I released the sixth and final episode of my web series, Words Fail Me, today:
Elena Colás wrote a review of Words Fail Me for Chicago Literati and gave it 3 out of 4 stars:
Robert Bruce Carter takes us back to the storytelling basics with his web series Words Fail Me. With a jolly soundtrack and quick editing, each pair of characters find themselves in wacky situations under a simple premise: I know something you don’t know. From there, things get delightfully weird. Fans of improv will love it, and the casual addition of absurd plot points gives both the actors and the audience more to chew on than just a simple sketch.
Elena also interviewed me about how I come up with ideas, my writing process, balancing day jobs and artistic endeavors, and much more. Read the whole thing here.
The first episode was also the first time I’ve directed anything, whether on stage or for the camera. I was terrified on the morning of the shoot — afraid that things wouldn’t go well, that my ideas wouldn’t work, that the crew would think this was stupid, and mostly that I would let the actors down and they would feel untalented because I hadn’t put them in a position to succeed.
We started rolling the first shot and they started improvising their scenario (this was what turned out to be episode 4 with the CIA agent and informant on the park bench). I didn’t know how long to let it to go or exactly what I was really looking for. I wanted to cut the camera about three minutes into the first take but I waited for another two minutes while I thought of something to say to the actors.
In later episodes, I was prepared for these moments and had a plan. It’s good to have go-to’s in your back pocket for when you don’t have any specific notes or adjustments, something I learned from Stephen Cone’s incredibly awesome directing class.
It occurred to me later that screwing up the moments between the first and the second take could probably tank and entire scene or day or even project.
I realized after the first episode that I needed to have more prepared in terms of story. So I had an outline of the beats and I had to have specific things for the actors to try, specific tactics that they could use.
The humor often came from details, and I wrote some of those details into the initial treatments. Some of them I jotted down as ideas in the outline, and some I jotted down while we were filming.
I like collaboration and many good ideas came from the crew.
Directing is the easiest way to hang out with your actor friends.
The actors I worked with are very good and that made things easy.
Each episode was only about 2-3 hours to set up and shoot, with camera rolling for 50-90 minutes of that time. Basic setups, minimal lighting, etc.
There isn’t much movement of actors or camera in this series. I want to do more visual storytelling in my next project. Better to isolate one variable to get the hang of it before adding in other variables, is my thinking at least.
I released the fifth episode of my web series, Words Fail Me, today:
For me, pre-production starts with planning and planning starts with a spreadsheet.
Some people use MovieMagic software for managing pre-production but that is expensive (~$750) and it’s designed to work with a script. You upload a script and then break down the schedule and budget based on the actors, locations, equipment, and crew that you need for each scene.
I didn’t have a traditional script and $750 is too damn expensive anyway. Maybe there’s a better, cheaper, version of the same thing out there somewhere. Spreadsheets were good enough for what I needed this time around.
I basically use a two-pronged organization structure for all big projects that I work on. It consists of two things:
- A master spreadsheet where all the important information and tasks are stored.
- A to-do list that contains day-to-day tasks that need to be completed.
For the spreadsheet, I use Excel but you can also use OpenOffice Sheets, which is a free open-source version of Excel.
For the to-do list, I use Remember the Milk, which is probably the most life-changing app that I’ve ever used. It’s free for the web app and $25/year to use it on your phone. Not everyone needs a to-do list (children, monks, drug addicts, etc.), but I do, and this one is essential to keeping on top of what I want to do.
In Remember the Milk (RTM), I had a task that repeated every Monday and reminded me to update the web series spreadsheet and assign any tasks for the week to RTM so that they would get done.
This two-pronged approach is effective because it allows me to keep everything organized in one place (the project spreadsheet) but only the relevant tasks are in front of me during the week in RTM. That keeps things manageable and has a psychological benefit – I don’t feel overwhelmed when I look at my to-do list because it only has a few items that are actionable that week, i.e. I’m not worried about color correction when I’m still in the process of casting.
The spreadsheet becomes a repository for all the tasks necessary to complete the project (and there are a LOT of tasks that have to be completed from start to finish, even for a relatively small project!) and keeps my brain uncluttered.
