12 to Midnyte: A Recap of Creating an Online Serial
I’ve always wanted to produce a dramatic series that played on local TV. It seems as if all regional shows are always about sports or information and never about narrative. I understand this, as a sports or news or cooking show has a lot more longevity and is easier to create than any kind of storytelling. When you tell a story you need a script, a director, actors, locations and crew--and that’s just for starters. A serial was also something that intrigued me. I wanted something episodic that would generate suspense and end each week with a cliffhanger.
In January of 2009, I sat down with two good friends of mine, Jason Marty and Chris Henderson. Jason had recently been hired by Comcast to be in charge of all their local Video On Demand content and Chris was a seasoned screenwriter. Jason explained that he wanted some original content to go up on his VOD channel and was wondering if we filmmakers had anything for him.
Immediately, my dramatic series popped into my head. I had the basic idea ready, so I pitched it: a group of people wake up in a perpetually dark, abandoned town with no memories of their own, only a common memory between them. Jason liked it and Chris agreed to flesh out the idea into twelve 5-10 minute episodes. Time was going to be a major problem as I wanted to debut this mystery story on March 13, which also happened to be Friday the 13th. The show would be called Midnight, and would play out over twelve weeks, with a new episode hitting Comcast and YouTube every Friday.
I also had to pitch the idea to my employer, Lunawebs, a web developer who had recently hired me to be their entire video department. I sold them on the story, as well as the marketing angle for the company. Midnight would essentially be a commercial for Lunawebs, with each episode branded with their logo and our entire budget coming from company coffers. My boss, Shad Vick, would oversee the entire production.
Once we had the go ahead, Chris and I began working on the script. Actually, it was more like Chris would write and write and write, send me the pages and then we’d get together to collaborate. This went on for the rest of January. Writing is a difficult process and I was grateful to have Chris on board. His understanding of character and story arc was critical, and it was something I never would have been able to do on my own. A good script is a must for crafting a good story. There’s no way around it. We broke some rules (like stepping away from writing for six weeks for a fresh approach) and some things changed (Midnight became Midnyte, the five people became five women and the darkened town became an overcast city) but I felt we both hammered out something worthwhile in the allotted time frame.
During the writing process, I contacted a former actor of mine, who was currently a working casting assistant, Tye Nelson. I had pitched the idea to him and had sent him a script with the intent of using him as our casting director. He has a love for sci-fi and enjoyed working with me previously and I was grateful when he read the script and jumped on board.
An audition notice was posted at the same time Lunawebs created a website promoting the show. The audition notice was on the site, as was a blog (which started here) that I contributed to. I would create entries of weird news stories that were real, as well as give production updates. I also began a daily video blog, that would comment on the production. It was hoped this content would drive interest and give people a reason to come to the site on a regular basis, become interested in what they were seeing and start generating buzz.
When it was time for auditions, we had a really good turnout of about eighty actors. This was largely due to Tye who really put the word out. He is very connected and contacted agencies, personal friends and acting classes to let everyone know about our project. It was also notable that this turnout was in spite of the fact that this was a six week commitment with no pay. “Copy and meals provided” was all we could offer. That, and a hopefully good experience on a unique story. Callbacks were held and we soon had our five leads and four supporting players.
Shooting was to start within two weeks and we had a read-through that very week when disaster struck. Our costumer that Chris and I had been collaborating with suddenly decided that the time frame was too stringent and backed out. This was crushing, but provided me with material for the video blog, which I happily posted (without naming names).
The next night we had our table read. Everyone seemed excited by this strange and unique tale. Afterward, Chris and I met with the cast to discuss costumes and found ourselves quickly over our head. Fortunately for us, an actress who had come to auditions (Rochelle Durkee) was also an accomplished costumer/makeup artist and volunteered her services. She was a huge blessing to our production and really saved us.
The next time the cast met was to do interviews and meet up with Rochelle for costuming. The interviews were shot for the purpose of placing on YouTube and Comcast in between each story episode. It was another method of content creation surrounding the story that would hopefully create excitement and draw people in to watch the show.
