Advice for Making a Web Series: Behind the Scenes of 18 Grand
Go make your thing. It might not be wise for me to start an article with a call to action that basically says “stop reading this right now”, but I’ve already started typing and my backspace key is broken, so I’m going to push forward.
This article is going to be a case study of how, with a very small team of talented folks, very little money, and a bunch of cardboard we found on the street, we managed to make a 7-part web series that we’re all really proud of. If you have a thing you want to make and you’re not flush with cash, then maybe this piece can help you figure out how to get crafty. At the very least, you’ll learn something about getting two 500-lb hospital beds up a flight* of stairs.
*Note: Five stairs. It is impossible to get those beds up more than five individual stairs. Physics and my persistent back pain say so.
The web series, which you can watch in its entirety right here, is called 18 Grand: A Personal Space Odyssey. I highly recommend that you watch the series, both because I like it very much and also because we’re about to talk a whole bunch about how we made the thing. The story I’m going to tell is largely from my point of view, but it truly doesn’t exist were it not for Amanda Dieli, Jen Browne, and Steven Conroy, the co-writers and executive producers of the series. I had worked with Steven on a short I had directed called Total Performance (you can watch that too if you’d like) years ago, and out of the blue one day, I got an email.
“u up? wanna direct a thing i wrote wit some friends lol? here’s the scripts”
Those are Steve’s exact words and I do not care that he will profusely deny it. I read the scripts that Steve sent me and loved them right away. 18 Grand tells the story of two strangers who both signed up for a 70 day bed rest study that measures the effect of prolonged periods of recline on the human body, simulating the conditions of space travel. Basically: two people have to lay in bed at a slight decline for 70 days and they get cash money at the end of the study. The characters come into the study with very different goals and expectations, and over the course of 70 days have to wrestle with the reality of where they’re at in their respective lives.
Director’s Challenge: Stationary Characters
Steve wanted to bring me in as a director, which was incredibly flattering, but also terrifying for one big reason. After the first episode, the characters never get up. Not once. No flashbacks, no fantasy dance sequences, not even one sneaky creep down the hallway “just to feel what it’s like to walk again.” That meant that a solid 40 pages of these scripts had no traditional movement. As a someone who likes to move the camera, the lack of character blocking seemed like a real challenge. I put together a general outline of how I saw the series from a visual POV, and after a few more meetings, I was officially on board. The four of us then set out to figure out how to make the damn thing.
Crewing Up for a Series
I came on board with the understanding that I was not going to be paid, but knowing that we had a total of 50-ish pages to shoot, probably over the course of 5 days, the four of us recognized that we should not expect any other crew members to be able to make the same commitment for free. The first person I brought into the project was Harris Karlin, my go-to sound technician whom I’ve worked with on countless corporate and commercial pieces. He was excited about the project and we agreed to discuss payment once we had started to build our budget.
My second call was to good friend of mine (and exceptionally talented cinematographer) Adam Kerchman, who was also very excited to come on and shoot the project for us. He was intrigued to devise a way to keep the series visually interesting, and his words as far as compensation was concerned were “we’ll figure it out.”
Alright, we’ve got sound and picture on board. But who are we actually going to…you know… film? Amanda and Steve wrote the series for the two of them to star in and they’re both incredible actors. The problem is that they wrote a series that takes place in a facility that, at least loosely, resembles a medical clinic. Sadly, none of us had access to a clinic, and even if we had access to one, we’d likely need to dress it pretty extensively to make it feel lived-in. That’s where Jessica Annunziata came in as our production designer. Jess is a wizard and her powers were fully tested once we finally settled on a location.
Finding a Warehouse-Medical Chic Location and Other Struggles in Filming Life
Aside from our lead actors, the only other absolutely essential component of the series was a set of medical beds. The beds needed to be able to recline and if they weren’t actual medical beds, they needed to look pretty convincing, otherwise it would severely limit how we could shoot the series. After doing some research that I can loosely lump under a general inquiry of “can we make this look like a medical bed?” we figured out that the answer was more or less “not really.” That meant that we had two options: find a location that already has the beds we need, or get our hands on some beds and bring them into wherever we ended up shooting.
