Video Game High School – Post Mortem
After having created three seasons of Video Game High School, and faced with the daunting task of putting together a post mortem that would sum up, essentially, three years of our professional lives, Matt and I decided to adapt the time-honored approach of “reckless procrastination.”
In the past, our post mortems have been summations of how the budget was spent (Season One can be seen here and Season Two can be seen here). We’ve found that, when it comes to online video, people tend to assume it’s all cheap to create. We hoped, with our budget breakdowns, to give proper perspective into how much it actually costs to put together a narrative series with a modicum of production value. People are often surprised at how much goes into creating a show, and while VGHS has never had the luxury of budgets even remotely approaching typical network television content, we’ve always felt that we’ve done a lot for very little.
Our goal with this post mortem is to show you, from a budgetary sense, what went into making VGHS Season Three, while summing up some of the lessons we’ve learned over the last three years.
But before we begin, we should at least give a brief overview of VGHS.
VGHS is, from what other people tell us, a pretty good series. Season 2 was named Variety’s “Best Webseries of 2013” and won Streamy awards for Best Directing, Best Ensemble Cast, and Best Sci-Fi/Action Series. We’ve also been up for a small spattering of industry awards (Producers Guild, Golden Reel, etc.). We also have pretty respectable IMDb and Netflix ratings.
VGHS is also, from our numbers, a pretty popular series. In terms of views, all three seasons are sitting on a total of over 106 million views. In terms of minutes watched, VGHS represents the most popular content on our channel, even compared to perennial favorites with incredibly clickable thumbnails and SEO optimized keywords (In this instance, I’m referring to “Rollercoaster Day,” which is consistently the most viewed video on our channel which I believe comes from its completely absurd thumbnail).
Finally, VGHS is, from a budget perspective, atypical. Its budget is an order of magnitude more than nearly every other webseries, and an order of magnitude less than nearly every other television show. With every season, we’ve gone bigger – adding more cast, more action sequences, more stunt sequences, and a bigger budget. That has necessitated different methods of financing, from ad supported, to brand sponsored, to pay VOD.
Some notes from the budget:
- The post-production sound number is lower than what would typically be expected because we partnered with Dolby, who graciously helped with post sound.
- Music Usage is a new line item from this season because we licensed a number of tracks for use.
In no particular order, here are some of the things we’ve learned making a big budget webseries over the last three years:
YouTube’s current model cannot financially support long-form high-production value series
Platforms like YouTube are like a garden. There’s a mixture of nutrients in the environment which makes it easy for certain things to grow and flourish. This mixture has been tweaked multiple times throughout YouTube’s history.
When we started song parodies were very common, and many creators made healthy livings doing covers and parodies of the latest hit single. For a brief, infamous, period, video commentaries with very little content and a disproportionate amount of cleavage were commonly seen in the “related videos” column. And the rumor is that Minecraft videos disappeared altogether from the YouTube front page because some top ranking exec caused a firestorm when he pulled up the site one day and asked, “what the hell is Minecraft?”
Right now, given the typical viewcounts of a wide variety of videos, it’s basically impossible to make higher cost long-form content make sense under an ad-supported model. You have to pay for that content elsewhere.
That’s a big part of why we signed our deal with Lionsgate, and are putting our next show on Hulu – if you want to make shows to the scale of VGHS, YouTube is not the place.
“Fix it in post” is totally fine – if you know how much work things take in post
The phrase “fix it in post” is usually mocked on set as indicative of a lazy, or naive, approach to filmmaking. But it doesn’t have to be, provided you understand what to do in post.
A big part of why we were able to execute VGHS at its budget was because of our experience in post. This happened numerous times throughout the series, and often times, it wasn’t during giant, VFX laden sequences.
Knowing, for example, that we could add a cat in via greenscreen for the intro bus stop sequence of Season 2, Episode 4, allowed us to avoid the costly and time consuming use of a trained cat and animal wrangler on set. Instead, we filmed the scene quickly, and got a greenscreen shot of Clint’s cat Cheeto at a later date.
