By John Parenteau
On Hold is an eight-episode webseries, created and co-written by myself and Craig Kuehne, about a couple of guys working at a satellite company for an India-based technology firm. They have little going for themselves except for each other, and that’s not saying much. Season 1 is available now, and we are in prepro on Season 2.
While I personally identify as a filmmaker, I’ve worn a wide range of hats in the entertainment industry since graduating from USC School of Cinematic Arts in the late ‘80s. As a visual effects supervisor, I’ve been involved in projects as diverse as Star Trek: Voyager and Hunger Games. I have also filled management roles at companies such as Amblin Entertainment, Ascent Media, Pixomondo and Shade VFX.
It was with my filmmaker hat on that I recently partnered with Craig, a long-time veteran of visual effects, with credits including Westworld and Game of Thrones. We thought it might be interesting to share our experiences as we ventured into live-action production.
It’s not unique that Craig and I want to be filmmakers. I think most industry professionals, if not already working as directors or producers, strive to eventually reach that goal. It’s usually the reason people like us got into the business in the first place, and what many of us continue to pursue. Often we’ve become successful in another aspect of entertainment and find it difficult to break out of those “golden handcuffs.” I know we’ve both felt that way for years, despite having led fairly successful lives as visual effects pros.
But regardless of our successes in other roles, we still identify ourselves as filmmakers, and at some point you just have to make the big push or let the dream go. Instead, I decided to live by my own mantra, “filmmakers make film.” Thus, On Hold was born.
Why the web series format, you might ask? With so many streaming and online platforms focused on episodic material, doing a series would show we are comfortable with the format, even if ours was a micro-version of a full series. We had, for years, talked about doing a feature film, but that type of project takes so many resources and coordination. It just seemed daunting in a no-budget scenario. The web series concept allows us to produce something that resembles a marketable project, essentially on little or no budget. In addition, the format is easily recreated for an equally low budget, so we knew we could do a second season of the show once we had done the first.
We have been friends for years, and the idea of the series came from both our friendship as well as our own lives. Who hasn’t felt, as they are getting older, that maybe some of the life choices they have made might not have been the best? Though that can be a serious topic, we took a comedic angle, looking for the extremes. Our main characters, Jeff (Jimmy Blakeney) and Larry (Paul Vaillancourt), are subtle reflections of us (Craig is Jeff, the somewhat over-thinking, obsessive nerd, and I’m Larry, a bit of a curmudgeon, who can take himself way too serious), but they quickly took a life of their own, as did the rest of the cast. We added in Katy (Brittney Bertier), their over energetic intern, Connie (Kelly Keaton), Jeff’s bigger-than-life sister, and Brandon (Scott Rognlien), the creepy and not very bright boss. The chemistry just clicked. They say casting is key, and we certainly discovered that on this project. We were very lucky to find the actors we did, and together they really played off of each other perfectly.
So what does it take to do a web series? First off, writing was key. We spent a few months working out the overall storyline of the first season and then honing in on basic outlines of each episode. We actually worked out a rough overall arc of the show itself, deciding on a four-season project, which gave us a target to aim for. It was just some basic imagery for an ultimate ending of the show, but it helped keep us focused and helped drive the structure of the early episodes. We split up writing duties, each working on alternate episodes and then sharing scripts with the other. We tried to be brutally honest; It was important that the show reflect both of our views. We spent many nights arguing over certain moments in each episode, both very passionate about the storyline.
In the end we could see we had something good, we just needed to add our talented actors to make it great.
We shot on a Blackmagic Cinema camera, which was fairly new at that point. I wanted the flexibility of different lenses but a high-resolution and high-quality picture. I had never been thrilled with standard DSLR cameras, so I thought the Blackmagic camera would be a good option. To top it off, I could get one for free, always a deciding factor at our budget level. We ended up shooting with a single Canon zoom lens that Craig had, and for the most part it worked fine. I can’t tell you how important the “glass” you shoot with can be. If we had the budget I would have rented some nice Zeiss lenses or something equally professional, and the quality of the image reflects the lack of budget. But the beauty of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is that it shoots such a nice image already, and at a high resolution, that we knew we would have some flexibility in post. We recorded in Apple ProRes.
