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2 minutes, no flab

BY THE time the new Web series “Foreign Body” premieres May 27, Chris, Chris, Ryan and Doug -- the four-headed directing collective known as Big Fantastic -- will have delivered 230 episodes of Web TV in less than two years. “Seinfeld” barely managed 180 shows and it was on for a decade. True, these webisodes are exponentially shorter -- usually two minutes, tops -- but somehow that doesn’t make the production schedule any less grueling, or their boss any less Michael Eisner.

Big Fantastic had a scanty 24 days to shoot all 50 two-minute episodes of “Foreign Body,” a thriller set in the messy world of medical tourism, where the broke and adventurous unwell seek bargain surgery abroad. The production is shuttling from the bazaars of Delhi to the beaches of Malibu, to an L.A. hospital-cum-movie-set, which I dropped by last week to sneak a couple questions to the directors in between takes.

Being a four-headed monster helps keep everything moving fast -- the moment Chris Hampel is done with a shot, Chris McCaleb materializes to call the next one. Likewise before Ryan Wise is finished editing a scene, Doug Cheney has already started editing the next. And on and on, a constant, tail-chasing churn of planning and creation that perfectly suits the Internet’s yawning appetite for content.

The perennial question, not just for these filmmakers but for anyone trying to make super-short-form serials is: Really now, how do you go about telling a story in two-minute increments?

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“You have to cut out all the fluff and just get to the three beats that are the essence of that episode,” said Hampel, the group’s redheaded resident philosopher. “We’re always paying mind to the question: What’s the audience going to come back the next day for?”

Yet the foursome agreed that since every second counts, ruthless fluff removal and an emphasis on cliffhangers can lead to a loss of old-fashioned subtlety.

“You almost go in the other direction when you’re creating nuances in this medium,” McCaleb said. “You’re turning up the volume on emotions -- it’s a new way of storytelling.”

“But not that different,” Cheney said. “If you look at any movie that’s in the theaters right now -- there aren’t a lot of scenes that are greater than three pages,” which is the length of each episode of “Foreign Body.” No matter which medium you’re talking about, he said, “the pace just keeps increasing.”

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High-volume nuance and relentless pacing are definitely two features of the series they’ve produced so far -- “Prom Queen” and their breakthrough series “Sam Has Seven Friends” are basically sexy, soap-operatic murder-mysteries -- not necessarily Shakespearean in their dramatic reach or complexity. In “Prom Queen: Summer Heat,” the two most popular forms of clothing among the characters are bikinis (for the bad girls) and ski masks (for the bad guys), and when someone gets killed, you can almost feel the resentment that the pool party has been interrupted.

Still, the tight construction and fast movement of Big Fantastic’s shows can generate a hum of magnetism, and people are watching. According to Tornante, the “Prom Queen” franchise has racked up over 20 million views, and made enough of a splash that Eisner placed another bet on the group, this time with higher stakes.

Not only is the budget, cast and crew bigger this time, but “Foreign Body” is also tied in to the launch of a book of the same name by bestselling author Robin Cook, the author of “Coma,” who is a sort of don of medical thriller writers. Cook supplied a story outline and Big F filled in the beats, dialogue and scantily clad actresses. The idea is that the 50-episode prequel will attract an audience, then immediately after the 50th episode, the book will hit the shelves and the story will continue.

Both Eisner and Cook’s publisher, the Penguin Group, see it as a pioneering collaboration between two media that haven’t yet found much common ground. Perhaps, they say, Cook’s fans will be drawn online to see his stories in a new form, and maybe some kids who see the edgy Web series will buy the book. Hey, sounds good on paper.

“It’s experimental,” said Eisner, who has shifted his mogulvision into the online world. With the Web, “there’s no proven strategy, yet that’s as absolutely fundamental as the strategy of broadcast or cable television, or the movie theater.”

Still, Eisner said he was determined that the Web would be “the biggest space ever” for entertainment, and though a statement like that may ring of Gold Rush hysteria, his plumbing of the Web is very methodical. The online shows his company Tornante has produced have been modestly budgeted and varied in theme and approach. “Prom Queen,” a high school murder mystery, was 90 seconds per episode, while “The All for Nots,” a mockumentary about a traveling rock band, is more like seven minutes. “Foreign Body,” racy as it may be, is driven by the topical issue of deteriorating healthcare.

If you think about it, creating a growing slate of bite-size series becomes a way for Eisner to fire hundreds of low-cost spaghetti strands at the wall and see what sticks. There’s not enough advertiser interest yet to support high budget content, but if he can figure out the contours of the medium early enough. . . .

“If you wait for the advertising world and the distribution world to get there, it’ll never happen. So I’ve said I’m just going to go do it,” Eisner said. Then he added, “ ‘The money will come if you do it right,’ he said hopefully.”

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A year ago, webisodes were still so new that no one in Hollywood was even sure they qualified as a real genre. Which is not to say that Hollywood decides what is “real” and what isn’t -- as if! Most of the best innovation in Web entertainment has been done by homegrown YouTubers like Big Fantastic once was, and that’s as it should be. But now that Eisner and other industry players are dropping anchor, the space might finally get the attention it deserves, and maybe a few more little boats will rise with the tide.

“I believe next year at this time, there’ll be a line outside my office,” Eisner said. “I hope it won’t be the debtor line, I hope it’ll be the advertising line. But who knows?”

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david.sarno@latimes.com


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