Of course, the visual effects still cost us something, but that amount was less than what it would take to do it for real.
On the other hand, that same knowledge caused us to insist that certain things happen for real on set. We absolutely required the use of a trained cat to get on top of an R/C truck. We knew that relegating an action like that to VFX would be far more than the expense of getting an animal trainer to train and supervise a cat. In that case, doing it for real was much cheaper.
Nowadays, filmmakers owe it to themselves to know what it takes to execute the vision they have in their head. Familiarity with all aspects of production and post production results in knowing what’s not needed and what to insist on.
Don’t be precious about your ideas.
The first season of VGHS had numerous false starts. It started before the YouTube channel begain, in late 2009, as a feature film idea, turned into a possible mini-series for a major MCN, transformed a few more times, until we landed on the 9 episode webseries / hybrid feature film idea that we partially financed with Kickstarter. That process to get it made took almost two years, required constant rewriting, and was as frustrating as you could imagine.
It also taught us how to write.
If we could teach a screenwriting class, here’s how we would structure it: Have students work on a screenplay for an entire semester, on a typewriter at school. Everyday, plug away. Write and rewrite. Make it your masterpiece. And after months of toiling you would bring it up to the front desk. The teacher would give you a pat on the back, say good job, and then douse your screenplay with lighter fluid and set it on fire right in front of you.
Write it again. And again.
The composition of the Season One writer’s room was a fortunate accident. We had a group of people with very different sensibilities but identical goals. And somehow, we all possessed the right mixture of arrogance and insecurity. As a result, we weren’t afraid to present our ideas to the group, but we were never too precious with those ideas. Sure, there were ideas we died on the sword for occasionally, but usually a week later we would realize… well, no idea is really worth dying for. And if you trust the other people working with you, then there is probably a better idea out there.
Every season of the show has storylines, characters, and ideas that we thought were absolutely going to be a part of the show – they were logical, they made everyone laugh, and were too good to not use. In Season One, Brian was going to be mentored by a Mr. Miyagi-esque janitor who would teach him true gaming skill through pinball. In Season Two. And in Season Three.
In the end, those ideas simply did not work, and we had to let them go.
The story isn’t something you just have. You find it. You have to follow it. Sometimes an idea is the right path, and when you follow it, it leads you to a gorgeous meadow and all is well. Other times, the idea you love is the roadblock holding your story back.
Don’t compromise on writing.
This is so painfully obvious, its almost insulting to write. And to imply that others do compromise on writing is even more insulting. But I think it needs to be stated. I would lie if I didn’t feel that many filmmakers consider writing an obstacle to get past before they can make their film. If they just had a darn script, or it was just done already, they could make their movie.
Here’s the simplest way to think of it: writing is the least expensive, and least risky aspect of film production. What costs a $1 to fix on page, costs $100 to fix on set, and costs $10,000 dollars to fix in post.
Directing is deciding who loses
I don’t want to take credit for this phrasing. Someone told it to me, and he probably heard it from someone else. It may not sound romantic, or artistic, or fun, but in a practical way it is probably the most accurate summary of directing I’ve seen.
If you are lucky, everyone on your film set is a wonderful artist who wants to do the best they possibly can. They want to make your vision. They want to make it even better.
The thing is – that’s impossible.
Whether you have a budget of a hundred dollars, or a hundred million, you will not have enough time, money, or energy to do everything. If the art department wants more time to make a set perfect, that may cut in on the cinematographer’s time to light. If the cinematographer wants to do a special lighting setup, but the lighting setup is uncomfortable for an actor, it might negatively affect an actor’s performance. Pyro may want to blow up twenty cars, but if you do that, you might cut into your wardrobe department’s budget, who needs that budget to create really good looking uniforms.
Somebody loses. Always. Somebody is going to be told that they can’t perform at their best. As a director your job is two-fold.
- Decide what job is more important, whether for artistic or logistical reasons.
- Don’t make it feel like losing to everyone else.
