Ladies of YouTube: Tona Williams, A View From Behind the Camera
As a platform, YouTube has opened up new opportunities for filmmakers, writers, pop culture critics, and other creative talents to share their work with the world. For female creators, YouTube and internet culture has often been a double-edged sword, allowing them to bypass the usual gatekeepers but often exposing them to hateful feedback online and even harassment in real life. In this new series Ladies of YouTube, I sit down with writers, camera women, and prominent personalities to discuss their work as well as the advantages and disadvantages of YouTube culture.
Blame Society Productions is best known for the popular web series Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager, but their team is also responsible for a wide variety of YouTube videos including Beer and Board Games and Welcome to the Basement, a film review show that just celebrated its 50th episode.
While Matt Sloan, Aaron Yonda, and Craig Johnson might be some of the more recognizable faces of Blame Society Productions, Tona Williams is behind the camera and busy keeping everything running smoothly. She recently shared her thoughts on Welcome to the Basement, the importance of networking on- and off-line, and movies that make her cry. (Hint: Despite reports to the contrary, her reaction to Armageddon was not that dramatic!)
The Mary Sue: How did you first get involved with Blame Society Productions and Welcome to the Basement?
Tona Williams: I met Matt Sloan in 2001, just a few months after he and Aaron Yonda started performing improv together with Madison ComedySportz, and Matt joined Aaron’s group of friends who were making sketch comedy videos for public access TV. I was brand-new to filmmaking at that time, but I hung around, helping behind the scenes. All of our stuff was really low-budget, so really any friend — or girlfriend, in my case — who wanted to help out was golden.
Eventually, I was specializing in camera work and would do the shooting and various other production work for a lot of their videos. Matt and I are married now, and I do camera work for most of the projects that he directs, so naturally he asked if I wanted to shoot Welcome to the Basement.
TMS: For readers unfamiliar with Welcome to the Basement, can you sum up the show and what makes it different from other film review shows online?
TW: Back in January 2012, Matt was ready for a new creative project and came up with the idea of shooting a show in our lounge-y basement (which we love to hang out in) where he could catch up on movies, hang out and talk about them with Craig (who regularly came over to visit anyway), and hopefully make it entertaining.
We are all huge fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, so I know that was a big influence. I like to describe what we do as a cross between Siskel & Ebert At the Movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000, with Matt and Craig’s personalities and the rhythm of the show’s format taking it to its own unique place.
TMS: You are credited for camera and graphic design for the show. Can you go into more detail about how a show comes together and your role in it?
TW: Matt and Craig put lots of time into planning the show and managing the online components, and Matt does all the editing, so they’re the ones with the most energy in it. My role is mainly just getting the equipment ready for the shoots and managing it — two cameras and a mic, with a pretty minimal lighting setup. Even though it’s multi-cam, this really has a more, let’s say, relaxed production value than most of what we do. That willingness to allow it to stay rough around the edges I think helps us create a more comfortable atmosphere for Matt and Craig’s performances, and it helps us keep the project going over a long period of time without really having a budget. But yes, when you notice technical mistakes, feel free to blame them on the glass of wine I may casually have while shooting.
As far as the graphic design credits go, I put together the show’s website and do little things for Matt like the “Seen It” logo that appears on screen. Wayne Dorrington has contributed a lot of the graphics too, and he is the creator of the fabulous illustrations of the DVD wall and the title screen with Craig and Matt sitting on the couch.
TMS: What is your background as far as education and work experience, etc., and how did that prepare you for your work on Welcome to the Basement and other Blame Society productions?
TW: I’ve been a freelance multimedia artist for the past ten years. I have a Ph.D. in Sociology and did university research and teaching before I decided to pursue art and video production full time. As far as filmmaking goes, I created my own informal version of film school by developing projects with Matt and Aaron and our large network of talented actors and filmmakers. One thing I gained from all the years of formal education was a good set of skills for learning new things and the confidence that I could pick up anything if I was dedicated to it and open to asking questions and trying to do it better all the time.
Over the years, my range has included making documentaries for myself and for clients, training videos for businesses and government, short art films and music videos, shooting stock footage and of course lots of comedy videos with Matt and Aaron. I usually do a few web design projects in a year and a variety of different art projects like screen printing or making costumes. This year, I’ve focused a lot of energy on metalworking and am about to launch a new website for jewelry I’ve designed. When doing video production, I find that it helps to be eclectic, especially for our small projects where each person needs to be able to fill multiple roles.
Welcome to the Basement and other Blame Society projects are not usually the most technically complicated things that I work on, but I love the fun concepts, brilliant comedy, and working with family and my closest friends. I’m lucky to have that.
TMS: Can you speak to the opportunities available with YouTube vs. other available outlets? Blame Society Productions has hosted live Beer and Board Games episodes with opportunities for viewers to submit questions or shout-outs, and Welcome to the Basement hosted a live broadcast of its end-of-year party.
TW: There’s a lot to be said for looking at what you want to do, even if it seems huge and intimidating, and pulling together whatever resources you happen to have at hand to take any kind of step in that direction. With each little step, you’ll find you have a new vantage point, and if you’re genuinely putting yourself out there and looking to keep growing, then people around you will see that and respond, and more opportunities will be able to synchronistically emerge.
YouTube is wonderful for independent producers because of its immediacy and openness; you can take that step now, and there’s potential for your exposure to grow almost without limit. The corollary is that your voice is joining a vast cacophony of others, so the challenge becomes finding the people who will be interested in tuning into you. That’s where cultivating networks of like-minded creatives and fans, and in-person connections in general, can provide balance, inspiration and pathways for more people to find you. The sort of live web video feed that Beer and Board Games does is a fantastic way to boost that personal connection even when mediated by all the technology. Even on Welcome to the Basement, the web comments and ritual of responding to them on the show makes us feel close to the audience too.