As a DP, I have shot everything from PBS documentaries to music videos, commercials and EPKs (a.k.a. behind the scenes projects), and have had the luxury of working with a load of gear, and sometimes with a single light. At USC Film School, my alma mater, you learn to work with what you have, so I learned early to adapt my style to the gear I had on hand. I ended up using a single lighting kit (a Lowell DP 3 head kit) which worked fine. Shooting comedy is always more about static angles and higher key lighting, and my limited kit made that easily accessible. I would usually lift the ambience in the room by bouncing a light off a wall or ceiling area off camera, then use bounce cards on C-stands to give some source light from the top/side, complementing but not competing with the existing fluorescents in the practical office. The bigger challenges were when we shot toward the windows. The bright sunlight outside, even with the blinds closed, was a challenge, but we creatively scheduled those shots for early or late in the day.
Low-budget projects are always an exercise in inventiveness and flexibility, mostly by the crew. We had a few people helping off and on, but ultimately it came down to the two of us wearing most hats, and our associate producer, Maggie Jones, filling in the gaps. She handled the SAG paperwork, some AD tasks, ordering lunch and even operating the boom microphone. That left me shooting all but one episode, while we alternated directing episodes. We shot an episode a day, using a friend’s office on the weekends for free. We made sure we created shot lists ahead of time, so I could see what he had in mind when I shot his episodes, but also so he could act as a backup check on my own list when I was directing.
One thing about SAG — we decided to go with the guild’s new media contract for our actors. Most of them were already SAG, and while they most likely would have been fine shooting such a small project non-union, we wanted them to be comfortable with the work. We also wanted to respect the guild. Many people complain that working under SAG, especially at this level, is a hassle, but we found it to be exactly the opposite. The key is keeping up with the paperwork each day you shoot. Unless you are working incredibly long hours, or plan to abuse your talent (not a good idea regardless), it’s fairly easy to remain compliant. Maggie managed the daily paperwork and ensured we broke for lunch as per the requirements. Other than that, it was a non-issue.
Much like our writing and directing, Craig and I split editorial tasks. We both cut on Apple Final Cut Pro X (he with pleasure, me begrudgingly), and shared edits with each other. It was interesting to note differences in style. I tended to cut long, letting scenes breathe. Craig, a much better editor than I, had snappier cuts that moved quicker. This isn’t to say my way didn’t work at times, but it was a nice balance as we made comments on each other’s work. You can tell my episodes are a bit longer than his, but I learned from the experience and managed to shorten my episodes significantly.
I did learn another lesson, one called “killing your darlings.” In one episode, we had as scene where Jeff enjoys a box of donuts, fishing through them to find the fruit-filled one he craved. The process of him licking each one and putting them back, or biting into a few and spitting out pieces, was hilarious onset, but in editorial I soon learned that too much of a good thing can be bad. Craig persuaded me to trim the scene, and I realized that just having one strong beat is just as good as several.
We had a variety of issues with other areas of post, but with no budget we could do little about them. Our “mix” consisted of adjusting levels in our timeline. Our DI amounted to a little color correction. While we were happy with the end result, we realized quickly we wanted to make season two even better.
A few things pop out as areas needing improvement. First of all, shooting a comedy series with a great group of improv comedians mandates at least two cameras. Both Craig and I, as directors, would do improv takes with the actors after getting the “scripted version,” but some of it was not usable since cutting between different improv takes from a single camera shoot is nearly impossible. We also realized the importance of a real sound mixer on set. Our single mic, mono tracks, run by our unprofessional hands, definitely needed some serious fixing in post. Simply having more experienced hands would have made our day more efficient as well.
For post, I certainly wanted to use newer tools, and we called in some favors for finishing. A confident color correction really makes the image cohesive, and even a rudimentary audio mix can remove many sound issues.
All in all, we are very proud of our first season of On Hold. Despite the technical issues and challenges, what really comes together is the performances, and, ultimately, that is what people are watching. We’ve already started development on Season 2, which will start shooting in January 2018, and we couldn’t be more excited.
The ultimate lesson we’ve learned is that producing a project like On Hold is not as hard as you might think. Sure it has its challenges, but what part of entertainment isn’t a challenge? As Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it.” Well, this time, the hard was worth it, and has inspired us to continue on. Ultimately, isn’t that the point of it all? Whether making films for millions of dollars, or no-budget web series, the point is making stuff. That’s what makes us filmmakers.