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Chamber drama is admittedly a successful cliché of independent cinema, because it satisfies all the needs for an economy of means.
If the space is not a simple room but a form of prison, though, and if you find yourself locked inside it just out of the blue, the situation automatically implies a series of questions. And the answers alone can build a story.
It’s understandable, then, that several web series (like so many movies before them) chose the path of the thriller in confined spaces; I like to call them “reclusion series”.
In some cases, reaching very notable results.
Here are my favorite (so far).

Cell


Cell
is a 2010 little masterpiece, nominated for 6 IAWTV Awards this year and winner at the LA Web Fest 2011 in the category Outstanding Drama, Outstanding Cinematography and Outstanding Score.
And “outstanding” it is. Based in Austin, Texas (were a vibrant and thriving film community resides), Cell is created and directed by Mark Gardner, independent filmmaker with a past in radio and television and some scripts for TV that never made it through, who decides to “do it himself” with his newly founded company Lovable Varmint Productions (dedicated to web and TV shows). The collaborative approach and the support from talented local professionals (in contact with each other via the Austin Film Meetup) transforms a product with a very low budget into something that seems much more expensive (even if shot in 13 days).
Cell is a web series pretty much perfect. Conceived and written for the medium, it has rhythm, continuity (and length) of a film while maintaining autonomy in every episode (13 overall, from 5 to 12 minutes each, with a season finale of 20 – to avoid a unnecessary fragmentation of the sequence).
Good production values, unknown but perfect actors, and an enviable narrative richness: the few background elements revealed during the story create a basis that can be expanded (so far) with a very wide scope and interesting developments: ideally, the series could continue for several seasons. It also dares some surprising twist that you’d never see on TV (and very unlikely in movies).
Personally, I only have reservations about the finale; I refer especially to the editing and the use of music, that somehow anticipate too much what should be the most important plot twist, relying too confidently upon a (clichéd) juxtaposition of opposite moods. But these flaws are compensated by the enviable season’s balance: the unanswered questions don’t ask for an strict explanation, because the story is satisfactory as it is, and the conclusion is, at the same time, a cliffhanger and a perfectly acceptable open ending (fairly typical in the genre).
On KoldCast and Blip in HD.

The Captive

The Captive a 2009 (but IMDB says 2008) exclusive production for the Sundance Channel (digital extension of the indie festival, which also houses a section dedicated to the original series – look for it there, a direct link does not seem to work). Oh, and a Webby Award winner in 2009.
Created and written by two anonymous indie filmakers, Karin Diann Williams and Stuart Hynson Culpepper (also director), The Captive is a thriller that capitalizes on the climate of paranoia, terror, terrorist threat that, the authors say, at that time was deeply felt by American society.
The series is very vague about the background, suggesting terrorism, global war, propaganda, media confusion. And is designed for a niche composed, according the duo, of tech literate and independent thinking people.
But on the other hand, is very solid in the direction and excellent in rebuilding an atmosphere of paranoia that cannot make you think about the british TV classic almost homonym The Prisoner (despite the radical difference in the settings).
To titillate the public, a light ARG (Augmented Reality Game) element has been added: some obscure codes in the credits, if deciphered, leading to sites, blogs and extras. I’ve tried some: they’re monstrous (and not necessarily those sites still exist).
A mostly theatrical cast and a livid NY atmosphere complete the package.
The creators plans featured two more seasons that, as it almost always happens in the world of online video, did non materialize. On the other hand, in this interview they’ve been so kind to explain the cryptic Season One’s ending.

The Vault

The Vault

The Vault was a big surprise of 2011, offspring of two youngsters who “give it a try” (Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, founders of the Media Vault LLC) and that, unlike many so-called colleagues of the same age, manage to deliver a very well packed and conceived show that is quite aware of its production limits and plays with them instead of trying to hide them. Result: a genius series that can conquer a broader audience than just the teen-age niche it apparently seems to be targeting.
It’s impossible, as for any web production, to predict success or longevity of the show; even if the American media mogul Mark Cuban, through his HDNet network, is supporting it. Admittedly, the two aim to a “decent” revenue in the future and, for now, invest.
Like it or not, The Vault is, anyway, a unique product: bold episodes for modern sci-fi (11 and plus minutes each, all dialog and limited action), a setting that portends a (possibly) long development, and, most daring attitude at all for a web series, a writing style that adds and expands, prepares, raises the stakes continuously. A comparison could be misleading but… speaking in terms of development possibilities, its potential is to be the Lost of web series, in a good way.
The Vault“Confinement”, here, is voluntary: the one of a reality show set in an unspecified future, involving a high prize and an indefinite number of competitors, each segregated in a closed room, one of which acts as a switchboard and enables them to communicate; they have to figure out the games’ rules and purpose (and what to do with objects they find in their room) before starving to death.
This setting, sly as you want, allow production to use one set only (the apartment of one of the two authors) and decorate it with a few typical objects; and to work with an actor at a time. Characters’ building, in a very “2.0” approach, digs into the interaction with the community: the “actors” (pro or not may they be) have previously been invited to participate writing their own role (“If you think you have something to offer that will help us grow our company, you can get on board” says the project’s blog).
The series is currently on YouTube; be sure to check the playlist with bonuses, that are, in fact, additional episodes that are shorter but far from superfluous.

The Inside Experience

The Inside Experience

Hollywood Project of summer 2011, The Inside Experience is advertised as the first Hollywood Social Movie and represents the first appearance of the category “Social Movie Experience”.
That, in theory, would be a revolutionary format including a traditional film distributed as a web series and a transmedia experience where viewers can interact, influencing the direction and then the final appearance. In practice, however, it’s only a “trivial” branded transmedia/ARG, with very little real interaction between narration and viewers, paid by Intel and Toshiba, going on for 11 days and whose final product, merely 50 minutes long, does not even qualify the definition of feature film.
It deserves to be mentioned, however, as an “event”, if not else because it offered an ARG experience to an audience that, mostly, was ignoring this format’s existence.
Counting talents as director DJ Caruso and actress Emmy Rossum, Inside is centered around a young twenty-something trapped in a basement for unknown reasons, who can communicate (a little) with the outside world only through social networks. The video element (the web series episodes) shows what happens inside the prison, while the ARG one (including Facebook and Twitter profiles of characters, Flickr pages, secondary YouTube channels, phony websites and so on) provide clues, riddles and puzzles for the viewers to solve, fictionally devised by the kidnapper himself and whose failings could have consequences on the abducted. Very engaging and addictive (trust me: I was there), the ARG is totally disconnected from the story line, that proceeds on his own (everything had already been shot before). Grand Finale live, in LA Union Station, with (secondary) actors to prolong their characters in the real world. Of course, we have an open ending, with the perpetrator’s escape without his or her identity being revealed.
The “final product” (the one that was falsely advertised as the movie in its progressive making) is just a linear editing of the web episodes with, here and there, the inclusion of some of the participants’ comments on Facebook and excerpts of their video messages; it doesn’t make much sense as a stand alone movie and, on the other hand, it’s quite boring for those who have “lived” the Experience. Never mind: you can not see it anymore. In classical Hollywood style, after a few months each video has been obscured and the official site (the home base for the initiative) deleted.
PS. It’s worth noting that Inside didn’t actually invent anything: its historical precedent is called The Book Of Jer3miah, created by Brigham Young University, Utah, in 2009, that integrated a web series with an Alternate Reality Game in a pretty similar way.

[All retrospectives here.]


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