web series

How to Make a Web Series

Let’s say you’re at a point in your career as a budding filmmaker or even as a film student in which you have produced, directed, or written a short film and you’re pining to create a feature film or TV series. Selling a feature film or TV series is hard. It takes connections, tenacity, and examples of your writing, producing, and directing abilities. That’s where a web series may be a next step to achieving your goal. In order to accomplish this, you will need to conceive of a strong idea that can span anywhere from 4 to 12 episodes or “webisodes,” write an episode outline that includes a logline for each “webisode,” and write episode scripts that can range from 1 page (60 seconds) to 10 pages (10 minutes).

In our exploration of how to make a web series, we’ll also focus on the following elements of pre-production:

  1. Budgeting
  2. Casting
  3. Finding locations
  4. Hiring crew
  5. Garnering gear
  6. Scheduling

Read on for insights on the process, plus inspiring success stories!

Coming Up with an Idea

As with feature film and short film making, a core idea that is compelling, unique, and robust is absolutely necessary for your web series to be successful. Without a great concept and interesting story, you will waste your time and your audience’s time with something that bores them.

Crafting great stories is hard and one way to avoid the cliché pitfalls many untrained storytellers encounter is to write stories that are personal and have a clear identity. Do you want to write comedy? Great! Then think about the funny moments from your own life and consider how you can flesh out at least a season’s worth of short webisodes that are not only personal, but connect with as large of an audience as possible (or, at the very least, a niche audience that will really appreciate your vision.)

In a previous article I have written for CareersInFilm.com, I list several clichés you should try to avoid and it might be good to review those before embarking on your web series.

The Logline

So you have a seminal idea; a story you not only want to tell but feel you need to tell. The first step is fleshing out your logline followed by a webisode outline.

A strong logline will clearly and impactfully illustrate your web series in a straightforward, no-nonsense way. It’s best to show you some examples including:

Her Story: “A six-episode web series about two transgender women who explore love and dating while living in Los Angeles.”

Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis: “A mock-interview series in which Zach Galifianakis interviews real celebrities in the most absurd and awkward way possible as if on a public access style TV show.”

The Line: “Fans of a fictitious movie called FutureSpace get in line 11 days before the film opens and interact with all of the off-beat and nerdy characters who jockey for position to be the first to see the movie.”

A strong logline serves as your elevator pitch so you can clearly and quickly articulate what your web series is about; it’s important when communicating your vision to cast, crew, locations, potential investors, Producers, Directors, and Editors.

Not only will you write a series logline, but you will also write a logline for each episode as well.

The Outline

When starting out, don’t bite off more than you can chew. It would be wise not to reach too far with a 12-episode season, but rather a 4 to 6-episode season of 3 to 5-minute episodes. The good thing about this formula is you will end up with enough material that can then be potentially re-packaged into a pilot episode for television.

Each episode or webisode should be fleshed out with 3 to 5 sentences about what each one will be about including characters, setting, and plot. Do not get too detailed and do not over-write the explanations.

Each brief paragraph should simply show the development and cohesiveness of the entire series so that everyone – from executives to cast – understand the overall story arc of the series. Here is an example from a comic book themed series I pitched years ago:

It would also be beneficial to you to really research and study successful series’ outlines and here is a fantastic resource for you.

Script Writing

Hopefully, you have familiarized yourself with screenplay format and you remember that setting, characters, and plot are the basic structure always working in the back of your mind when you’re writing. If not, here is an example of screenplay structure from a web series I wrote called Sexcommunicated about a 20-year veteran Priest who leaves the priesthood and starts dating in Los Angeles:

FADE IN:

EXT. SMALL HOME – NIGHT [SETTING]

It’s a two-story, modest home in a quiet Los Angeles suburb.

CUT TO:

INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT
Various pots of steaming food percolate on the stove. The hands of DAVIN’s father reach in – one holding a spoon and the other holding a bowl. His name is FERGUS.

FERGUS [CHARACTER]
(proudly)
I hope you enjoy this. I started it this morning for me and your mom, but there’s plenty for all of us.

