We here at Starburst HQ love a good underdog, which is why we’re championing independent projects and trying to give deserving cases a bigger audience. In today’s media savvy world, the internet has provided a voice to anyone who wants to let their opinion be heard. The only question is, who is worthy of your time?
Fortunately for you, our wonderful readers, we are painstakingly looking into every nook and cranny of the internet to bring you the best in independent genre entertainment, and we’ve got a doozy for you.
Everyone knows the story of Van Helsing, the fearless vampire killer who not only took on the Prince of Darkness, Dracula himself, he defeated him. Now, a decade into the twenty first century, his last known surviving ancestor, Tim Helsing, is the subject of an internet documentary that follows his adventures in York. Yup, York. Who’d have thought that York would be the new Hellmouth now that Sunnydale went subterranean? Well, it is.
Tagging along with Tim is his faithful (in more ways than one) companion, Poncho and his long suffering girlfriend, Anna. Documentary filmmaker Richard wants blood, gore and violence to boost his ratings and vampire with a conscience King (hang on, that sounds familiar) is along for the ride to both help and hinder in equal measure. Add into the melting pot a bunch of disposable production assistants, all knowingly called Redshirts after the dismal fates suffered by so many claret wearing away team members from Star Trek, and you’ve got yourself a fun recipe for a web-series.
I Am Tim is now well into its second season and keeps the twists and turns coming whilst keeping its tongue firmly lodged inside its cheek. We sat down with Jamie McKeller, producer at Redshirt Films, to chat about all things I Am Tim as well as their upcoming projects.
Starburst: Where did you get the inspiration for I Am Tim?
Jamie McKeller: I grew up on a healthy diet of sci fi and fantasy. Quantum Leap, Buffy, Battlestar… and although I love these shows I always wondered why the characters rarely acknowledged the ridiculous nature of their surroundings. True, Xander Harris would raise an eyebrow or Sam Beckett would cry “oh boy” at his new moustache, but I wanted to see someone stop and yell “this is insane! That dude can teleport and she can time travel and he’s eight hundred years old and this IS MADNESS.” British TV is flooded with documentary shows following some of the dullest people you’ve ever encountered. We’re obsessed with watching these “normal” people run restaurants or airports, making cakes or selling second hand toys… shuffling around from boring task to boring task for sixty minutes to a plodding soundtrack. I guess the idea was to take the two genres and smash them together. To see a perfectly normal guy have to deal with these remarkable events, to be forced to battle vampires and monsters… and just want to go home and have a bowl of corn flakes. If something like this actually happened in real life you know that somebody would find a way to televise it. For Tim Helsing, it’s just a real shame that Richard Timmons got there first.
How have you funded the series?
Variously! Season one was entirely self funded, whereas the latter half of seasons two and three were funded through IndieGoGo. We raised around £1000 pounds which went a long way as we’ve become very good at spending nothing! I’m a great believer in crowdfunding but I also believe that you need to have something there first. I see people asking for £50,000 to shoot a six part series, without a pilot in sight to inspire donations and it makes me wince because as good as the idea might be, they won’t reach the goal. We’ve spent around £4000 on three seasons consisting of 16-18 episodes each. True, the style of I Am Tim allows for some heavy corner cutting as it’s allowed to look a bit rough round the edges, but a great story doesn’t cost a penny to tell. We also sell merchandise that we tie directly into the show. We have badges, DVDS, RedShirt t-shirts, fridge magnets, and we hold screenings and events as often as possible.
Is there any desire to turn this into a bigger project?
I’m currently developing a feature length script which will be set after the season three finale and before the finale epilogue. There’s a bit of a time skip there, which will be clear once those episodes roll out later next year. Whereas the web series is very frantic and energetic the film will be a much calmer, considered affair that resembles a “real documentary”. Tim is a violent mash up of found footage and interviews, with each episode happening over a matter of minutes. Little pockets of time snatched from the characters lives, whereas the feature would be set over a twelve month period. We’ll meet the Helsing family, deal with some holiday blues, talk to local business owners… but the filming for that isn’t going to happen until 2015 at least. But a plan is there!
How was the episode length decided upon?
