How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Pamela Hill
Pamela Hill
2 years ago

The Big Picture

The funny thing about coming up with a web series is that sometimes it’s better to not try and create a web series. What do we mean by that? Well, if you’re looking for a big picture to start from, chances are you won’t be satisfied with anything less than a big idea.

The saying goes “Write what you know.” That’s true -- we had a lot of ideas that weren’t related, so we started making short films in our apartment, using just us as the cast and crew. A few of our early films consisted of taking a nursery rhyme and turning them into sketches. The Muffin Man was our first short we did together, and we followed up with Itsy Bitsy Spider which had some visual effects thrown in for good measure.

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Our third short film together was based on a song that Pamela had come up with years before…That Darn Girlfriend. The song was based on a rant Pamela had about relationships, but the song morphed into something that sounded more like a 1960s sitcom. So we shot it as if it was a sitcom, with an old TV 4:3 aspect ratio and Technicolor-style color grading. Vic, the boyfriend, came home from a business trip to tell his girlfriend Valerie that she got his plane ticket for the wrong destination. With an added laugh track, and cartoony end credits that reminded us of the old “Bewitched” title sequence, we had our classic TV parody.

Audiences who watched the episode on our YouTube channel loved it and kept asking us when the next episode was coming out. At that point, we realized that we actually had a web series! The short film became the pilot. The great thing about this project is that because it is completely episodic, where each episode stands alone and isn’t really serialized, we didn’t need to plan out the entire season before going into production. Sometimes the big picture starts with a sketch!

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Storytelling on a Paper Plate!

It’s been said that Walt Disney drew the original plans for Disneyland on a napkin at the Tam-O-Shanter restaurant. You never know when inspiration will hit you. You could even be on a picnic at the Hollywood Bowl, with only a paper plate and pen available to jot down your latest idea...or actually write out a whole episode’s script! True story! We often find ourselves in the middle of an impromptu writing session after we get an idea, and it can come from anywhere. It could be a conversation, something we saw on an old TV show, or something that’s currently in the news. When the light bulb goes off, you have to put your current plans on hold, and just go with it. Or in this instance, write it down...on anything at hand.

Sometimes it can start with a play on words. For example, during a friendly game of Scrabble with our nephew Adam, he joked about spelling Pamela’s character name Valerie as “Vowelerie”. Pamela took this spelling and used it as a potential episode title. Later, after a yoga class, Pamela shared that she wrote the entire episode in her head while doing yoga.

We take these thumbnail drafts and sketches and turn it into script format using Movie Magic Screenwriter, which William has used for writing since 2000. You definitely do want to have your script in the proper format, even if you’re just doing it all yourself as it’s easier to break it down for production, and as actors, we’re used to having our dialogue on a script.

We don’t try to write out a whole season before going into production. The main reason for this is that each episode is like a four-panel comic strip. Something will strike us as humorous, and that becomes the gag or “funny”, and then we write the episode around that. It’s a formula that works great for this show.

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Zero Budget...Literally!

You don’t have to have a ton of expensive equipment to pull off your own web series. Most people have pretty good cameras on their smartphones already, and the picture quality is really good. The only difference between an iPhone camera and a pro camera is that a cinema camera will be able to use a lot of different lenses, and that can make a production look more cinematic. But if you use the camera that you have in a way that takes advantage of composition, your result can look just as good.

On That Darn Girlfriend, we actually shoot with a first-generation Flip camera. Why would we do that? Considering that our goal is to emulate old-school TV shows, it’s easier to use a camera that will capture the video in the native format we want, instead of doing a lot of processing down from a higher-end camera in Post. The original Flip cameras shoot at 640X480 VGA resolution with a 4:3 aspect ratio that was the TV standard all the way up till the late 2000s. So the show really does capture that old-school look. It also helps to color grade using a 3-strip Technicolor look that gives our web series that retro feel.

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

We don’t have a lighting kit -- all of our show’s lighting is achieved using a combo of natural light and a practical LED desk lamp, that you probably have in your own residence. All you need for proper lighting is an open window (and shooting at the best time of day for your interiors), and a couple of desk lamps, especially a clamped lamp as you can mount that anywhere! You should invest in LED bulbs as they not only use less energy, but they are also a lot brighter and look great on screen.

Another way to save money is to use your own wardrobe. Because this show is a “period piece”, Pamela has a lot of fun crafting different outfits for Valerie and Vic. Oftentimes William will borrow a scarf from Pamela to serve as a 1970s ascot for Vic. Hey actors, you know all those costume pieces that you have collected over the years in your closet? Those just may come in handy for your own project -- it did for us!

By the may be wondering why we said Literally zero budget...the only two items that we spent money on for our show were two wigs. One brown wig for the Davy Jones character in Season 1 Episode 7: “Mystery Date”, and the other was a blond wig that Vic wore in the episode titled “Hair Today” from Season 2.

Location, Location, Location!

If you only have a small space to shoot in, not to worry...we live in a studio apartment! You too might be fortunate to shoot a series out of your own residence. If the story is there, then you don’t need to worry about getting exotic locations or needing permits. The great thing about motion pictures is that you can cheat using camera angles.

We get a lot of compliments on how different our space looks in each episode. That comes from not only different setups, but the detail is in the dressing...set dressing, that is! It really makes you think creatively out of the box when you need to make the same part of your room look different than the last episode.

Pamela finds that after we shoot an episode that she decorated, she likes the look so much that it becomes part of our home decor!

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Roadmap Before You Roll

You might think that your project is so simple that you don’t need to do any pre-production, but we find that it really helps to at least write out a shot list so that when you are shooting, you know what shots you need to get before moving on to the next scene. Plus, it really feels great to cross off a shot on your list when you have it “in the can”. This is a good practice and discipline to have if you are looking at getting into directing, and it keeps you organized and on schedule.

