How to Create Your own Feature, Short, Pilot, or Web Series

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Photo Source: AJ Golden
Falk Hentschel felt frustrated with his acting career. He had been trying to get good representation and auditions, but neither was happening for him. "I was trying everything in my powers," Hentschel says. "It was the usual problem: You need credits or a good reel to get representation, but you need good representation to get auditions or high-profile jobs for your reel."

Close to giving up, Hentschel decided to at least fulfill his childhood dream and play the lead in a film that looked like "a real Hollywood production." With a limited budget and not much screenwriting experience, Hentschel made a 16-minute short-film thriller called "Who Is Bobby Domino?" He used almost all his savings, refusing to be stingy on "anything that had to do with the look and the sound of the film." He met his director and co-writer, Jesse Grce, on Craigslist.

Hentschel gained a lot from the experience, including being a part of the production process from start to finish, forming friendships and partnerships (including with Grce, with whom he would collaborate on more shorts), and gaining a true understanding of what it takes to make a film as an actor and a producer.

Most important, it helped move his career forward. Hentschel made a reel out of the short, plus others that he and Grce made, and that got him great representation. It also helped land him a role in the feature "Knight and Day," playing Bernhard the assassin alongside Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Since then, he has guest starred on numerous television shows, such as "CSI," "The Closer," and "NCIS." He recently landed his first starring role in the feature film "StreetDance 2," which he is filming in the United Kingdom.

Hentschel is one of many actors who have decided to stop waiting for the phone to ring, and to start taking control of their own careers. Whether it's a short, a feature, a television pilot, or a Web series, if you have a camera, you too can "do it yourself." But should you?

Manager Steven Buchsbaum of Ad Astra Management in Los Angeles warns actors to be careful when doing it themselves. "With the advent of digital technology," he says, "a lot of actors want to make their own films. Technology is cheap. Everyone can shoot a film. However, do not send out films [to industry people] that aren't any good. You better have good writing and a good story. You don't want to shoot a film that makes you look poor."

With that in mind, before you embark on a production that might cost you thousands of dollars, you need to weigh why you want to shoot something, how you are going to do it, and what the potential rewards might be.

From Frustration to Inspiration

Like Hentschel, many actors who have done it themselves started because they felt restless and out of control of their career. Nate Golon felt that even though he had done theater and booked independent films and commercials, no one in L.A. knew who he was. "Every time I went to an audition, I looked around at the 20 other blond guys who looked just like me, and I felt like I needed something to set me apart," he says.

One night, frustration led to inspiration. He took a talent manager workshop that was accidentally overbooked by 25 people. While waiting for about five hours to meet the manager, he chatted with a guy and a girl about how ridiculous the whole situation was. The girl said she thought it would be funny if someone wrote a show about casting director and agent-manager workshops. "A light bulb went off in my head," says Golon. "That's how I met Kimberly Legg, who I co-wrote Season 1 of our comedy Web series 'Workshop' with, and Phillip Jeanmarie, who [plays] one of the main characters." "Workshop" was picked up by Hulu and premiered in April as the first-ever independently produced half-hour comedy on the website.

Jessica Mills has a similar story. Tired of classes and workshops yielding little result, and also feeling like casting directors weren't seeing her in the types of roles she knew she could play, Mills decided to produce something on her own that would show off her quirky characteristics. Her Web series, "Awkward Embraces," is now in its second season and has more than 100,000 views.

Zach Book had just finished the play "Jesse Boy" at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, portraying an autistic boy who was abused. He enjoyed playing the heavy part, but wished there was a way to show casting directors footage of the type of dark role he could do. Book was packing for a trip home to Baltimore when he heard that his best friend there had bought a Canon EOS 7D camera. Book and his friend decided to spend his entire two-week trip filming the short drama "Frostbite." "Putting that footage on my reel has gotten me in for so many auditions," says Book. "I've even booked a few roles based solely on the footage on my reel."

Other actors are motivated to make their own work out of, well, boredom. During the Broadway stagehand strike, Brie Eley was cold and bored in New York. She felt an itch to create something, so she and a couple of her friends got together and shot comedy sketches. "They were pretty awful," admits Eley. "But I learned about sound, lighting, the importance of coverage, and a little gem called iMovie." Six months later, one of her friends from the sketches asked her to act in and help produce the film "We Are the Hartmans," starring Richard Chamberlain.

