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What’s the Difference Between Shooting a Web Series and an Indie Film?

What's the Difference Between Shooting a Web Series and an Indie Film?

Versatility is an essential skill for cinematographers, and Dagmar Weaver-Madsen has it in spades. Dividing her time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, Weaver-Madsen seamlessly alternates between shooting indie films and web series, such as “Be Here Nowish,” a comedy about two New Yorkers who head to L.A. in search of spiritual and sexual enlightenment. She’s also the DP for Vimeo’s hugely successful original web series, “High Maintenance,” which was just acquired by HBO, and “The Impossibilities,” the new web series from Anna Kerrigan.

She’s shot countless short films and documentaries and her two latest features, Carlos Marques-Marcet’s “10,000 KM,” which won best performance at SXSW 2014, and Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected,” which premiered earlier this year Sundance, will hit theaters in July. 

Indiewire recently spoke to Weaver-Madsen about the difference between shooting web series and indie films.

READ MORE: 10 Reasons You Should Make a Web Series (Instead of an Indie Film)
What are the main technical challenges between shooting an independent film vs. a digital series?

All of the web series I’ve done are very different. I think the thing that’s really exciting about web series and content for the web is it really allows for a lot of experimentation. For people who have a story and they’re very passionate about it but they might not have the means to get it made in a traditional sense, the door is very open for them to try it out. But at the same time, when you’re working for a DP or for any of the other people working on the crew side, you still want it to look the same level of quality and be as good as possible, as though you were working on an indie film. But often you’re working with lower budgets or less time, less equipment. 

With web series, is it like working on a micro-budget indie film?

It’s the closest, I would say, to a really micro-budget indie production or a mumblecore film. I mean this isn’t true across all web series. I would say working on “High Maintenance” is very much like working on an indie film. It’s more of a well-oiled machine, there’s more time to do stuff even though we’re moving very fast and covering way more pages per day than we would in an indie film. It feels very similar. And then the other two web series, “Be Here Nowish” and “The Impossibilities,” are a little bit more like working in mumblecore.
Is there the sense that you’re shooting from the hip on a web series, where there’s not as much time to light the scene or frame the shot?

Some people will say “Oh, it’s for the web, it’s okay.” You don’t want to hear that. It’s almost like the modern version of “We’ll fix it in post,” the “It’s a web series!” And you’re like “No, let’s take ten more minutes and try to…”

But perhaps that’s even part of the aesthetic?

Yeah. I know for sure with “Be Here Nowish,” it’s an interesting tone that we’re doing where it’s riding this line of comedy and satire and authenticity. The use of natural light and staging to accommodate natural lighting, and to take advantage of what’s happening within the scene, ends up making it feel more realistic which helps.

I think the other biggest challenge for me is on the indie features that I’ve done we’ve done as single-camera shows. On all of the web projects that I’ve done, it’s two cameras or three cameras. “High Maintenance,” we were doing a little bit more of a two-shot and a single with the same direction. But sometimes, and often it would be a possibility in “Be Here Nowish,” we’re cross-covering. 

I just shot the second season of “Be Here Nowish,” which is going to be coming out soon, in L.A., and we were shooting a two-shot and cross-covering both singles at the same time. To do that without much equipment or hands means that you have to kind of embrace that style of naturalism. [Laughs] So yeah, I think the multi-camera thing is definitely one of the big differences — and also a strength of what’s happening because it does allow for the speed and it allows for comedy and improvisation. They can really help the editors and cut to the other side because something wacky happened, and you have both angles on it. 
What are other key differences between the two forms?

The other key difference is that in web series — or at least the ones that I’ve been shooting, since a lot of them are comedic or have those moments or want the editors to have flexibility — it gets very coverage-focused for all the shots. It’s very much about the coverage so you can time the jokes well and punch them up. On an indie feature it’s more about — you have the potential for longer shots and more expressive shots that aren’t just coverage of dialogue. That being said, definitely on all of them and especially on “High Maintenance,” there was a lot of talk of style and how to bring some of that into it even though we were trying to get it all covered.

READ MORE: ‘High Maintenance’ Creators on Short Filmmaking Opportunities Online

Does your choice of camera and lenses differ for digital series than for a film?

Well, budget is definitely a factor in my department. I prefer to work with something like an ARRI Alexa or Amira on a narrative feature project, and then on “High Maintenance” we saved on a different mix of stuff. Most recently, we did C300, “The Impossibilities” was also C300. “Be Here Nowish” was 5D Mark II.

The C300 is really great for low light and running around without permits [Laughs] and like doing a little more guerilla. I feel that web series really have that indie spirit that I haven’t experienced that much. I’ve been fortunate that the indie films I’ve made have been a little bit bigger budget and we’ve had permits and we’ve had these different support things. And there’s more preproduction on indie features than there is on web series, but it’s sort of like that adrenaline and the pace is kind of creatively invigorating as well as frustrating.

Do you feel like you’re now becoming the go-to person for web series, now that you are working on your third one? 

I don’t know. I think it’s just that there’s a lot of them in New York. I think it’s definitely that people aren’t going to wait for someone else to give them permission to make what they want to make. They’re going to find people who are down to do it. I’m personally very interested in the process of filmmaking and how each director is very different with how they do stuff. I love it when I can have full, complete control over the image and do everything and I have my team to support me. I also think that it is another kind of fun to have a lot of challenges and have to still try and make it look the best it can look. It exercises and challenges you in a different way. 

READ MORE: HBO Gets Some ‘High Maintenance’ in Latest Win for Vimeo VOD Series

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