By Dan Harmon.
As our talent pool widens and the volume of submissions deepens, as the good examples pile up, I'm often asked, "have people forgotten how to make really shitty pilots?"
The answer is no, you just don't get to see as many shitty ones because there's more good ones from which to assemble the screenings.
If you want to make a good pilot, it's easy enough, and there are now over a hundred videos on the site to help you see that to varying degrees.
But what guidance exists for someone who wants to make the shittiest pilot ever?
If there's one thing I've learned at Channel 101, it's that shitty people love rules. The more rules, the better- er, worse. So, based on my personal viewing of over 100 rejected submissions since 2003, I have compiled here what I consider to be the ten most important ingredients of a nice, steamy turd.
1. Raise the Stakes: Make sure that your pilot is one of the most important things you've ever done. Jack Black might see it, right? So, don't fuck around. Don't have fun. Keep in mind during every stage of production that your goal is to get into the screening so that everyone can finally see how awesome you are.
This is the first and most important rule, because if you can just realize how make-or-break the Channel 101 experience is, the rest of the steps toward a shitty pilot will come naturally.
This philosophy will not only ensure your submission's suckiness, it will make almost everything you do sucky. Your relationships, your poems, your driving, your sense of humor: If you just focus less on what you're doing (ex: telling a joke) and more on why you're doing it (ex: to be funny), the suckiness will take over.
The Master of Suck lives outside the moment at all times, therefore everything he does is horrible.
2. Take your Time: There's a Channel 101 screening almost every month, so why just jump in on the next one with a quick project? Experience is the enemy of shittiness. Submitting something every month will only desensitize you to judgment and cause your creative muscles to bulge. It's a surefire way to end up making something good.
To maximize the shittiness of your submission and really feel the heartbreak of its rejection, spend the most time possible on it. As Gina Davis once said, be afraid. Be very afraid.
When in doubt, wait another month. There's always more planning you can do, your project can only get shittier. The longer you wait, the further you get from completion, and even if you do finish, the less likely you are to start a new project later.
And since the only thing shittier than a bad submission is no submission at all, no matter how you slice it, time spent = poopiness achieved.
An actual experiment was conducted recently in a pottery class: Half of the students were told to take the entire semester making one pot, and the other half were required to make a pot per day. The best pots from both groups were then mixed together, and a panel of experts judged them. Not surprisingly, the best pots were daily pots. So when you're making something shitty, remember the "three P's:" Prudence, Perfectionism, Procrastination.
3. Focus on the Idea: As we see from watching successful shows on real television, as well as by watching what ends up working at Channel 101, a good show's concept is a solid yet unremarkable foundation, upon which a distinct, stylish home is built.
To make a shitty show, reverse this paradigm. Make the "idea" the product. Give it many, many intricate layers. Make sure that if someone asked you "what is your show about," the answer would be a minimum of five sentences in length, and contain numerous ironies.
This way, your entire first episode will have to be devoted solely to a barely adequate establishment of the idea. It will be less of a show and more of a desperate, rambling, five minute pitch. The Master of Shit calls this "Reinventing the wheel" or "All idea, no show."
A really bad pilot will even spend the entire 5 minutes setting up the show, and then end with "to be continued." Try it! It actually makes the audience groan in pain. Not that the audience will ever see it.
If, for some reason, you can't make your idea overly complicated, at least use an idea that is incredibly important to you. A great source of inspiration for shitty shit is that stuff you used to write or draw in high school. That idea you've been brewing since you were sixteen, for which you have developed 17 overlapping characters and 25 half finished chapters and/or music videos.
This is called "Going to the shoebox." It heightens the pain of rejection because it makes said rejection the very anticlimactic result of over a decade of mental preparation.
If you don't have a mental shoebox full of overcooked ideas AND you can't concoct a labyrinthine concept from scratch, just make a "comedy" show about you and your friends fucking around. Call it the "Todd and Roger Show" or "Picklez TV," named after your improv troupe, the Krazy Picklez. This serves two purposes. It guarantees you'll be rejected and also dictates that what's really being rejected is not just a pilot, but you yourself. You and your comedy partner, or troupe, of whom nobody from oustide your campus could possibly give a shit, are on the chopping block. This helps "raise the stakes" and virtually guarantees that, after your rejection, you will never return.
4. Follow the Hate: As we can clearly see from even the most cursory glance at Channel 101's library, a successful show tends to come from a place of love. Chris Tallman, fan of Quantum Leap, makes Time Belt. Later, as a lover of Fantasy Island, he makes Paradise. Harper Teen Mystery Files springs from Andy Goldblatt's childhood fantasy of being Nancy Drew. The 'Bu is written and directed by three self-confessed addicts of The O.C.
Once again, making an unsuccessful submission is as easy as reversing the tactics of the demonstrably successful: If a good 101 pilot starts with the question, "what is my favorite kind of TV show?" or "What would my favorite show look like?" then a bad 101 pilot must start with the question, "what is my least favorite kind of show?" or "what do I wish was not on television?" Spend your entire five minutes "proving" how stupid Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is. Dethrone Sex in the City. Expose Jessica Simpson.