We knew from the start that our budget was going to be low, so while we made phone calls to clinics who were happy to discuss the project, a quote of $5,000 per day was definitely not going to work for us. We kept our hopes up that we’d find a soon-to-be-demolished clinic with a friendly owner who loves the arts, but sadly, they never materialized. We did, however, find out that Cinema World in Brooklyn does rent functional medical beds for film and television use and their quote was pretty reasonable. So, we got the beds. Now we needed to find a place.
We evaluated many options, including 1) a rec room in a sports complex, 2) an art gallery/wedding venue, and 3) Amanda’s apartment. None of them were ideal, but of those options, option 1 seemed to be the most feasible. It was big enough, I had a connection to an owner of one, and while we wouldn’t get the space for free, their fee was potentially something we could afford. We almost went with this location, but we hit one of many speed bumps to come our way.
Being a freelancer is a pain. Sorry, I should rephrase that. Being a freelancer is a huge pain when you’re trying to schedule things. We were so close. We had found our crew, gotten a location that would work for us, and even got our beds! All that was left to raise a modest budget and we’d be off to the races. We even had tentative shoot dates on the books. We were getting ourselves set for a crowdfunding campaign. Then things got…busy. Everyone involved in the project works as a freelancer and, sure enough, several of us ended up with commitments that were nearly impossible to turn down. Scheduling conflicts happen, but we had a bigger issue: we were going to lose our location if we moved the shoot, as they couldn’t promise that the room would be available later in the year. It was a hard decision, but we had to move our schedule back.
The Hard Truth About Finance and Freelance
Before continuing, I’d like to hang here for a second for some real talk. I’m sure some of you are reading this and saying “Well, clearly none of you cared enough about the project if you weren’t willing to turn down work to make it.” First of all: you’re only saying that because you can’t see my face. If you could see how much pity my face inspires, you’d never be so mean. Secondly, I think there’s an important thing to drill down on here. If you’re trying to make something, and the making of that thing is not your full-time job, IT IS OKAY TO PRIORITIZE OTHER THINGS.
The romanticism of throwing all caution to the wind is exciting, but for every success story you’ve heard, there are plenty of people who have done some serious damage by being irresponsible. The triad of “Good, Fast, Cheap” truly applies here. It’s almost impossible to have all three, so you need to decide which two are most important to you. For us, we cared most about it being good. Secondly, we knew it needed to be cheap, because none of us were in a place to throw a ton of money at it. Therefore, we’d need to forego “fast.” Could we have slammed on the gas and cut our schedule so that we could accommodate the schedules of our team? Maybe, but less time devoted to actually making the series might mean that we would rush through aspects that deserved more time. In service of “good” we sacrificed “fast”. We looked for another location.
Making the Most of What’s Available
After another round of searching, Steve had a discovery. Two of his friends had been renting some raw office space in Gowanus and they had recently repurposed the space to shoot a scene for one of their own projects. Steve warned us that the space was raw, and he wasn’t exaggerating. There was a whole lot of exposed…stuff that a contractor could accurately identify. That said, there was potential. It was grungy for sure, but maybe we could dress it up? It probably wouldn’t look like a brand new facility, but the script didn’t call for the Ritz Carlton of bed rest studies. If we parked our set in a corner, and limited ourselves to a modest footprint, we could certainly dress two walls to look more like a clinic.
That said, the space was huge. We probably needed no more than 20 x 20 feet and the open floor plan was about five times that size! We could have someone build us some flats (fake walls) to limit the size of the set, and then we’d just need to make sure we only looked in 3 directions. A bit of a restriction, but this was looking like our best option. The real kicker? It was cheap. Very cheap. We would pay Steve’s friends to compensate for the electricity we would use up and for the general inconvenience of uprooting them for a week.
