Guerilla Showrunner

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Why behaving like the contestants on “The Apprentice” could make your series amazing

Oh, ye gods. What a horror.

I watched an episode of “The Apprentice”.

For those who don’t know - “The Apprentice” is a UK reality TV show where a bunch of alleged experienced businessmen and women compete in a variety of allegedly business-related tasks to become the “apprentice” to alleged business guru (and, to be fair, successful tycoon) Alan Sugar.

It’s horrifying. “Normal” business practise is presented as a mass of sniping, backbiting, and bullying from Lord Sugar on down. The tasks bear about as much relation to actual business as that dude in the bear suit at your local mall does to an actual grizzly.

And the contenders are both spectacularly odious - sexist, overbearing, pretentious, backstabbing - and incredibly stupid. Stupid to the point that a team of seven of them, in an entire day, couldn’t figure out what a “cloche” was in the context of a posh hotel. (To be fair, they weren’t allowed to use Google, which would have put my personal time on that task up from 30 seconds to, ooh, about 3 minutes).

And yet these guys and girls are all very successful in business. One had made 70k a year whilst studying at the same time. Another ran a not-that-small company.

And this got me thinking. If you forced one of these morons to run a web series, would they do as well at that, in spite of their deficiencies?

Quite likely. Why?

Balls.

If you’re smart, sensitive and empathic, as most web series creators are, it’s very easy to assess the risks. Very easy to get into other peoples’ shoes and figure out what they might think of our little web series. And so we’re “realistic”, and focus our efforts on stuff we have assessed we’ve got a good chance of succeeding at, and avoid things that are doomed to horrible failure or serious embarassment.

Meanwhile, if you’re dumb as a post and cocky as something that can’t be mentioned on primetime TV, your first reaction to “How do I publicise this series?” is “Call the New York Times and tell them it’s awesome!”

And actually, that’s a very, very good idea.

I’ve been working very hard in the last few years on differentiating between situations where I’ve got no chance at all, and situations where I’ve got a pretty small chance, but a good chance of feeling embarassed too. The latter are very, very easy to mistake for the former, because it gets you out of scary stuff.

Scary stuff like seriously pitching the New York Times film section about your web series - not sending a generic PR, but actually calling them up and saying “I’ve got this thing and it’s AWESOME!”. Like taking your dream cast list and actually calling their agents. Like phoning a major theater chain and saying “Hey, guys, fancy showing the pilot of my series as a trailer to Pirates of the Carribean 4?”

Now, you’re probably sitting there thinking “yeah, but there’s no chance that would ever work.” Wrong. There is SOME chance that would work.

I’ve been featured in the New York Times. And on CNN. Entertainment Weekly. About half of the UK’s national newspapers. And various other places. It’s doable. Hell, I pitched one of the biggest name casting agents in the UK the idea for a World of Warcraft fanfilm and she agreed to work on it. And subsequently a whole bunch of very famous people also agreed to be in it, thanks to her. (Joanna Lumley. Brian Blessed. Jack Davenport. Anna Chancellor. Think they’d agree to be in a tiny webseries? Turns out, yes they would.)

Does this mean that I’m awesome? Not especially. It just means I made a bunch of phonecalls that I thought had almost no chance for success, and it turned out my risk assessment wasn’t as good as I thought it was.

What stuff could you do for your web series (or hey, I know we have non-webseries readers, your film, or your iPhone app, or your ebook) that would totally revolutionise its success? Which ones are clearly stupidly impossible?

How confident are you that they’re impossible?

Confident enough that you’ll take 10 minutes of embarassing telephone conversation over the chance for an A-Lister as your lead actor?

Confident enough it can’t happen that it’s not even worth TRYING to get the Hollywood Reporter to cover you?

Are you really so sure that you’re right?

Or can you pretend to be dumb enough that you believe it might work?

Smart’s good. But sometimes, to achieve remarkable stuff, you’ve got to pretend you’ve got balls of steel but a brain of lead.

Good luck.

P.S. Oh, and don’t just do it once. Hollywood Reporter told you to shove it? Engage dumb-but-cocky mode again. They’re clearly morons who don’t appreciate your genius. Time to phone Variety.

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Time Vampires! Stop them draining your project time dry.

When you’re guerilla showrunning, you’re always short of time. There’s always more you want to do in less. You’re playing catch-up to industries with millions of dollars that themselves are always hurrying. You’re trying to make a show with you and a friend in your garage on a weekend, when the guys making “24”, with millions of dollars and top-name stars, spend as much time panicking about how much time they’ve got as you do.

The last things you need are goddamn time vampires.

Time Vampires? Yeah. Those little invisible buggers that soak up hours and hours you don’t notice. They aren’t the big important tasks that take ages (like editing your episode, for example), they’re the little things that just sit there eating time and leave you pissed off and frustrated to boot.

Some of the biggest improvements I’ve made to my show creation over the years have all been about staking time vampires to the nearest solid object. Because if you’ve got an invisible annoyance sucking hours out of your project, it doesn’t matter how 8020 you are getting about the rest of the gig, it’s still going a lot slower than it could.

You need to stake the damn vampires, now. Or, to put it another way, fix the sodding dripping tap, already.