Not only will nobody want to see a second episode of you pissing on something, they won't even be able to stomach sitting through your pilot, because no matter how much we dress it up, the hatred we have for popular things starts with envy, and there's very few things in this world less charismatic than unconfessed envy.
The magic of filmmaking is that, regardless of your publically declared intention, every frame of the final cut is covered with your psychic fingerprints. If you're coming from a gross place, your pilot is going to be gross. The Shitty Master calls this "Showing your ass."
If you want to make a pilot so bad that everyone knows it sucks just from the label on the tape, take the title of a momentarily popular TV show and subvert the wording. "All my Children" becomes "All my Crack Whores," or "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" becomes "Who Wants to Rape a Millionaire."
This is called the "Naughty Yankovich" or "Satire '77," named after the last year it made someone laugh out loud.
5. Stick to the Script: Remember that shitty script you spent too much time writing? Well, how is your finished product going to be truly shitty if you're not absolutely meticulous in following the shitty blueprint?
While shooting, a director is beset with temptations to make a poo poo script into a more enjoyable product. Fight those temptations.
You might realize, for instance, while shooting a certain scene, that the visuals and performance make the written dialogue completely redundant. Tough titties. So it was written, so let it be done.
It might occur to you that the scene is playing long, and a voice inside your head will want you to do a spontaneous rewrite, or shoot a shorter version just to be safe. That is the voice of someone that wants to make a good pilot. Ignore it.
One of your actors may be giving a stilted performance, or having trouble delivering a particularly clumsy line. If you let them, they will change the line to something more comfortable and their performance will be better, which may cause a domino effect of goodness. Your job as a shitty director is to make sure that doesn't happen.
Keep the energy on the set as joyless as possible. Let the bad script fence you in on all sides. If the performances or shots aren't exactly the way the script thought they would be, stop everything. Read the lines out loud exactly the way you thought the actors were going to sound, and have them mimic your performance.
This accomplishes two tasks: It makes your current project shitty and systematically repels more dynamic, experienced performers, guaranteeing that your next project will involve the least talented zombie fuckups possible.
Poopy Pilot Master calls this "Battling Buoyancy," referring to a drowning man's tendency to thrash and sink to the bottom, in spite of his own body's natural desire to rise.
6. Minimize Coverage: Although it's rare, there is some danger of spending three months on a shitty idea, writing a shitty script and shooting it shitty, only to have it all turned good by some hot shot editor. To minimize the possibility of this happening, minimize your editor's choices, even if that editor is you.
When good directors shoot a good pilot, they not only shoot a "master shot," which establishes all the characters together, they then shoot individual "close ups" for each character and "inserts" for physical events, like someone placing a glass of water or a cat watching from the corner. Collectively, it's called "coverage."
When making a bad pilot, stick to the master shots. Put the tripod in the far corner of the living room, pointed at the table in the adjacent dining room. Sit all seven of your characters around the table and have them recite your poorly written dialogue from top to bottom, as if they were performing a play. Keep doing take after take until every single actor shouts their lines without noticeably stuttering, then skip the "coverage" and move on. The bad timing is built into the scene itself, so there's no opportunities for the editor to turn your shit good. All he can do is capture all the master shots and place one after the other.
Please note that just because you're minimizing coverage doesn't mean you should be spending less time on the set. On-set tedium and fatigue are essential to bad performance, therefore minimized coverage must be mitigated with maximized takes and endless rehearsals.
Don't worry about accidentally getting a good take- nobody will notice from so far away. Besides, with each additional take, your ear becomes dulled, your standards are lowered and the energy drops another notch. Imagine your hot shot editor's face when he realizes that the only take without a flub consisted of the dryest performances. Try making it good now, asshole!
7. Turn Off the Lights: Although some good pilots are poorly lit and some well-lit pilots are bad, there's no such thing as a good pilot where you can't see shit. Unscrew every light bulb in your home. Cover the windows. Put any reflective silverware or glow in the dark frisbees in locked drawers. A camera's job is to capture light. Impede that. Cover the lens with tape. The less we see, the less we're in danger of enjoying.
8. Turn on the Air Conditioner: Background noise is essential to bad video. Ideally, you want to entangle the sound of the bad dialogue as much as possible with some kind of hum, so that later, in editing, turning up the volume won't result in an increase in intelligibility.
If you can't manage this, at least make sure that there is a different kind of background noise in each shot. That way, when the shots are cut together, the change in sound from one shot to another will be a constant, jarring reminder that we're watching a bad video. In general, the name of the bad submission game is: always distract the audience. Left to their own devices, they'll tend to immerse themselves in your characters and scene. Pop them back out every 15 seconds or so with a leaf blower.
