Laura Conway on Web Series: Production Day

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here it is. The sixth and – oh no! – final chapter in Laura’s series on the making of her very, very, very popular – over 3 million views – interweb series hit The Vamps Next Door.


Relax, Kid, You’re Not Making Star Wars
by Laura Conway

I try to be positive, but having a big imagination works both ways. Try to imagine the worst possible thing that can go wrong during your production. For me, that involves death, so if nobody dies, it was a great shoot. And when it’s over, you can happily say that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. You’re not making Star Wars here, so focus on the positives of the experience or you’ll miss all the fun.

Some practical things to do in preparation for shoot day: Set up the house as much as possible the night before. Have printed copies of the script and the call sheet. Print out the lunch menu and take orders in the morning. Have extra batteries, duct tape and blue painter’s tape (the kind that doesn’t stick to wood floors), have an opaque tarp in case you need to block out light from windows.

Have some wardrobe tape ready in case an actress has to tape her dress to prevent wardrobe malfunction, have a slate ready with dry erase markers and an eraser, designate a bathroom, including free counter space, for the makeup person to set up (they take up way more space than you would think), know which area of the house you won’t be shooting in and use it as a staging area for equipment, have all the props ready to go and a designated changing room for the actors. And make sure there’s plenty of coffee, water, snacks, etc.

One recommendation I have is to “check the gate” after each scene. That means watch the footage you just shot before moving on to the next scene to make sure it looks good… Remember the homeless guy, who works for food, that you picked up and put on camera 3? Make sure his shots are in focus. Vamps Director, Phil, never checks the gate, but I’m the editor and I can tell you that out of focus shots can’t be fixed well in editing… See what you can see:

When I showed up for our very first Vamps Next Door shoot, I didn’t know anything about anything. Now I know some stuff, but nothing can really prepare you for a low budget shoot except to expect the unexpected. Being obsessively organized helps a lot. Until it doesn’t…

Some of the unexpected things I’ve had happen while shooting:

My neighbor decides it’s cut down a tree day

There’s a dog in the back room whining (and it’s not my dog)

Fangs just fall out of the actress’s mouth

An actor shows up for pick up shots with a new beard and new hair color

The fake pee device supposed to wet the actor’s pants just makes a puddle on the floor

The Fire Marshall shows up and says we’re not allowed to really smoke from the bong

The cat won’t react when the script clearly says CAT REACTS

The homeowner is having a mental breakdown, tears included, over all the people in her house

And my personal favorite…The actress’s nipple is showing through her bra and we don’t notice until after we’ve shot it (Editing that nipple out was a bitch… see if you can see it at 4:45…

Every time I finish editing and posting a new Vamps episode, I say, “I’m never doing this again.”

But I do. Because I’ve also had some amazingly cool moments while shooting, like when actors nail my favorite lines, the way good lighting makes an actress’s skin look on camera, when I frame a beautiful exterior shot and it’s perfect, when the fake vomit looks real, when a joke line I wrote makes everyone laugh. And best of all when I look over at all the brilliant, creative people I work with.

So that’s my story about my strange kind of hobby, writing and producing web series. Now it’s your turn to make one!

Read Chapter 1 HERE

Read Chapter 2 HERE

Read Chapter 3 HERE

Read Chapter 4 HERE

Read Chapter 5 HERE


Laura Conway is the writer and producer of The Vamps Next Door web series, directed by Phil Ramuno. Subscribe to the Vamps’ YouTube channel to get notifications about new episodes.

Laura Conway on Web Series: Putting Together Your Crew

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s the fifth chapter in Laura Conway’s series on the making of her very, very, very popular – over 3 million views – interweb series hit The Vamps Next Door.


Assemble the Right Crew or Risk Major Mental Collapse (Oy!)
by Laura Conway

After casting is done, I assemble the crew. How big a crew varies depending on the budget. If you want to enjoy making your web series, hire the right crew or risk a major panic attack. I’ve tried it both ways. The way without the mental breakdown is best.