CUT TO:

THE KITCHEN TABLE

DAVIN sits there looking at his father as his father places the bowl in front of DAVIN.

DAVIN
Thanks dad.

FERGUS calls out to DAVIN’s mother.

FERGUS
Shauna! Quit messing with that toilet and come down here. Dinner’s ready.

Fergus plops down in his seat.

FOOTSTEPS can be heard coming down the stairs.

SHAUNA, DAVIN’s mom (60s), walks into the kitchen and stops. She has a plunger in one hand as she puts her hands on her hips.

SHAUNA
(to DAVIN)
What’s this shit I hear about what happened at church this morning? You yelled at that Lisa Burk girl – made a whole scene in front of Miriam Mahoney! [PLOT]

Davin is wide-eyed.

DAVIN
How in the hell could you possibly know that?

SHAUNA
Oh, I have my sources.

Fergus is just about to eat a spoonful of stew.

FERGUS
Miriam posted it on Facebook.

DAVIN
That old woman is on Facebook???

Shauna sits down.

SHAUNA
Oh son, everyone is online today.

DAVIN
I’m not.

When writing your web series script, it’s important to note that each page, when formatted correctly like above, will equal approximately 1 minute of screen time. Of course, this can vary depending on how much description you write and if you have stunts or action sequences, but the general rule of thumb is 1 page equals 1 minute.

Therefore, if you write 3 pages, you have a 3-minute episode. Try to avoid too much description in your script and make it is as bare bones as possible. Write the essential description and dialogue and try to avoid narration at all costs. Narration is generally a cop-out and you’ll spend too much time telling rather than showing.

Finally, each episode – whether 1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, or 10 minutes – should end on a cliff hanger that bridges one episode to the next. Since you’re writing a series, each episode should tell a story arc that connects, forming a complete story from beginning to end.

Each episode or webisode should be fleshed out with 3 to 5 sentences about what each one will be about including characters, setting, and plot. Do not get too detailed and do not over-write the explanations.

Budgeting

Producing or directing a web series is going to cost money and it’s almost impossible to create one without funding of some type. Film students have an advantage because they can rely on their classmates and gear provided by film school to create a web series.

Smaller markets in the Midwest may also offer an easier environment to produce a web series because filmmakers there may be willing to create something for free just so they have an example of their work to showcase online and maybe even get future paid work through that process.

However, in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, New Orleans, and Atlanta – where the film industry is working – it may be harder to get crew and cast to work for free. Besides, paying your crew even minimum wage in your area is both beneficial to crew and you in creating long-term relationships of trust and appreciation.

If each episode of your web series is character-driven and not location or effects heavy, you could reasonably produce each episode for around $1,000. That’s why producing 4 episodes with a clear beginning, middle, and end is easier than creating 10 episodes. $4,000 is easier to afford than $10,000.

In fact, it may be best to simply create a 3-minute pilot episode first. Then you have an example that could help you raise money through crowdfunding or even a studio investor who thinks your project may do well on YouTube, Amazon, or Hulu.

Casting

Casting can feel overwhelming and ultra important and that’s because it is. Your vision will be brought to life by the cast and bad acting will demolish your script and your vision.

It’s important to also cast Actors who can perform in the entire series. Unlike short films, you will need to have the cast available on multiple days for multiple episodes, so make sure your cast is able to show up on all the shoot dates.

Auditions can be done in a classroom, a board room, or an office, but please don’t hold auditions in your living room. It’s weird and you need your potential cast to feel comfortable.

When casting, search for Actors who can not only emote with sincerity and charisma, but who also embody the character in their look, their mannerisms, and their body language.

Share with potential cast members at least one page of action and dialogue from your script and ask them to come to the audition with a short monologue. A good Actor will already know this and I have cast people not necessarily based on my script, but on their monologue. They have had more time with their monologue than they have had with your single script page. The Actor’s monologue will allow him or her to show what they can do when they have had time to really rehearse.

Record the audition. You will see new things you didn’t see when you auditioned an Actor in person. Even recording it on your phone is better than nothing.