When combined with minimized coverage and bad performances, bad audio can be fabulously catastrophic. Imagine shooting your scene in one shot, from across the room, relying on the camera's microphone, with each actor speaking at a different volume. The editor then compensates by raising the volume every time the quietest character speaks, and as his volume increases, so does the sound of the refrigerator and nearby freeway. With nothing interesting to look at, the audience is hypnotized by the arhythmic symphony of rising and crashing background noise, and they are successfully prevented from actually absorbing a single spoken word. Now imagine that those spoken words are laying out an overly-complicated idea for a hateful spoof of a popular reality show. Voila. A masterpiece of shit.
9. Don't Edit: We've already discussed how careful editing can turn even the shittiest project into material of merit. So just don't do it. The very nature of editing involves taking something that is already naturally shitty, for example a three minute master shot of three mumbling people in a dark living room, and turning it into something interesting, for example, an avante garde piece about three mumbly people in a dark living room with absurd subtitles, intercut with stock footage of monkeys.
As much as possible, just skip the editing. Make sure every single frame you shot goes into the pilot, but do not make the slightest cut beyond what's required. One cut becomes two, two becomes four. Standards rise. Mistakes in shooting are observed. Time spent editing starts you down a very slippery slope toward not only being a better editor, but being a better writer and director.
Don't mix audio, don't balance color, don't look at your project through objective eyes. Just hand it over and let the audience engage in all the merciless scrutiny. That's the point of making a bad pilot: Other people dealing with what you did wrong so that you don't have to.
The more you heigten the audience's sense of responsbility, the less able they'll be to relax and get lost in your show. If you see what you did wrong and correct it before you show it, you're punching a one-way ticket to Quality City, from whence you may never return.
Remember, Channel 101 allows you a full five minutes. A good director makes those five minutes fly by, or doesn't even use the full five. A bad submission makes the audience aware of every excruciating grain of sand in the hourglass. Time slows to a virtual standstill and your five minutes of shit stretches into a lifetime. If your pilot isn't so bad that watching it makes someone want to die, then your pilot can always be worse.
10. Deny Everything: Congratulations. You had a shitty idea, you wrote a shitty script, you shot it badly and you're done with your final, shitty cut. Now comes the trickiest part. Even though you know you made something shitty, you have to lie to others and lie to yourself. You have to "know" that what you made is "at least good enough to be screened."
This is where that "raising the stakes" homework comes in really handy. Focus, psychologically, on the amount of hard work you put into coming up with your idea, all the sacrifices you made in pre-production, all the misery you experienced while shooting and all the time you spent editing. Stop thinking about everyone else in the world who also made a pilot. Put other people out of your mind and repeat these phrases to yourself:
"After all that, I better get in the show." "If I don't make it, I guess I just don't know what entertainment is."
Show your pilot to all of your friends three times each. Ask them if it's good. They have to say yes. Work yourself into a real lather about it. The Master of Poopy Pilots calls this "Setting yourself up for disappointment" or "Fake confidence."
The good pilot-maker is never quite sure if his product is going to fly, because the good pilot maker navigates by his own satisfactions, then finds out later in what ways his satisfaction is shared.
The bad pilot-maker "knows" his bad pilot is "good" because his pilot, from idea to final cut, was an effort to solicit a response from everyone else. The bad pilot maker never laughed once while writing or shooting his project, because he had work to do, and because that work was done, and because that work was hard, he "knows" the pilot is great even though he actually knows it sucks.
In other words, to start making a bad pilot, one must first set out to make the best pilot ever- in the eyes of others-, and to finish making a bad pilot, one must affirm, in one's mind, that said mission has been accomplished. After all, even the worst pilot in the world can take on a sort of charm when it's clear that the creator doesn't take himself too seriously.
The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions, and oftentimes, the shittiest crap becomes unexpectedly loveable when viewed from a happy place. It is therefore imperative that you "follow through." Remain a shitty director, and a shitty person, long after your submission is in the mailbox.
You can boost the shittiness of your submission's reception by firing off a few emails. Give Channel 101 the "heads up:" Your pilot is on the way, it's fucking awesome, and if it doesn't get in the show, heads are going to roll, lol, etc. You never know- the guy that read the email might mention it in passing as your tape goes in. Advantage: Shit!
STICK WITH NOT STICKING WITH IT!
If you followed all the above ten steps, you can be sure that very soon, you will receive a rejection email.
Don't let rejection improve you. Many times, the worst directors become the best ones because, as they keep fucking up, they keep changing without realizing it. They become stronger, smarter, calmer, funnier, more honest with others and more comfortable with themselves. What can begin as a simple failure can become an addiction to failure, resulting in repeated failure- the gateway to success.
As a bad director, your challenge is never over. It will become harder and harder, with each successive failure, to keep from succeeding.
Stay out of the moment and in denial. Keep focusing on your spite, envy and fear. If something hurts, shut it out until it goes away- it's trying to make you better. With each rejection, take a break for a minimum of six months. Spend that time repeating to yourself and others that Channel 101 is bad.
Keep your back to the truth and your eyes on what you think you might deserve, and you might just be shitty for the rest of your life.