Sometimes, we will even storyboard an episode, especially if there are going to be visual effects that need to be figured out ahead of time. Because William is more technically-oriented, he finds that the boards work better at showing Pamela what his vision is going to be.

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

No Crew?

People often ask “Who’s your DP? Your makeup person? Your editor? Etc…” We say, “Us, us, us also…” Speaking of Directors of Photography, our DP is nicknamed “Sticks”! A good tripod is not only important to keep the camera steady, but it also lets you be both “behind the camera” and in front at the same time! Well, not actually at the same time -- you can’t do a pan or dolly if you’re in the shot. However, what you can do with a locked-off camera is put a little bit of motion in post. Lots of editing programs have the capability of doing simulated handheld shots, or you can digitally push in or do a slight pan and it will give you some movement.

The best way to learn how different departments work on a film set is to get out of your comfort zone and do those jobs yourself on your own project. It’s a great learning experience. Pamela has directed a few episodes and has developed a good eye in the editing process, both with picture and sound.

William’s been making films since his teenage years growing up in Hawaii, but he’s found that he’s learned a lot more about producing a television series by making That Darn Girlfriend with Pamela.

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Can a Cast of Two be an Ensemble?

Yes! Though if you want more roles in the story, this is your opportunity to bring in all the different characters that you’ve developed on your own, or from a sketch/Improv troupe. Add a split-screen to the mix, and voila!

In four of our episodes so far, we’ve played a variety of different characters besides our roles of Valerie and Vic. There are also guest appearances by Donny the Purple Bear, and the iconic Mrs. Beasley doll. We got some inspiration from old episodes of Bewitched where Elizabeth Montgomery played not only Samantha, but also her cousin Serena! We’ve also performed additional voice-over characters for certain episodes.

We learn more about our characters every time we portray them. It’s really fun to discover how Valerie & Vic are developing throughout the series. We even have callbacks to earlier dialogue, finding the pattern in how they communicate, or even references to our other short films. We incorporate our own personalities and likes to the characters. That gives us a myriad of ideas to draw from.

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Keep Me Posted

Editing is where you really get your chance to sculpt the episode. We use a free editing software program called HitFilm Express to do all our post-production. If you don’t already have a program that you use, we really recommend this one as it also lets you do visual effects as well, and the interface is really easy to learn. There are tons of YouTube tutorial videos that can teach you how to do almost anything in that program.

William is generally the lead editor on each episode as he works with the software. But Pamela will give valuable feedback on how to cut a scene, tweak a line or sound effect/music sting. One of the elements we use to keep that classic vintage TV sitcom vibe is a laugh track. We found a vintage recording on YouTube that we use in all the episodes. After two seasons, we’ve gotten a rhythm on how and when to bring the laughter into a scene. Will it play best with a big guffaw, or a low chuckle? It’s amazing how a laugh track can color a scene!

Movie Magic To Do!

It’s not just science fiction that uses visual effects. We actually have used a surprising amount of VFX in this series. Not only with the previously mentioned split-screens, but also some green-screen elements, CG animation, and even a 3D virtual character named Johnny Applessed! He was a callback to one of our previous short films and an audience favorite.

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Toons & Tunes

You’ve probably noticed that we’ve gotten most of our inspiration from Bewitched. This is true! In fact, when it was just a short film, William came up with the idea of having the end titles being cartoons, in homage to Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie.

The credits were done by taking hand-drawn caricatures of Valerie & Vic and scanning them into Photoshop where William colors them and adds other clip-art visuals from that episode. Throughout the two seasons, we discovered how to texture the cartoon characters’ outfits to match the wardrobe Valerie & Vic wear in the episode. William discovered a cool process of mapping Valerie & Vic’s clothing pattern to the cartoon avatars.

We even give a nod to clothing retail stores of the time as a wink to the audience! This is another way to add detail to the retro feel of the show.

Regarding music, it’s important to look for royalty-free music. We have found a lot to choose from. The music really sets the tone of the show, as there is a unique sound to the 1960s/70s soundtracks. You can have fun underscoring a scene, from picking the right score to enhance a mood, or use a specific sound that will play into the storyline.

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Outtakes Are Gifts

An audience favorite after the end credits in each episode are the outtakes. We don’t plan for them, we don’t force them, but they happen. When they do, it’s a happy accident. There’s a reason why blooper reels are some of the most popular special features on the DVD of a movie. People love to watch actors flub their lines, have fits of laughter and see them break character and let their real personality come out.

It’s Showtime!

Once you’ve finished Post Production, you’re ready to put it out there into the world! YouTube is a great platform for self-produced content. This gives you an opportunity to create your own channel and share your work.

There are different strategies as far as the release schedule goes; whether or not you want to produce a whole season first and then release one episode at a time on a regular basis. Our strategy is to produce episode by episode; don’t shoot the whole season first, and release them as we make them. Though on occasion, we will write multiple episodes if the ideas come to us, and they are ready to go when we decide to present them.

We’ve been fortunate to have some of our episodes screened at film festivals around the world. Don’t overlook this possibility for your show -- web series have their own category in a lot of festivals now.

How to Create a Web Series with Literally Zero Budget

Final Thoughts - Follow Your Bliss

Nothing is more empowering than creating your own project from imagination and seeing your finished product. We are all storytellers, whether we are behind or in front of the camera. We embrace the journey as that is the true source of our joy. Many of us chose this path precisely for that reason, to live our lives as artists.

Be authentic, be true to yourself. We find that if you create the work you are passionate about and follow your dreams, doors will open when you are doing what you love.

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About the Author

Pamela Hill

Pamela Hill

Actor, Voice Artist

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