likely prefer shorter projects if they’re still not getting paid.
Genre variety. If you’re planning on dipping into a consistent well of folks for help bringing your scripts to life, try to inject some genre variety so that it always feels like you’re working on something fresh and unique. This will give everyone inherently more variety for their reels and also give them experience to list on resumes that spans past “two people comically conversing in an apartment.”
Just make it good. While it’s worth keeping in mind the different things different team members will get out of a project on a technical level, there’s nothing more important than writing something people think is good. Not every script needs a political call to action or a social justice theme, but make sure you write something you care about. If you care and your script reflects that, others will be willing to come on board.
These are creative people, so let them be creative! The more you let your cast and crew play, the more personally invested they’ll be in the overall success of the project, and that is priceless.