Fans of Community and Doctor Who will love my interview this week with Eric Loya, who, along with Travis Richey, created, wrote, and starred in the smash hit web series Untitled Web Series About a Space Traveler Who Can Also Travel Through Time.
The series has garnered hundreds of thousands of views, and has been featured in The Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and BBC America, among others, and was also chosen as one of USA Today's Best of TV on the Web.
How did UntitledWeb Series come about?
My writing partner Travis Richey booked the role of Inspector Spacetime on Community, which was basically Community’s version of Doctor Who. It became Abed and Troy’s favorite show on Community. On the first episode when Inspector Spacetime shows up, it’s just a 20 second clip, and you meet the Inspector and Constable Reggie, his companion. Travis and I had already produced web series in the past, and enjoyed working together, and since we knew that there were both big fans of Community and Doctor Who, we figured once those fans saw that Inspector Spacetime existed outside of the show, they were going to be really into it.
We thought we might as well have some digital content for NBC, for what we expected was going to be a snowball effect for the character. I wrote 5 episodes of the series, sent them to Travis, and Travis really liked them, and we made some changes based on some of his ideas. At the time, we were going off the idea that if NBC wanted to do this, they would be going about it the same way it was on Community, with the Inspector and Constable Reggie. When Travis tried to get them interested in it, and then when ultimately NBC wasn’t interested in it, one thing led to another, and we started going about raising our own money for it.
When we started actually raising money, we got a call from NBC saying that we could not be doing this. Travis told them that yeah, we kinda can, we’re just raising a production budget, we won’t be making any money off of this, and they still said, nevertheless, you can’t really do that. Travis was like, “I can, as long as I don’t keep any of the things that you guys established in the show." They established the name Inspector Spacetime, the look of the character, the Blorgons (their version of the Daleks from Doctor Who) and Constable Reggie, and we weren’t using any of those. We changed the name to just The Inspector, the look of the character, and we made the companion Piper Tate.
They haven’t really interfered with us in any way since that one point. We named the series Untitled Web Series about a Space Traveler Who Can Also Travel Through Time as a wink to the audience, because they know it’s the Inspector Spacetime webseries, and they also know why we can’t call it that, so we spell out exactly what it is. Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, he knows about the show, Danny Pudi mentioned us at Comic-Con, so no one seems to really have an issue with us.
Tell us a little bit about how you funded the series.
We had a couple of web series prior to Untitled, and those were all paid for out of pocket. I think for the most part, that’s gonna be the reality at first. No one knew us, we had to first establish a brand, our style of humor, what we’re about.
Our first web series was a sitcom called Robot, Ninja, and Gay Guy, and it was literally a roommate comedy, all shot in Travis’ apartment. I think we bought a bunch of lamps from Target for our lighting, the camera was cheapo. We tried to make it look as good as we could, but we had no budget. I think for the most part, that’s the way that it is. The reason we were able to be as successful as we were with the first season of Untitled Web Series is because we had created content with no budget before, and so we knew how to do that, and also because this was a really unique case. We already had an audience, and people were excited about the idea of Inspector Spacetime being spun off into its own thing. It’s a very rare thing to have all of those things line up, but fortunately for us they did, and because of that, we asked for $20,000 for the first Kickstarter.
Later we were at a panel at Comic-Con, and fans had been creating their own parodies of Inspector Spacetime, and Travis had some of those fans and me on a panel as “historians” of the show, and it was all like one great big improv game. And the audience knew that, they were in on the joke, and it was a fun panel where fans of the Inspector Spacetime parody got to ask about specific questions about specific episodes of the show. During that panel, Travis mentioned that we had written a web series, and we were launching a Kickstarter that night. It got picked up by a bunch of media outlets, and by the end of the first day, we had raised $4,000, which is huge for people that no one had ever heard of. By the end of the campaign, we ended up raising just slightly over $25,000, and I can’t even put words to how incredible that is. The reason that happened is because all of the different things I talked about earlier lined up. It would be unrealistic to think that if you’re just starting out or just wanting to get your friends together and make a series that you would raise $25,000.
For how we spent the money, we didn’t pay for a lot of locations, but it’s amazing how quickly what sounds like a lot of money goes. In our case, we’re paying for props, and equipment rentals, and we had to rent the red phone booth from a studio, and it was something like $2,000 a day, even though it only appears in the show for, like, 30 seconds. It’s insane where all the money goes. You’re paying for food for the cast and crew to eat for four days, you’re paying for all the little do-dads and chachkas that are in Boyish’s lab, all of that stuff adds up. For the prequel episode, we hired a carpenter to build us a booth, because we thought that it made more sense to do that rather than pay $2,000 a day to rent the other one. We had someone build the console that is affixed to the inside of the booth that Mayim Bialik’s voice comes out of. So yeah, money goes out to lots of places, even if you’re able to cut corners on locations and you don’t pay the cast and crew.
Speaking of budget, you have amazing special effects, production value, and even some celebrity guest stars. How did you accomplish this on your budget?
