Claire Winters on Web Series

Headshot of Claire Winters
Claire Winters

This week: Creating Story continues its focus on web series, with LA-based actor and acting coach Claire Winters sharing comments on developing and acting in a web series. Classically trained, Winters’ many roles include the bipolar disabled daughter of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the HBO mini series Empire Falls, and a wealthy uber-feminist film student in the comedy feature Filmic Achievement.

Film professor Mildred Lewis has said of web series, “(Viewers) can watch legacy media or take advantage of virtually unlimited, less well-known content.” The question for Claire Winters: in an open environment such as a web series, do actors need to call up a different skill set? “Good acting is good acting,” says Winters. “Each web series has its own tone and genre, so a particular acting style or skill might be needed to best bring the story to life. But if an actor has built a solid on-camera skill set through training or on-the-job experience, she’ll have the necessary jumping off point for any web series.

“When people think of web series,” Winters continues, “they often think of short-form satire and sketch comedy. But there’s wonderful dramatic acting in Ryan Koo’s 2007 web series The West Side, and Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s High Maintenance features an incredible ensemble of actors skilled in subtlety and irony.”

Creating Story in a Web Series

What kinds of story do well in a web series? Winters says, “Short pieces that stand alone (i.e., a viewer can drop in for one episode and understand what’s going on) tend to have a better shot at going viral. But an ambitious serialized one like The Guild, Felicia Day’s series about a group of video gamers, features writing and acting that stands up to the best television comedy.”

She notes, “Because there’s such a low barrier for entry in terms of cost and technical expertise to making a piece for the web, sometimes web series aren’t fully cooked in their development process and are rushed into production. When this happens, one can wind up with more of a personality-driven video blog (around a not very interesting personality!) or an idea for a short sketch that’s painfully drawn out over several episodes.”

Winters’ recommendation: “Writers and actors do readings, get feedback, and film practice sketches before sinking a lot of time and resources into something that may not have the engine to drive a story for the amount of time it may take to attract an audience.”

“My favorite resource,” she says, “to learn about new web series is the blog Tangled Web We Watch. Its author, Stephanie Carrie, has a wonderful section that explains different types of storytelling in web series.”

Producing a Web Series

Besides her own acting roles, Winters also coaches other actors through her Act + Evolve. As in any film project, developing a web series includes assembling a creative team and ensuring effective production standards.

“First, as a creator,” she asks, “what are you wanting to get out of the experience? This answer will be your North Star, guiding you to decide which parts of the process you invest the most time and money in. For example, if you want the series to be a showcase for your writing, you might want to hold a few readings of your script; if you want it to showcase your sketch comedy troupe, you might want to make the production costs small, and invest more in a coach to make sure each member is working at capacity.”

Photo of Kerry Sullivan
Web series developer Kerry Sullivan

One of Winters’ coaching clients, Kerry Sullivan, is creating a series titled It’s a Mom Thing. “The first thing we looked at was how could she use the strengths of her friends and acquaintances to help her create a calling card for her acting. We took a close look at the talents and experiences of her contacts. She embraced her vulnerability and reached out to her network for all aspects of production.

“She ended up,” says Winters, “working with an experienced director, Rusty Mahmood, who helped (Sullivan) refine her ideas. Since she knew that she wanted the project to showcase her comedic acting skills, they kept the themes very personal to her (her struggles with motherhood) and the production needs focused on what they had at their disposal (they stayed close to home, mostly in her home!).

“By keeping her eye on what she set out to achieve, she was able to fully invest in each part of the process. She’s now in post-production with It’s a Mom Thing, and has partnered with an established production company that’s pitching it to online networks.”

Ratings Metrics

Movies, television, and other legacy media benefit from established ratings mechanisms. What metrics measure the success of a web series? “Of course,” says Winters, “each creator needs to define her own idea of success. If you created a great piece of acting that entertains and showcases your comedy chops, if you told a story in such an original way that the writing became a great calling card for you, if you created a piece of enlightenment for an under-served community, all of these sound like success to me!

“But if we’re talking about the metrics of the marketplace, Ad Age Digital issues a weekly report of the top twenty-five YouTube channels and what’s trending on them. You can keep up with where the big (okay, small/medium) ad dollars are going there. You can also keep up with who’s creating some great storytelling on The Tangled Web We Watch.”

Learn more about Claire Winters

Claire Winters is an actor and coach of actors. You can find out more about her creative work at clairewinters.com and her work with actors at Act + Evolve. And see Brains of Minerva, an online acting magazine Winters created with Sarah Sido.

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