When I shoot The Vamps Next Door, I now make sure to have a small and affordable, but big enough that I don’t lose my shit, crew. BUT one time when I was broke as fuck, we shot the most important scene of Season 4, when vampire daughter Kate bites Denise, with just me and Phil, each with a handheld camera, no sound person, no makeup person, no lights, no crew.

Phil dug a boom pole out of his garage and enlisted my 13 year old son to hold it AND we had to get this in one take because there was blood and no 2nd set of wardrobe. Some might call this guerrilla filmmaking… I call it being totally fucked. Yet, that’s our most watched episode (go figure) see it for yourself at 4 minutes, 5 seconds in: https://youtu.be/3YbeSDJsQn8

Following is a list of all the crew positions I’ve staffed at various times.

THE MUST-HAVES:

Audio:

Even the lowest budget production needs an audio person because nothing ruins an episode faster than bad audio. Don’t use the camera’s audio. Hire the professional. I find great audio people on mandy.com

Make up person:

It’s not impressive to ask actresses to do their own makeup. And makeup should have a consistent look. Hire a professional and ask the actresses who they like to use.

Director:

Unless you have experience directing, hire a director. See the prior installment on finding a director.

Camera operators/Cinematograhers/DPs:

If you own cameras, that’s the best way to go. For Vamps, Phil and I own and run the cameras ourselves.

If that’s not your thing, you can hire a camera operator who has experience and the director can instruct them.

Third option if you don’t own cameras is rent camera equipment (insurance required). If you’re planning to make more than 1 episode, try investing in a DSLR. I have a Canon 80D that I love. Phil has a 5D. You can see the great quality video they produce in this episode:

If you want to hire a DP, who has his own camera, ask the director who she recommends, but don’t commit to hiring anyone without checking out their reel and comparing with others.

Production Assistants:

They work as volunteers and trade time for experience and credit. They are typically responsible, reliable and just awesome to have helping out. They don’t need experience as long as you give them jobs that don’t require it. Their job is to take orders and do whatever is needed.

They can move equipment, help set up and clean up, pick up lunch, slate the scenes, even pet your dog so he doesn’t ruin the sound, whatever. Two of them is the perfect number for a Vamps shoot. One works, too.

Script Supervisor:

For Vamps, I ask my OCD, detail oriented friend to come over for free and just watch the script. She makes sure the actors say the lines exactly as written. A professional script supervisor also makes sure actions match from take to take, makes sure wardrobe is consistent and keeps notes of the director’s comments. That requires experience and costs money.

MY DIY LIST:

First AD:

Great to have if they’re good. For Vamps, I usually do all the First AD work myself, including script breakdown, shooting schedule, call sheet, and making sure production day runs on time.

Props/ Effects:

So fun to go props shopping. And sometimes I make props. For Season 5, I made my own vomit AND pee. The vomit looks amazing, but the pee device was a total failure. We had to cut to a close up of the shorts already wet. You can see how it ended up 11 minutes, 39 seconds into The Vamps Next Door: Tasha’s Revenge (the video above).

Wardrobe:

If you’re on a budget, actresses are usually OK with wearing their own clothes, and that means looking through their closet. If there’s nothing I like, I go shopping with them and buy something. I now like to have a color scheme, too. And when there’s blood involved, we need two sets of whatever they wear.

Hard Way Lesson #5: During Season 3 of Vamps, at exactly 3 minutes and 24 seconds in, watch me ruin actor Lynn Manning’s jacket with blood and cost myself an extra $50…

(You can’t see me in the video but I’m crouched down behind the actor operating my homemade blood spurting device.)

Production Designer:

PD’s can definitely take your show to the next level of production value, but your venue is the web. People are watching on their phones. Between you and the director, with a little planning, you can make sure there’s nothing weird in the background and move plants or furniture around to make the shots look better.

I had an amazing PD on AGELESS versus no PD on Vamps. You can see the difference for yourself, especially comparing the absolutely horrible background in this Vamps shot in Denise’s kitchen (47 seconds in)

to this nicely designed AGELESS background in Shirley’s kitchen (19 seconds in):

PD’s are expensive. Try to DIY and save the money.

I know there are many other positions in productions, but I’ve never used them for The Vamps Next Door.

