Rachel Lewis is an actress, writer, and comedian who recently got her first television staff writing job on the live action comedy kids show “Odd Squad”, which premieres September 2014 on PBS. Rachel grew up in Montana, graduated from the University of Wisconsin for Theater, and immediately moved to Chicago where she trained at Second City and IO, which she says is where she got her chops as both a comedian and a writer. She adds, “In Chicago they train you that if you want to be in shows, you have to write them yourself!” I met with Rachel for some coffee in West Hollywood where we chatted about her transition from improv to writing and how she used creating her own content to push her career to the next level.
“I always have two bits of advice”, Rachel says. “One is to do what YOU think you should be doing, because everybody’s path is so different. There’s no one set way to get where you want to be.” Doing the work that you’re passionate about and allowing that work to carve your own path is the key to opening up the doors for what YOU like to do and the career YOU want to have. When Rachel first moved to LA, she received some advice that has been her motto ever since: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” She adds, “Have laser focus on what you’re working on, and don’t pay attention to what other people are doing because it’s never going to work the same way for you.”
What’s her second bit of advice? “Saying yes to as much as you can”, she chimes in enthusiastically. “I know it’s annoying because sometimes you end up on a project you don’t necessarily love, but pretty much everything I’ve said yes to has lead to something good.” Work begets work; especially in the beginning. There is always something to gain from an experience – even if the results of the project itself are less than spectacular – whether it’s a new connection, or a valuable piece of information.
I was curious to know more about Rachel’s writing process. “As a writer, I strongly suggest having a writing partner. But at the same time, it’s hard to find your perfect match. You get held accountable for things and you give each other deadlines.” Rachel met her writing partner, Alex Fox, while they were both performing together at Second City in Chicago. They coincidentally moved to Los Angeles three months apart and continued performing improv together after making the move. The pair organically evolved into a writing partnership once they started writing a sketch show together for them to perform in.
They usually begin their process with a rough outline and eventually either talk or act out their scripts to see how the material sounds. They then send each other drafts and freely make changes which Rachel says requires a lot of trust and collaboration. Since both she and Alex come from an improv environment, she says they are used to collaboration and also having to trust their improv partners while in a scene. They are never too attached to a specific idea or where the scene should go – whether they’re improvising on-stage or at their computers writing together – which Rachel says is the key to allowing them to make changes freely and really evolve the material to the next level.
After putting up a sketch show at the Comedy Central Stage, they decided to start writing and performing in web videos together, and writing a web series as well, The Jon and Eddie Show. In Rachel’s opinion, there are two routes when it comes to making content for the web. She explains, “The first route is the YouTube star route. Alex and I understand that world, but it’s not us. It’s pumping out content on a regular basis, and getting the views, and that’s one route to go. We just wanted to create really good content so people could just see what we were doing, and hopefully let that take us to the next step as oppose to just letting that be it.” For them, it was more about having a video portfolio of their work, and letting that take them to the next level.
After making the Jon and Eddie show they made some contacts and were able to sell their next web series, “The Craft Store”. They sold three episodes, and it was the first time they were given a budget to work with. They hired a director and produced and acted in the web series themselves. “For ‘Craft Store’, we had a budget, but we still had to work within parameters and so we focused on making it look really good like it could be on TV instead of making it look like a random video.” They figured giving it a TV look would separate them from the crowd and make for a stronger piece for their portfolio. “Our lit rep still sends out Craft Store to introduce people to us besides our writing samples because it’s a really cool world to see. And you get to meet us because we’re in it too, so it just gives them a good taste of who we are, and then they can also read our writing samples too.”
After the web series came out, they were able to get some pitch meetings on their own for other shows before they had literary representation. “No one really wants to rep you until something’s happening, and we were almost able to sell a show at Cartoon Network. That helped us solidify our rep for show packaging and writing.” That’s when they really made the shift mentally from being performers to being professional writers as well. With their lit representation in place, the two girls got to work. “An original pilot is the first thing to start with, and since we’re sketch writers we also wanted to have a late night packet. And so we basically started turning things out so that were ready. Then we started going on meetings based on our packets, and that’s how we got our PBS job.”
“You start off with general meetings, and then you move on to meetings with show runners. But with PBS we were lucky, because since it’s a kid show it has a really playful vibe, and they wanted comedy writers.” For “Odd Squad”, the writer’s room was intimate, consisting of the Head Writer/Creator, another staff writer aside from herself and Alex, an Educational Consultant, a Writer’s Assistant, and another Creator based in New York. “Network shows usually have 8 or 9 writers. This was very hands-on.” She worked full-time as a writer on the show for 2 ½ months until the writer’s room in Los Angeles wrapped.
Rachel says she learned the importance of outlining, and also felt very prepared for the group experience of being in a writer’s room coming from a writing partnership already. “You can really make something better in a writer’s room. You can see how much better it gets with a group of people.” The most important thing she says was not being afraid to say your ideas. “Sometimes it’s crazy being in a tiny room writing all day”, Rachel says, but it was an experience she’ll never forget, and a valuable learning experience. I’m very excited to see where her creative projects will take her next. Be sure to check out “Odd Squad” when it premieres on PBS in September 2014.
