If necessity is the mother of invention, then the COVID-19 pandemic has been a real mother. That’s true even for businesses like online video, which are seemingly well positioned to thrive amid the lockdown, economic dislocation and transformed business models, but facing plenty of disruptions too.
Take Critical Role, which had to suddenly create pandemic-friendly programming just as it had been hitting success after success. Now it’s created a whole new slate of shows built for production during social distancing.
The band of voiceover actors behind Critical Role built a huge online following by live-streaming their weekly Thursday-night Dungeons & Dragons game on Amazon
The group struck lightning about a year ago, when it launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance a planned pilot for an animated show built around the story lines created in the D&D game’s first lengthy campaign, to be called The Legend of Vox Machina.
An initial $750,000 goal, for a single episode, turned into $11.3 million, enough to finance an entire season of the planned show. Amazon soon came knocking with a two-year guarantee and a first-look deal for other new shows, while production continued at Titmouse for the new series.
All that was great until the pandemic hit, and froze most of the shows it was producing. That sent the company off to come up with shows that could be done remotely, with Zoom, and streaming cameras and remote conversations.
“Currently, the magic of our game is best when we’re all in the room together,” said Marisha Ray, a cast member and the group’s creative director. “We want to preserve that when all the stay-at-home orders have been lifted. In the meantime, there ways we can bing our narrative fortes to the audience.”
Ray has been working with eight others, including producers, editors, cinematographers and production chiefs, to develop the new pandemic slate.
“It’s been quite a creative challenge,” Ray said. “We’re not in the same room and we want to still be able to tell stories and have fun and still release content that’s a little bright spot.”
The results have been intriguing so far. First was figuring out the production platform. After testing all the video-conferencing apps, “Zoom proved most helpful.” They also sent out “production packages” of gear that included Logitech Brio webcams, pop-up greenscreens to more cleanly overlay virtual backdrops and sets, and LED lights to ensure better images.
For creators using iPhones “to get some of the nice, candid, personal feelings,” they improved audio with USB microphones. And to stream and record everything, they’re using Open Broadcaster Software.
Among the new shows they’ve created, all for their long-time Twitch and YouTube venues:
*Narrative Telephone, a digital variant of the old game of telephone for a very different era, featuring the Critical Role cast. It launched last month.
*AWNP: Unplugged, built around a previous Critical Role show featuring Sam Riegel and Liam O’Brien. Now, the two check in with each other and occasional guests to discuss their lives in pandemic. It too launched in April, on Twitch and YouTube.
*Yee-Haw Off the Ranch, another distanced version of one of Critical Role’s shows, features Ashley Johnson and Brian W.Foster. “It’s a video game ‘let’s play’ show, but we are suckers for anything absurd and ridiculous,” Ray said. “We thought how can we make this ridiculous and absurd.” It’s set in a Western ranch, with puppets bearing names such as Tetanus Terry.
*Mighty Vibes, a Critical Role version of ChilledCow’s study-hall-friendly YouTube-based “beats to relax/study to,” with animation from Kamille Areopagita.
*Critter Hug, with Matthew Mercer and Mica Burton, “spotlights artists, developers, businesses and others” from the world of tabletop gaming. This title had been in development for some time before the pandemic hit. It’s still relevant, even as tabletop gaming faces challenges with isolated players, hugely distressed specialty game shops, and difficult sourcing for game pieces made and shipped out of China.
The company also is developing a one-hour streaming show called CR Guide, designed to be similar to the TV Guide channel’s take on video programming as seen through a Critical Role lens.
“It’s our variety hour,” Ray said of CR Guide. “Like any production company, a lot of footage never sees the light of day. So CR Guide is our outlet for showing off deleted scenes, clips, bloopers, highlighting clips from other shows. Framing it in that channel where we’re flipping mindless back and forth like back when we had the TV Guide channel. It’s an excuse to repackage the content, and very much framed in a fun, almost late-night adult swim type of vibe.”
The slate is designed to essentially put a bookmark in the brains of its fans during a complicated period when they may be prowling across the web for all kinds of programming that’s still possible in the pandemic, even as the money isn’t.
“For us, the ad revenue isn’t there right now,” Ray said. “Ad partnerships are on hold. We have a very loyal fan base on Twitch. That’s our first platform and where we prioritize. So keeping those subscribers engaged and giving them something to look forward to was very much a priority.”
The company is diversified enough that it can make some money selling merchandise, and generates other funds through its subscriber revenue on Twitch.
“I’m proud of the content we have,” Ray said, “but it does have an air of bittersweet. It’s remarkable what we’ve been able to do, but there’s also that reminder of why it’s been happening out there.”