Read Chapter 1 HERE

Read Chapter 2 HERE

Read Chapter 3 HERE

Read Chapter 4 HERE


Laura Conway is the writer and producer of The Vamps Next Door web series, directed by Phil Ramuno. Subscribe to the Vamps’ YouTube channel to get notifications about new episodes.

Laura Conway on Web Series: Casting The Performers

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here it is. The fourth chapter in Laura’s series on the making of her very, very, very popular – over 3 million views – interweb series hit The Vamps Next Door.


Uh-oh, We’re ThisClose to Showtime!
by Laura Conway

After finding a director, it’s time to cast performers. I’m in the LA area and for posting a casting call I like to use either Breakdown Express or LA Casting. I don’t post the same casting on both. I did that once and it was a nightmare to organize.

I rent a theater with a stage to conduct auditions. This gives my low budget project a sense of professionalism. Phil and I once did a Vamps Next Door audition in a park and we looked like pervy stalkers. More him than me, but still… I hire an actor to be at the auditions to read lines with the performers. Some producers film auditions, but I only do that if a decision maker can’t attend. Otherwise, it’s just extra work.

Hard Way Lesson #4: Whatever you do, don’t cast your sister-in-law’s neighbor’s best friend’s cousin unless her name is Meryl Fucking Streep. Having said that, let’s revisit “don’t be an asshole.” There’s a black void in between words where you can say both yes and no at the same time. It goes something like this: She sounds amazing. Auditions are next week. I’ll move her to the front of the line.

But don’t let yourself be bullied or guilted or coerced by someone with leverage into casting an actor who’s not right for the part. When you don’t cast her, blame it on the director. OR offer her a role that’s just one line and write that line to her strengths. Remember, you’re the producer, the decision maker. Don’t be an insecure, people pleasing dumb ass who can’t standup for yourself (yes, talking about myself here) Do what’s best for the show in the nicest way you can.. or not. It’s up to you.

I always offer the performers some pay. I budget at least $100/day out of respect and also because pay attracts way more performers. I always go through Screen Actors Guild. They offer a New Media contract to producers of low budget web series. It’s extra time to fill out the paperwork, but I’ve found SAG actors to be more experienced. Be sure to post the casting call as “SAG New Media.” And be sure to have all the SAG paperwork submitted and approved before you post the casting, or your post could be delayed.

NOTE: If you go with the SAG New Media contract, I recommend not casting Non SAG performers because you could get fined down the line because of various arcane rules.

Another reason the SAG New Media thing is a good way to go. It has an option to “defer payment” to actors, which means that if the web series makes money later, then that’s when the actors get paid. Web series don’t usually make a net profit so if you choose deferred payment, the actors are basically working for free.

I used to stress over whether the director and I would agree on casting choices. But what usually happens is that one performer will show up and kill it, and I mean KILL IT. Someone who is SO PERFECT for the character that it’s obvious to everyone. And if there’s a character for whom this magic doesn’t happen, schedule one more audition day and bring in more actors or schedule call backs.

After writing and obsessing over the script, I always have a very clear and specific image in my mind of what the characters look like, physically. Sometimes a performer who looks totally different from that image will show up to audition and be really good and I might not even know it. But the director will know it. If the performance is good, be open to a different look. I’ve done that a few times now and have not regretted it.

Lest I forget: I now always do a table read before shooting so that I can catch the lines that don’t work and re-write them before it’s too late. I didn’t do a table read for Vamps Season 3 and at the end of the last scene of IRS PARTY 3, with the cameras rolling, my last line of dialogue died and then there was this black hole of dead air. (This was before I learned how to write scene endings.)

Actress Rae Latt, who plays Nancy the next door neighbor, improv’d the line “she didn’t like my outift” and it was funny and perfect. Take a look at the episode at the top of this article and see if you agree. Actors are truly amazing.

Read Chapter 1 HERE

Read Chapter 2 HERE

Read Chapter 3 HERE


Laura Conway is the writer and producer of The Vamps Next Door web series, directed by Phil Ramuno. Subscribe to the Vamps’ YouTube channel to get notifications about new episodes.

