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The lowest budget project I’ve ever made from start to finish

As some of you have probably seen from my incessant emailing and social media outreach, I have a new web series! It’s called Sam and Pat Are Depressed, it’s being distributed exclusively by SeekaTV through the end of its first season (meaning it’ll drop on YouTube and Facebook in early February), and I thought it might be a useful case study to those worried about how expensive and time-consuming making a web series can be.

  1. Idea. All year I’ve been trying to write a script cheap enough to produce with minimal cast and a single room that would only take a weekend. Sam and Pat is based on conversations my friend Chris Cherry and I would have after therapy in our living room at our old apartment, and one day I was thinking about one of our funniest- where Chris worried he was depressing his therapist- and just started writing and there it was- the cheapest idea possible that was still a story worth telling.
    1. Takeaways: Having my limitations in mind all year didn’t always lead to the best writing but eventually things connected because I just kept going. You just need ONE good idea.
  2. Writing. It took me three days to write the script, possibly less. Because I was keeping it simple, each episode was essentially a single scene, so 9 scenes total wasn’t a huge undertaking. Again- I knew my limitations. I knew I couldn’t afford more than a two day shoot and that I couldn’t ask my friends to work for free for longer than that either. Plus, for me, writing is the easy part.
  3. Table Read/ Hiring. I don’t know that I’d call what we did a table read, exactly, but two days after I finished the script, Chris and I read it together. I’d already sent it to him and he loved it and we knew before we brought anyone else on board we needed to decide: would we be playing “ourselves” or did we need to start casting? After reading it aloud for the first time, we knew no one else could do it. It was us, it was ours, and now, we needed a crew. For as small a project as it was, we needed a director, a DP, a sound person, and an AD to keep us on schedule. We threw in a wardrobe person because that’s a job that could be done remotely and we wanted our good friend Rebecca McDonald to be involved because she’s lovely. I sent an email to our friends Andrew (director of Brains), Michele (producer of Brains s2, 2nd AD of Ace and Anxious), Brandon (DP of Brains s2 and Ace and Anxious), and Tai (sound for Ace and Anxious) to see if they’d be interested.
    1. Takeaways: Find your team and stick together. The ideal world has everyone getting paid for their work, but this isn’t the ideal world. A solid bartering system based on mutual respect and passion can work too, if you’re ok with keeping your shoots small and efficient.
  4. Scheduling. When I reached out to our potential team, a group of people we’d worked with many times, I also sent a tentative weekend date, about a month away. I’ve found it’s easier to get people to concretely commit to things when you have a date in mind, and we figured for a simple as a script as it was, we wouldn’t need too much time in pre-production, so I felt confident in the tentative timeline. Tai was out because he’d already booked a gig during that time but everyone else immediately accepted and we were OFF. We’d worked without a sound person before, and though it was a pain, this was going to be a much easier shoot than literally anything else we’d ever done, so we accepted that loss and moved on. After everyone agreed to the shoot, I sent out an official calendar invite along with three others: one, for Chris and I to go art shopping at Goodwill for weird production design elements, two, for our first official rehearsal with Andrew, and three, our first official production meeting with Brandon.
  5. Pre-Production. Everyone has their own system, but when I’m producing a project, my pre-production is structured around a series of spaced-out meetings that always end in a set of actionable to do lists for every member of production. To guide these meetings I made a basic breakdown of the script (it was a very simple script so it was a very simple breakdown).
    1. Director Andrew, DP Brandon during Meeting #2

      First meeting. At our first production meeting for Sam and Pat, it was myself, Chris, Andrew the director, and Brandon the DP. I made copies of the script and we basically went through episode by episode to talk about what equipment we needed, what complicated shots Andrew wanted to get (as opposed to the classic wide shots and over-the-shoulder shots), and how we were going to make staying in a single room seem interesting. We didn’t make any major decisions here- we just went through the whole script and took notes about what everyone was thinking.

    2. Second meeting. After that first meeting, the Thursday before Labor Day, we agreed to meet up as a group again on Labor Day at my apartment, our shooting location, to do an on-location rehearsal with Brandon standing by with his camera to test different shots we’d talked about. The goal of this second meeting was to see the scenes in the space and start a shot list based on them. After my directorial debut on Ace and Anxious, the first “traditionally filmed” project we’d completed as a group, I never wanted to be on set without a concrete shot list again. This also served as a blocking rehearsal for Chris and I, who previously only ran lines together.
    3. Third meeting. Our third and final meeting, the Tuesday before our shoot (Friday evening- Sunday evening), was just me, Andrew, and Brandon, where we took what we’d talked about in the first two meetings and actually made our concrete, in order shot list. What episodes were we most concerned about? Should they be shot first or last? Which shot within each episode should be shot first or third? In the end, the first day and a bit looked like this:
  6. Photo by Michele Austin, of our first shot on Saturday.

    Shooting. We had exactly two and a half days to film 26 pages of script, which, ordinarily, is insane. It’s “typical” for productions to average about five pages per 8 hour day, perhaps one or two more for a 12 hour day (which we were looking at). We didn’t have time for that, and we also had a much more scaled down plan than most traditional productions, so it was going to be tight but possible.