(Originally written and posted for Ms. InThe Biz - www.msinthebiz.com)
The following list of “Top 5 Cameras for YouTube” is guaranteed to rock your video content! Although the overall production value of YouTube has increased tremendously over the past two years, with more videos being shot on Red Epic’s, Scarlet’s, and Arri Alexa’s than ever before, I would recommend the following five cameras for anyone who’s starting to make their own content, depending on their different filmmaking needs, and price range. These are all solid cameras that are industry-standard for the particular types of content they’re intended for, and the list is sorted with the lowest-priced cameras starting first.
Skimming through this list you may wonder if I have an endorsement deal with Canon. I do not! The truth is my first manual photography camera was a Nikon FM-2. I loved that camera, and I still prefer it over Canon’s equivalent model, the Canon AE-1. When I decided to purchase my first DSLR photography camera, I again went with a Nikon, and purchased a Nikon D-50. This was right on the cusp of the DSLR filmmaking revolution, and my camera did NOT capture video; the standard low-budget filmmaking camera at the time was the Canon XL2.
When it was time for me to buy my first DSLR with video capabilities, I bought my first Canon camera ever, and went with the Canon 5d Mark II. I have not been disappointed. The general industry consensus is that Nikon cameras are better for still photography, mostly due to their line of Nikkor lenses, and that Canons are better for video. I have seen filmmakers shooting Canon cameras using adapters to mount Nikkor lenses onto a Canon body, which I’ve seen lead to beautiful cinematic results.
This is the industry-standard camera for vloggers – who knew there was such a thing?! I personally own a higher-end model of this camera, a Canon Powershot S100 – $300.00. They both shoot full 1080p HD Video, and have surprisingly decent audio quality. The reason I went with the S100 for video was that it has a significantly larger sensor, and it has a customizable ring by the lens of the camera, which I set to focal length so I can move the ring from a 24mm to 35mm to 50mm, etc. I don’t know why that feature makes me so happy, but it does! It feels more “filmmaker-y” when shooting automatic video on a easy to use camera.
These PowerShots are great for “Behind the Scenes” videos, since the cast and crew can easily pick one up, and start shooting BTS. The reason why these cameras have become so popular with vloggers is because they’re portable, and easy to use when using it front-faced and walking – though that may take some coordination! The main disadvantage to this camera is that they are hard to stabilize, and can produce a shaky image. You have to practice really stabilizing this camera with the palm of your hand since any outside stabilization equipment my be overkill at this level of camera.
For $200, you cannot go wrong with Apple’s newest iPhone release. The iSight camera captures 1080p HD video, and Apple significantly improved its front-facing camera, so it now records 720p HD. The main advantage of this camera is that it’s mostly likely to be always near you. The audio quality is acceptable, especially if it’s for a vlog, or other reality-based content, where you can layer music underneath. You can also thank the ability to capture high quality videos on your cell phone for the latest Vine social media trend! Only now that the audio/video quality is high across most smart phones could a social media platform like that really take off.
The Canon T3i 600d is the newer model released following the popular T2i 60d. With a flip-out side screen, this camera is more ideal for vloggers who want a little more pizzazz than a Powershot, and also want to monitor themselves to see if they’re in focus or not while they are filming. This camera also records slow-motion, which a Canon 5d surprisingly cannot, so this makes it a popular choice for action videos, especially since it does not have that shallow depth of field, making more things in focus. For action and comedy, you often want more of the picture to be in focus, so this may be a better camera for you if that’s what you’re creating. The flip-out screen also allows you to do lower or higher angles more easily while monitoring the composition and focus with the screen.
I would recommend the 7d for anyone who’s interested in not only filming content for themselves, but also interested in being hired to film content for other people. This is now entering the land of professional DSLR video cameras. The movie “Tiny Furniture” was shot on this camera, however they used high-grade lenses to achieve a more filmic, composed look. At this level, you may want to consider buying the body of the camera only, and investing in some prime lenses, or a constant aperture zoom lens, that allows you to zoom without the flicker that may happen in variable aperture zoom lenses (including the kit lens). The 7d also does slow motion, which is something to consider, since the 5d does not. It has the same battery as the 5d, which makes it more compatible as a second camera to the 5d than to a Canon T3i.
The main thing to note is that this camera has a “crop sensor”, not a “full frame sensor” which is what makes the 5d so revolutionary. Meaning, if you take a regular 50mm camera lens, and place if on a Canon 5d, the resulting image will be a true 50mm (which is the lens most equivalent to the human eye, and a favorite lens of Hitchcock). However, if you take that same 50mm lens, and put it on a Canon 7d, the result will look more like an 80mm lens; the image will appear more zoomed in, or “cropped”. You can buy crop-framed lenses made for the Canon 7d, or T3i, but they will not work when you put them on a 5d. The full-frame sensor will see “the crop”, and their will be a black ring around your image.
Even though the Canon 5d Mark III has already been released, I would still recommend the Mark II because the price is significantly lower, and you’re still getting a full-frame camera. The Mark III did not have any significant audio upgrades, still making the Mark II a solid choice for indie filmmaking. The 5d is for the filmmaker who wants a real “film look” to their videos. This is the camera that caused the filmmaking DSLR revolution in the first place, so it’ll still be a solid investment for years to come.
Producer Lissette Schuster (Rocket Jump/ Video Game High School) gives you her Top 5 YouTube Tips.
I wrote an article entitled "Top 5 YouTube Tips" for the new magazine style blog Ms. In The Biz that lanches today. Make sure to like the Ms. In The Biz Facebook Page, and you can follow @msinthebiz on Twitter to stay updated on all the latest blog posts!