Want to make a web series? Here are some hot tips from Canadian Screen Award nominees

As the CSAs prepare to honour Canada's best in digital and immersive storytelling, we asked a few award hopefuls for the secrets to their success.

We asked a few CSA hopefuls for the secrets to their success

Stephanie Kaliner (left) and Sara Hennessey in Terrific Women. (CBC)

It's Canadian Screen Week, which essentially means every night there's a ceremony happening that hands out awards in hundreds (and hundreds) of different categories that celebrate the best in homegrown film, television and digital media. The latter gets its big night tonight with a gala honouring the best in digital and immersive storytelling going down at Daniels Spectrum. And since the event doesn't quite the attention of Sunday night's televised event, we thought we'd throw a little its way by showcasing some of the nominees in the web series categories by asking them to share some tips on how exactly to become an Canadian Screen Award-nominated web series-maker.

We asked Rahkee Morzaria from Rahkee Morzaria's Note To Self; Winston Rowntree from peopleWatching; Sara Hennessey and Stephanie Kaliner from Terrific Women; and the quartet of brothers behind Soggy Flakes, Heath, Jon, Nathan and Thomas Affolter — all nominated for CSAs — to offer up some secrets to their success, and these were the results.

What are you most proud of with your web series?

Rahkee Morzaria: I'm proud of the point of view and tone of the series, which could only successfully be achieved through the hard work of everyone behind the scenes. We shot five of the eight videos before CBC Comedy was involved, so at the time I was just a comedian with five scripts and some filmmaker friends who believed in the project. I'm also proud of the diversity in the series and grateful to CBC Comedy for allowing me to showcase a perspective that I believe is relatable and sometimes underrepresented.

Winston Rowntree: I'm most proud that we were able to produce more than 90 minutes of animation that told some good stories and resonated with an audience, and all for a fraction of the budget of most animated shows in terms of dollars per minute. We cared enough about the end product to find a crew who shared our vision and actors with the ability to elevate the material and I'm just proud that we were able to provide that work for so many talented creative people, and that we all enjoyed doing it. A show like this doesn't have to be fun to work on, but ours was — and I think that's worth celebrating even irrespective of the end product. 

Sara Hennessey and Stephanie Kaliner: That it got made! We had been planning the series for years, always assuming that we'd be financing it ourselves out of pocket. But after playing Joy and Linda for years at live comedy shows, we really honed the characters' voices, and we had built a repertoire of online videos that we could use as proof-of-concept. So when we finally pitched the show to our producers at Aircraft Pictures and to Zach and Karen at CBC, we already had a lot of material we could use to demonstrate the potential of our series.

Affolter Brothers: One of the things we're most proud of is our ability to pull off the production value we did on the limited budget we had. We made this program through the Telus Storyhive funding program, so we had a $10,000 budget. I know that sounds like a lot, but when we priced out the value of what we ended up with, there's over $100,000 on screen! There's absolutely no way we could have ended up with such a polished product without the extreme generosity of all of our friends and family who donated their time to help us out (nobody on the project got paid) and a number of organizations and businesses that helped us out with extremely kind donations and discounts. That said, we're pretty proud of our CSA nominations as well.

What was the hardest part about this particular nominated season?

RM: It was a challenge at times to navigate the role of writer, lead actor and producer. Luckily, I had a great crew that supported and assisted me beyond their job description because they were passionate about the project and *I suspect* they knew my mom — an amazing cook — was doing craft.

WR: The hardest thing was just the workload, as we weren't quite at our target budget going into production. "Hard" is of course relative — it was harder than working on a more reasonable schedule in terms of hours/week, but it was still great to work on and there was somehow almost no compromise on the vision of the show despite the relatively small budget. We did a lot with a little, and in the end, even if it was hard at times, it only had to be easier than not doing it.

SH & SK: The hardest thing for us was stretching our budget to bring the series we had imagined to life. Sara and I were sure we wanted authentic 1970s costumes, and plenty of costume changes, as well as authentic decor and food styling. We wanted it to look as realistic as possible, and not like a sketch comedy version of the 1970s. At first it seemed like it might not be possible to do this with our budget, but our amazing producers Mars and JP and the whole crew managed to stretch our dollar by borrowing clothes, calling in favours, borrowing props, buying set pieces off Craigslist, etc. all to make it happen. Our director Ally had an exacting eye on everything and made sure it looked realistic as well as stylish; our art department Megan Toompuu and Molly Mask ran around picking up random furniture pieces from all over town; our costume designer Juliann Wilding borrowed costume pieces from friends; and our incredible food stylist John Kruusi called in so many favours. Everyone involved with the production went above and beyond to make the series look as good as it did for as little as it cost.

TAB: The hardest thing about Soggy Flakes was just trying to get it done by our delivery date! We had the (un)fortunate situation where we received funding for two projects at the same time —Soggy Flakes and a live-action short film called The Undertaker's Son — which meant that our production schedules for each project was basically cut in half. When it came time to shoot Soggy Flakes, our backs were right up against the wall! We ended up having to do 19 consecutive days of production, averaging 16-18 hour days every day, all for five minutes of animation. Each brother would take turns sleeping underneath our elevated set while the other brother would animate a scene.

What advice do you have for someone trying to get a web series off the ground?

RM: Write something that is personal and that you feel passionately about. Also, know your project inside and out. When I got questions about a specific line or detail in the script, I had clear and concise answers as to why it was (or was not) important. Lastly, be willing to make it yourself — and don't put too much pressure on it being perfect the first time around. It's a learning experience and if you're a creator, it'll hardly be the last thing you do!

WR: Honestly, the advice is simple: in Canada we're lucky to have a number of extremely generous funding sources available specifically to those who want to make a web series (look into the IPF and the OMDC, and then the CMF for future seasons), the kind of things that don't exist in other countries. So if you're a creator, then honestly just get an idea together and find a producer if you're not confident handling the paperwork side of things (and vice versa if you're a producer looking to get a series started) and start applying for the kind of funding that made our show and many others possible. With the well-documented difficulties of funding content directly online, it's a huge advantage and opportunity in this country that so much money is available to fund shows in advance, and it provides not only a great amount of work for Canadian creative professionals but also a pipeline to potentially lead to the TV shows of the future. Keeping an eye on the Canadian web series landscape would be my advice to production companies and studios — we have the ideas and the opportunities to realize those ideas, and the drive to take them forward.

SH & SK: Do as much as you can yourself, and treat it like a job before it pays. Having a web series is a great calling card because you can show off your artistic voice as well as showing that you are productive, responsible and can take initiative. This shows the world that you mean business. And having as much done as you can — meaning having some type of proof-of-concept material, like a demo or a script — before you even go in to pitch will make you look like you are taking this seriously, That way, the producers, network or funding body will feel like you are a safe investment for their money.

TAB: Soggy Flakes is a bit different because it was made as a one-off, stand-alone web program rather than a series. But having done a few web series in the past (which can be seen by checking out our YouTube channel Comedy Blender), we would suggest trying to come up with a simple idea that's sustainable and easy to produce so you can shoot multiple episodes at the same time and release them over time. If you're self-funding your series, you want to try to upload as much content as you can in a short amount of time. If each episode is expensive and takes a long time to produce, you'll never be able to get enough content online to attract a large audience. That, and keep your episodes short! People's attention spans are so short these days, half the time people don't even finish their own senten —

The broadcast portion of the Canadian Screen Awards airs Sunday, March 11 at 8pm (9pm AT/9:30pm NT) on CBC.


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