Marty Papazian already knew how doing it yourself could yield results. Without representation, he put himself on tape for the film "Jarhead" and walked it in to casting director Debra Zane's office, asking her to please watch it. Zane loved it and sent it to director Sam Mendes, who cast Papazian in the film. "It wasn't luck," says Papazian. "It was preparation meeting opportunity." The experience inspired him to produce his own short film, "In the Wind," which won best picture at the New Orleans Big Easy Film Festival and the Vail Film Festival. He is now producing a feature from a script he wrote called "Least Among Saints," which begins filming this month.

Getting Started

Like manager Buchsbaum says, the most important aspects of a successful project are good writing and a good story. Mills agrees. "Send your script out to people to get notes," she says. "Make sure you do multiple drafts and it's really good." She adds that casting talented actors who fit the parts is equally important. "Make sure your actors are good enough to make it relatable. Otherwise, people aren't going to want to watch. I don't care how many car chases or flashy special effects you have—people want something to identify with. The nuts and bolts are in the writing and the acting. Make sure that's solid first."

Comedic actor Chad Ridgely had to work on perfecting his characters before he could start filming. He decided to put together a compilation of comedy sketches in the vein of "Saturday Night Live" or "MADtv." "People's attention spans are very short when it comes to watching videos online," Ridgely says. "People want quick and very funny." Ridgely advises future do-it-yourselfers who want to do comedy to keep this in mind when writing their scripts. "Make it short and sweet and funny—three minutes or less," he says. "No agent, casting director, or producer has the time or the desire to watch a 14-minute short film of a sweeping epic drama. They want it to be quick, and they want to laugh. That will get you noticed."

In addition to good writing and acting, Hentschel believes that passion for the project is a must-have. "Do something that really speaks to you and makes you happy thinking about it," he advises. "Don't try to guess what the industry wants or what the latest fad is. Do what fulfills you. That joy will attract your success."

Book says the best way to get started is just to dive in and have fun. "All you need to do is take the first couple of steps," he says. "Write an idea, call a friend, and the rest will work itself out gradually. Everyone starts somewhere. I highly encourage people to take a blind stab at it. There is no better way to get experience than actually doing it."

Choosing the Format

One of the first things you will have to decide about your project is what you want to make: a feature, a short, a pilot, or a Web series.

Mills and her friends originally intended to shoot a full-length feature, but they later realized they didn't have funds for the type of film they wanted to do. "I got to thinking: If we could build some sort of online fan base through a Web series, maybe we could get attention for ourselves and then come back to the feature and make that," Mills says. She started brainstorming and came up with the idea for "Awkward Embraces." Now that the series has been successful and she has gained knowledge about the Web, she's thinking about taking the feature idea and turning it into a Web series as well.

Golon and his partners decided to do a Web series because they believed it was the most inexpensive way to get their work "out there." "If you do a short film," says Golon, "you have to enter it in festivals, which costs money, and those festivals may or may not decide to accept your film. Then if your film gets accepted, and you want to go to that festival, that takes money. A Web series is great in that once it's online, you can just send anyone the link."

Eley and her partners chose to do a full-length feature. "The feature format allowed us to give the crew and actors something really strong to add their résumés or put on a reel," she says.

Hentschel says that if he could go back, instead of making a short he would have shot his project as a trailer based on one of his feature film scripts. "I'd then use that to get attention and raise money for the script to be made."

Gathering Money and Crew

Often, doing your own project means using your own money. All the actors interviewed in this article spent at least some of their own savings to produce their projects.

Eley had no idea what putting together a feature would cost when she and her partners started. "I probably have invested at least $1,000 of my own money and countless hours of work," she says. "But I think that's immeasurable when you're talking about your career and what you're willing to spend to make your dreams come true."

Sometimes, if the story is good or the project is inspiring, it can help you raise funds. Eley believes her feature came together thanks to a lot of passionate people who invested in and believed in her story. Her team raised $14,000 in one month through fundraising website IndieGogo, a live fundraiser with bands, a "Tweet-a-thon," and asking their churches and families to donate. "We had an outpouring of generosity," she says. "We had shooting locations and rehearsal spaces donated. I even had a gentleman agree to let us use his truck after I saw it on Eighth Avenue and explained the project to him."

In many cases, your cast and crew will be working for little to no money. It's important to find other people who are as eager and excited to work as you are. "Try to find people who want to build up their résumé or get an IMDb credit," advises Mills. "Find people who want to do it for the love of doing it, and you can get it done."