Locations were scouted and secured and production finally started with me acting as the director and cinematographer and Chris as the assistant director. Ahren Young, whom I had also previously worked with, was our audio man and Doug Clift did just about anything we needed him to. Shad Vick, my boss, was the Executive Producer and Jeff Nicholson (Luna’s creative director) was the Associate Producer.
After two weeks of shooting, we had the footage for five episodes. I then had two weeks to edit Episode 1, while I continued to shoot the remaining seven. Actually, I had about one week to get an episode picture locked that could be scored by our composer, Seth Neuffer. This gave him little time to do his job, but we were all on a compressed schedule with deadlines to meet. He was more than up to the challenge.
So went our sliding schedule. I would edit all day for the first part of the week, then shoot during the last part. When I had something ready to score, I’d render a low-res file and upload it to a free file server like SendSpace. Seth (who lives in California) would download the file, score it, then re-upload it for me to look at. We would then go back and forth via email with notes and changes. I’ve worked with Seth several times and really like his music. The score for Midnyte was very emotional and powerful and lent a lot of weight to the story.
When everything was where I wanted it, I’d show it to Shad, who would recommend changes or give the green light to upload. Sometimes we disagreed, but the show moved forward and was completed. By the end of May, all episodes of Midnyte were on Comcast, YouTube and the Midnyte website. The run was complete.
Midnyte was quite a feat when you consider we started with nothing at the beginning of the year and six months later the show was over. It was a grueling, tough schedule, but it was a very good experience. I learned so much an grew quite a bit as a storyteller.
There are always lessons learned when you embark on any sort of filmmaking adventure such as this one. I would be remiss if I didn’t share these in an effort to give back to so many who have given to me. The following are five things that really hit home concerning the process of Midnyte.
Time and consistency are important to creating grass-roots hype. One big mistake I made was pushing for a quick release date, instead of getting the whole project in the can and allowing for promotional opportunities. As it was, there was really no time to get the word out in any creative manner to allow for buzz to build. The video blogs were a good idea, but the plug was pulled prematurely. Had we been able to continue blogging every day and been given more time to some marketing, results would have been better. We did get a little press coverage, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
Being organized will save your shoot and your reputation. My best shoot days were the ones that I had storyboarded and prepared shot lists for. Things went smoothly and looked well thought out. When I was behind and wasn’t able to storyboard, I had to improvise and ended up wasting everyone’s time. Not only is this bad for the production, but it will undermine everyone’s confidence in you. Being prepared will show everyone involved that you know what you are doing. I had a great asset in my AD (Assistant Director). He was very good at preparing a shooting schedule and had people showing up when they were needed, instead of waiting around all day. Chris made us all look good.
Working with someone above you can be trying, but that’s how it is in the big leagues. One thing I was not used to was not having final say on every aspect of the production. As a result, there was some friction, but it helped me realize that if I ever wanted to graduate from the super-low budget level, I’d have to work with others that were contributing financially and would demand input. Diplomacy is a tough lesson to learn sometimes as you have to balance art with commerce while maintaining the vision that sold everyone on the project in the first place.
Don’t neglect your actors. Since I was directing as well as running the camera, I was very busy and didn’t give the time I wanted to working with the talent. Actors want you to direct them, and when you can’t, the production will suffer. I didn’t want to use a DP (Director of Photography) in an effort to economize personnel, but it was a mistake. With a DP, you can focus more on your actors’ needs and take a load off of yourself. I’ve worked with a cinematographer since Midnyte, and can see why it’s the norm.
Five minutes an episode is too short. One comment we heard the most was that people would just get into an episode and it was over. Others told us they just waited until all the episodes were available so they could watch the entire show (which takes about an hour). These comments taught me a couple of things. Episodes should be ten minutes instead of five (the YouTube maximum length) and it might even be a good idea to put all the episodes up at once. With TV shows being entirely on DVD, why not have your show up all at once?