Will Web Series Techniques Go Mainstream (Again)

Will Web Series Techniques Go Mainstream (Again)

For it’s season All Rise had a special pandemic episode, where they filmed everyone in their own homes. Each character set up their laptop in a room and filmed their scenes individually. The recordings were all sent back and stitched back together to make a cohesive episode. Similarly, One Day at a Time filmed a little pandemic webisode where we saw everyone dealing with the isolation and distance, with a little help from Schnieder. There was also a special pandemic episode of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, where we saw how everyone in the tech company dealt with the pandemic and isolation.

What Has Been Done Before

While some tout this as an incredible innovation, anyone who’s watched a web series back in the 1990s is thinking this is all pretty familiar. In fact, up through today, a staple of web series is a story told in the ‘vlog’ style, where one character talks directly to the camera. Of course, that traditionally leads to other people walking in on the vlogger while they records, and shenanigans ensue.

This is not the first time Hollywood has lifted a page from popular web series. Everyone from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Rookie Blue and even the Matrix series have produced a webisode or two, filling in the gaps and making us think a little more about the ever expanding fictional universes.

And, truthfully the style of vlogs is not something only done by web series. A great many linear/traditional TV shows and movies have leaned on the concept of speaking to the camera without breaking the 4th wall. That kind of style had, by in large, fallen by the wayside.

Different Filming Styles

Originally TV shows were filmed like plays. People walked in, watched the recording as a live audience, and the entire show was filmed in order, start to finish. Many sitcoms still hold by this. For example, One Day at a Time films in front of a live studio audience with a traditional multi-camera setup.

The show is like a play, where you see the rooms from the front only, but there are three to five cameras, all at different angles, recording at the same time. The audience is encouraged to laugh, and their reactions are recorded on a separate track to be inserted later on to the finished product. Many dramas, however, use a single-camera filming. This means they film the entire scene from one angle, re-set, and film it again with the camera in a new place.

Of course, there is room for both. Popular sitcom, The Office, was notable for using both a single-cam technique but also filming as if they were being live recorded, as if it was a documentary. Other series use a combination of single cam with a secondary unit recording but not from a static position.

Now the obvious reason for web series to lean back on ‘talk to the camera’ head on method is cost. If you only have one camera, limited time, and limited money, you’re going to do the most efficient and effective way to film. Thankfully for them, in the last two decades, video quality from cellphones have become absolutely astounding. Even movies like The Avengers have included scenes recorded on an iPhone. Of course, this does not always translate to high quality audio.

Different Storytelling Styles

The most important aspect of alternative filming methods, however, is that it forces change on how the story is told. Even something as simple as long walk-and-talks like we saw on The West Wing made dramatic shifts into the message the story told. Innovation like we saw in I Love Lucy (yes, I Love Lucy) changed the style of a sitcom and how we connected to the story. Away went the simple ‘it’s like a play’ and in came the the tricky timing for ever expanding bread and stomping grapes.

As we learned more, we added in more special effects. Any fans of classic Star Trek remembers laughing at the characters being thrown left and right when the ship was hit by missiles, but also how inauthentic it looked. We improved the sets, so that those scenes looked more and more realistic, and then tackled the green-screen issues when filming ‘in cars.’

But all of this changed how the story was told. Making things more ‘real’ brought us closer and made us part of the story. As our technology changed, with FaceTime and Zoom calls, it is only logical that our stories will in turn change again.

What’s Next for Filming?

It’s going to be a while before we get back to the set. We know that. Will a multi-zoom call like All Rise become the norm? Will we split-screen conversations? Will we take the Zoom ‘green screen’ concept to allow us to film with everyone in their own home and splice things back together? Will everyone be animated for a while? What about computer generated ‘deep fakes’? We could take the videos we already have and make the characters do anything, with the dialogue being filmed new per episode!

Of course nothing replaces the nuance and grit of filming. No amount of CGI trickery is the same as the connection that happens when actors all gel together, play off each other, and elevate a script and a direction into something greater than the sum of it’s parts. I have faith we will return to that.

What I know right now is that we have the technology to keep telling stories in progressive and interesting ways that don’t detract from the heart. And the creative geniuses behind television and movies are going to find a way to keep on telling us those stories. When all this is over, they will use those new techniques to tell new stories in even more new ways.

But maybe, right now, it’s okay to vlog again for a little bit.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.
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