Laura Conway on Web Series: Finding and Working with a Director

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here it is. The third chapter in Laura’s series on the making of her very, very, very popular – over 3 million views – interweb series hit The Vamps Next Door.


Man Up, Kid Cause This is Gonna Hurt…So Good
by Laura Conway

Deciding to make your script into a web series means it’s no longer just about you, it’s about a collaboration with others. If you’re controlling and obsessive over your writing like I am, let me warn you that the first time is going to hurt. (but no pain, no gain)

Before any casting is done, find a director because directors need to be a part of the casting process. Unless you’ve got experience directing, I don’t think you should direct your own episode. It’s harder than it looks.

On The Vamps Next Door, I was lucky to work with veteran sitcom director, Phil Ramuno. I didn’t have to find him and I did not hire him, we already knew each other and we became co-creators. We find the same things funny so that usually works out great.

Phil is as close to a mentor as I’ve ever had. Thanks to Phil, I learned how to stage a scene, frame a shot, position the cameras, give actors notes, and the basics of 3 camera sitcom. If you’re making a comedy, check out Phil’s book, The New Sitcom Career Book

I’m going to use a different web series, AGELESS, as an example here, because for that web series, I had to actually go out and find a director to hire. There are new directors, student directors and commercial directors, who are willing to work on low budget projects.

I found director Montana Mann just by Google searching new female directors. I emailed her about AGELESS, explained the budget and attached the script. Since it’s a low budget job for them, it’s best to attach a script (that they will love) at the same time you’re disclosing the not so great pay.

It’s important to hire a director who gets your vision. Montana thought the script was hilarious and she also had a vision that I really liked. Here comes the hard lesson about establishing a director-writer relationship for your web series production.

It’s not just a director-writer relationship, it’s also a director-producer relationship. It’s your money and your project, but at the same time, the director also has a vision. Agree in advance on what the combined vision is and then it’s the director’s job to make that vision happen.

It’s tricky as fuck and I don’t know what else to say except watch and learn. I studied how these directors work and next time I’m going to try directing myself…

It’s important to have a pre-production meeting with the director. Go over the script and be sure to participate in creating the shot list so you can work out any conflicts in advance. During this meeting, be the producer first, writer second. This meeting is your chance to explain your vision to the director and any specific, must have shots you want before production day.

Once the camera’s rolling, it’s the director’s set and the director’s choices. That drives the writer in me crazy, but on shoot day, that ship has sailed because stopping production to add a new shot, make a change or have a disagreement adds time and money that a low budget production does not have.

It was day four of AGELESS production when I had a mental breakdown.

I hadn’t listened to more experienced people who told me I wrote too much to shoot in one day. Why? Because I couldn’t bear to cut anything from my precious script. Around 2pm, the director and I realized there was no way she was going to make her day, meaning there wasn’t enough time left to shoot everything on the shot list.

She had no choice but to make the call to cut part of a scene.

My favorite part, by the way.

I was devastated and was sure that without that scene, the episode was going to die. It was hard, but I did the only thing I could do. I trusted Montana to do her job and ran off to cry in the restroom. What she cut was a fight scene between two gangs of elderly people in a nursing home where they clobber each other with canes, walkers, prosthetic limbs, etc. Funny stuff.

Sure, she was right, and the episode played just fine without it. But I still miss that fight scene. See if you miss it too by clicking on the video at the top of this page.

Hard Way Lesson #3: If I had listened and rewritten the script into something shorter before we shot OR budgeted more time for what I had written, I might have been able to save that scene. It’s better to control the outcome in advance than have a breakdown when it’s too late.

Now I’m telling you what I wish someone had told me… Remember you’re the producer. Unless you’re co-creators, the director works with you as the writer, AND also for you as the producer. Listen to the people who know more than you do but don’t get insecure about what you want. You don’t always have to agree or follow their advice, but if it’s your first time doing this, they could be right. It’s that whole “wisdom to know the difference” shit… and I still don’t always get it.

Working with directors was a little stressful and out of my comfort zone, but I’m grateful for the chance to study two talented directors at work. I learned a lot from them.

Stay tuned for the next chapter on my favorite thing ever… Casting.

