Here at No Film School, we focus a whole lot on the process of making feature films. However, long-form storytelling like television narratives and web series are entering a golden age in which in-depth character development is key and content and structure can be as creative as ever. For independent and low-budget filmmakers looking to take advantage of the creative freedoms of long-form storytelling, while simultaneously working on honing their craft, web series are definitely a great way to go (just ask our fearless leader, Ryan Koo, whose series The West Side won critical acclaim). But how does one go about getting started with creating a dramatic web series? It's certainly not easy, but today's interviewee, Terrell Lamont, has some answers.
Terrell Lamont is the founder of 121 Studios, and he is the showrunner of a brand new web series called Anomaly that is being produced in Denver, CO. After making the pilot of the series come to life (on his own dime and his own time), the full first season of Anomaly was picked up for distribution by JTS.TV, an independent online distributer that uses a subscription model to provide the best indie movies and shows.
Unfortunately, we're unable to embed the pilot in this post, but click here to watch the pilot for free directly on JTS.TV.
With the pilot out of the way and with distribution secured, Terrell and his team are now in the process of funding the remainder of the first season through Kickstarter. Let's just say that it's a much better cause than that guy who raised $40K to make potato salad.
Now let's get to the interview with Terrell!
NFS: First off, introduce yourself and 121 Studios. What is your background in film?
TL: My name is Terrell Lamont, I'm one of the owners of 121studios in Denver, Colorado. I went to Minnesota School of Business and enrolled in the digital film and media program, where I cultivated a passion for visual storytelling.
Initially I didn't have any desire to be a director, I just thought that I would learn to edit or work a camera or something. However while working on school projects, I found myself taking initiative and making crucial creative decisions and receiving praise from my instructors and peers. The classmates that I was working with started deferring to me and looking to me to lead projects. So I sorta fell into directing and found that I had a passion for it and that it kinda comes natural for me.
With that said, I usually just call myself a filmmaker, because as indies everyone wears multiple hats, and "filmmaker" is the easiest way to sum up everything I do. But I guess if I could pick only one title, I would be a director.
NFS: Why was Denver the best place to move 121 Studios? What's your take on the film scene and industry in Denver?
TL: Denver is a growing and thriving city full of life and creativity. I see the city as an up and coming city, ripe for all types of art, including filmmaking.
There are a lot of talented filmmakers in Denver; I've seen some amazing work come out of this city. I'm hoping that Denver will continue to grow and become a filmmaking hub, rich in quality content and brilliant storytelling for years to come.
[Editorial note: Denver, while a thriving metropolitan area bursting at the seams with creativity of all types, is currently lacking in the tax incentives necessary to draw in larger productions. Unfortunately, this makes it extremely difficult to make a living as a narrative filmmaker in Denver, although Terrell and his studio are proving that it can be done.]
NFS: Tell us about the concept behind Anomaly. How did you come up with it, and how did you decide that a web series would be the best way to tell the story?
TL: About a year ago, I was writing a short film about a man who thought he had super powers but didn't. At the time that I was writing the short film, I was watching shows like AMC's "Breaking Bad", "The Walking Dead" and one of my favorite shows, BBC's "Luther". I was extremely moved by these shows and realized that I wanted to be apart of that type of storytelling. I wanted to tell a story over a period of time and develop the characters and watch them evolve. So I decided to make the short film into a series, and then it turned into something that I didn't expect.
Anomaly is a mystery crime thriller that challenges us to think about what we would do if we discovered that we had a special ability. Would we use it for good or evil? In episode one we are introduced to one of the main characters, Veronica Gains. At this point in the series, Veronica is a rogue detective in a life or death struggle with longtime nemesis named Vincent Blake. We'll learn more about Veronica as we move forward, but let's just say that she's got some issues she needs to work through.
The first episode is dominated by Calvin's [the second lead character's] story as he tries to navigate the legitimacy of the dreams that he continues to have about his telekinetic abilities. The story is really about their paths crossing and how it affects them both, for better or worse. I'm excited to see Calvin and Veronica devolve/grow throughout this series.
NFS: Talk about the process behind writing Anomaly. You mentioned that you treat the writing process much like a traditional television writers' room. How did you decide on that process, and how does that process benefit a web series?
TL: While transforming Anomaly from a short film to a series, I started researching other web series' to get a gauge of the type of series' that were out there. There were a few shows online that were in a similar style as what I wanted Anomaly to be, as far as quality of content and depth of storytelling, but not many. Most shows that I came across were comedies or low-budget sci-fi. So I struggled with Anomaly because I didn't feel it was a stereotypical "web series". I wanted it to look, feel and move more like what you would see on a premium cable network and less like a traditional web series.
So Justin (producer/director at 121Studios) and I started talking and came up with the idea that we would produce our series as similar to a cable network series as possible. We realized immediately that we probably won't have access to the budgets that premium cable networks have, but we could structure our series very much like theirs. One of the ways that we decided to structure the production of our series was to create a "writer's room" with multiple writers contributing to the overall story of the series. That way the show can be infused with new and fresh ideas constantly in an attempt to provide the best storytelling possible.
Six of us gather around a big table with laptops, notebooks, and white boards all around and brainstorm ideas for each episode. After brainstorming an outline, one writer from the room is assigned to write an episode. Once that episode is complete, the rest of the writers take a look at that episode and rip it apart until it's exactly what it needs to be. Being the show runner, I do have final say, but I am very collaborative and believe in the talents of my team around me, so I lean on them quite a bit.
"We all have to learn to walk that line between what we want to accomplish and what we can accomplish given our resources."
NFS: You also mentioned that you intend to treat the series like a traditional TV drama by bringing in new directors for each episode (at least once you get the series off the ground). That's a fairly untraditional approach for a web series. How did that decision come about, and how do you think having differing directorial visions will affect the show?
