Looking back, it may seem like mainstream media was initially slow to embrace online video, but in fact a handful of creators have been working with the networks to produce web series for years. Since 2006, the guys at Retrofit Films have worked with producers to create tie-in web content for shows including Smallville, My Own Worst Enemy and Heroes. Their 2008 series Heroes: The Recruit was nominated for two Webbys last week, and their new original Heroes web series, Nowhere Man, launches tonight to coincide with the show’s return to NBC.
I chatted with Retrofit founders Chris Hanada and Tanner Kling via email about their interaction with show producers, the challenges of keeping costs down, and what a webseries is really worth to a show’s bottom line. An edited version of our correspondence is below.
NewTeeVee: How do you approach the creation of a tie-in web series like one for Heroes?
Kling: With shows like Heroes and My Own Worst Enemy, web series storylines have been developed in the writer’s room concurrently while working on the scripts for the TV series. Writers from the shows write the webseries scripts and we work as creative consultants with them, not only to provide a fresh perspective, but also to coordinate what is feasible from a digital production viewpoint.
Hanada: It can be pretty amusing because the creatives are used to playing with multimillion-dollar budgets and suddenly we’re all working with a small fraction of that for their web content. Fortunately, most everyone has some indie or low-budget film/TV experience in their background so these meetings gave them a fond callback to the “good old days.”
NewTeeVee: So on a day-to-day level, how much interaction do you typically have with the creators of a parent show?
Hanada: The show creators love working on these things! Not a single meeting, conference call, or shoot day went by on Heroes where executive producer Dennis Hammer wasn’t with us and giving us the support network we needed. Tim Kring, the show’s creator, gave story and script feedback and even made several visits to our sets.
Kling: I think everyone sees a real and sustainable future in web and mobile content and wants to get in there and see how it works.
NewTeeVee: How many days did you need to shoot Nowhere Man? The first episode feels very self-contained — is the office set where the bulk of the action going forward takes place?
Hanada: Don’t let the first episode fool you. Even though we shot the four-episode arc in only two days at a rate of approximately nine pages a day, the action takes place in multiple locations. We’ll see more of the character’s home, a hospital, and other various interior/exterior locations in both day and night.
Kling: Believe it or not, there are technically six different locations in the entire series, so finding versatile locations that we could move around in and stamp with the Heroes “look” was definitely a challenge.
NewTeeVee: What other sorts of choices do you make in order to keep costs down?
Hanada: We definitely have to toe the line between keeping costs low without sacrificing production value. Our art department was pretty amazing at taking relatively neutral spaces and turning them into what we needed.
Kling: There were also the sacrifices that were made on set — some of our more dynamic shots needed to be trimmed down or cut completely in order to make our day.
But from its inception, everyone knew they wanted to go with a character piece over an action story. Utilizing an engaging character [Nowhere Man focuses on Eric Doyle, a morally grey character with the ability to control people's actions] is ultimately much more effective than a flat character with a flashy superpower (which also requires VFX). Focusing on a smart character piece with a stellar cast meant we could divert more of the budget toward shooting on a great camera or putting it into the art department to make the scenes feel more realistic.
NewTeeVee: What kind of added value do you feel webisodes like these bring to a TV series, on a bottom-line level?
Kling: Ha! Well, they never give us the numbers but I guess it’s probably twofold. These original webisodes keep the fans going during the off-times as our web series usually lead into or lead out of a new season, but they also give viewers something familiar yet unique to keep them engaged with the series during the viewer’s ever-increasing web surfing time. Ultimately, these web series create a more intimate connection with the viewer which only drives more affinity for the parent series. Win-win.
Hanada: It’s also an opportunity to run a little targeted advertising in the form of product placement and corporate sponsorship. Every piece of entertainment these days is “brought to you by” some product or another. And webseries are a part of that group, too.