Bob Gillen on Storytelling

Tag: web series (Page 1 of 2)

Web series: a more intimate experience

A throwback thought from an interview I did four years ago with Mildred Lewis, writer, producer, Assistant Professor at Chapman University:

One of the core truths of writing a web series: it ain’t television or movies.

web series writer Mildred Lewis

Mildred Lewis

Sure, they have common elements. As Mildred Lewis, co-creator of the web series Etiquette, says, “Good writing is good writing is good writing. Plot, character, setting, conflict, compelling ideas, engaging emotions all remain crucial.”

That being said, the audience experiences a web series differently. “On the web,” Lewis continues, “you’re writing for a viewer who is going to have a more intimate experience. Most people watch web content alone, often on small devices. Funny has to be funnier! You can’t ride a laugh track or laughter in the room.”

Write your story well, keep it short, and create exciting characters. And to quote Mildred Lewis again: “Every beat has to be earned.”


Producer Pony Gayle

Pony Gayle

The reality show OUTrageous is the brainchild of veteran producer/writer/filmmaker Pony Gayle. Gayle is developing the show as an interactive web series.

What kind of story is she hoping to tell with the project? “A real life story,” says Gayle. “This is a passion project for me. I feel it is important to showcase a series about great women who are part of the LGBTQ community. We are in a historical time with LGBTQ issues at the forefront of the civil rights struggle. Our show will show a slice of our personal investment in this civil rights movement from an everyday perspective.”

In structuring OUTrageous as an interactive web series, Gayle states, “I want to reach out to the community so they can tell us their stories. We are so lucky in Los Angeles, it’s very gay-friendly – which is not the case in many other states. There are still gay teens committing suicide because of their sexuality, and people getting gay bashed. If a teen in Texas, for instance, had a place to reach out to, it could help them not feel so alone and maybe save a life.

“We want to reach out to the straight community too – to help fight homophobia. There may be someone that has a gay family member and doesn’t understand, but watching the cast and being able to interact, and ask questions, could be life changing.”

Gayle says that community is a central theme for the series. “Living in such an exciting time for LGBTQ rights,” she says, “it is important to remember what is important, that we are all people just who want to connect.”





Pony Gayle and Martha Sanchez

Pony Gayle and Media Consultant Martha Sanchez

The five cast members, all real-life women in the LGBTQ community, “will not only be discussing hot topics with each other but also with the audience via social media. Audience members will be able to share their submissions with our cast as well as have live interactive Skype/podcast sessions with the ladies.

OUTrageous cast and producer


“Each episode will highlight current community issues, as well as these women’s personal experiences. Furthermore, these women will come together to talk about issues that they encounter in their day-to-day lives and within the community.”

“In casting the show,” Gayle says, “I wanted women that felt comfortable in front of the camera, were interesting and diverse. At some point we hope to work more people into the cast, such as a transgender and possibly a gay-friendly straight girl. I want the LGBTQ community to feel represented. That’s why we will have guests during discussions, friends and family of cast, to hopefully help do that.”

Gayle wants the behind-the-camera production values of OUTrageous to be strong. “We are trying to raise money with our Indiegogo campaign to ensure a

production crew

Production crew

quality show. We have a great team of experienced people lined up to work on the show. I have worked in the industry for nineteen years, and know a lot of great production and post people, and keep meeting more. But we need to be able to pay them.”

Follow the progress of OUTrageous on the Indiegogo site.

Photo credits: Qumaru Nisa

Complicated Characters

“I’m looking for complicated characters dealing with complicated issues.” So says director/writer David L. Johnson about what he looks for in a script.

Recognizing a Story That Moves

Filmmaker David L. Johnson

Filmmaker David L. Johnson

“Personally,” Johnson says, “I have no preference. I think a lot of directors get hung up on fitting into a genre, but the greatest directors have stepped out of their box on occasion. Although these experiments don’t always equate to box office success, I think it’s important to learn how to recognize a story that moves and to see the potential of what you as a director can bring to that narrative.”

Johnson, a graduate of Howard University and the American Film Institute, has been named one of ten black directors to watch in 2014 by Paste magazine.

Directing is a Process of Discovery

I wanted to know how Johnson directs actors through their character arcs. “I love directing,” he says, “because I love the process of discovery. There are some directors who literally tell the actor what to do and how to do it. When that’s the case, that actor was likely mis-cast.

“Good actors should surprise you with their choices and their interpretation of a character. At this point in my career I fully embrace improv when working with actors who can truly handle it. Many of my favorite movies right now were primarily improvised. Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy. They’re both incredible stories that allow complicated characters to breathe within a relatively simple story.

“When working with a talented actor, I’m looking for a genuine connection to the character. I shouldn’t have to ‘bring forth’ anything. As a director, I feel it’s my job to guide that actor to an internal understanding of why they and the character are able to exist in the same space.”

Making a Web Series Work

Johnson recently directed his short film Good Together, which he is now turning into a web series. I asked him how he plans to do this. “Short form narrative is scary,” says Johnson. “Any writer or director who says otherwise is either a cinematic genius or just hiding their anxiety. Unlike feature films, shorts and web series give you a limited time to put all of your literary elements in place.