Which leads us to …
Don’t be an asshole
There are plenty of brilliant directors and filmmakers whose filmography and impeccable output instantly prove this point wrong. But whatever. At RocketJump, we don’t believe in it.
A film set should feel like its winning at all times. That is incredibly exhausting from a directing standpoint. Don’t lose your temper. Stay positive. Explain why decisions are made. Make it clear you value someone’s opinions. Tell people they are doing a good job.
This philosophy is what allowed us to survive three years of VGHS while getting brilliant work from every individual involved.
If you want to be cynical about it, it’s not about “making people happy” or “not hurting their feelings” (actually, that’s exactly what it’s about!). If people feel appreciated, and feel like they are a part of a team with clear goals that they themselves WANT to achieve, you will get better work from them.
Just don’t be an asshole. It’s not worth it. Ever. And if you disagree, we just probably won’t ever be working together.
It’s all acting
Biggest explosion. Coolest action scene. Funniest dialog ever. Slickest camera movement. Even a compelling story. In the end, none of it compares to a close up of a human being emoting genuine sorrow, happiness or fear. We watch movies to feel. So, if there is a single all-encompassing rule we have in a job that has no all-encompassing rules, it’s this: protect the performance.
When Ted says “he’s such an asshole”, referring to his dead dad, and Jimmy’s lip quivers for a second, and his eyes just begin to glisten with tears, before trying to hide his emotions one last time – that is what you work for. Whether it’s a stolen smile from Johanna that betrays an insecurity beneath a tough as nails exterior, to a perfect eye movement Ellary gives which reveals Ki’s innermost workings, to a genuine look of concern from Josh where you realize he cares about his friends more than anything, or a moment of sheer insanity from Brian Firenzi – in the end, nothing else compares. And you fight for those moments.
The film set should be designed to protect the performance. And over the course of three seasons, as we grew to understand how beautiful and delicate and important these moments are, we shifted every aspect of the way our set ran so that we could capture these moments.
Tech Companies Don’t Understand Content
Five years ago when we were talking about making RocketJump, we all had the same thought – places like Netflix were the future. Tech companies would become the gatekeepers of content, and that Hollywood would be blindsided and have no idea how to respond.
Like most naïve, ignorant, but reasonably smart people, we were only partially right.
What surprised us in our dealings in the last few years is how technology companies have, as a whole, very little understanding in how you make content. For them, content is a commodity. It’s another piece of tech. It’s a good that needs to be delivered to the end user.
We’ve sat in many meetings and have been pitched dozens of crazy ideas that, while well intentioned, are utter garbage: Crowdfund a TV show one episode at a time! Make a show in three months! Change the story based on audience voting! Integrate a brand that… well… brand deals are a whole other issue.
However, every bad idea we’ve ever heard has the same underlying problem. That story is what matters most, and that the process of getting to a good story rarely fits an algorithm, or model, developed by an engineer.
Obviously, Netflix gets it. And from our experience so far with Hulu, who we are doing our next show with, they get it too. They’ve taken their technology and have used it to empower artists in the right way – let them do their jobs in the manner they are good at. Get a budget, write a show, take the time it needs, and then make it. And the technology is there to SERVE that process. Not the other way around.
The biggest surprise in all of this is that old-school mired-in-tradition Hollywood actually understands that. Honestly, it shouldn’t be a surprise that an industry that has been around for over a hundred years making movies would, well, understand what it takes to make good movies. There is a reason we after all those years we struck a deal with a studio like Lionsgate. They understood what we wanted to do and what we needed to do it.
Looking back at the first episode of Season One and comparing it to the finale of Season Three, I’m astounded by how much we’ve changed, grown, and (hopefully) improved as filmmakers. It is a rare indeed, in the world of film, for a director to have such a record of that growth, and a rarer privilege to have shared that growth with all of you.
Rest assured – the journey is not over. We still have much to learn, and many more stories to tell. I hope you have enjoyed what you’ve seen so far, and here’s to many more years of stories to come.
Thank you all –
Matt Arnold & Freddie Wong