Hentschel agrees. "Work with people that you feel good around and that excite and inspire you," he says.

Getting It Out There

Ridgely sent DVDs of his completed comedy sketch pilot "all over the place." Papazian and Eley got their films into festivals. But most of the actors interviewed stuck to putting their projects online at such sites as Vimeo, Blip, and YouTube.

To get their Web series seen by as many people as possible, both Golon and Mills bought websites and posted their series on YouTube. Mills also posted hers on Blip. "Blip, as far as revenue share, is a bit better, because [on] YouTube you have to qualify for partnership, which is very difficult," Mills explains. "With Blip, everything you upload has ads and you get revenue share into your PayPal account. The player is also a little higher-quality than the YouTube player. I embed Blip on our homepage but I also keep our YouTube channel going because YouTube has such a community in and of itself, like the subscribers and the people that comment and talk, and the likes and the dislikes and all of that stuff. I didn't want to not take part in that huge community. Plus, YouTube is better to see on a phone, so I feel like it's best to do both."

Papazian believes that now is a great time for actors to get their projects out because more studios and executives are looking to the actors, the storytellers, to see what they are creating. "There is a new artist emerging, a hybrid of sorts, because now as filmmakers we have the technology to create media of the highest quality and the distribution platforms are opening up," he says. "The paths are ours to create."

The Rewards

To create your own project costs money, takes time, and can be a lot of work, but all of the actors interviewed say they are glad they did it.

"I love the fact that if somebody's not familiar with me, I can say, 'Go to this website. This is what I do,' and be proud of it," says Mills. "I no longer feel like that really talented actress no one cares about. I've done something and it's mine and I'm really proud of it. I can walk around Hollywood, network, and hold my head high."

"It leaves you accountable to yourself and others," says Eley, who has since scored an agent and a manager.

"My original goal was to make a name for myself as an actor, and 'Workshop' has definitely helped do that," says Golon. "Since Season 1, I got a great talent manager, booked some commercials, TV, indie features, and theater. At the same time, it's made me realize the strengths I have as a producer and writer."

Ridgely was contacted by Fox Digital, which loved his comedy sketches. After a few meetings with him, the company decided to produce some of his sketches. They packaged everything together and called it "The Chad Ridgeley Show." "The Fox deal helped me tremendously," says Ridgely. "I got an agent and a manager, which in turn got me a lot more auditions. But the best thing to come from this experience was the validation. Knowing that the stuff I thought was funny really is funny, and that people see it and laugh, is just a great feeling."

"The most important thing is to be confident and believe in yourself," says Ridgely. "Chasing your dreams and aspirations takes more than moving to this city and waiting for it to fall in your lap. You have to make it happen."

Shopping List

What basic equipment do you need to shoot your own project?

Camera, tripod, tapes, and extra camera batteries
You might be able to get away with using a Flip cam, but our do-it-yourselfers recommend something more high-end. Chad Ridgely used the Panasonic DVX100A for his project; Brie Eley and Nate Golon worked with a Sony EX1; and Jessica Mills shot with a Canon 5D Mark II.

"Do some research," says Mills. "Watch test videos of the digital equipment out there and find what will work for you and your budget." You can rent cameras too.

Boom pole, microphones, and an audio mixer
"Make sure your audio is good," says Ridgely. "Get an audio person with a boom and a mixer and make sure they're proficient. There's nothing worse than having great footage and bad audio."

"Two good [lavalier] mics, like the ones by Sennheiser, would be ideal," says Eley.

Light meter, a basic set of lights, and extension cords
"If you're worried about lighting, shoot outside during the day," advises Ridgely. "That will save money and time."

Another money saver is white bounce cards or silver light reflectors. A piece of white foam board from the craft store or a silver car shade can provide fill light to make that close-up not look so harsh.

You'll be happy you used this when it comes time to edit.

C-stands, sand bags, gaffer tape, and a set of appleboxes
Standard crew/grip department needs

Food, snacks, and beverages
Even if you can't afford to pay your cast and crew, you should be able to provide meals and snacks. Remember: A fed crew is a happy crew.

Editing software and a computer
There are many choices out there and a wide price range. Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, and Avid are the top three, with Final Cut Pro being most popular for low budgets. Avid Media Composer recently dropped its price to compete with that, however, so it might be worth checking out.