Read Chapter 1 HERE

Read Chapter 2 HERE


Laura Conway is the writer and producer of The Vamps Next Door web series, directed by Phil Ramuno. Subscribe to the Vamps’ YouTube channel to get notifications about new episodes.

Laura Conway on Web Series: Whatever You Do, Don’t Be An Asshole

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ah, the second chapter in Laura’s series on the making of her very, very, very popular – over 3 million views – interweb series hit.


MAKING A BUDGET AND FINDING CASH FOR YOUR WEB SERIES
by Laura Conway

The first thing I do is accept that I won’t make back a single penny of what I’m going to spend and be OK with that. Then I find some cash.

One way to find financing is by telling as many people as you can about the project. Network like crazy. You will find people who want to help you. Unless you’re an asshole and nobody likes you. The road of life is lined with bridges.

For the first episode, the advantage in finding donors is that you’ve never asked anyone for money for a “film” project before. The disadvantage is that you’ve never done a “film” project before. So finding big investors is unlikely, but do you really want a big investor for your first attempt anyway? If it comes out badly, you’re screwed for next time.

For The Vamps Next Door, I personally asked my friends and family for donations. Even my elderly aunt, who didn’t get it, and my uncle, who I hadn’t seen in years. Since I’m not an asshole, they both happily contributed. My parents felt sorry for me and a little guilty too, so they contributed the most. LOL. Tragedy plus time equals more cash for my comedy. My friends contributed small amounts and I used my own money for the rest. (I tried IndieGoGo once and it was a total waste of time.)

Having blown every budget I’ve ever made, I think it’s best to figure out how much money there is to spend first, and then make the budget fit into that amount. I’ve found that for about $1500 I can make a decent, nothing fancy episode like this one in 1 day. https://youtu.be/RUP7aBu7laE Keep costs in mind when you’re writing the script. It’s hard, but if you’ve got no cash, the script shouldn’t have expensive props and wardrobe that you don’t already own and no expensive locations. Sometimes actors have their own props and wardrobe and if you’re not an asshole, they might be willing to share.

For a Vamps production, I do almost everything myself (for free): props, wardrobe, production schedule, call sheets, camera operator, production design, and editing… the advantage is there’s a lot to learn (fun!) and the disadvantage is there’s a lot to learn (oh no!), and it shows, especially in the earlier episodes.

The following items are not DIY and should always be part of the budget: (More on assembling a crew later.)

1. Sound Recording – the fastest way to screw up your episode is with bad audio. In the LA area, there are professional audio people looking for side work in between their high paying gigs. I find them on mandy.com. I budget $200 / day.
2. Make up person – I budget $200 / day.
3. Performers: Sure, actors are used to working low budget shows for free or for “deferred payment” (more on deferred and SAG later) but I always budget something to pay them. Actors bring my characters to life and I feel they deserve to get paid. I budget $100/day or more if I can afford it.
4. Insurance: Do you feel lucky? When I’ve got 2 actresses running down the street with real medieval weapons and nobody dies, I do feel lucky.

I almost always get insurance even though I’ve never had to use it.

I invested $900 in a Canon DSLR and I learned how to use it. Vamps Next Door co-creator, Phil Ramuno, the director, also has his own cameras, so I don’t need to budget for that.

Locations can really blow the budget, but if you’ve got well developed characters you can drop them into any setting, so try INT. HOUSE. A house is the easiest location to find for free.

If you can shoot in your own house, that’s the best way to avoid the stress and expense of damaging someone else’s house. For Season 1 of Vamps, one of the actors got his parents to volunteer their house for free. When someone does that, it means they probably never had a film crew in their house before. They will be anxious, unhappy and tend to kick you out before you’re done. And if it’s a friend, she could turn into an ex-friend. Sad, right? Now I always shoot Vamps in my house.

Another possibly free setting is an office if that lends itself to your story. On Vamps Season 1, we got an office location for free from an actress in exchange for giving her a small part in an upcoming episode. Bartering. It works. Of course, we had to shoot from 10pm til 2am, but like my dad always says, there ain’t no free lunch.