TL: If you watch most of the popular shows out now (besides HBO's "True Detective"), almost all of them use a handful of directors throughout the series. Once again we decided to model our show after some of the most popular series' out there. And we asked ourselves, "What else can we do to make our show more like the premium network shows?" We came to the conclusion that having different directors could be extremely beneficial. Keeping the show fresh and creative is a huge priority of mine, and if I was the only writer and only director, there's a good chance that two things would happen by the end of the series: One, I would get extremely burnt out. Two, the show could possibly get stale, cliché and redundant.
The great shows that we all love are great for a reason, and that reason is because there are a team of talented writers and filmmakers working together to create something great. Not one guy secluded in a closet somewhere trying to execute his vision on his own. The amount of creative ideas that can be conjured up are infinite when collaborating with other talented people.
NFS: Talk a bit more about the process of writing and directing the pilot episode for a show. What kinds of things do you have to take into consideration for episodic work that you might not have to with a short film?
TL: Writing and directing the pilot episode was extremely challenging and exhilarating at the same time. The pilot sets the tone for the entire series. It's a make or break episode, because if it's not engaging, entertaining, interesting etc., no one will watch it, no one will care and the show dies -- opposed to writing and directing subsequent episodes, because if episode four isn't that good most people may continue watching because the previous episodes have already captured them. So it's a lot of pressure, but I'm always up for a good challenge!
One of the biggest challenges of writing a series as opposed to a short film is navigating how much information to conceal and reveal as you go along. Most episodes won't end with a nicely wrapped bow. In order to keep people coming back you must leave questions unanswered and mysteries unsolved, however if you leave too many questions unanswered, you run the risk of frustrating your audience and ultimately alienating your show from their viewership.
NFS: What kinds of obstacles did you run into during the various phases of producing the pilot of Anomaly, and how did you and your team overcome those obstacles?
TL: As indie filmmakers, one of the biggest obstacles we all run into is budget. I am extremely ambitious and often come up with ideas and concepts without considering budget. The first episode of Anomaly was done with an extremely tight budget that caused us to make creative and technical decisions that I wish we didn't have to make. But we all have to learn to walk that line between what we want to accomplish and what we can accomplish given our resources. It definitely pushes us to be creative with the resources that we do have.
After budget, the next obstacle that trickles down from that is time. Often when your budget is tight your schedule is even tighter, because we all know that time costs money. When shooting the first episode, there were times when I needed more takes or more time with my actors to get the result that I wanted and we simply didn't have the budget (time) to make it happen. So I had to get creative and make adjustments. For example, near the end of episode one, when Calvin comes home, we decided to combine multiple shots into one continuous shot in order to save the time that it would take to set up and relight multiple shots. In the end, I was much happier with the result than I expected. In fact, combining the shots into one, turned out to work way better for the story than I would have imagined.
So having to overcome budget/time restraints often challenge us to be better storytellers, relying on our talent more than our resources.
NFS: The credits also say that you did the VFX for the pilot. Talk about which shots specifically needed VFX work (the dream sequence, I imagine), and talk about the process behind making those shots come to life.
TL: Let me make this clear, I am by no means a VFX artist! I never even want to pretend to be one. I respect anyone who tackles complex VFX projects on a regular basis. With that said, I was kinda forced into the role because of some individuals who were previously committed to the project backed out a few weeks before production. And because we were tight on budget and time, I decided to jump in and try to make some things happen.
The dream sequence is the catalyst for this episode, so it had to be impactful in some way. So with some consulting from Alex Gray (a talented VFX artist in Denver) we were able to create a shot with floating rocks, cars and telephone poles (yes there's a flying telephone pole in the shot) that help convey the dream that Calvin was experiencing.
Another shot that needed VFX work is one that was more subtle but absolutely critical, is the final shot of the episode. This shot consists of a car smashed against a brick wall of a building. Obviously we didn't really smash a car against a building but we had to make it look like it did, so I had to track the handheld shot (which can be kind of a pain) and add damage to the windshield of the car. I also had to relight and grade the shattered glass to make it look authentic within the shot. The final step was to time the focus of the effect with the focus pull of the camera, that was a little tricky but I believe that I got the job done. VFX guys, I do not envy what you do!
NFS: Can you give us any teasers on where Anomaly might be headed in future episodes?
TL: I can't say much at this point besides this, if we don't reach our crowdfunding goal no one will ever know where the series was headed -- No I'm kidding! (kinda).
I'm excited about episode two, because it is almost entirely focused on Veronica (the beautiful lady getting choked at the beginning of episode one). We touch a little of her backstory and follow her throughout the episode as she tries to figure out what the hell is going on. We also will explore how Calvin is dealing with the incident that occurred in the previous episode and what his is plan moving forward.
Throughout the entire series we will watch Calvin wrestle with his sense of morality as he explores his new-found abilities, and watch Veronica struggle to find herself on her road to redemption.
Stay tuned because the show is going to get dark, going to get deep, and it's going to be a lot of fun!
NFS: Anything else that you'd like to tell the NFS community about the writing and directing of the Anomaly pilot?
TL: Firstly, I've been following NFS for years and it's truly a privilege to be able to share this with you. Thanks to all of you for taking the time to read this post. Also, writing and directing the pilot was a lot fun, and I can't wait to share the rest of the season with you. I think you guys will dig it.
Lastly, for all of the independent filmmakers out there, be great at whatever you do! Don't make excuses! Get it done!
This is part one of three about the creation of this unique show. In the next two posts, I'll be talking to the show's producers about how they helped the pilot come to life and then landed distribution through JTS, and I'll be talking to the show's cinematographer about how Anomaly was shot. If you dig the work these guys are doing, head on over to their Kickstarter and let 'em know.