// Via Viewfinder magazine (www.viewfinder.co.nz)
At the end of February 2013 a New Zealand web series created by Roseanne Liang, JJ Fong, Perlina Lau, and Ally Xue, called Flat3, hit the internet.
The Flat3 website describes the web series as ‘sometimes smart, often silly, a little rude and a lot awkward. Flat3 is a Kiwi comedy with a unique cultural take – universal in its specificity and relatable in its fresh perspective’.
“But what is a web series?” asked Roseanne’s mum and loyal fan. Good question; here in New Zealand the web series form falls largely under the radar. Overseas though, the ‘web series’ has become what rap is to music, with a prestigious Awards ceremony (The Streamy Awards) dedicated to ‘honour excellence in original online video programming and those who create it’ and a Web Series Festival in its fourth year.
So what IS a web series? Essentially, a web series is a series of videos, generally in episodic form, released online or on mobile devices.
Founder of the LA Web Series Festival and a web series creator himself, Michael Ajakwe Jr, sees the ‘web series’ as The People’s Vision: “with the worldwide reach of the Internet and the cost of Hi-Def cameras and editing equipment like Final Cut Pro now accessible to the average consumer, non-industry creators can now make and market serialised entertainment alongside the industry pro. What’s great is that both the newbie and the veteran can create their own shows without permission from or the approval of traditional electronic media networks and studios which historically served as gatekeepers. Now, the gate is wide open which means there’s more opportunity than ever.”
Here in New Zealand, the six-part Flat3 web series came about when Chinese-Kiwi actresses JJ, Perlina and Ally were lamenting the lack of diverse roles to play and “having to put on painful FOB accents”. Realising that sitting around waiting for things to change was “just lazy,” they decided to make a comedy web series and approached Roseanne Liang, director of ‘My Wedding and Other Secrets.’ Roseanne joined (“heck, yeah!”) as writer/director/actor/editor and the Flat3 web series was borne.
“We spent a good few months just chatting and dreaming,” says Roseanne. So it’s fair to say the plots were largely inspired by the women’s own anecdotes of love, life, hopes and dreams.
Flat3 follows Lee (Ally Xue), Jessica (JJ Fong) and Perlina (Perlina Lau) as they try to figure out who they are, what they’re doing in this life, and whose turn it is to buy toilet paper.
Creating a web series, rather than say a short film, was driven by the immediacy and cost and “that lovely feeling of just jumping up and doing something, and to have it be seen by just about anybody in the world with an internet connection,” says Roseanne.
Then the Flat3 team discovered the NZOA’s (New Zealand On Air) new Digital Media Ignite Fund and applied for funding to make their web series. “We had to submit a marketing plan and timeline, and by the time we found out our application was unsuccessful, we had already started thinking about shoot dates,” says Roseanne.
So the team pushed ahead with their dream of creating the web series, albeit with a zero-budget. “We shot over about six weekends, but not full-time. I wrote episodes One to Four through November 2012, we shot early December, then took a three week break over Christmas and New Year, during which I had to finish writing the final two series. Then we shot for two weekends in January as Ally was moving to Sydney at the end of the month.
“In our funding application we thought that going live around the Lantern festival/Chinese New Year might be a good release platform, so I was editing and managing post production with a Feb 22nd deadline in mind.
“We decided to roll the six episodes out once a week like a ‘real’ TV show, just to keep the ball rolling.”
Each webisode is around seven minutes long. “We determined the episode length based on our own experiences watching YouTube videos – and how we might be at work and check the duration of a video to see whether we could get away with watching it.”
The crew for the series were all friends or friends of friends. “A lot of people had their own gear – the DOP and sound recordist for instance. I invested in a small clapper board and a new version of AVID Media Composer 6,” says Roseanne. “I used to be an editor for trade, so I volunteered to edit and do post production as well.
“Being from a post background, I thought it was important to at least make sure the picture matched, and the sound was good. We shot on two different cameras, a Sony FS-100 and a Canon DSLR (the 500D), and while the camera people had done a great job, there was sometimes a little fluctuation but that was relatively easy to smooth out.
“Sound is probably more critical than a fine-tuned grade, but I approached ColorLab for colour grading because I thought it would save me some time evening out the picture with my limited ‘colour-sense’. In the end, it didn’t out work time-wise, and for episodes Three to Six, one of the very helpful and multi-talented camera people did the colour grading within AVID!
“When it came to the music for the web series it was a mix of begging local artists we liked to help us out, musicians who were friends, like Florence Hartigan, and a friend of Jess’, called Hong Yul Yang, who had a full-time paid job, but had done some composition before. Hong actually lives in Australia, and I think he did an amazing job.”