Murphy’s Law Comes Back
Remember how I said “roadblocks” thousands of words ago? Like, plural? We were less than a week away from shooting when I got a call from Adam. His production company had booked a shoot during our target shoot dates. Not just that, but it was a big one. Like, “this-could-change-the-kind-of-work-our-company-does” big. It was going to be extremely hard to explain to his partners why he was skipping out on something this important to shoot something for free. Adam was incredibly apologetic and anxious about telling me, but I told him not to worry. It was really unfortunate, but by the time that Adam had bowed out, we had already gone over mood boards, discussed the scripts and even had a few nerdy discussions of exactly what we were planning to do in our lighting plan. I’m nowhere near the cinematographer that Adam is, but all of that pre-production gave me the confidence that I could execute. While the biggest loss was certainly Adam’s eye and his mastery of light, we also lost our hero camera. Our plan was to use Adam’s Canon C500 (very fancy at the time) with his set of Leica prime lenses. We were all very excited for the delicious frames we would make with those.
Adam’s camera and lenses needed to leave with him, which meant that we were left with the camera package I own: a C100 and a cobbled-together set of prime lenses. We pressed forward. Luckily, Adam’s shoot did not require that he bring any lighting. Between him and BorrowLenses, we were able to get to use the following lighting:
- 4 Litepanels Astra 1×1 LEDs
- Kino Flo Diva-Lite
- 650 Watt ARRI Tungsten Fresnel
- 300 Watt ARRI Tungsten Fresnel
- 150 Watt ARRI Tungsten Fresnel
- 6×6 frame with full and half grid
- 4×4 frame with full and half grid
- 1×1 Westcott Flex
- 1×2 Westcott Flex
Added to the mix were a smattering of grippage, c-stands, and sandbags. All together, it wasn’t that bad of a grip and lighting package. It was the last piece of the puzzle heading into production and we had it squared away. Now, all we needed to do was get everything up into the space and actually make the thing.
Easy, right? Except it almost never happened.
As mentioned, our location was an industrial space in Gowanus. On the second floor. This consisted of one flight of stairs, a 90º turn, and a second flight of stairs before a 100 foot walk to the door of our space. Our set was to be tucked at the far end of the space, which meant about another 100 feet from the door. Not great. When you factor in that we also needed to lug two 500 lb hospital beds into the space, load-in seemed even less fun. Our location was technically attached to a large film and television studio space/rental house, so I knew that there must be a freight elevator somewhere on the premises. We consulted with the folks who we were borrowing the space from and they told us that they would rather we not try to get official permission to use the freight. That meant that the two beds needed to come up the stairs, so I went back to Cinema World to discuss this hiccup with them.
“Oh, no problem. Done it a million times.”
Those were the exact words of reassurance I got. The folks from Cinema World, a worldwide medical scene designer, told me that they had gotten our exact beds up into a walk-up location just a few weeks before. They said all we needed was to wrap the beds in furniture blankets and build a ramp of cardboard on the staircase. That way, we could slide the beds right up the stairs “with just a couple folks on each side to guide it.” I left feeling optimistic. Not to brag, but I’ve done upwards of twenty pushups in my life, so I’m a pretty serious athlete. We were planning to have at least four of us to load the beds in, so it should be a piece of cake.
We loaded the beds onto our U-Haul (thanks to the lift gate) and drove them to our location. We unloaded them onto the street and immediately noticed something. These beds were big, cumbersome, and extremely heavy. Getting them from the curb to the front door, even by using a furniture dolly, was proving difficult. We managed to get one bed into the front door of the building. And after what seemed like years of shoving, grunting, and cursing, we did it. We got one bed onto the cardboard ramp. After about 30 minutes of our best Sisyphus impression, we were all fairly convinced that our hopes of making the series had died on that staircase. Steve put on a bright demeanor and said “I’m gonna go see if the guys next door will just let us use their freight.”
