Let’s Put On A Show

If you thought the kingdom of online videos was divided between the Star Wars Kid and “Lazy Sunday,” welcome to the New World of the Web series. You could call it a tribute to the early days of television, when “The Ernie Kovacs Show” blew the mind of middle-class America — except only one person in this room ever heard of Ernie Kovacs.Power Players on the Web Video Scene
(Who’s who in the second photo at right)

The New Hampshire Seacoast has turned into a virtual star factory as new video tools and a growing Internet audience have allowed aspiring filmmakers to write their own rules. Here are just a few of the local pioneers on the frontiers of a brave new world of entertainment.

From left: Marc Dole, Hatchling Studios; Chase Bailey, Left Bank Film; Emily Briand, actress; John Herman, NH Media Makers; C. Daniel Freund, Shortstream TV; Michael Berry, Kinney Hill; Todd Norwood, Mill Pond ProductionsWhen Emily Briand got a call from John Herman inviting her to audition for a new Web show, she didn’t know what to expect. She didn’t know it would be an ongoing musical feature. She didn’t know that Herman and co-creator Ryan Plaisted had only just met each other: they went from getting coffee to filming a series in just three days. But most of all she didn’t know that she would spend her time on-screen wearing a giant Heinz Ketchup bottle on her head. “I had no idea I would have food on my head,” Briand recalls, although Herman had warned her: “Make sure to dress like a girl, because [otherwise] the viewers won’t know.”Welcome to the free-wheeling chaos of a Web video show.