Hard Way Lesson #2: More is not always better. If you take a look at this episode from my former web series, AGELESS, you will immediately notice its production value is much higher than The Vamps Next Door. https://youtu.be/HbFrydRAlro Yup, I went crazy, spent too much money and it looks better than it needs to for a web series. I should have made AGELESS for way less money, but the extras I got were an actual cinematographer, an actual production designer, an entire camera crew, fancy equipment and professional coloring. And I have to admit, shooting on ice was pretty cool. But what made it worth it was the education I got about the different parts of a real production.

These days I stay in my budget, except when I’m props shopping and absolutely must have… not one, but TWO bloody, dead bodies. One was dismembered…

Stay tuned for the next chapter on working with directors.

Read Chapter 1 HERE


Laura Conway is the writer and producer of The Vamps Next Door web series, directed by Phil Ramuno. Subscribe to the Vamps’ YouTube channel to get notifications about new episodes.

Laura Conway: How & Why to Make a Web Series – Part 1

EDITOR’S NOTE: Toldja TVWriter™ would have more from Laura Conway. Welcome to the first in Laura’s series on the making of her very, very, very popular interweb series hit.


Choosing the Script to Get Your Web Series Rolling
by Laura Conway

I’m not a professional writer. I never went to film school. And I write and produce my own web series, The Vamps Next Door. Guess you could say I’m a perpetual amateur running amok with a camera. It’s my strange kind of hobby and, for a raving writer like myself, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. If you’re a new writer and it’s your first time producing your own script, all these words are for you.

I’ve been writing stories ever since I could write and I write comedy because I love making people laugh. But seven pilots and six screenplays later, sure all that writing was fun, but something was always missing. There was no audience laughing. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Every new writer should make a web series. Even if no one watches it. Even if no one likes it. Even if it sucks so bad that your only viewer is your mom and she says, “good job, honey.” Why? For me, because it makes me a better writer. Because it teaches me about filmmaking. Because there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing my words on paper come to life. Or the pain of my words’ death. It happens. A lot. So don’t let the fear of fucking up stop you from fucking up… and learning something great in the process.

You’re not gonna believe this, but when you make a low budget web episode, your script becomes three different stories. What you wrote, what you shot and what you edit. It’s just shocking that they are not the same things. So pucker up and kiss your vision goodbye. Now put away the tissues and get over it because, although the finished episode won’t quite match your vision, the good news is that in a collaboration, talented actors and a good director can make that vision even better. Everything else is a lesson learned.

The first step is writing a script to produce. All of my TV pilot scripts are written in 1/2 hour format or one hour format, but a low budget web series is just for the web, which means shorter episodes that cost less to make. Before I knew better, I shot 1/2 hour “TV” scripts. Then I split the video into four parts after I already shot it.

I learned the hard way that my half hour scripts with eight characters, an A Story, a B story, and maybe even a C story, don’t split well, it makes the pace slow and hard to follow. Try either converting one of your half hour scripts into something shorter or write new, shorter scripts just for your web series.

I’m a DIY kind of girl who learns things the hard way so here’s my…


Hard Way Lesson #1: Keep your first web episode down to a 5 minute script because it’s your first web episode. You’re going to make mistakes and be better the next time. Save your money and make those mistakes on a one day shoot instead of a 2 or 3 day shoot. Don’t believe me? Check out Season 1 of The Vamps Next Door. I wish I had re-written that half hour script down to 5 minutes.


On the bright side, here’s an example of a 7 page, 7 minute, single spaced script for a web episode I wrote and produced called Vampire Virgin. I took two of my best characters and wrote them just an A story that was 7 minutes long with a beginning, middle and end so that it could stand on its own.

It took me and a small crew 8 hours to shoot it and the total cost for this episode was $1500. It would have cost less, but I absolutely had to rent the bloody, dead body props, and as you can see, they were totally worth it. Here’s the episode:

Or you can watch it HERE

Stay tuned for the next installment about how I make my budgets (and how I blow them) and how I finance my projects.


Laura Conway is the writer and producer of The Vamps Next Door web series, directed by Phil Ramuno. Subscribe to the Vamps’ YouTube channel to get notifications about new episodes.