11 Lessons from a Web Series Course

Thanks to a certain online video conferencing software that shall remain nameless, I was able to take a two-day course in developing web series through MyFilmNorth. The course was run by Matt Anderson, the genius behind behind the hilarious Theater People web series.

A basic definition for a web series is a series distributed online. Web series vary widely in structure and style. They can be live action drama, sketch comedy, animated, mixed format, documentary, and even experimental.

While the course focused almost exclusively on fiction, it still offered some great starting ideas for developing nonfiction web series. Here are 11 takeaways from that class.

1. Know your “why.”

Other than the work (that is a given), what do you want to get out of creating a web series? What is your goal? Do you want to tell a story? Raise awareness about an issue? Are you trying to build a brand? Create an audience? Launch a career?

You must answer this question before you begin. Work without purpose is just work. That answer will help explain your vision to others and maybe spark their interest to contribute to your project. It also will help in motivating you to continue.

2. Web series plot on the scale between ambitions and resources.

Ideally, web series production adjusts according to ambitions and resources, falling somewhere between the two. While extra money might be nice, it is not absolutely necessary to create an engaging show. Arguably, creativity thrives better within boundaries, not openness, anyway.

3. Use the equipment you have.

A web series doesn’t need a Red Camera in order to be successful.

Anderson noted that he started his series with a Canon Rebel T3i camera and a Zoom H4N sound recorder. Other series makers use GoPros or smart phones. Anything that shoots 1080p should be fine.

Be careful not to get caught up in buying new gear that you think you might need. Again, for the people in the back (and maybe this post writer, too): Use what you have.

4. That said, learn to use the equipment you have well.

Learn your equipment inside and out, and then use it to make the shots you want to make.

Scale your shots as necessary. One series we viewed in class used three types shots, but each of those shots was perfectly framed and edited to create a beautiful visual style. Another series used mostly static shots with a highly elaborate set in the background.

In other words, plot the shots you can shoot for with what you have and do them perfectly. Don’t plan for shots you might get when you get that certain camera (someday).

5. Think like a TV show, sort of.

In other words, think in terms of episodes and seasons.

With episodes, what do you want each one to accomplish? To tell part of a single story? To work through a larger theme? To show an event in a chronology? How will you hint at other episodes within the current one to link them?

With a season, what is the overarching idea driving the episodes? By the end of the season, what should audiences walk away with?

6. Think format, too.

Format here is more the practical: How long will each episode be? What kind of structure will it have? What will the titles look like? How will you handle end credits?

7. Develop a release strategy.

Keeping the binge-prone audience in mind, develop a strategy for timing the release of your episodes.

With your initial release, you will want to have more than one episode available. Episode length is key here. If your episodes run 2-3 minutes, then you might want to release 4-5 episodes at first. If your episodes run longer, then you can reduce that number to 2-3.

Afterward, you will want to release on a regular schedule, such as once a week per season or two episodes per month. Either way, be consistent to keep audiences coming back.

8. Cultivate your community.

If you want to draw, build, and keep an audience, you will need to cultivate your community.

Many topics will have a built-in audience. If your web series focuses on horse care, then the horse community most likely will connect with you. Start by looking for allied groups that support horses, horse care, and horse rescues.

Be open to unexpected audiences. A horse care web series might draw audiences from other pet care and rescue groups. It might attract general animal lovers. Sometimes, series will bring audiences from around the world. Other audiences might watch your series because they like your style and personality.

Another part of community-building is to have online presences. Build a basic website for your series. Create branded presences on social networking sites where your audience interacts, such as the usual social networking sites but also more obscure ones that relate to your topic.

Either way, establish a presence where your audiences exist, interact with them, and avoid asking them to join you elsewhere.

9. Wait to ask for money.

Money is nice. It allows you to grow your dream and your series. But avoid asking for money before you develop any episodes.

Instead, build your community first, as your audience will be the best ambassadors for spreading the word about your campaign.

Also, people will want to know where their donation is going. Showcasing your best episodes helps solve that mystery.

Further, outtakes and other material can be repurposed to create promotional materials as part of your campaign.

10. Embrace the skills-building.

Producing a regular web series is an intense undertaking, and the fewer people involved in the production, the more hats you yourself with have to wear.

At times, this pressure might be frustrating, but embrace the opportunity. Ask questions, do research, try something. And if that doesn’t work, learn the lesson and try something else.

11. Make sure to put the series out there.

Several options exist for sharing episodes with the world. Video-sharing platforms remain the easiest. With its 1 billion plus users and free channel creation and updating, YouTube appears the obvious choice for sharing. Vimeo offers an ad-free alternative that requires subscription as your content takes up more gigabytes.

Another option is putting it on your own website. This option allows greater control but it discourages sharing.

Film festivals also offer ways to reach audiences you might not reach through video-sharing. Both online fests and regular fests sometimes have options for web series competitions.

Most important: Add closed captions.

To ensure that more people can enjoy your web series, make sure to add closed captions. You can do this yourself, or you can hire a company to help you.

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