Refer to the people you audition as Actors – this encompasses men, women, and children. An Actor is an artist and since we call all Painters “Painters,” refer to all Actors as “Actors.”

Here are some resources to find Actors:

  1. Casting sites like backstage.com, mandy.com, actorsaccess.com, and even craigslist.com are all great places to find talented, passionate, hungry, and hopefully affordable cast members.
  2. Local playhouses. Many Stage Actors also want to be Screen Actors. They have experience with memorizing lines and acting in scenes. Go see a play or simply post your casting call on their bulletin board the old-fashioned way with a sheet of paper and a thumbtack. Include an email you register explicitly for the casting of your short film. Otherwise, your regular email will be inundated with responses and oversized headshots. Do not include a phone number unless you want a ton of calls and voicemails you may not have time for during pre-production.
  3. YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram are all resources to watch other short films, sketches, short bits, and even casting reels. The internet is your number one research tool so use it!

Finding locations

Locations not only serve as a backdrop but should also be considered characters in your web series. Find locations that accentuate the performance. Find locations that share a theme with the style and tone of your web series.

Here are some ways to find locations:

  1. Friends, Family, and You: Depending on the scope of your web series, sometimes the best locations are found through people you know, including yourself. Your apartment may be perfect for your story. Or, if you need a bar or restaurant, think of the people you know who may work as a Bartender or Server and tap them as a possible connection to a location. Maybe your parents have a house that’s perfect and they could let you shoot on a weekend. Saving money is key and anyone you know who can help you could save you that money.
  2. Peerspace.com is a great site that offers locations from private owners who, for often a small fee, will let you shoot your web series there. Options range from homes to restaurants to stages to rooftops. Just type in your location and what you’re looking for and PeerSpace will show you options. Then you can contact the owners directly and try to work out a deal.
  3. Airbnb.com is another site that could be a locations resource to you. Similar to Peerspace.com, Airbnb allows you to book homes, often at reasonable prices. However, please be honest with the location contact that you are shooting a web series there so they know what they are getting into. Their insurance may not cover film shoots.
  4. Film location sites like locationshub.com also offer you the opportunity to search for locations, but there will be fees associated with these locations and each one is different, so you’ll have to do your research.
  5. Local film commissions. Simply doing a Google search for your area on film commissions will often lead to Location Managers and locations. Fees depend on each area and you’ll have to research those, too.

Getting Permission

The rules and laws governing locations differ from state to state and even city to city. In Los Angeles, working closely with Film LA is important to locking in locations legally and safely. However, this comes at a cost. The base location fee for up to 10 locations is $650 in Los Angeles and goes up from there. Chances are, you are going to want to save that money. To avoid the risk of getting shut down by local authorities, if you are going to shoot in any residential areas or on streets, you must first secure permits with your local film office. Shooting in public places may require a Police presence too and you need to start your permitting process no less than 2 weeks in advance of your first shoot date. Film offices are often busy places and you can’t leave the approval of your permits to chance. Granted, on low-budget music videos, you may not be able to afford costs that on the low end may end up being $1,000. Therefore, you may want to find private locations and have zero trucks or crew parking on the streets. It can get sketchy, but if you find a sound stage with private parking, then you should be OK. However, you should research all filming laws in your area before shooting.

It’s not what you shoot with but how you shoot! There are literally countless cameras, lighting packages, audio gear, and post-production tools that can be used to create your web series. Stop worrying about the best camera and the best whatever.

Hiring Crew

Film students have an advantage when it comes to assembling crew because their classmates are hungry, passionate, and hopefully driven. As a former educator at Full Sail University, I saw time and time again students who didn’t work with other students to produce a killer webisode. The film industry is about collaboration and you have to develop the skill to talk with your classmates that inspires them to join your team. Students attend film school because they want to make movies. Remember that. All of those classmates are a resource.