    1. Friday: Since we were filming at my apartment, we used Friday, our unofficial day, to load in all our equipment (borrowed from Brandon and Andrew), dress the set, set up all the lights, and film all our MOS shots. MOS is “motor only sync,” meaning that there’s only camera, no audio. They’re much easier to shoot because the director can be directing out loud while the camera rolls and we don’t have to worry about syncing audio. Why not shoot those first as they’d take the least amount of time and free up the rest of our weekend? It worked like a dream, and that night I edited this teaser from our “M POV Cereal” footage because it was so damn funny.
    2. Saturday: Our long day, allegedly. We were shooting 5 of the total 9 episodes this day (so we would have an easier Sunday) and it went pretty good, all things considered. The shot list definitely helped, in addition to our two separate rehearsals (one with just lines, one with blocking), and because it was such a small group (5 people total, cast AND crew) we managed to keep things moving at a brisk pace. We’d included “stretch goals” in the shot list in case we had time to try them out, but more often than not, we realized we didn’t need them at all because the main coverage was fine.
    3. Sunday: Our shorter but more complicated day, because we were doing the more ambitious episodes with more prop work and set up and because our friend Masha was guest starring. Her scene was another MOS one and wouldn’t take more than an hour total, but adding a person to the schedule who isn’t already on set is always complicated. In the end, it was actually perfect- we’d shot all but the final shot of the show just as she arrived, so shooting with her was a fun break for everyone before the end of the day. We wrapped and had pizza as I organized the footage, realized we’d forgotten an insert shot and set up a single light and my dinky tripod to get it, everyone went home, then I set about editing.
  7. Editing. I did it, after splitting our crew into two groups: “red” and “blue.” I’ve found it’s easier to edit if you’re not showing cuts to the same people over and over again. They start looking for things they’ve seen in the past and it’s not as streamlined of a process, plus sometimes people start to get numb to the things they’ve watched already which isn’t helpful for quality control. So blue team was me, Andrew, and Michele, then I did a round of editing just with Andrew, then red team got a bit muddled because it was the holidays and everyone was traveling so I just had Chris over early for Thanksgiving and we watched through it and he made some tweaks and then I sent out the final files to Seeka the next week after Andrew, Chris, and I looked them over one last time (all remotely because travel and work).
    1. Takeaways: I hate editing and would like nothing more than to find a friend who will edit quickly and for free. Or to make enough money to hire an editor. But alas…
  8. SeekaTV. After Brains, my first web series, was chosen as an official selection at the Minnesota Webfest this year, I was extended an offer to distribute that show with SeekaTV, an indie streaming service that shared a founder with that webfest. I said yes, of course, and the experience was so lovely it got me thinking: what if I didn’t release Sam and Pat on YouTube at first, and instead offered it to Seeka for exclusive distribution through the end of the first season. I did this because it makes us look way more legit, it added klout that the series had distribution before being released, and I knew SeekaTV would help us promote which was a big help given that we had so few people working on the show that our social media outreach would be limited. After sending along the rough cut of the pilot, Seeka was interested, and after sending them rough cuts of the rest of the season, they were on board completely. We worked out an uploading schedule, I sent them the final files for the videos and thumbnails, and less than a week later, we were officially premiered!
  9. Closed captioning. For the past two years, I have been… continually insistently messaged on social media by the person who runs Captioned Web TV, a blog for deaf/hard-of-hearing web series fans that catalogs every series with closed-captioning. They’ve been wanting me to close caption Brains for ages, promising a boost in views after they include us on the site, and in fairness, it’s something I should have prioritized earlier. The problem is that the easiest way I’ve found to CC a show (for free) is to use YouTube’s auto captions and just edit them until they’re more accurate, and with Brains that gets complicated since half the time characters are talking while not on camera and the auto captioner doesn’t always catch that. Plus, Brains uses a lot of made-up words and slang which always gets garbled, and those episodes are longer than you think. So. I’ve been putting it off. With Sam and Pat, however, the episodes were a quarter of the length and there were far fewer, so with the help of Andrew, we’ve been working to make sure every episode released on Seeka (every Monday morning!) has closed captioning. It’s a pain, but it’s worth it to make the show more available and inclusive to anyone who might be interested in watching.
  10. Release. Originally, our plan was to release Sam and Pat every Monday and Thursday, because the episodes were so short, and although Seeka was fine with that option, they suggested we just do weekly like normal shows so we could spread out our promotion. I had no strong feelings one way or the other so we agreed to do every Monday for nine weeks and then it was out of my hands. I cannot tell you how nice it is to have a distributor deal with uploading and releasing episodes. On YouTube, for Brains, every Monday we released I’d have to either upload a video or make public a private episode, add annotations to the previous episode and FOR the previous episode, make sure all the tags were correct, then add that link to four-five separate social media accounts/platforms. With Seeka, the link for each episode is the same (the Sam and Pat Seeka page) so I could schedule all my social media in advance and then sit back and relax. For closed captioning purposes all the episodes are already on YouTube, private, and since the episodes will have been released on Seeka, I plan to make the entire season public at once, meaning that I can already have all my annotations/end screens in place (instead of adding them every week so no one can see the next episode before it’s release date). This is the dream, guys. Short of getting paid to make these things, I guess.

We’ve still got about five weeks left of Sam and Pat releases, which, again, you can see new episodes every Monday at this link. After that, I’ll be uploading the full show to both YouTube and Facebook for extra opportunities to get seen, as well as submitting to festivals so I can add the “award-winning” prefix to it and sending around press releases to get some buzz. Will there be a season 2? Hopefully! It’s a very fun show to make that speaks directly to my sensibilities and my current mental state, so we’ll see. I’ve already got the first two episodes written, and you know me… I’ll probably have eight seasons mapped out before the season 1 finale goes live.

Can someone please just give me money? It would make this process a lot easier on everyone.

If you have any questions about low-low-low-budget producing, hit me up in the comments or on Twitter. I’m always happy to chat and help out!

What's up, my dudes?