I recently set out with five friends, all of them actors working in New York, to produce an original web series. Five years ago, taking a camera to go shoot something on your own was noteworthy, innovative, and even a little edgy (mind you, USB connectivity on handheld cameras was somewhat of a novelty in 2009). In 2014, our decision to go forth into the crowded world of short-form web series with little money on hand was bold, daring and, admittedly, a little crazy. But the apparent lunacy associated with our decision to move forward was laid to rest by the idea—one strong enough and deep enough for a group of six people to really believe they were onto something cool. Rather than watch more mediocre concepts stream by on YouTube, we decided to get to work and create something.
The idea was simple: We would offer a glimpse into the world of struggling actors, where there’s never any promise of a job or even the opportunity for one. Where Entourage was a romanticized view into the world of an up-and-coming actor, our story would show the grittier side to that life: how a group of people, hearts set on working in the challenging world of entertainment, discover what “making it” truly means to them. This concept played right into the hands of a production team made up of actors, so they brought a layer of optimism and confidence in our ability to tell this story.
As anyone can expect from a DIY project, there was a lot to learn on the fly. Old adages that used to sound like clichés all of a sudden made perfect sense after experiencing them first hand. Thus far, there are lessons that stand out:
- Creative is king (especially when you have no money). With no budget, the quality of your work depends entirely on the strength of story and the dedication of your creative team. The quality of writing and acting were at the forefront—there was no smoke and mirrors or production value for us to hide behind.
- Productions live and die on process. When it comes to meeting deadlines, staying within a tight budget and simply getting things done, efficiency is key. In order to be prepared for when things inevitably go wrong—equipment malfunctions, the weather turns foul, guest actors drop out—the production must continue to run as a well-oiled machine. It quickly becomes apparent that, as producer, you have accepted responsibility for the end product. If I wasn’t doing everything in my power to keep the team organized, on their A game and within budget parameters, what was the point in me taking part at all?
- Be willing to wear all the hats. I played the role of actor, writer, key grip, camera operator, director of photography (assistant, anyway), set designer and a slew of other roles that I don’t even know the title for. This, of course, wasn’t ideal, but it offered a new appreciation for the number of moving pieces required for a production of any size to succeed.
- Admit you’re an amateur (if only to yourself). There’s no better way to teach yourself something than to dive in headfirst and figure it out on your own. If we hadn’t first admitted we were all amateurs on this project, we wouldn’t have been willing to experiment: to try different shots of the same scene, to stray off script for a few takes, or to go outside when the scene called for an indoor action. If the outdoor scene didn’t work, that was fine—but we first needed to go outside to realize we were wrong. By admitting we were beginners, we were able to push beyond what we thought we were capable of.
The lessons are far from over, and as our team continues to work on the production, this list continues to expand. As a way to reflect on the series, one of the co-writers shared with us Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work: a guide to help shape one’s creativity, which helped guide us through many of these lessons. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for an inspirational read.