What if you’re not a film student and still want to find a crew? That is totally doable by using the myriad of online resources on the web including:

  1. Facebook. There are fantastic and established Facebook pages dedicated to putting together film crews including “I Need Crew,” “Film & TV Network Group,” “I Need a Producer,” and “I Need a Camera Op.” Typically, the thousands of members are very friendly and live all over the United States. However, asking for free labor is frowned upon and expect negative responses if you don’t have something – at least minimum wage – to offer.
  2. Craigslist. Craigslist has sections devoted to “gigs” and “tv / film / video.” These are great boards to search for crew. Just be clear about what you need and be honest about budget. If the budget is zero, mention that. If it is low, mention that, too.
  3. Staffmeup.com and MediaMatch.com. These sites typically cater to paid production jobs, however, even Staffmeup.com has a section for “Passion Projects.” Use it.

Garnering Gear

It’s not what you shoot with but how you shoot! There are literally countless cameras, lighting packages, audio gear, and post-production tools that can be used to create your web series. Stop worrying about the best camera and the best whatever. If you’re a film student, then great, you should have access to decent gear. For you Producers and Directors out there without gear, it’s ok to use more affordable cameras, including your cell phone, as long as it shoots at 1080p 2K. Talk to your crew and see what they have. In today’s independent filmmaking world, tons of potential crew members already own great gear.

When it comes to audio, don’t cut corners. A good Audio Operator will usually come to the table with his or her own mixer, lavs, and a boom. Rely on them to give you the best audio possible. They know what they are doing and it’s up to you to trust them. As long as they can give you clean and reliable audio, you will be fine. Avoid noisy locations and flight paths when scouting locations. Don’t think you can solve it in post with ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement). Re-recording dialogue in post often sounds canned and lacks the emotional delivery that should have been recorded in the field or on a soundstage.

With lighting, this is a conversation you have to have with your Director of Photography. Remember, you don’t have to know everything. If you’re the Writer or Director, be brave enough to relinquish total control. Speak to your DP in visual terms. Yes, he or she needs to know the story, but it’s way more important that he or she understands the visual language of your short film. The best way to do that is with comparative visuals and movies. Scour the web for screenshots and pictures of paintings, photographs, and movies you love and share those with your DP. He or she will understand when you “speak” in visual terms. Don’t get bogged down in the backstory and the dialogue. Share what’s necessary and rely on the visual examples to lead the way.

Scheduling

Since you’re most likely working with limited funds and limited time, it is very important to schedule your web series logically and efficiently. For example, if you are shooting 4 total episodes and the same bakery appears in all 4 episodes, then you should try to shoot out all the scenes needed for each episode – back to back.

That means if your characters are in different costumes for each episode, you need to bring those costumes to the bakery for all 4 episodes. Shooting on weekends may be your best bet, since crew and cast will most likely have day jobs, and you can save money at a location if you shoot out all the scenes that take place at that location in 1 day instead of 4.

You have to think in these terms for everything: cast availability, crew availability, gear availability, and location availability. Try to think of each episode as part of a whole and consider how you can shoot out everything you need depending on the location and the other elements just mentioned.

Success Stories

A really well-produced web series can certainly pave the way to television, as have many of them. Here is a list of TV shows that started on the web:

Children’s Hospital: This off-beat and frankly weird Adult Swim TV show was started online by Comedian and Actor Rob Corddry. It began with 10 episodes in 2008 and ending up running for 5 seasons on TV.

I Ship It: I had the pleasure of being the 2nd Assistant Director on season 2 of I Ship It. It’s a series about roommates Ella and Tim who start a band inspired by fandom culture. Season 1 aired online on The CW Seed and Season 2, originally scheduled to air again on The CW Seed will now air on TV on The CW.

Broad City: Seasons 1 and 2 originally aired online until Amy Poehler discovered it and helped bring it to Comedy Central.

The point of producing or directing a web series is to demonstrate how you can create a long-form series that goes beyond a short film. Short films are great and they can find a home in festivals and may even lead to creating features. However, a successfully-crafted web series can also help you not only hone your production skills but also get the attention of established Actors and executives who will elevate your career to the next level. Depending on where you are in your developing career, a web series may be your next step.

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