– By Matthew Sawczyn –
Recently, I re-listened to the 2015 South By Southwest Keynote address given by Mark Duplass, in which he laid out what may still be the greatest way for filmmakers to jumpstart their careers. He advocated for low budget solutions, reliable resources, and simple sets. And for those of us just beginning on this lifelong journey through film, this advice remains invaluable. The constraints of low-budget indie filmmaking can breed creativity, and give rise to some truly moving tales.
We all know this when it comes to indie movies. But, what if you want to write TV, or a web series? The idea of creating an entire TV show on a tight budget may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be! If you’re a filmmaker who wants to get credits under your belt that you can be proud of, here are six “shootable” shows, which hopefully help you brainstorm your own great ideas!
Featuring powerhouse performances from Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd, State of the Union stands tall on its simple premise: husband and wife Louise and Tom meet in a pub every week before their couples therapy session. Set almost entirely in a single pub, the show is a masterclass in the simplest scene imaginable, that of a conversation between two people. Tragic, hilarious, witty, poignant… State of the Union is a beautiful reflection on marriage, and what it means to truly love. Also, each episode is only ten minutes; drop in the pub, and listen in on the state of Louise and Tom’s union!
Midnight Diner is as the title implies: a hole-in-the-wall establishment that’s open from midnight to seven a.m. The characters that pass through are as colorful and melancholic as people can be at such wee hours, and wise, quiet owner “Master” (sporting a grisly scar down his face), is there to listen. Imagine Batman, but a Batman who serves food, and bears the weight of his patrons’ sorrows on his shoulders. This show is also shot almost entirely in on set, the diner, with stock footage of Tokyo used for establishing and closing shots. Truly, a production dream. Furthermore, the show is an anthology, with each episode playing as its own stand alone short. Only our protagonist serves as the sole consistent character. This can be an extremely helpful format for indie filmmakers, who may not consistently have access to the same actors. Stop by the Midnight Diner for your next late night binge!
Most likely the best known series on this list, Critical Role is the years long Dungeons & Dragons campaign of a friend group of various voice actors, run by DungeonMaster Matt. With billboards around LA, a massive Twitch viewership, and a recent 11.3 million dollar Kickstarter campaign , Critical Role proves once again that good storytelling is king. While the preparation work on Matt’s part must be extensive, filming is fairly straightforward, with the actors literally sitting around a table, chatting and making decisions about the game. While such a following does take years to accumulate, there’s no reason not to start such a show now, bringing your favorite game to life.
4. The Guild
Continuing the fantasy trope, The Guild is the “godmother” of all web series, a cult classic shot almost entirely in the bedrooms (and kitchen?) of the main characters. The show revolves around an online gaming guild, The Knights of Good, who endlessly play and interact through an MMORPG. While the thought of watching people staring at their computers didn’t seem as exciting in 2007 (“react” videos had yet to flood us), the quick editing, biting conversions, and endearing, kooky characters made this show a hit. Financial success meant more elaborate locations and sets in later seasons, but for the first few episodes, the only thing keeping this guild alive was the magic of great dialogue and hilarious comedy. Definitely check this web series out for a lesson on substance over style!
Disclaimer: What I want to highlight about this series is the production design, not the morality of the premise. Praised as one of the best shows to emerge from the relatively young Sundance TV, The Adulterers is about exactly what you’d imagine it to be: two lovers, cheating. In five minute episodes, the couple attempts to sort out what they feel with the realities of their situation (he’s married, she’s not.) Co-creators Tonya Glanz and Chris Roberti star as coworkers who have discovered an ecstatic new love, only a bit too late. Their future fate sits there unresolved, and it provides some wonderfully deep, nuanced storytelling.
Despite the show’s potential moral pitfalls, the smart framing, chemistry rich costars, beautiful lightning, and grounded script strongly demonstrate the production quality you can achieve on a budget. Episode One is available to watch for free here (mature viewing).
6. Simon’s Cat
Coming up with a “shootable series” doesn’t have to mean just apartments and sidewalks. Now, I can only imagine the vast amount of work that must go into even a single frame of animation. (Though apparently artist Paul Johnson drew and animated the entirety of this gorgeous, frenetic short, so let that sink in.)
However, I can guess something akin to Simon’s Cat is definitely in the realm of possible projects. A series revolving around the innocent and charming antics of the titular pet—a combination of four of creator Simon Tofield’s real life cats—Simon’s Cat is animated in Adobe Flash and TVPaint, and does itself a favor both creatively and practically by sticking to a white canvas and black lines. Launched over eleven years ago, the series has since spawned a book, video game, newspaper strip, and partnerships with companies like The Walt Disney Company and Facebook. Its blend of physical comedy, simple storytelling, and short form content makes for a classic, enduring series.
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There you have them! Six series/setups to inspire your next indie show (and that’s not even counting the great sketch artists on Youtube, like Gus Johnson or ProzD, who show that comedy gold trumps production value any day.)
Good luck shooting, and break a leg!
About the Author
Matthew Sawczyn is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and alumni of JPCatholic (MBA in Film Producing – Class of 2017). He loves hiking, HBO, and cuddly cats.
For more articles by Matthew, click here.