Dripping Taps Can Irritate Your Project To Death

On BloodSpell, we had a persistant problem throughout shooting - if we ever let the game cursor, which we couldn’t make disappear, hover over a character, they would glow blue. As you can imagine, that was a pain in the ass when shooting, particularly when shooting closeups where a character was occupying more than half the screen. We had to work around it, adapt shots, alter our coverage, and so on.

When we were shooting the final episode of the series, I was having a dig around in the spec for character setup for some reason, and I noticed a “glow” flag. We were on a break, so I went into our character definitions, and changed the flag from 1 to 0. Loaded the graphics engine up, and…

No glow.

And what was really interesting here was how much of a huge damn relief it was. We’d pretty much written it off as an annoyance we had to live with, right through filming. But as soon as it went away, all sorts of things suddenly became possible. Filming noticably speeded up because we didn’t have the - previously unnoticed - step of “check if the cursor’s making anything glow”. Our shot setup was freer. And quality of shooting went right through the roof. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that maybe a quarter of the improvement between the series version and the feature version of BloodSpell (which was huge) was down to fixing that damn cursor.

The useful takeaway here isn’t “fix little niggles”. I think we all try to fix things that come up - I know we had a good five or ten minute look around for the blue glow when we first found it, didn’t find anything we could use, and gave up.

What’s interesting here is that most people massively underestimate how much of a time sink niggles like this are. If something’s causing you to bugger around for 3 minutes every time you take a shot, or meaning you have to abandon 5% of your shots, in the middle of shooting you’ll tend to go “bah, small problem, ignore” if you can’t easily fix it.

But over the duration of a six-month or year project, that little niggle’s going to eat time like it’s coated in premium Criolla chocolate.

And it’s not just the direct time it takes - it’s also the hassle factor.

You Can’t Be Zen About A Dripping Tap

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance (which I would heartily recommend to any Guerilla Showrunner - the entire damn thing’s about what Quality is and how we achieve it), at one point the narrator visits some friends, who have a dripping tap.

They’ve tried to fix it, but it didn’t work, so now they’re just ignoring it. And so it goes until Sylvia, one of the friends, suddenly blows up with anger at something unrelated - and the narrator realises that it’s actually anger at the damn dripping tap, which she’s working so hard to suppress, that’s causing it.

What struck me hard then was that she was not blaming the faucet, and that she was deliberately not blaming the faucet. She wasn't ignoring that faucet at all! She was suppressing anger at the faucet and that godamned-dripping faucet was just about killing her!

This really resonates for me.

See, that’s exactly how I realised I’d been feeling about the blue glow in BloodSpell.

That damn blue glow hadn’t just been an irritation. It had been an absolute fucking NIGHTMARE!

It broke my flow. It ruined my shots. It irritated the hell out of me, but I was ignoring it, because fixing it looked Hard.

And it wasn’t until I fixed it that I realised what a huge relief that was.

Use Of Excessive Force In The Case of Dripping Taps Is Approved

So here’s my recommendation: if something’s pissing you off in your current project, and it’s pissing you off enough that you notice it, even if it’s a niggle, move heaven and earth to fix it.

Devote serious time to fixing it - a few hours at least, if not a couple of days.

Ask questions on forums. If it’s a software problem, contact the developers.

Think around the problem - see if there’s a way to completely avoid it. If spending some money would help, consider doing that. (I’ve got a post coming on how not spending cash is one of the biggest mistakes you can make on a tiny Web show).

I had another example of this quite recently. The hard disk I was using to edit Death Knight Love Story on just wasn’t coping well with the process. It wouldn’t play back more than 10 seconds of real-time footage without rendering first. Now, you can work under those circumstances, but it’s annoying, and it means you can’t be bothered to do quite a lot of fine-tuning if it needs more than 10 seconds of continuous preview to do.

I lived with this for a while, because I couldn’t think of any easy alternatives. The best alternative I could think of would involve completely reorganising the office network and putting together a gigabit RAID server from an old machine. And that sounded like a lot of work.

Until, one day, I sat up, and wondered what the hell I was doing. The pausing was pissing me off, it was slowing me down, and it was making my film worse. I called a friend who works in networking, dragged the old machine out of the cupboard, and got going.

The thing that my subconcious had been saying “oh, shit, that looks like really hard” took about two days total. Not tiny, but well worth it.

And my editing’s improved dramatically on the project since. My fight scenes flow better, the entire thing’s more fluid, and I don’t have embarassing “oh, god, that looks awful” moments after I’ve rendered the final product. Two days to massively improve the edit on a two-year project.

Humans have two well-known cognitive biases: we underestimate the effects of ongoing hassles or frustrations, and we overestimate the likely cost of fixing those hassles, particularly if the fix is partially unknown.

And that means we spend a lot of time wasting time on niggling problems that we could easily solve.

So that’s my challenge to you today: sort out the time vampire that’s currently battened onto your project.

  • Sort your directory structure out.
  • Really put some time into fixing that niggling rendering bug.

Call Alienware about a new laptop.
* Whatever else has been bugging you. Get your time back, and then spend it making a great project.

And if you do kill a vampire - or have one that just won’t die - tell us about it in the comments!

Worried that your great project won’t get the reception it deserves once it’s finished? Or just want a few more cheerleaders to help you get across the finish line? Go learn how to get crazed stalkers now, and get some fans for the work you’re doing.

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