If you are still waiting for an independently produced web series to match the production quality, story complexity, and plain old entertainment value of mainstream TV, then you have not checked out Pioneer One yet. I’d never go as far as to say there is nothing noteworthy going on in independently produced web programming, there is certainly a lot of stuff out there that has been groundbreaking. Ventures like Lonely Girl managed to mask what turned out to be an acute and controlled self-awareness of its medium, while recent efforts, like 31 have fulfilled on the staccato style of brief but poignant chapters released in a rapid pace, a kind of story telling that seems to fit perfectly with today’s broadband page-flipping driven info economy.
In terms of story, Pioneer One is ambitious, ignoring the ‘˜industry standard’web series approach of nibble sized chapters for full length episodes. The story of Pioneer One is one that will appeal to Science Fiction fans: a mysterious object falls from the sky and it’s occupant … well, just watch it, no spoilers; the only thing I am willing to give up is that the story construction is intelligent, satisfying, and keeps you begging for more.
From a production standpoint Pioneer One comes from a different place altogether when compared to its brethren. Writer Josh Bernhard and director Bracey Smith have set out to create a web series that could, and does, stand apart from the ‘˜web’aspect. Pioneer One has the look, feel, and length of real TV. Rather than embracing it’s delivery medium with self-referential gimmicks , Pioneer One offers a slickness of production and depth of story that blurs the line between ‘˜web’and ‘˜network’television, much in the way that independent film producers are closing the gap between their fare and the studio mainstream. Pioneer One could be aired on network television, which begs the question: what is the end game for creators who turn to the web to finance and distribute their creations? I had a chance to speak with Josh Bernhard about the process of creating what is essentially a full blown television series for the web, the challenges, and the future of Pioneer One.
One thing that is striking about Pioneer One, for me, is that it flows like TV — which I feel is important. Is there an effort on the writing and production side to work out the act breaks and what not as if this were going to air on TV? In other words, an attempt to emulate the ‘TV’experience?
Absolutely, yes, that was a big part of the idea from the beginning. We never thought of this as a “web” show, always as a TV show that would be seen primarily on the web. I don’t mean that in a snooty way or anything, just to illustrate where we’re coming from.
The TV experience, as you put it, is in the DNA of the show. For example, we’d always planned to have at least one commercial break during the episodes. Bracey (Smith, director & executive producer) came up with this great spot advertising our merchandise that we put in the second episode. And we ended up getting complaints from people about including a commercial in there. Some told us they felt it interrupted the flow of the show. Which surprised me, frankly, because putting the commercial where we did was a creative decision as much as anything else. The breaks are built into the show. Even if we cut the commercial, we’d still go to black and cut back in, as they do on DVDs of commercial television.
What are some of the ways that this sort of programming can transcend the Television Industries approach to storytelling?
I think the main advantage is the freedom to take risks. Pioneer One, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have been made from within the “industry.” Or, if it were to be, Bracey and I would be relegated to some kind of consulting position while people with track records do the real work. Which is understandable and right, because TV is a high-stakes business and things have to be handled in a certain way. But we saw an opportunity to do it on ourselves, get it seen, and have it be our own.
Also, we’re allowed to fail. We have things planned for this show that we don’t necessarily know will work the way we hope, but we think the potential pay-off is worth the risk. And we’re afforded the opportunity to take those chances.
On a purely commercial basis, what is the ‘˜best case scenario’right now? Do artists creating for New Media have a career path? Do you consider the work a show case, or is there a ‘˜business plan’of sorts?
We consider it to be a little of both, actually. It’s dependent on how things pan out. The best case scenario right now is that we’re able to raise money to finish the last two episodes of the season, and see where it goes from there. A lot of people watch TV by binging through full seasons, and I have a feeling we’re going to have a lot of “long-tail” success once we can offer a complete narrative experience.
From there, whatever transpires to allow us to finish telling our story, because that’s the most important thing to us. We have an open mind regarding what form the show may take. We hope either to get financed through some kind of corporate sponsor or website and continue doing the show more or less as we have been, or have a TV network will take notice and want to develop the series for traditional television.
What were your influences when it came to crafting the ‘story’of Pioneer One.
In a lot of ways, The West Wing, in the sense that we’re looking for drama in the details. Playing out the practical realities of a fantastic situation, the beats that television has traditionally glossed over in the past.
In terms of the overall arc of the show, Babylon 5 was a huge influence on me. And since then, arc-heavy serials have become very popular and I’m sure influences how the story is structured.
Also the way Friday Night Lights tells stories is an influence. There’s a show that’s ostensibly about football, but if you’ve ever watched it, you know it’s just an excuse to spend time with these characters.
Do you have a set number of episodes planned for Pioneer One?
This season has 6 episodes, cut down from 7, but we realized that 7 is really its own beast and can stand alone or fit somewhere else. We have 4 or 5 seasons planned out, with a definitive ending. There are landmarks that we want to get to, but the actual number of episodes can expand or contract depending on the form the show takes. And there’s room built in to explore new things we may discover along the way.
How do you fund Pioneer One, and does the funding look secure to finish telling your story?
Right now we’ve relied almost exclusively on donations from viewers, mostly ranging from $5 to $25 at a time. We didn’t expect that would carry us as along as it has, but the response surpassed our expectations. Conversely, we’d initially thought that once we’d demonstrated the number of eyes we could reach with the pilot, we’d have an easier time of finding some kind of more solid financial backing. But that hasn’t yet materialized.
We don’t have the money we need yet to start production on the final two episodes, but they’re written and ready to go. We’re counting on the response to episodes 3 and 4 to raise enough money to make that happen. Failing that, we’ll have to reevaluate how we go about things. But we’re determined to find a way to make these last two.
Did the nature of the project as a new media release dependent on ‘˜donation’funding limit you in any way when it came to establishing the cast and crew?
Only in the same way that being a small production of any kind limits your cast and crew. Everyone who got involved, I think, is hugely excited by what we’re trying to do. And their dedication to the project has been amazing. More than we’d ever hoped for.
As creators, do you intend to stay in the new media market for future projects?
I anticipate doing much more work in new media, but it’s more a matter of what opportunities transpire to allow us to do the work we want to do. The new media landscape seems more open and free right now, which makes it appealing. But new media, traditional media, however we get to tell our stories is where we’ll go.