Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Else I've Learned About Making Web Series

Making Vlog Star, and before that, Kenny Bloggerly's Internet Life, has been a constant learning experience.

When you look at things that become popular on the Internet, most of them are bizarre curiosities, often things that you never would have imagined existed, let alone would be discovered by a huge, fascinated audience. Because of this, it's easy to conclude that if you do something random and weird, you will capture people's attention based largely on the curiosity factor.

That was the thinking behind Kenny Bloggerly's Internet Life, a show where the whole joke hinged on anticlimax. No content, no jokes, no events, and abrupt endings. One thing that was fun about it was that after a while it's harder to write nothing than it is to write something, and talking about something without actually saying anything about it required increasingly awkward contortions of language. And the character developed mannerisms that were increasingly distinctive, which gave the show a little but of substance after all. In the end, the show subverted its own uneventfulness by actually launching an unexpectedly high-stakes story arc, though it was approached with the same strangely hesitant structure of everything else.

Is it weird that I'm analyzing my own shows here like they are some established work? This is what I would be like if I were to record a DVD commentary.

Anyway, the problem with this kind of show, I think, is that before viewers can enjoy the joke of having their expectations constantly frustrated, they have to discover the show, and that requires viewers to be thrilled enough to share the show with others. (It also requires the makers to be savvy and dedicated about publicizing their work and targeting a potentially receptive audience, like Felicia Day, which is something I'm still trying to figure out.) The central anti-joke of Kenny Bloggerly is something that (theoretically) grows more satisfying with subsequent episodes, as one learns the rhythm of the show and the games of the character. But any individual episode is unlikely to pack a big punch. You might smile with amusement, but let's be honest, a video about nothing happening is not going to set the world on fire. Shows where the joke is that there isn't one are generally more fun for creators than viewers. If something is going to attract attention for its weirdness, it has to be exceptionally, genuinely unique. Without that, the average viewer will lack the motivation to explore multiple episodes unless he or she truly has a lot of time on his or her hands.

Which brings us to the central ratio that determines the success of any piece of entertainment, but is especially marked in the field of web videos:

Investment/Reward.

Where Investment, usually time, must be as low as possible, and Reward, the viewer's enjoyment and satisfaction must be as high as possible.

I know, this seems like a no-brainer, but when you are in your own world creating a series, it's easy to presume that something will be great simply because you are the one making it and you are great.

If a video is long, over 2 or 3 minutes, or especially over 5 minutes, most people won't watch the whole thing. I've made plenty of videos over 5 minutes that I hoped people would watch, yet if I click on a video and discover it's over 5, I'll usually bail. It's a big Internet and when you're procrastinating, it's hard to commit that much time to a single video. If a video requires that you be caught up on the continuity of a series to understand it, you'll be similarly unlikely to get all the way through it. Too much Investment.

If you can invest a small amount of time but come away with a high level of enjoyment, you'll come away extra-satisfied. And what's more, you'll be willing to explore more episodes. They're like bite-sized candies -- a lot of pleasure for a small investment. This is something that Jake & Amir does really well. They never waste much of your time, and while there are some duds, more often than not, you feel like you got your 90 seconds' worth and you might as well watch another one. The most extreme example is the compulsively watchable 5 Second Films, which are basically the web video equivalent of potato chips. Again, some are bad, some are brilliant, but when most of them are at least pretty good and it only takes 8 seconds to watch another one, why not roll the dice a few more times? (And if something is really good, right away, it can even get away with being over 5 minutes.)

I know, I know, this is a lot of words to say that people like videos that are good and don't waste their time, which is blindingly obvious but easier said than done.

With Vlog Star, I've always made an effort to keep the Investment side of the ratio low, at least time-wise -- episodes are consistently 2-3 minutes or less. Where I've faltered, I think, is on the reward side. Season 1 leaned too heavily on the central joke that Nate is a has-been web star, yet it never hit this joke in a big, memorable way, nor did it offer much variation on the concept. What's more, it was pretty uneventful. This grew out of a few attempts at Channel 101 pilots like this and this, where I found that trying to squeeze too much plot into a 5 minute video seemed to leave the comedy without much room to breathe. I came to believe that webisodes based around a single, funny scene could lower the Investment side while raising the Reward side at the same time. The problem with Vlog Star season 1 was that the scenes were just not funny enough. Maybe they had too much room to breathe.

With season 2 I attempted to correct the problem of the show's uneventfulness. You might notice that there is a much stronger story arc informing the season, especially at the beginning and end. The problem I found here was that we ended up with too many episodes that were basically just connective tissue for the story arcs, but with little comic meat of their own. My favorite episodes from season 2 are the standalones like "Arm Run Over By Car" or the mini-arcs, like the cup-stacking/juggling episodes or the Road Trip arc. These, I think, are a good way to inject story without bogging things down with scenes that are purely functional or turning things into a soap opera that ask too much of viewers.

(An example of a series I think has the soap opera problem is Break a Leg, a very well-made show that aspires to the Arrested Development style and builds an intricate comic universe that diverges from reality to the point that it's kind of impenetrable after the first few episodes. In spite of that, it's pretty successful as web series go, and seems to have helped its creators find further work in the field, so what do I know? My point is I have trouble getting into it because it starts to feel like work.)

Yes, I am aware of the irony that the Investment/Reward ratio of this blog post is astonishingly low.

My point? I guess it's that I'm still working at this, and trying not to get discouraged that I'm such a slow learner. More Vlog Star episodes are on their way, and if you don't notice a difference, it's not for a lack of overthinking. The goal this season is to further refine the all important Investment/Reward ratio. I'm trying to make things more accessible -- more stand-alone episodes, less exposition, something that you can jump in and watch without being caught up on 20+ previous episodes -- and funnier -- which is a constant battle against my rusty and limited performing ability.

Enjoy the new season! I hope it's good.

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