About 5 minutes later, Steve came back with a huge smile. One of the employees next door was sympathetic to our plight and he would help us load everything in through their freight elevator. We wheeled the beds through a long, labyrinthine path which eventually led us to a little side door that fed right into our building. There was a short flight of stairs that we needed to slide the beds down, but gravity was working in our favor there. Finally, several hours after we started our load-in, we had everything inside.
As far as I’m concerned, aside from the performances of the actors, the success of 18 Grand lives and dies by the production design. If you don’t believe that these two people are in some sort of government facility, then the whole thing falls apart. Jess had a very modest budget to work with, but she filled the space with amazing pieces like the grabbers, end tables, art pieces (which she painted), and floor tiles, all of which built out our world in really subtle ways. We managed to buy a few flats to build our third wall, and Ted Moller built us a few jacks to support the flats. I had a roll of Fashion Grey seamless from an old portrait session, and we sliced that up to cover the raw aspects of the walls over by the window. Truly, everything you see on screen was placed there intentionally, which was such a blast to watch come together. I have to say, one of the most satisfying moments during production is the first time we looked at the finished set through the lens and saw that it was actually going to work.
It’s taken me about 3,000 words to get to “production”, but such is the way of narrative work. The amount of time and energy that goes into pre-production and post-production almost always outweighs the amount of time spent actually shooting the thing. But since we’re here, let’s talk about it! To start, let’s review our crew. Aside from myself, Amanda, Steve and Jen, we had Harris Karlin on sound (with Hayley Wagner filling in on Day 1), Jess as production designer, and Allison Friedman as a Jill-of-all-trades assisting us in every aspect of production. Alex Dzialo jumped on for the last day of production as a grip, and JJ Darling took wonderful BTS photos on Day 4. Not a large crew when you’re aiming to shoot 50+ pages in 5 days, but everyone was committed and ready to make it happen.
From the get-go I had pretty specific ideas about the look and vibe of the series. I wanted each episode to feel different, evolving as the characters did over the course of the show. Below you can see the mood board that I created for the series and, if you’ve watched the series, you’ll see that we stuck fairly close to this schematic. Color and lighting aside, I wanted to play with the composition of the characters in the frame, varying between “dirty” coverage (where one character is partially in the foreground of the other character’s coverage) and “clean” coverage (the opposite of that). Sometimes we used dirty coverage to highlight the fact that the characters can’t escape each other. Other times we used it to show a sense of closeness. Finally, we would only resort to the classic overhead, top-down angle twice: at the end of the first episode and finishing out the series as the last shot of episode 7. Each of these aesthetic choices were made way in advance and with a lot of careful consideration. More on that shortly.
We had scheduled a 5-day shoot to pack in 7 episodes, and our days broke out like this:
Day 1: Episode 1
Day 2: Episodes 2 & 3
Day 3: Episodes 4 & 5
Day 4: Episode 6, Episode 1 Pickups
Day 5: Episode 7
An ambitious schedule for sure, especially with a very small crew, but we used the amazing app Shot Lister to keep us on time throughout each day. That said, while apps are wonderful (some can even calculate tips for you!), the single biggest thing that we did to keep ourselves on schedule was devoting as much time to pre-production and planning as possible. From my point of view, I had spent so much time visualizing the series and writing down my visual plan of attack that, by the time we got to set, I spent very little time “figuring out” what each episode would look like. I can’t stress this enough: don’t just imagine your plan of attack. Write it down. Be as detailed as possible.
For the daylight scenes in Episodes 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7, we stuck to an approach of a single source, as large as possible, that acted as our “window light” moving across the sky. We set up the 6×6 with half or quarter grid, and pushed all four Astras through the frame. This gave us a soft, consistent source that we would rotate around the beds and adjust levels to simulate different times of day.
For our nighttime scenes, we had two main looks that we alternated between. In episode 4, we went for a sodium-vapor, hard key light that was meant to look like nearby street lamps coming through the windows, which were grated. We took an ARRI 650, gelled with CTS and some CTO, and set it up behind some scrap grating that we found at a nearby secondhand store. The grating was big, floppy and basically made of a million knives, so after some careful rigging to a few c-stands, we did our best not to touch it again. We filled in the shadow side with some 5-in-1 reflectors positioned at weird angles – that was our entire setup for this look. If you look at the BTS shot below, you’ll see that, objectively, the rigging of this setup is hilariously janky. That said: episode 4 is easily one of the best-looking of the series, and it’s a great marriage of image and script. If you’ve captured the look and feel you were going for, it does not matter that the “how” of the situation is embarrassing.
Our other nighttime look was meant to feel a little sickly and harsher. For this setup, we pushed the 650 into the ceiling, with some plus-green gel to mimic poor overhead fluorescents. As our key source, we used the Kino Diva 200, which we pivoted around for each actor’s coverage. We also took advantage of the practical lamps in the scene, letting the colors mix together and dialing in a color temperature in camera until it looked right.
Episode 7 had the most variations of looks throughout the series, but of particular note was the final scene, which we lit with the 650 raised high, scrimmed, and cut with some flags to look like early-morning sunlight peaking through. We bounced some return into Steve’s coverage, but otherwise our setup was extremely simple. We dialed the color temperature somewhere between 4400 and 5600 to make our Tungsten source appear far warmer, and ended up with what is my favorite scene in the series, both from a look perspective and (more importantly) from a performance perspective.
Aside from lighting and composition, I had one other major visual approach throughout the series and that was the use of a Black Pro-Mist filter. For those who don’t know, Black Pro-Mist is a lens diffusion filter, which (broadly speaking) lowers the contrast of the image, softens skin tones, and diffuses highlights. While it has a lot of intangible qualities, a blunt way to describe what it does is that it takes some of the harshness off of digitally-acquired images. I decided that we would use this filter (in a 1/8 intensity) throughout the entire series, with one major exception. Episode 6 consists of the aftermath of Steve and Amanda’s major argument, and it’s supposed to hurt. Almost like a bad hangover. I decided to eliminate the Pro-Mist filter for this episode, so by contrast, the episode would feel a bit harsher.
After 5 days of production, it was done. We wrapped on-time and, even better, our last shot of production was the final shot of the series. That final setup had a ton of emotional weight for me and to this day I can’t watch the end of the series without conjuring the feeling of completing production. We congratulated each other, packed up a bit, and agreed to meet the next morning to get the beds out of the space and tear down the set. Here’s the thing about gravity: I hate it. We had such a relatively easy time getting the beds down the short flight of stairs that I think we forgot how hard it was to even get the beds up onto a little cardboard ramp to go in the other direction. In order to bring the beds to the freight elevator, they had to travel up 5 steps. We built the ramp, lined the first bed up, and heaved.
Not happening. We readjusted, and tried again.
We had 6 people this time around, and yet it still was proving nearly impossible to get this thing to move. The bed had a series of mechanisms that allowed it to fold down slightly, but those mechanisms are mostly made of metal hinges which, despite being “locked”, still moved around quite a bit. This meant that shoving our fingers into the bed to find a handhold was treacherous. Simply lifting the bed from all sides wasn’t going to happen, so a series of back-breaking pushes were our only option. I’m not kidding – it’s the hardest physical labor I’ve ever performed, which is impressive (remember the pushups?).
Several decades later, we had both beds up and on their way to the freight, and the rest of our load-out was a breeze.*
*Except for the freight entrance closing at a different location where I had to return Adam’s lighting, nearly missing our drop-off time for the U-Haul, an Uber driver being very mean to me, and hand-carrying a U-Haul’s worth of equipment into my office because we had left the equipment carts at Adam’s office because “we’ll get there in time.”
