Thoughts on Directing For Web Series

Break The Fourth Wall

I spend a lot of time (probably way too much) thinking about the difference between directing for film/television and directing for a web series. My background and education is in motion picture and narrative directing. In my previous work, I worked hard to create for the audience something that worked like a “vivid and continuous dream.” Now, I am using the same tools and techniques but actively working to create the opposite effect.

(Since I am currently focused on producing non-fiction work, this post won’t concentrate on narrative series, but there are a few takeaways at the end of the post that could be helpful for scripted web series producers.)

We are still in the very beginning stages of this medium and we haven’t established a terminology that we can all agree on yet. So let’s work with what we’ve got. For the sake of this post we’ll use “the internet” to describe the network that can deliver any kind of content imaginable and “Web Series” as a series of videos designed with web browsers (desktop or mobile) as their primary viewing destination. Some of these web series will go on to be viewed through actual televisions via something like Apple TV or Roku but that’s not the environment they’re designed for.

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Making a Travel Show is Harder Than It Looks

Texas Travel Show

Texas Travel Show
If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know I’ve been traveling even more than normal and going to some pretty strange places. I’m happy to announce that the reason for all the travel is that we’re making a travel show. Or… kind of a travel show. It’s definitely a show with a lot of travel in it.

Some of the most popular episodes of Hilah Cooking have been our field trip episodes where we go meet up with local farmers, BBQ experts and other interesting characters. Last year we started pitching the idea of a travel show to some of the new YouTube networks. Nothing came of it until our recent trip to the Tastemade Studios. Now, I’m happy to report that we are moving full-speed ahead on Hilah’s Texas Kitchen: a new travel/eating/cooking show that will launch next month. This is an exciting opportunity to not only build on the Hilah Cooking brand but to stretch ourselves creatively.

When we brainstormed the project, I thought it would be easier than it has turned out to be. However, the obstacles that we’ve run into have actually shaped the direction and format of the show in a way that is going to make the finished project even stronger.

We are still in the middle of this project, but I want to share a few things I learned when we were out on our first travel shoot in Port Aransas, Texas.

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How To Make a Web Series (Part One)

yoga with adriene

Just a few years ago I would have never predicted I would be spending almost all my time creating “lifestyle” content. Back then I was totally focused on making bloody low-budget horror movies. But I was feeling really burned out after my last feature and decided to give myself a year to just explore and experiment with what interested me. I spent a lot of time getting my internet skills up to speed and learning about the world of internet marketing and online video.

Before I knew it, Hilah and I had launched Hilah Cooking. Learning how to make a web series was a lot of fun and I found myself completely obsessed with internet video. I felt like I had found the perfect combination of filmmaking, publishing, marketing and the geeky search engine stuff I had spent so much time studying.

Perhaps the most gratifying part of it, was that there were a LOT of people who actually wanted to watch this stuff we were making.

This aspect of was refreshingly different than making a weird movie and then trying to figure out a way to market it. It’s actually way more fun to make something there is already a demand for, as opposed to making something nobody might want and trying to build an audience from scratch.

There was already a big demand for online cooking content so we just put our own spin on it and kept making more episodes. In two years it’s gone from being a satisfying hobby to a growing business. It’s still small-scale, but Hilah works on it full-time and we are on-track to building it into something much bigger.

And to MY surprise, I found that I really liked making creative, tightly focused, educational content.

Now it’s time to launch a second web series and use everything I’ve learned from the slow-burn growth of Hilah Cooking.

It will be a micro-budget personality driven show that focuses on a viable market.

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YouTube Next – The Gear

One of the highlights of 2011 was being selected as one of the winners of the YouTube Next Chef program.

The Next Chef program evolved out of YouTube’s NextUp Program. Basically, the idea is to cultivate the next wave of up and coming talent on YouTube. The original program was not focused on a specific content niche. The second wave focused on cooking and fitness. The goal of the program is to help content creators take things to the “next” level and ultimately make a full-time living via YouTube.

As part of the program, winners received $5,000 worth of gear, training sessions conducted via Google Hangout and $10,000 in YouTube advertising.

The eagerly awaited box of gear from YouTube
Since I am a geek, I was most excited about the new gear. We shot for a year and a half on very low-end gear. It was an intentional decision to work with what we had and it worked for us for almost 100 episodes.

But, I was starting to get a little restless. After hanging out with some shooters for the Food Network (and ogling their gear), I really wanted to make the transition to shooting with DSLRs. When we heard that we would be getting $5,000 of gear from YouTube, I decided to just wait and see. The gear was selected by YouTube and we didn’t know what we would be getting until the boxes from B&H Photo arrived. My fingers were crossed that a DLSR would be in the mix.

Here’s an overview of what was in the first box to give you an idea of what YouTube apparently thinks is a good starter kit.

Some of their choices were kind of interesting.

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The End of Phase One

phase one featured

We recently hit two important milestones with Hilah Cooking.

#1. We released Learn to Cook – our first digital book.

#2. We released our 100th episode. We’ve produced a new episode pretty much every Tuesday (except during our summer vacation).

With these two milestones, we’ve completed Phase one of our initial plan.

The Halloween episode in post-production.

Yes, there has actually been a plan all along.

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Leveling Up – Building an Audience Is Kind of Like Playing a Video Game

We launched Hilah Cooking about a year and a half ago and we’re still going strong. In fact, we’re going stronger than ever. I thought this seemed like as good a time as any to update everybody on our progress and share a few more audience building tips that we’ve learned along the way.

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Taking a Web Show Into The Real World

This post is about 2 months late, but the launch of Season 2 of Hilah Cooking has completely overwhelmed my world. Things are going really well with the show and as we approach our one-year anniversary we have managed to hit all the milestones I put into the original crazy “business plan.” From the very beginning, I wanted to do some kind of “live” event.

The Mouth Party Bar: sponsored by Tito's Vodka, Deep Eddy Sweet Tea and El Gran Jubileo Tequila

There were a few reasons for this:

  • We wanted to thank our viewers. We have a seriously awesome audience and we thought a cool party with free food and drink would be a great way to say thanks for supporting what we’re doing. But even more than that, we wanted to meet some of the people we’ve been corresponding with via email and blog comments.
  • Real world event = added legitimacy. When everything is on a computer screen, it’s easy to forget that a web project is something real. We saw the event as a way of publicly telling everybody that we are serious about what we do and we’re only getting started.
  • An opportunity to give back to the community. This was a not-for-profit event designed to raise money for the Sustainable Food Center. The SFC is a great organization with a mission to strengthen the local food system and provide access to nutritious affordable food.

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Hilah Cooking Season 2!

Hilah Cooking Season 2

We are happy to announce that Season 2 of Hilah Cooking is now up and running. Even though it seems like the entire summer was consumed with planning Mouth Party – the vacation was definitely a good thing. We have done lots of thinking about the direction we want to take the show and the website and are completely reinvigorated and ready to go.

The Summer Vacation Experiment

Last spring, after producing 40 episodes, I knew that Hilah and I were both feeling a little burned out. Even though we keep the shows as simple as possible, they still take quite a bit of time to produce. I proposed the idea of a summer break, but I have to admit I was a little nervous about what would happen to our audience if we stopped releasing new stuff.

Interestingly enough, our audience continued to grow even during our break when we were releasing practically zero new content. Hilah posted a few vacation updates and we released a free Breakfast Taco Book, but that was about it. And yet, our mailing list grew, our YouTube subscriber count broke 100 and overall traffic to the site more than doubled. I spent a lot of time making a demographics page and it was out of date almost as soon as I put it up.

If you produce a body of work and release it into the world, it will continue to work for you. This doesn’t mean it will translate directly into dollars, but it will build your audience and your brand. So, make sure it’s good and that your work is communicating the message you really want it to communicate.

I feel like with the first season we laid a really good foundation.

Now: we’re going to build on it.

How To Build an Audience for a Web Series

How To Build an Audience on YouTube

Since launching Hilah Cooking a little over 6 months ago, we’ve built up what I consider to be a pretty impressive audience. The numbers aren’t astronomical, but we definitely have a group of avid viewers who are very engaged in the show. They really do make the recipes at home and send the videos to their friends. The numbers are growing at a slow but steady pace. For our first few episodes we were happy if we just hit 100 views, but now 3,500 is our baseline for a successful episode and we are always inching that benchmark forward.

As our Facebook following and YouTube subscriber counts have started to grow, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about how to build an audience for their web series. Keep in mind, I’ve only been doing this for 6 months and definitely don’t consider myself an expert. In this post, I’ll be talking about web series and not one-off videos. Everybody still holds on to the dream of producing a video that’s so great that it quickly goes “viral,” but that’s outside the scope of what we’re talking about here.

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