There's more to being a great superhero than a crazy costume and an impressive lair. The hero needs to fight not just bad guys, but internal battles. But telling a superhero story without a big special-effects budget in less than 10 minutes per episode? That can prove a bigger struggle than grappling between good and evil.
Veteran TV writer and producer Amy Berg co-created the superhero comedy "Caper" as an online series on the Geek & Sundry Channel -- on both YouTube and Hulu -- to show that not only can superheroes be shown as more than just comic book stereotypes, but the show itself could break the rules set by big networks.
"Caper" tells the story of four disenchanted superheroes who must turn to a life of crime just to pay the bills. It's a show about heists and hijinks with superheroes who don't have the luxury of a Justice League expense account.
"For me, it's all about character," Berg told Crave. "I'm not interested in spectacle. I need something more than visuals to grab onto, which is why I adored 'Iron Man 3.' That movie made me realize that I love alter egos more than I love superheroes. They're the ones keeping secrets and carrying burdens. And that's where juicy character goodness comes from. There's something about the duality of these people that fascinates me. It's the same reason I gravitate to shows and movies about con men."
Berg and co-writer Mike Sizemore met up last year and started talking about strengths and weaknesses of superhero movies. They came up with a comedy that mocks such popular superhero myths as Superman's alien heritage, Thor's king-size ego, and villains gone good. The show also addresses real-life problems many of us face, like making ends meet and getting over power-hungry exes.
"Genre-wise, crime and science fiction are my bread and butter and it's the same with Mike," Berg said. "When he and I started tossing ideas around, he brought up the title for a show called 'Caper.' All he had was the name. Superheroes who commit crimes is a cool concept, but it doesn't grab me. But that's where my love of alter egos comes into play. Desperate people committing crimes because they have no other choice is relatable. And if they just happen to save the world as their day job, that's really cool."
The first episode of "Caper" debuted on February 12, and three episodes out of nine have run so far, with new ones debuting on Wednesdays. Creating an original show that can compete with big-budget programming isn't easy, but the benefits soon outweighed any obstacles Berg and her team faced.
"I got stuck in television development hell for a while, so it was nice to actually make something again," Berg said. "To do it without a dozen other cooks in the kitchen telling you what to do was beyond refreshing. Lack of funds is an issue, obviously. But the biggest hurdle isn't the budget. It's the limited time you have to tell a story. It's difficult to create compelling characters, relationships, and story arcs when you only have a half-season of 8-10 minute episodes. You have to use every trick in the toolbox to pull it off."
One trick that has served "Caper" well is replacing the need for expensive special effects with cheaper motion comic imagery during superhero fight scenes. "Superheroes were created for comic books, and embracing that also helped us cut corners," Berg said. "From the beginning, I wanted to include animation as a way of bringing that side of things to life. You can't do superheroes on a budget unless you're going for camp or crap, and I wasn't interested in doing either of those things."
Berg didn't divulge a number for the show's budget, but called it "miniscule," and "after acquiring production insurance and paying location fees, most of it was already eaten away," she added. "Fortunately, I've been working in the industry long enough to acquire a lot of friends who are very good at their jobs, both in front of and behind the camera."
Airing "Caper" on actress and new-media mogul Felicia Day's Geek & Sundry YouTube channel was the next step in distributing the online series.
"When Felicia expressed interest, it was the perfect marriage," Berg said. "She had a successful distribution model already in place and, as a showrunner, I know the ins and outs of putting a series together. All the pieces fell into place perfectly. Geek & Sundry gave us a budget and I produced the show through my company alongside one of my best friends, Pete Dress. Hulu came to the table after the fact. Geek & Sundry's excitement about the cuts they were seeing must've rubbed off on them because they wanted 'Caper' on their platform too."
Like other digital programming such as Netflix's hit shows "House of Cards" and "Hemlock Grove," Berg's "Caper" bypassed traditional network and cable TV models and went straight to online venues. Berg hopes to send a strong message that digital programming is quickly becoming the new entertainment model.
"The success and quality of shows on digital platforms like Netflix has been a real eye-opener for the industry," Berg told Crave. "The traditional studio-network model isn't obsolete, but it's becoming increasingly irrelevant. There are a lot of avenues out there now for people who want to make things; all you really need is to catch the attention of those who can afford to make it happen. And the talent to back it up, of course."
"Caper" isn't a typical project for Berg, who has written and produced for such hit shows as "4440," "Eureka," and "Leverage," among others. "It's the definition of a passion project, and the best excuse ever to bring my favorite people together so I can hang out with them all at once," Berg said. "We pooled our talents and created something from scratch with sheer grit and determination. As a bonus, the show turned out really great. It's something that we're all proud of."