If, for example, I think of a great location idea or meet a freelance sound editor while I’m in the middle of writing the script, I just drop a note somewhere in the spreadsheet so I don’t have to worry about remembering it.
None of this is sexy at all but it does help me get things done and keeps my mind clear. I love spreadsheets for organizing many aspects of my life. Learn to love spreadsheets!
Or, if you’re lucky enough to have the money to hire a producer (or have a volunteer to co-produce with you), then you might not have to worry about all this stuff. I prefer to do most of the producing the first time around. That way, I can learn what I prefer to delegate and what I don’t mind or even enjoy doing.
Here’s a link to the spreadsheet I used in Google Docs: Sample Production Checklist Template.
I started with something like that, although it grew a lot to fit Words Fail Me’s specific needs. Each item in the checklist has multiple sub-tasks but those are too specific to write out in the template. You’ll probably want to customize it for yourself, depending on your needs.
Make a copy and put it in your own drive or download it to your hard drive as an excel file. If it helps you, great. The point of all of that is not to overwhelm you, it’s to lay everything out so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Another note: the spreadsheet is generally in sequential order. For instance, the item for “send script to actors and crew” comes before casting. Obviously the casting has to be done before you can send the script to the actors, but I like to group things by category and jot down little reminder in bold to remember to come back to them later.
Scheduling is the part that gives me fits, because there are so many moving pieces that you have to juggle. A spreadsheet helps with that, so you’re not trying to use your email inbox as your project management center.
I’d be lying if I said that I’m a huge fan of web series. I’m not. I’m a huge fan of some web series, but I don’t seek out or watch web series in the way I seek out and watch good TV shows of films.1
So that might be a little rule breaking. Novelists should read a lot of novels and filmmakers should watch a lot of films, right? I don’t personally know anyone that watches a lot of web series. And Words Fail Me was more of a series of short films than a serialized story, for whatever that’s worth.
But I had a few reasons for making a web series, as opposed to a short film or a feature film.
One reason is that I eventually want to make a feature film.2 I had a lot of the artistic tools necessary for writing and directing feature film, but I was lacking in production experience. In fact, this was the first thing I ever directed, aside from a few improv shows, which is a fundamentally different kind of directing (usually called coaching).
I had read a lot of blogs and several books on film production and I had been on many sets as an actor in friends’ projects, student films, and one professional set of a commercial. So I had some familiarity with the process but the best way to learn any craft is to just fucking do it and make mistakes and learn from the mistakes.
I wanted to experience the filmmaking process from start to finish, but on a smaller scale, and this was a great way to do that. You get more or less the same learning with much smaller financial and time risk. A smaller project meant I could fail faster. You get all the experiences of a bigger project, things that you might not run up against when filming a short—trying to schedule multiple locations and multiple actors and a crew, feeding everyone, and a release plan that’s pretty low-budget but still involves a fair amount of planning.
The upside is that you uncover areas of risk without putting a lot of money on the line. There are a lot of things that, when they go wrong, can ruin any filmed project, but there are also a lot of things that can go wrong without ruining the project. The goal was to identify the former, which I call fatal risks, because those are the ones you want to insure against, prevent, and avoid.
Here’s another reason, which is more more existential than practical. I had been wanting to do more video work for a while, since mid-2013 and after about a year of saying to myself and my friends that I wanted to do more of it, I finally got sick of myself talking about it and decided to just shoot something.
“Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
I read that quote in a great little book that I read a long time ago, called If You Want to Write.
I try to be careful about sitting around wanting to do something for too long without doing it—the risk is that I create a sort of inertia for myself. I don’t want to be in the habit of not doing what I want to do. So after I can sense the inertia building up for a bit too long, there’s like this internal pressure for me to either drop it entirely and forget about it or to just fucking do it already.
And finally, I wanted to make something that I was proud of. I wanted to look back at what we created and have it stand as something that I’d be happy to let anyone see as a sample of my work. And more personally, I wanted to be able to watch the episodes and laugh. I definitely accomplished this goal. In fact, I accomplished all the goals I set out to accomplish.
Thanks for reading and thanks for watching.
I released the third episode of my web series, Words Fail Me, today:
I released the second episode of my web series, Words Fail Me, today:
I released the first episode of my web series, Words Fail Me, today: