There’s a good edition of “The Medium,” Virginia Heffernan’s column in the Sunday Times Magazine this week. She tries to define what makes a web series work. In the most recent Filmmaker magazine newsletter I wrote about Max Richter’s new album, 24 Frames in Full Colour, which consists of 24 short pieces that Richter says are designed to be thought of as ringtones, not songs. In the letter I wrote about the perceptual change that prompted in the listener leading to a different kind of appreciation of the album. Applying this thinking to web filmmaking, I wrote that maybe we need to “forget that we are making films and to think of them as something else.” I asked, “If we sent a video message to a friend, what would it look like? What video might play in one of those digital picture frames in the sets of any one of our screenplays? If the protagonist of your screenplay had a Facebook page, what video might play on it?”
Heffernan makes a similar point, arguing that the lonelygirl15 was so much better when we didn’t think of it as scripted entertainment:
Just as some people don’t like to receive their humor under the banner of “funny” — their smiles fade at comedy clubs called Chuckles Café or Laugh Lane — I don’t like to watch Web serials as serials. What I loved about “lonelygirl15,” when its status as amateur filmmaking was still unclear, was not so much that I couldn’t tell if it was real or fake but that I could never tell if there would be another one. Poor, beautiful Bree, the housebound heroine, appeared to be uploading videos whenever her home-schooling overlords would permit it. At the end of an episode, you had no idea if she’d survive to make another. This thrill is present in all Web interactions in which a Facebook friend or far-flung colleague or gchat buddy is so there, writing the long 4 a.m. communications about Russia or his cat, until he isn’t. When you kick off an exchange with someone online, you don’t know how many episodes have been ordered, what shape or course the relationship might take or how much of a commitment it requires.
In her piece, she offers a few recommendations of what’s good out there — namely Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog, but ultimately looks forward to a time in which the divide between amateur and professional, entertainment and simple experience, is erased:
So where’s the true art? I’m not sure. I know I continue to prefer the strange, beautiful, comical and mysterious stuff of YouTube — the unclassifiable stuff — to the laudable efforts at nouveau serials by bona fide directors. But I still believe that, one day, another serial — not called a serial, maybe, and certainly not webisodes — will exploit the eccentricity of the virals and manage to make new and serious jokes about the truth-illusion-truth-illusion of cinéma vérité, which is what “lonelygirl15” once did. With that, the thrill of filmed “reality” will be returned to viewers, as it was in the early days of film, radio and television.
And, oh yeah, it does cost $4.99 to watch Dr. Horrible on iTunes, but Hulu also offers it for free if you’ll sit through a couple of McDonald’s commercials. Via the streaming site you can watch it here:
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