How to make ambitious online drama for £4000 an hour

2nd August 2018
How to make ambitious online drama for £4000 an hour
Connor Langley

I remember sitting back with a cold, celebratory cider on a May afternoon back in 2014, the day I had handed in my dissertation piece for my media undergrad degree, feeling an uncommon  mix of happiness, sadness, relief and despair.

I had been up until about 3am that morning with our editor Jack, and we had been holed up at his place 24/7 for almost two months. Everyday we where chipping away at a mammoth, unpaid project that we had freely chosen to undertake. We wanted to do something that had never been done before (on a student level at least). We created ‘403 Forbidden’ a five part Black Mirror-esque web series based around themes of the dark web.

 

 

 

All that was required of us by the university standards was one ten minute piece - but we elected to go above and beyond, to work ourselves harder than we had ever worked and build something that would act as a great portfolio piece for our first steps into the scary and mysterious world of professional film and television.

Four years down the line, I’m still feeling the success of 403 Forbidden. Several of our team can still credit our current career trajectories form that project. I got what I needed from it; a solid, award-winning project under my belt, experience in an industry I worried I wouldn’t be able to break into.  And mostly important, it scratched a creative itch that I had needed to relieve for years.

In 2016 the itch returned.  Back came - after work on projects for other production companies - the unrelenting need to create something for myself again.

This is the story how I made eighty minutes of high quality drama for less than £4,000.  

 

 

This time around, my ideas this time around were bigger and more ambitious.   During the initial idea and writing process, I allowed my imagination to go wherever it needed, I didn’t once consider the cost or the practicalities of actually being able to deliver what I was writing down.  I had experience making actual television for actual payment, I’m a professional I thought, so I’d figure it out. If the script needed an epic World War 2 battle scene, I would find a way of filming an epic World War 2 battle scene on the near-zero budget I knew to be likely.

Four massively elaborate scripts were now written with my co-writer - requiring a cast of nearly forty people, very specific locations with certain features and a load of set pieces and make-up effects.

 

 

This was becoming a huge project, and I needed a team. I surrounded myself with people who’s work ethic matched my own. There were some new faces and some old ones from 403. The team that was built is the real success story of this new project I found the perfect balance of hardworking, talented people who would contribute to the project for love not for money.

Speaking of money, we needed some. A minimum of £4,000. I had saved a little bit but not nearly enough to cover the costs that would be incurred. Fortunately the scripts were good, and my experience making films in the past helped me forge good friendships with a lot of local actors. Talented actors were happy to be apart of the project simply for the love of taking part and partially due to some emotional obligation they have to me as a friend. Pro film tip - be friendly and people sometimes do you a solid.

Our main costs would be locations, so we turned to Kickstarter, the online platform we had success with in the past. You create the project and ask your friends, family and strangers to give you money in exchange for goods and services relating to said project. We spent a long time crafting a pitch video where I awkwardly beg to camera for your hard-earned money, and quickly realised that this was probably off-putting to a lot of the audience we were trying to capture.  So we mixed in some interesting imagery we had collected over the passing weeks.

The idea of story really became apparent to me during our Kickstarter campaign. After careful research and Skyping with my friend Dan Chen who ran a very successful Kickstarter for his film Ella, I realised it wasn’t necessarily the story of the content we should be pitching, but our own story and journey as a filmmaker.

 

 

Dan’s success rested in his experiences and feelings of being marginalised as an Asian American - a theme he captured beautifully in his own film. Kickstarter success stories are currently at 44%. I am no performer and I’m very comfortable with my role behind the camera  but it’s easy to see why so many popular Youtubers and filmmakers put themselves at the centre of their brands. They’re not only seeing the story of their content their selling the stories of themselves too. I wish I had realised this earlier on and modified our approach to crowdfunding accordingly. Our campaign was stressful and turbulent, and we very nearly didn’t make it to our target. Failure to do so on Kickstarter results in you getting none of your funds!

We got our funds, and learned some hard lessons about crowdfunding.  Now we had to actually make the thing - we owed it  to our backers not just ourselves. I once spoke to a producer friend of mine who explained the triage of success to me. He told me “you can only ever choose two” which is something I agree with. Uncommon had to be cheap and we wanted it to be good so our two were decided for us.

Michael (Uncommon’s co-producer) and I took our time with pre production and meticulously planned every detail of the shoot. Every scene was broken down to it’s smallest detail, and we accounted for every variable. Money was tight and we couldn’t waste anyone's time, so we had to get everything right first time around. There wouldn’t be money or time for reshoots. We blocked out two months of our life - and everyone else's - to shoot every episode almost back to back. It was going to be draining and hard work to shoot, the planning already was beginning to feel like that similar emotions from 403 came flooding back excitement and utter dread.

The shoots went relatively smoothly.  We had a great team, a great cast and some great locations. Out meticulous planning paid off and morale was high on set, we really made the effort to make the process as comfortable as possible. Constant hot coffee and tea was offered, plenty of food and we kept the banter going. It felt like a community and it really kept the energy up despite harsh winter conditions.

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We had managed to blag our way into shooting in some incredible locations.  We had an ancient castle, an abandoned post office, fancy hunting lodges and even a boggy field in Wakefield. However nowhere we went looked how we needed it to. How do we make a post office look like a betting shop? We set it at Christmas and deck it out in pound shop tinsel and trees.  How do we make a creepy castle look like a lived-in half way house? Beds, and lots of them! Our methods where cheap but effective. We were making a series on a Poundshop budget but we didn’t want our project to be a Poundshop Black Mirror.

At the time of writing, my project is in the hands of that same very talented editor who I made 403 with, and each day it’s moving closer to completion. Again the same feelings of 403 come flooding back.   I’m both happy and sad it’s over, both relieved and in despair. This project has been a huge part of my life for the last year or so, and soon this too will go out into the world and to hopefully be enjoyed by audiences everywhere. Maybe in a few years the unstoppable need to create will return.

Until then Uncommon will be available at http://www.uncommontheseries.co.uk in 2019