In May 2010, ABC's Lost was coming to an end and two enterprising young filmmakers, Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, found inspiration in that show's unique, addicting cliffhanger style to create their own web series, The Vault, of course without access to the notoriously high budget. "One of the core things about this project was that we didn't have any money for it," says Hann. "We were funding it ourselves out-of-pocket and out of our paychecks."
The Vault tells the story of an unknown number of college-aged kids playing a mysterious televised game for a large amount of prize money. Each player is in his or her own room replete with different unusual objects: bowls of fish for example, or mountains of fortune cookies. To play the game, they (and the audience) have to figure out exactly how they have to utilize those objects.
It's a story that allows for plenty of plot twists. The approach also offers the production practicality that Hann and Miscione can record each actor separately with a single camera setup at one location—which up until recently was a set built in Miscione's living room (they have since upgraded to a small storage facility).
"The Vault is a result of thinking about filmmaking and thinking about how to spend money wisely and also trying to come up with something different that people haven't seen before," says Hann. "I think in the end it's kind of a cool project in terms of the 'making-of.' The concept is really the production strategy. "
A typical shoot involves just three people: Miscione on a Canon 7D and Hann reading lines with the actor. On-camera talent typically came about through casting calls from their Facebook page.
It's the ultimate DIY production.
The set in Miscione's living room.
The fluorescents used to light the scene came from Home Depot.
What about elements like, say, lighting? "Purchased in the lighting aisle of Home Depot for about a hundred dollars," Hann replies. "Ultimately we knew that what we wanted for this show was this sort of sterile, fluorescent kind of look," he elaborates. "So we thought why not try fluorescent? We got these really cheap fluorescent lights for the ceiling and you can see them in a few of the shoots."
Hann and Miscione rigged up the lights so that they are permanently inlaid into the ceiling. "That helps a lot in terms of filming with just two people so we don't need a huge crew to set up lighting," says Miscione. "We simply turn on the ceiling light and then we set up the fill lighting and that seems to work for us very well. "
Sound is recorded into a Zoom H4N with Miscione then working on noise reduction in iZotope RX. "Anyone who edits video knows that microphones pick up ambient noise," says Miscione, who edits and color corrects in Sony Vegas and creates visual effects in Adobe After Effects. "One thing we notice with audio on the internet is that a lot of projects don't bother taking that out. So when you cut an audio clip to another audio clip in a project, you would hear the change in the hiss. We really wanted to try to avoid that."
"In terms of production, it was baptism by fire in that we hadn't had a lot of onset experience," says Hann. "I think our lack of production knowledge has actually been a benefit," Miscione confesses, "because our gauge for whether it looks good or not is simply how it shows up when it's finished."
Behind-the-scenes of The Vault
"We realized we can make something that we think looks good, we think sounds good, we think looks professional enough without spending all this extra money on things we don't need," Hann remarks. "Maybe we can find a better solution for lighting. Maybe we can have workarounds."
Miscione and Hann spent about a couple of thousand dollars for the first couple of episodes—and that included purchasing the 7D and two lenses, a 50mm prime and the Canon EF-S 18-135mm zoom. But even though the filmmakers have since signed a deal with billionaire Mark Cuban and his channel HDNet, their economical style has barely changed at all. Cuban's one piece of advice was for them to keep doing exactly what they had been doing.
"Mark really came in right at the bottom and I think that's why he did what he did," says Miscione. "Because he realized this is sort of a new thing that no one's found yet. We haven't even tried to market it. We thought, let's make four episodes. Right now we're finished with three and we're starting four. We thought, let's get four out and if people really like those episodes and really like what we're doing, then that's the best sort of marketing we can do."
Though they don't know the exact number of episodes the show will end up having, the filmmakers say that the basic story arc is completely mapped out, but they leave themselves open for the "little things" that can pop up during a particular shoot. "We leave room in case we shoot with an actor we really like and we want to bring that room back," says Miscione. "But the bigger picture stuff we're not making up as we go," he promises.
Hann says, "It's such an important thing to get the sound right, to make sure things are in focus, and lighting. Those are the big things that kill these independent projects and honestly the solution that most people jump to is that, oh, that's because that's a cheap thing. That’s a cheap sound. And, really, it's not cheap at all. With the way that software is now, with The Vault we get pretty good out of not a lot of resources."
Three episodes of The Vault have thus far been released and can be viewed at youtube.com/vaultshow. The first episode can be found below.