When video first came to the Internet, we saw just a glimpse of its potential in videos of talented babies and sneezing pandas. Today genuine filmmakers — both amateur and award-winning — are making well-crafted entertainment for the very small screens on your browsers and mobile devices, and one of the most ambitious examples is the growth of Web series: ongoing, television-style programs that tell a story week after week, hoping to build an audience with every installment.While the quality is rising, Web video is still a wild frontier. A traditional television show costs millions, takes months to film and can live or die based on a single pilot episode. Web series can be made cheaply, distributed freely and doled out until they find their audience — or until the creators move on to their next idea.John Herman created what may be the state’s first Web series in 2006 when he started filming “The Eye.” The weekly show explored creative projects across the Seacoast, from bands and actors to Portsmouth’s first live-action game of Pacman. “The Eye” ran for 47 episodes, and in 2008 Herman came back with his next project: the strange, bittersweet “Gravityland.”Herman billed “Gravityland” as an “interative Web series.” Instead of letting the viewers rest on their couches, Herman challenged them to contribute in ways that ranged from remixing a song to pitching a script. While the show’s audience shrank as the series went along, Herman found that the participation kept rising. “I might’ve had like two-tenths of the audience that I started with, but these guys were rabid fans … and that was much more important to me as a creator.”With his background in improv comedy, Herman says, “I associate performance with engaging the audience, moreso than entertaining the audience. They’re partners in their own entertainment. And I brought that to my Web video projects. It just so happens the Web is very much built for that. Why not use the comments [on a blog] to get people to suggest things about the show? The Web enables you to literally make a choose-your-own adventure movie.”“Gravityland” is one of the most mainstream projects in Herman’s oeuvre, which runs from “Odd Noggin Land” — the show where the cast wore food on their heads — to his collaboration with P. T. Sullivan on “History of Strange Deaths Reenacted.” As for his next project, he explains that it’s “the first YouTube video crossword puzzle, where you have to watch a video in order to solve the puzzle.” As he puts it, “If you’ve got a strange enough project, people will work on it for free.”Making and hyping a show every week may seem like a lot of work — and that’s what attracted Todd Norwood. The Amherst-based filmmaker started his career in Los Angeles, working for traditional studios and learning the business. He continues to write and direct feature films, like 2008’s “Trick of a Woman,” but he turned to Web video as a way to keep his momentum — to make and release videos without waiting for distribution, funding and all the other challenges that go into a single feature film. Norwood says it was a way “to make up for all the lost time between these mammoth feature projects.”“Meet the Mayfarers” started filming in 2007, when the concept of a Web series was still cutting-edge. “When I was casting, I didn’t even say in the ad that I was casting for a Web series, because it was such a weird thing back then.” Now in its second season, Mayfarers tells the story of a misfit family that must set aside its differences and live together — or else forfeit their inheritance from bedraggled patriarch Porter Mayfarer.With fast, hilarious two-minute episodes, “Mayfarers” is perfect for the Web, and more viewers are catching on every week. By this fall, Norwood believes it will be a “break-even” proposition, thanks to advertising provided by his hosting service that attracts brands as big as Chevy.Still, Web video is a low-cost world. “There’s no point on spending money on production design, and there’s no point in worrying about if the windows are blown out or if the makeup’s perfect on the actress,” says Norwood. He shot with a lean crew of two and equipment he already owned, “and we just shot it a lot like a stage play, in that we would just run through the scenes with two cameras running the whole time. And it’s shot very much handheld, but not so handheld that you need a Dramamine.”By working with small crews and affordable high-def cameras, a Web series can shoot anywhere — and it can root a story in any community. Dan Freund and Michael Robert Berry’s “’Round the Square,” which started airing in January, follows the lives of six friends living in Portsmouth. The coastal town makes a picturesque backdrop, but some of the characters are struggling to pay the rent — a side of the town that the creators strove to capture.“Portsmouth is great subject matter. There’s an attractiveness and an appeal to Portsmouth that really resonates with people,” says Freund. And at the same time, as rents rise and the economy founders, “people are dealing with lots of issues. The heart and the soul [of Portsmouth] are struggling to stay here.”“’Round the Square” cost under $300 to make and its 10 episodes were shot in under 40 hours, mostly on the weekends. But scrappy productions are starting to see competition as Hollywood catches on. “Traditional filmmakers are turning their heads to Web video. And that’s definitely happening in New Hampshire,” says Herman. “The sad fact is that Hollywood and the big wigs have figured it out, and we need to up our production values and run with them, or be the fringe.”Ernest Thompson, actor and Academy Award-winning writer of “On Golden Pond,” announced the series “Time and Charges” last fall — although the production has since changed gears, and it may turn into a feature film. Another series, “Proper Manors,” which is scheduled to start shooting this June, includes veteran producer Chase Bailey (“The Libertine,” “Crooked Lane”) in the director’s seat and actress Rae Dawn Chong (“Commando,” “Soul Man”) on the writing team. It’ll air in six-minute installments, but as producer Brett Carneiro notes, it “hopefully could be a TV series. That’s our dream.”“Proper Manors” was created by Pietro D’Alessio, who also co-stars in “’Round the Square.” The same faces pop up in John Herman’s productions and other indie films. These aren’t troupes so much as one sprawling community with a few key gathering points: John Herman organizes the monthly New Hampshire Media Makers meet-up that takes place at Crackskull’s in Newmarket; Marc Dole and Hatchling Studios are the core of Team Pineapple, which cranks out professional-quality Web videos and indie shorts at a breakneck pace.These communities are tight — but they’re not cliques. As Dole said at a screening for one of his recent projects, “It’s not a closed group. It’s a spirit, it’s everybody helping everybody else. Sometimes we try to make money; sometimes we try to have a lot of fun.”In fact, it may be the most fun an adult filmmaker can have. Says Norwood, “It feels like how it was making little dumb movies as a kid. Where it was no pressure, you’re just with your friends, and I guess the only difference now is there’s 100,000 people watching it.” NHThe Granite State on the Silicon Screen – Web Series Made in New HampshirePast and Present
Catch season one of John Herman’s interactive comedy/drama, and don’t miss the behind-the-scenes blog that reveals how it all came together.Odd Noggin Land
Winner of N.H. Magazine’s Best Video Web Series of 2009, “Odd Noggin Land” delivered musical numbers about people with food for heads. Don’t overthink it.Endurance Challenge
Hatchling Studio’s animated feature pairs characters out of Dungeons & Dragons with a Survivor-esque reality show. Sadly, it only lasted one (excellent) episode.Meet the Mayfarers
Todd Norwood’s fast-paced, ribald family comedy follows a dysfunctional family that must learn to stay together — for the money.’Round the Square
A bittersweet comedy about six very different friends living in Portsmouth — and, yes, they acknowledge the debt to “Friends” early on.History’s Strange Deaths Reenacted
Learn the truth about the death of Jack Daniels. With host P. T. Sullivan, real-life mishaps are hilariously reenacted.Flash Newsflash
Hatchling’s latest animated series rounds up all the news you might’ve missed.In ProductionProper Manors
Pietro D’Alessio’s story of an Italian family in America is scheduled to start shooting in June, tapping Hollywood vets and homegrown pros alike.Time and Charges
Writer, director and star Ernest Thompson (“On Golden Pond”) began shooting this time-traveling adventure as a serial Web production, but it may see life on the big screen.
How to Survive the Strange
With John Herman behind the camera, host Bryan White of the Cinema Suicide blog gives survival tips for scenarios straight out of horror films. Catch it before you hit the campgrounds this summer.

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