A few months ago, I was invited to be a judge for New Zealand Web Fest, which will take place in November. It was an interesting perspective shift to the other side of the festival equation, which I’d never been on before.
While I can’t speak for all festival judges you’ll ever meet, I made a few general observations that I thought might have value for creators.
Budget < Writing
Having worked with a fairly low budget for my entire catalog to date, I know the pain of wishing your show could “look better”. You do your best but in the end, there’s only so much you can do with the money you have.
But here’s the good news: one series mostly featuring conversations between pairs of characters in intimate settings touched me more than another series that clearly had a generous production budget. Why? Because the former had interesting and relatably flawed characters, whereas the latter had more cliche stock characters, albeit in a high-production setting.
Good writing can compensate for a poor budget more than the other way around.
Match Your Cinematography
One series had a Director of Photography with a keen eye, but the best shots were misplaced. A striking overhead shot was prematurely used during a relatively tame moment, about two minutes before a subsequent denouement where it would have had a greater impact. At another point, a pedestrian piece of exposition was shot with an elaborate one-take sequence that served no real purpose.
In both cases, the mismatch between the visual and storytelling aspects took me out of the story. It’s as if the director had a checklist of cool cinematographic elements to hit, but didn’t think to match them up properly with the story beats. A filmmaker must consider how a shot feels as well as looks.
Edit on Headphones
We all know that sound matters, but a few series made completely avoidable mistakes, specifically in the area of background noise.
For example, one series had a character silently looking into the distance, which cut to a silent closeup of the distant object, then back to the character. The thing is, nothing’s truly silent. The audio of the three clips had been cut in line with the video, so the background noise changed with each jump, which was noticeably jarring. It would have been better to lock in the audio from a single clip while switching the video back and forth, to have one continuous background noise covering the multiple visual transitions.
If you want to avoid similar problems, you must review your edit sequences with headphones. You won’t notice background noise problems over speakers, and the last thing you want is for headphone-wearing viewers to catch something you missed.
I found that I ended up giving greater consideration to shows that tried something unexpected, even if it didn’t quite 100% work. Many of us went into web series to do something different from television and movies, not just to recreate the same thing on a smaller scale. And really, given the number of web series out there, if you don’t put your personal touch into what you make, it’s not going to stand out.
I did my best to decide fairly and time will tell if the other judges agreed with my choices. I’m looking forward to seeing how my series The Spell Tutor was judged by others - we’re nominated in three International Narrative categories: Best Director, Best Show for Young People and the Alumni Award.