With the $25,000, we didn’t have any of the celebrities. $25,000 with Kickstarter is not actually $25,000; they take 10% and then you have to pay out to satisfy all the perks that you promised along the way. The $25,000 very quickly turns into under $20,000, which is still insane, but I just wanted to point that out. The first season we had a total of four actors. The one where we had the celebrities was in the prequel for Season 2, and we raised $12,000 for that. So with $12,000 we made this incredible-looking prequel episode, and we got Robert Picardo from Star Trek, and then Mayim Bialik from The Big Bang Theory to be the voice of the time machine booth, it’s just crazy. I still have memories of acting in a scene to Mayim Bialk’s voice coming out of the time machine. But the way we got them was one of those age-old things, it was just connections, it’s relationships that you develop over years, and knowing people who know people.
Both Mayim and Robert had done sketch work at ACME Comedy Theater, where Travis and I [and me, Rebecca!] got to do comedy for a time. Robert Picardo was still good friends with the former owner of ACME, who remains a good friend of Travis, so Travis contacted him, and he contacted Robert and asked if he would be interested in doing this web series.
Mayim also did sketch at ACME, but she and Travis didn’t really stay in touch afterwards. One day Travis boarded an airplane, and happened to be seated next to Mayim Bialik. And they struck up a conversation based on this little bit of history, and stayed in touch after that, and when it came time to find a voice for the booth, we thought about Mayim, and Travis contacted her. Mayim was like, “Yeah, I want to be the voice of a time machine, of course I do.” So one day Travis and our director Nick Acosta went to Mayim’s dressing room at the studio and recorded her dialogue on her lunch break.
The special effects, I still look at them and am amazed. The first time I got to see the time booth materialize, I thought, “How am I a part of this where that’s a thing that’s happening?” And then for the prequel episode for Season Two, there’s an entirely new booth effect. We had a new director, we actually had a physical booth that we owned rather than renting. When the booth disappears in the prequel, it disappears in a poof, with embers, and it’s so cool to look at it. Nobody was getting paid for this—we just had people help us that we had met along the way.
If you’re in L.A. long enough, you meet people. And those people know people. And you start meeting people who are producing their own content, lots of people know enough people to be able to put something like this together. Eventually you have an entire crew, and you have an entire post-production group of people. So we didn’t hire a firm, we just knew people who were willing to work on a production they were passionate about, in this case, for free. It’s not the most ideal, because if you’re able to offer pay to people you’d also be able to expect things like a quick turnaround, and set deadlines they would have to meet, otherwise they would get fired. But people are willing to do this stuff, as long as they have the time and the passion for it, and it happened.
Are there any things you would have done differently now that you can look back at the whole process in hindsight—any lessons you learned?
For Season One of the show, we shot it in four days. That was insane. That was six episodes of a season in fewer than a day per episode. Don’t do that. Admittedly, we only had four locations total, but still, if there’s a lesson from that—plan. We did some planning, but unfortunately, when no one’s getting paid, everyone gives their availability and you basically have to find the tiny little intersection where everyone’s available. And if that happens to be four days, you do it in four days. You’re absolutely fried by the end of it.
For our first web series, Robot, Ninja, and Gay Guy, a lot went wrong, but fortunately, we were quick learners, and learned to make better choices next time around. We actually tried to shoot four episodes in one day, because we thought we just needed to crank it out and just get it done. Unfortunately, those four episodes all kind of look the same. And it’s not a particularly good look. We didn’t know what we were doing and didn’t have the ability to learn from episode to episode, because we shot four episodes in the first day.
And this weird thing happened with the sound—literally some Latin radio station found its way into the the sound feed from one of the cameras—so we had to dub an entire episode because none of the dialogue was picked up. But from that series, we learned to take advantage of what we have. We didn’t have a whole lot—we had an apartment, a tiny, tiny crew, with maybe five people, and it was very limiting. But because it was so limiting, we found that we were making up for it with writing. Our dialogue became sharper and crisper and I think that that might not have happened if we had had money for the show.
Since we knew it was just going to be three guys in an apartment, we thought, what are all of the things we can do within our set of limited confines? And we were able to do quite a lot with that first season, to the point where our writing was strong enough that when we asked Nicholas Brendan (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Criminal Minds) to be in our show, he said yes, and it was because of the writing that he said yes. I’m a huge Buffy fan, and it was really a career highlight for me, because I got to write for a guy who was on Buffy, and got to act with a guy who was on Buffy, and it was amazing! You learn to not let your limitations limit you, you learn to...let them free you. It’s kind of a hokey after-school special “lesson learned” moment, but you really do.
Also find people to work with that you actually like. If you’re shooting for four days straight with these people, and you hire someone who’s not that great to be around, man, it’s going to be a nightmare. And the product may be fine, but you’re not going to look back on it with a sense of joy. And you should, especially at this level where you’re creating your own content, you should be able to look back at every single thing that you do and at least have that one moment of bliss at what you did. And if you had crummy people around you, it’s going to spoil it, and you don’t want that. Especially when you have the luxury of being able to choose the people that you work with. Choose them well.
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