When we first started making videos, almost all connection with audience and collaborators was face-to-face — there was the media outlet of public access TV, but we would also organize live screenings to show our work, submit to film festivals, and travel to work with collaborators who weren’t local. All of those options are still powerful, though we don’t rely on them in the same way anymore. In fact, I’d like to get back to setting up more localized screenings of our work again; several years ago we were heavily involved in a collaborative filmmaking network called Kino, and had a Madison chapter that did monthly screenings. A lot of people who we work with now are folks we met during that time.
Also, for anyone wanting to work within the more formal filmmaking industry, I would recommend pursuing the traditional ways of networking and learning the craft, like film school classes and getting jobs working on larger sets, in addition to putting together your own independent projects.
TMS: Media production can sometimes be a bit of a boy’s club. Can you speak about your own experiences working with Blame Society or other production teams, and what do you think it will take to get more women working in media production?
TW: Yeah, it does seem to be. I’m so used to being almost the only woman in the room — especially behind the camera — that I often don’t notice, especially when all the guys I’m working with are friends. There aren’t a lot of people to draw on for production work in our small city of Madison, Wisconsin, and we meet way more men than women with production skills, and so when we’re pulling in people for crew it’s just likely that we’ll call who we know, thus they will probably be male and it seems to kind of perpetuate itself.
A common gendered dynamic that I notice is that women are more likely to be open about asking questions and not overstating their expertise, while men are more likely to project a certain bravado about what they do. It’s not always that way, but it happens enough that I’ve noticed, and I’m sure that this helps men get more offers.
I do think that over time, people are getting more used to seeing women in key roles on crews, and that’s a good thing because hopefully clients and fellow crew members are developing more trust for the quality of women’s skill in production. Trust is so important because it’s expensive to do this and a lot can be at stake. And then there’s the on-camera talent. Blame Society has brought in way more male performers than female performers over the years, but the number of brilliant and hilarious women in our network is growing and I hope that we can start seeing more ladies in Blame Society shows. There are many who would enthusiastically join in.
TMS: Do you think the self-produced nature of YouTube will encourage more women to film/edit/share their work on YouTube, or will the toxic nature of online trolls dissuade them?
TW: I think that, despite the perpetual annoyance of trolls, the availability of YouTube has been encouraging for women. We just need to keep piping up, banding together, and putting stuff out there that we want to see!
TMS: Welcome to the Basement recently celebrated its 50th episode. How has the show changed production-wise since in its first episode, and do you have a favorite episode or an episode that you are particularly proud of?
TW: As I mentioned earlier, it’s a pretty simple show in terms of production. In my opinion, the magic really comes from Matt and Craig’s on-screen dynamic and all the thoughtfulness they put into every episode, as well as Matt’s careful editing. I’d love to do some equipment upgrades, but that’s still on the wish list. I suppose we’re getting more efficient in moving through our shoots; we have more of a routine in terms of how we’re setting the equipment up in the room and handling the shift from discussion to couch, etc., quickly. Matt still spends many hours editing each episode, but he’s getting quicker all the time with managing the footage.
Episodes that I especially love are Top Gun, Megaforce, and Saturday Night Fever. I get embarrassed when the technical flaws creep in, because that’s on me, and it generally happens because we are shooting quickly and I’m just not being as careful as I would on a bigger shoot. But hey, there’s still charm in the rough edges, right?
TMS: Was there any episode that was surprisingly difficult to film?
TW: The most annoying thing is when a film is really long and it requires more memory cards — and more stamina in watching it and staying alert to what the equipment is doing — but that’s not hard. It’s true, though, that getting good close-ups of Ernesto (our cat) can sometimes be challenging, all depending on his mood.
TMS: Aside from the Armageddon episode, have you had any strong reactions to the films, or have there been any films that just bored you?
TW: For the record, I didn’t really react that strongly to Armageddon; just got caught up in the moment. Geez. I think I may have had some genuine tears at the end of In The Mood For Love and The Red Balloon, though. There was a long-ish stretch in Season 2 when I wasn’t that interested in the films —Fritz the Cat, Criss-Cross, Wild Angels, Little Caesar. I sit on a rug by the camera in front of the TV during the viewings, so I think I did a lot of floor yoga while shooting those episodes.
Readers can check out the moment and decide for themselves. The whole episode is great, but the reaction in question happens around 11:45.
TMS: You rarely make on-screen appearances in Welcome to the Basement, but viewers have requested more of you on the show. Is a Tona/Ernesto spin-off show in the future?
TW: Well I would do it, but we wouldn’t have anyone to shoot it, so then where would we be?
New episodes of Welcome to the Basement are available on Blame Society Production’s YouTube channel or at www.WelcomeToTheBasementShow.com. More of Tona’s video production and design work can be found online at http://tonawilliams.com.
Rachel is a Disney fangirl, Swan Queen shipper, and life-long Broadway nerd with an encyclopedic knowledge of original Broadway cast recordings. She is currently a staff writer at JustPressPlay.net and a contributor to Sound on Sight, and she is the creator of LudusNYC.com, a website celebrating Broadway theater and offering tips to make theater-going more affordable. Since fall of 2013, she has also been a regular co-host on The Disney Film Project podcast, a show dedicated to reviewing every film released by the Walt Disney Company from the classic animated features to Pixar and LucasFilm. She can be found on Twitter @rachelekolb and @LudusNYC.