The Flat3 team didn’t set out to make the series for profit, so they don’t anticipate any monetary return at this stage. “Having Flat3 out there is its own reward!’” says Roseanne.
“The donation/tip jar model is nice and we did talk about it, but unless it’s an amazing unique product with stars (Game of Thrones anybody?), it’s just another obstacle to stop people watching. We thought we would be trading, even unconsciously, on friends and families’ guilt for donations and we don’t feel comfortable doing that. Everybody is cutting back at the moment, so we wouldn’t want to add that pressure to our grass-roots audience when this is a little project we can make comfortably on our own… at least to begin with.
“In terms of making a web series on a micro-budget, I think talented friends who are passionate about the content are the resource that is most valuable. We were so lucky to have such talented friends from a range of disciplines who were willing to put the time in to help us out. I passionately believe though, that once you have used them on a micro-budget project, it’s important to find the funds to offer a reasonable fee for subsequent projects. Some friends might turn it down, but you have to at least offer it to them. Otherwise it’s exploitation of a friendship.
“If you’re not paying your talented friends, you need to treat their work with utmost respect, possibly more than usual. Most likely they are doing this in addition to their normal jobs, so to sustain their involvement they need to be able to get something other than money out of it. Maybe they are learning something new. Most people just like to be listened to; to have their creative input taken into consideration.”
Word of the series so far has spread virally through friends and colleagues. “I really have no idea how to market the series, so in the beginning we just worked on our website (designed and updated by Ally) and Facebook (started and managed by JJ) and Twitter (opened and managed by Perlina) accounts, and hoped that the content would speak for itself,” says Roseanne.
“The importance of marketing was highlighted when I went to speak at a seminar about my work in general, and it turned into a ‘why haven’t you thought about marketing this web series!?’ interrogation by the seminar attendees, who were way more savvy about it than me! I actually met a marketing person there who very kindly agreed to help us out, so now we are sending out press releases to our contacts.”
Nonetheless, Flat3 has created a loyal following and boasts over 15,000 views on YouTube in just over a month. With the pressure on to keep the series going, the team is investigating funding sources for a second season.
“We are currently exploring funding avenues, including NZOA and the AsianNZ Foundation – mainly because we feel we are firmly within their ‘sights’ as funding bodies. Maybe if we were savvier about the online revenue we could one day become self-sufficient and not have to rely on public funding.
“We briefly discussed crowd funding, but again, because we don’t want to target primarily our friends and family for money in this recessionary time, it would be something we turn to as a last resort.
“Looking for finance is a full-time job, which takes time away from the fun of actually making the thing. What we really need is someone who is good at raising money, enjoys doing it, and wants to do it for our project! But that’s what all us ‘creatives’ want.
“When budgeting for another season it is important to us that we keep the small nimble crew that we had before, but we also want people to feel that they are being offered a fee that is reasonable. With that comes the desire for extra hands, a person whose expertise would make our jobs easier – for instance the girls all did their own makeup, costume and art department (props and also some set decoration!), so obviously it would be nice to pay someone to help out with at least some of that. However, I think there’s a balance to be struck with just the right number of crew. We don’t want people to be stretched too much, but we don’t want to be unwieldy either.”
THE WEB SERIES FORM
The world of the web series is rapidly evolving as more filmmakers are attracted to the freedom of making online programmes on small budgets; and audiences are lapping up the diverse range of accessible original content available for free. “I can see an exciting future for the web series format but I think the problem now is that there are so many of them. It seems like every man and his grandma are making web series, AS WELL as amazing world class directors like Joss Whedon and comedians like Jerry Seinfeld. It’s going to turn into a question of ‘is it actually good, is it actually worth my time to view?’ It will be up to tastemakers or social rating websites like Funny or Die, for any web series to lift themselves out of that huge mass of content. That’s something we’re definitely facing at the moment,” says Roseanne.
“I think the web series is still trying to find its form; namely the modes of storytelling that can only be done in a web series. There’s already been lots of innovation, but for example Flat3 is still a little like short episodic TV. I wonder if there’s something we can be doing that can only be done in a web series?
“I would encourage aspiring makers of web series to do all the things they wish they could do on film or TV or documentary, but haven’t been able to. I think in New Zealand our media is very much bound by our small population, but this is a form that can truly be international. Already on our analytics we have had hits from 55 different countries, on every continent (okay maybe not Antarctica). Our second biggest audience is the US, ahead of Australia by a surprisingly large margin.
“In hindsight, I don’t have much I’d change on the production of Flat3. I think there is heaps to learn from series like the award-winning Awkward Black Girl but we didn’t really research other web series before we began, and in some ways that ignorance is bliss.
“I feel very glad that I was asked to do this by a group of great women, and that we got on so well together, and could offer so much in our respective areas of talent. It was serendipity and synchronicity… long may it last!”