The internet is a ruddy massive place which breeds super short attention spans. Some say that our episodes are too long, some say too short. There’s no winning recipe. As long as the story and pace move along energetically then time shouldn’t be a factor. We have some episodes that are around five minutes long and some that breach the feared ten minute mark, although those are typically action and effects filled affairs so the time flies by! Our RedShorts (see what we did there?) aren’t allowed to be longer than four minutes, two if possible as they’re designed to be short and snappy internet fodder, the sort of thing that people share on Facebook and Twitter driving more people to our channel. Tom Ridgewell recently retweeted our dating advice video “Girl Tips” and we picked up a hundred subscribers in an afternoon. Basically, if it’s flabby in the edit it goes in the bin. I recently cut three whole episodes worth of stuff from season three as it just wasn’t making the grade for me.
How are the episodes scripted? Do you sit around and discuss ideas or is it given to someone to try and stick to the bigger story arc and try and get as many sight gags and in-jokes in as possible?
Season one was written by myself, but also heavily improvised on set. We were shooting one episode at a time in 2010 so would work through the scenes in order. It was much easier, but also fairly time consuming. For part of season two and all of season three we expanded the team to three writers which was an interesting experience for me. We also started shooting in longer blocks of time, jumping around the episodes and shooting out of order like a “real” TV show would. I had a very strong vision for where the series was heading, and suddenly I had other creative minds pouring all these other ideas in. Very odd to read dialogue written by someone else for a character you created a few years ago. We hashed out the season story arc over many cups of coffee, before sharing out the episodes between us. Then we went away to our caves and produced a few drafts which would then be kicked to bits by the other writers, put back together with gaffer tape and polished up into a final script which would then evolve further on set to suit locations, actors that we had available and what effects we could manage on our budget.
How hard is it to find enough shooting locations in and around York?
Not a problem at all! The city is very accommodating to film crews and fairly forgiving to those who splatter blood all over the place as long as we clean most of it up after. We’ve shot in abandoned hospitals, the city centre, bars and restaurants, houses, back alleys and my favourite… an old tannery. The place was falling to bits, the floor covered in moss and rust water and it looked AMAZING. The light was pouring in through the smashed out windows and it was just perfect. The only time we’ve ever had any trouble finding a location was when we wanted to shoot a few scenes in a supermarket. We spoke to at least eight different companies but they just couldn’t understand who we were, what we wanted, and why £5000 for a day was a little out of our reach. In the end we managed to shoot in a massive tile and bathroom store. Keep an eye open during season three episode two and you’ll see an actor walk in a supermarket which magically becomes a tile store moments later.
Have you had any issues with filming (guerrilla style?) in the city? Any police involvement or funny stories?
We get some odd looks as we sprint through the city with a steadicam and boom pole, chasing Tim Helsing and a vampire through the busy streets of York. The worst experience was a recent one. We were filming a season two special called ‘Dawn of the Reds’ which sees over a dozen production assistants forced to fight to the death Battle Royale style. Filming took place in a nature reserve near my house which looked amazing, but within an hour we were surrounded by teenagers and young children. Despite all reasoning they just wouldn’t behave and ruined several takes by shouting out various things and throwing stuff at us. I endured them for over six hours before one of the more vocal ones started pulling on an actors tie and shouting “you can’t do anything, I’m fourteen.” What followed was not my most civilised use of the English language, and a sensible cast member ushered them off set and far away fairly quickly... But not before they stopped to raid a dog waste bin for some airborne projectiles. During the very first day of filming we were near a team of people on community service, dressed in orange overalls and weeding a cycle path with nothing more than a tiny but pleasant old lady guarding them. York is one of the nicest places I’ve ever lived, but I seem to be doomed to find the worst filming situations.
What has been your favourite part of making the show to date?
The bacon. We have really good bacon sandwiches. The effects are great fun to shoot. I remember filming the big death in ‘Tim vs The Sheeple’. It was 2am and our effects guy was digging a trench for the actor to hide his legs in. You could see his headlamp shining through the trees, we were stood around drinking tea and priming how the intestines moved and pulsated. That was a brilliant but tough night. But the absolute highlight so far for me has to be the London Comic Con. I spoke on a panel with two of the actors from the show and got the first chance to really feel the reaction from an audience first hand. For me, most of the experience involves writing and creating, followed by months in the edit suite to then pop it online. To see people react to an episode, to laugh at the silly jokes and be disgusted by the effects was one of the best feelings ever. I can’t wait until October, to get back to the ExCel centre. This time we’ve bought a table and will have a pretty epic display of weapons and props, as well as a few marketing tricks up our sleeves.
Homages to genre television and movies are everywhere in the show. What’s been your favourite so far?
It’s made by geeks for geeks. The characters are quite geeky. Tim goes home and watches TV just like most normal people. He’s aware of pop culture and just can’t help a cheeky reference. He’s a gamer as well, addicted to Twitter and Facebook so all the memes are relevant. The first reference to happen was probably the half quoted line from Serenity in episode 1.2 when Tim says “like a leaf on the wi…” before an Empusa body slams him. My favourite would have to be the repeated stress explosions of Timmons whenever anyone compares the season one finale events to a certain well loved BBC time travel show.
You are currently mid-way through season two. How many seasons are you planning on making?
We’ve shot all of season two and around 70% of season three, and that’s the lot. When it wraps up we’ll have around 50 episodes online that average 8 minutes in length. That’s 400 minutes! Tim is a rarely discovered jewel, or at least so we believe… those that discover the show seem to genuinely fall in love with it, and we’ve never heard a bad word against it. All the reviews are hugely positive, and some people have called it “one of the best web series out there” but for some reason it just doesn’t seem to break out. Episodes score around 200 views in the first 24 hours and then very slowly creep up. So people often ask me “why? Why keep making it?” The answer is “because it’s too much fun!” I know it sounds massively cheesy but we’re like a weird little family. We started shooting this back in 2010 and will be wrapping it up almost 4 years later. I originally intended to make four seasons of six episodes, but in 2011 I removed the first season from the internet and recut it all into shorter, snappier episodes. Storylines combined, ideas merged and it became clear I could tell a great story in three seasons. There is a story arc for season four, but we won’t make it unless the show suddenly exploded and became popular enough that we could fund it via another campaign. Also, it’s a huge learning tool for us as filmmakers. We try to achieve the impossible with the resources that we have, and learn a million new things every time we hit the streets.
The end of season one had a great nod towards Doctor Who. What was the reason for replacing Tim with Tim 2.0?
People often think it was just to ease my workload a bit, but if you watch the most recent episodes of season two all becomes clear. It’s all part of a bigger story, taking the one man against the world idea and throwing some more chaos and problems into his face. Tim 1 as he’s known (not “OLD TIM”, thanks very much…) spends a long time in a Hell dimension, and when he finally escapes he finds out a different, somewhat better version of himself has stepped into his shoes. But again, this is British sci-fi so it’s not going to end well for anyone. We love our tea and misery.
Have you tried to secure any cameo appearances?
Van Helsing will pop up in season three, and we’re currently trying to get someone famous to shoot with us for two hours in September. We’ve contacted Mark Addy who lives in York, as well as bother Tom Ridgewell (thetomska) with numerous tweets. The show has already attracted some higher profile than us people, such as Amelia Tyler who was the voice of SyFy TV for years and Canadian rock singer Kieran Strange who pops up in the season two finale. Should anyone read this and be interested in taking the role of the epic monster hunter…
You’ve also started a new web-series called Nights at the Round Table. What can you tell us about that and how does it differ to I Am Tim?
It couldn’t be more different. Tim is a chaotic, gore filled nightmare. We often shoot overnight in the cold, in the rain and in the mud. I’ve hurt myself in numerous ways over the years. Nights is set around a tabletop gaming night, 100% indoors and is a romantic comedy. Wil Wheaton saw the pilot last year and really loved it, and the response that got prompted us to create a whole series. It’s filmed in my house, we drink loads of tea and laugh until it becomes sore. We’ll only do the one season though, as the story is told by episode 10.
That’s not to mention your other upcoming series – Henchgirl 4 Hire, The Away Mission, Zombie Force and Dude Quest. Are you not worried about spreading yourselves too thin?
Not at all. I have a cloning device! Unlike I Am Tim and Nights at the Round Table we’re only shooting the pilots for most of these and they’re much shorter. Henchgirl 4 Hire is a blog style show, with characters communicating via Skype, The Away Mission scripts are 1 page each, and Zombie Force will be shot over two fairly easy days. Dude Quest is pretty ambitious, but again we’ll just shoot the first one and see how it’s received. For RedShirt Films it’s all about making a channel that people love, with rich stories and interesting characters. YouTube is an amazing platform for releasing our work and connecting with viewers, and we don’t plan to slow down any time soon!
You can see the adventures of Tim Helsing here (which has lots of goodies, including a glossary of all the Redshirts who have been lost in the filming of the documentary) or here, where you can also catch up on all the Redshirt Films projects. For updates follow @IAmTimHelsing and @RedShirtJamie on Twitter.