Time for Post!
Post-production for 18 Grand was an exercise in patience. Due largely to my schedule with regular production company stuff, we had to work in fits and starts. I would find pockets – maybe a few days here, sometimes a week there – to make as much progress as possible and I would share the cuts with Steve, Amanda, and Jen as soon as they were ready.
We used a platform called Frame.io for sharing the cuts and it was super helpful for collaborating. It gives you the ability to make notes on a video with frame-accuracy, so everybody could chime in on exact moments. It made it extremely easy to work as a team, and I’m not being paid to say it. That said, if Frame.io would like to pay me to say things like that, my thoughts and feelings can be bought for a nominal fee.
A lot of stuff happened in between wrapping production and calling the series “done”. Two people got married (not to each other), a baby was born (her name is Inez and she’s adorable), and people were afraid of Romaine lettuce for a bit. I’ll share a few highlights from post-production:
- Grammy-winning composer Enrico DeTrizio wrote some truly amazing music for the series, including complete re-arrangements of two pieces by Gustav Holst. I absolutely love the work that he did on the series, and moreover, I treasure him as an artist. He’s one of my favorite collaborators and I wish he could say the same of me but the guy worked on Hamilton. So I’m happy to lose to Alex Lacamoire and Lin-Manuel Miranda, among others.
- Harris Karlin built out some deep, wonderful sound design, which really brings the series to life. Sound accounts for far more than 50% of what audiences respond to and the work that Harris put into the project is astounding. Listen closely and you’ll hear a world outside of the walls of Steve and Amanda’s room, and it’s constantly changing. Paired with Jess’s production design, Harris’ work in the sound mix makes the whole series feel real.
- Jen, Amanda, and Steve continued to be amazing partners throughout the editing process. I was the sole editor, VFX artist (there’s actually a decent amount of VFX going on) and colorist on 18 Grand, and their patience throughout the project can’t be overstated. They all contributed so much throughout post-production, and the series is so much better for it. 10/10 would 18 Grand again.
- We used a platform called Frame.io for sharing the cuts and it was super helpful for collaborating. It gives you the ability to make notes on a video with frame-accuracy, so everybody could chime in on exact moments.
So, what did we spend on the thing? I mentioned some 4,000 words ago that we had a crowdfunding campaign and if you look for us you’ll see that we raised under $5,000 for the series. Taking into account IndieGoGo’s fees, we ended up with about $4,300. About $600 of that went to insurance, another $1,000 for the bed rental, which left us with $2,700 spread across paying a few crew members, a modest location fee, U-Haul rentals, production design purchases and food for the cast and crew. In short: not a whole lot. Most people would say that’s far too little money to make a 7-episode web series that has specific production design requirements and 50 pages of script to cover over 5 days. Those people would be right, but we did it anyway. We had a passion for the project and a commitment to being scrappy where we needed to be, and we made it work. Thankfully, the series is buoyed by two incredible actors performing some fantastic scripts and we had some amazing artists come together to make the thing.
The biggest takeaway I can pass along is just that: get some people together and make your thing. 18 Grand could have died about 20 times for various reasons: we don’t have enough money, we don’t have the right camera, we don’t have the right location. One million obstacles will surface and they’ll all make it seem like you shouldn’t tell whatever story you’re trying to tell. The most important thing you can do is take a step back and ask yourself if your perceived obstacles are actually big enough to stop you from making what you want to make. I guarantee that most of these road blocks are just that: a temporary impedance but ultimately not likely to prevent you from getting where you want to go.
And, where you’re going, you don’t need an Alexa.
…unless you feel like renting one. In which case, you should rent it through BorrowLenses! They’re great!
…I’m probably fired, right?
Please enjoy our finished product! I hope this article inspires you to create your own work of art and collaborate with other creatives to make it happen, no matter the obstacles.