I spoke with writer/director Nicholas Carlton (OzGirl) about telling stories for the web, working with social media, webisodical story structure and how an online series has given him a pathway into exciting new territory as a filmmaker.
Karel: Your approach to OzGirl was innovative in many ways, as was recognized by an array of international awards. As a means to connect with the fans, you created Facebook pages for the characters. How did that work?
Nicholas: We didn’t actually use Facebook too much for Ozgirl, our main concentration was on Bebo. We managed to work that into the story so there was an episode where the main character Sadie had a date with a creepy guy called Tony, and Tony tried to come on to her. She basically ran away and the cameraman had to intervene.
We worked that into the story because we realised we didn’t have enough episodes to continue going, so we had to take a break and shoot some more episodes. That was the practical reason and then we basically said that Sadie had to take a 2-week break to recuperate.
She revealed that she had been to the Police, she had talked to her lawyers and that they were going to go to trial etc. That all happened between the videos, outside of the linear video content. It enabled us to have a 2-week break to catch up with the episodes that we were shooting.
Karel: Was this the type of story you wanted to tell or the type which would work for the web?
Nicholas: There was definitely something I saw working, definitely what I saw as a market that was serviceable. It was also a market that I found to be accessible, mainly through the concentration of that market on sites like Bebo, and having access to those fans was certainly a factor.
But it was also because of the level of simplicity and not have to worry too much about other things that would complicate the story. What I really wanted to experiment with was the distribution of the show through social media marketing, through Bebo and through custom social networks and licensing. And how does one tell a story on the web. That was basically my key challenge.
When you are going to do something like that you’re not going to reinvent what a serviceable story is. You’d pick a story that is a) tried and trued and b) easy enough to tell because you’re gambling with all the other factors, so you don’t want to gamble with the story.
I don’t want to degrade what we did, but it was a simple story, an effective story but definitely a simple story. And considering the low budget I had to really evaluate all the resources that I had access to, and design a story around that. If I was to come up with an epic sci-fi triller set in space, or on spaceships, that wouldn’t have been feasible. So I basically made a list of everything that I had access to; living in the city, living in an apartment, living in Melbourne. They were the obvious elements to include in a story. And that’s how I designed the story.
Karel: OzGirl consisted of 23 episodes of 6 minutes each. If you had to start Ozgirl today, would the format be different?
Nicholas: Probably. I like to be engaged and immersed in a story which means watching something over a longer period of time. For me 40 minutes, or even 25 minutes, is far more compelling and engaging and interesting to watch than 6 minute episodes.
Facebook is another thing that would be key to any distribution of the web series. Facebook is just where everybody is at, at the moment and Facebook’s API gives you a lot of control over the way you distribute content and the way it can be multiplied and designed to go viral. Those are the two things I would definitely consider.
Karel: What did you learn about story structure for webisodes while writing and filming?
Nicholas : Initially I considered Ozgirl as a feature length story structure and then I cut that up into 24 bits. The first few episodes were actually quite slow and nothing much happened. In the context of a single weekly release that was quite boring and the plot didn’t progress fast enough.
What I soon learned was that the audience needed to see the same plot points being hit every week, just in a compressed amount of time. Basically you were charged, as a filmmaker, with the challenge of telling the same amount of story, just faster. Which is essentially what a short film is.
You have to tell a story about a character, except it’s harder because it’s shorter. So, making short episodes… it’s not easier, because it’s not just about filming the scene and that’s what I initially started with. A lot of the initial episodes like Sadie goes shopping; it’s basically just one scene unrolling.
We really quickly learned due to the responses that we got, and they’re brutal online. They’ll just say: “It’s boring, fix it. Go and make it better”. And we took that in and basically scrapped the entire second half of the show that we shot. We replaced an actor, got a new character in and we sped up all the events. We did our best to make the show as compelling as we could on a week-to-week basis.
Karel: What does the web bring to the table for a filmmaker?
Nicholas: There are 2 schools of thought at the moment; 1 is the web as a distribution platform, which means taking a traditional piece of content and treating the web as an ancillary medium, like you would treat DVD or cable or network television. It’s basically another platform to release your feature film on or your television series on like Hulu does. That’s one school of thought.
The other school thought is embracing the web as an entirely new way of telling the stories. That is to say that, social media is a huge part of it and that interactivity is key to telling such a story.
Basically all the traditional rules of television go out the window. It would be somewhat of a hybrid between a game, television and short form content. It would be highly interactive, highly social and basically … it wouldn’t be too much like Ozgirl. It would be quiet different.
On the other hand you have platforms like Google TV coming about which seem to really support the notion that the web, as simply a distribution platform, is really going to come of age, and it’s going to be a viable way of distributing content.
Karel: If those are the options, how to choose?
I think the first thing you need to do is think about what type of content you want to be making. If you simply want to create television that is distributed over the web, you need to be aware that audiences don’t seem to be embracing that in huge amounts because the market is served through television.
People watch TV, people download TV shows… they’re aware of the brands. You know about shows like Lost and 24 due to traditional marketing that takes place offline and that’s the only reason why they download those shows at the moment.
So what I’m saying is; if I was to create something for the web right now, as independent content creator, I would be more inclined to basically do something that could only exist on the web which would be this hybrid game, interactive social experience and it wouldn’t be episodic, it wouldn’t be just television cut down for the web. I think that departs somewhat from what Ozgirl was.
And then conversely, if I did only want to do something on the web so as to create an ‘in’ for myself in the traditional television industry then I would just go back creating long form 40 minutes episodes. Because I think audiences are willing to watch that and are willing to sit down, but whether or not you can actually market that at the same level of intensity and have the same reach as those traditional networks, that’s another question. But you can certainly use that as an ‘in’ for traditional television.
Karel: Which is what you did: you made Ozgirl to move on to TV and film. Are you now ‘in’?
Nicholas: With Ozgirl we won some awards, like the Independent Television Festival in Los Angeles, where we won best web series and best acting.
We had a special screening at the New York Television Festival and we won best foreign web series at the Streamy Awards this year, as well as the lead actress, Sophie, being nominated for an award. We were also nominated for best drama. And also an official honorary at the 14th Webby Awards this year as well.
So we got a fair bit of attention which was really good and from that I was able to get an agent with UTA, which was great. We were able to utilize those contacts to progress new projects. For instance, I created and directed a pilot earlier this year, called Matchbraker, which we took to Los Angeles to pitch around for 2 weeks. We had a whole bunch of amazing meetings with studios and networks, all the big ones you can think off, and that was all facilitated through the agents. So yes it’s certainly given me a foot in the door, and I’ve been in rooms and meetings that I never imagined I would be in when I first started creating the show.
Karel: What advice for screenwriters who are hoping to make a living from their writing?
Nicholas: [laughs] I don’t know if I’m the best person to ask about that. I think this applies to any field… any person that want to achieve something, just go out and do it, and there’s nothing else stopping you and yes film is a harder, more difficult endeavour. It’s costly it’s expensive, requires a lot of other people, a lot of resources, a lot of different skills and people to basically enrol.
But considering the developments of camera technology and distributing technology, it’s a lot easier for you to go about and basically make your own things now. I think a lot of people spend time just waiting until they think they’re ready or they wait for financing to be in place. They wait for all the perfect variables to be where they want them to be.
But I would say; just forget about all that. Go out pick up a camera and make your own things. If you can tell a story visually, in a unique way, if you have a voice and can do something, I think you going to get attention either way. So that’s my advice.
Interview: Karel Segers
Editors: Dave Trendall and Niels Abercrombie