“A good web series gets their setup out of the way immediately, sometimes before the first character even opens their mouth. It should be short and straight to the point. If you can deliver an effective beginning, middle and end within 15 minutes (including your credits), I’d say you have a successful web series…assuming you’ve shot it and uploaded it somewhere!”

“Good Together is interesting because we shot the original short in a single afternoon, all improv with natural lighting. It wasn’t intended to be a web series at first. I just felt like shooting that day. I grabbed two friends who I thought could improv their way through the simple premise, and it turned out better than I had anticipated. Since their story is more about characters dealing with a single moment in their relationship, I immediately saw the potential to continue telling their story by exploring the singular moments in the relationship.

“I look at the web series as a chance to use a microscope on relationship and then blow it up for everyone to see. I’m working on developing the web series around new actors who will play couples at multiple stages of their relationships. Even though I recently moved to the east coast, I’m planning to head back to L.A. eventually to shoot more with the original actors. This concept lends itself to weekend afternoon shooting which is part of the reason I love it. Essentially in a year’s time, I could have 52 episodes of the series. Each episode is short, sweet and simple.”

Storytelling Magic

What can a director do to instill storytelling magic in a script as he brings it to the screen? “In my opinion,” says Johnson, “the best thing a director can do is to never forget why they fell in love with storytelling. Not just movies, but all stories. Books, comics, Saturday morning cartoons, Grandpa’s retelling of that story he’s told a hundred times…as a storyteller, you should find your common thread with story. Mine is character.

“I love to watch characters experience life and grow. That’s why I’m a ‘sequel-holic’. Even when there are multiple sequels to a story, I flock to the theater because I’m forever intrigued with how the character is changing and how the events of this story will impact the next. As far as the ‘storytelling magic’ goes, I think that may be the most beautiful part of our craft. My magic isn’t going to be the same as any other director’s magic. In a lot of ways, I’m still discovering what that magic is going to be and how I’ll wield it.”

Share Your Magic

“What I can say is that the only way for a director to grow is to share their magic willingly and often. Whether it’s a no budget web series or a $100M blockbuster, directors have to director. So like I tell most of my directing friends, since we all have cameras now, there’s no reason for us not to all be shooting now.”

shooting "Borderland"

Shooting “Borderland”

David L. Johnson is currently an associate producer with the Al Jazeera documentary unit in Washington D.C. One of his projects is Borderland, a four-part original series focusing on the reactions of six average Americans when confronted with the realities of illegal immigration while retracing the footsteps of dead border runners.

Find David L. Johnson on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

And check out David L. Johnson’s 2013 web series Off the Chain.

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 and her work with actors at Act + Evolve. And see Brains of Minerva, an online acting magazine Winters created with Sarah Sido.

Playwriting – The Poor Man’s Art Form

playwright Raegan Payne

Raegan Payne

Theater, especially black box, is most often an intimate experience, both for the audience and for the actor. Award-winning playwright Raegan Payne talks about her playwriting and what attracts her to this kind of storytelling.

A Poor Man’s Art Form

“I like being forced to tell a story with just dialogue and almost no resources,” says Payne. “It’s a poor man’s art form, anyone can do it, that’s what I love. Inversely, it should also be accessible for the poor to see and often times it isn’t.

Tell a story with just dialog and almost no resources.

“Also, theatre has an immediacy as well as intimacy that can be missing in other art forms. And the audience influences the work – actors hear their response to their performance and that motivates them to change what they’re doing. Both sides of the stage are affecting each other.”

Feeding the Muse

“I think my ideas come from a few places,” says Payne. “I read a lot – news, fiction, non-fiction books. Sometimes I’ll find humor in a dark news story or maybe I’ll want to rewrite a story for a modern audience. It depends on my mood.

“My writing secret is that I always have more than one project going at a time. I don’t get writers block. If something scares me or I can’t work on it that day I jump to another project. My rule is one page a day at least, but I don’t say what subject.”

Raegan Payne

Raegan Payne

Acting on the Web

Payne acts as well. Her experience includes a number of episodes on the web series Lonelygirl15. She comments on the web series as a story medium. “Working on Lonelygirl was great because we were kinda inventing the form as we went along. It’s a legitimate medium that needs to be treated as it’s own beast.

It’s an intimate person-to-person entertainment form.

“Not all of the rules of TV will work, some of the rules of theatre will. It’s an intimate person-to-person entertainment form. I think fewer characters, deeper more ‘private’ moments or reveals work brilliantly online. I’m really looking forward to seeing some inventive new work in that medium.”

The Female Perspective in Art

“Women are under-represented on the stage,” Payne says, “as playwrights, producers, directors, and as executives in Hollywood. I think lack of the female perspective in artwork helps propagate disrespect. I remember being a young student at Groundlings and being told there were eight places for men and two for women in the troupe. When I asked why, their explanation was basically, ‘Well girls just aren’t funny.’ That idea needs to disappear.

“Girls are often told that they shouldn’t talk about certain things because it isn’t ladylike. Women need to be free to express themselves just like men.”


Raegan Payne’s plays: The Reaper just finished a run in Santa Monica, California; Things Unsaid goes up in Hollywood and Washington, DC in October.

Check out her website, her blog and her IMDb page.

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