A web series about superheroes in training? No, they are not doing an X-Men series. It's called Super Academy, and it was all created and shot in Minneapolis.
The series is the result of a passion project that started out as writer-director Ben Lifson's final assignment for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
“I wanted to do something that involved superheroes, because I was really into them,” he says.
He liked the idea of setting it at a school along the same lines of X-Men and Sky High. But where those two focused more on the superhero part, Lifson wanted to find a middle ground.
The series takes place at Super Academy, a top college for aspiring superheroes. It follows Powerkid, a newcomer with a past he's trying to keep hidden, and Dark Cop, a returning student with high intelligence but less than spectacular social skills and a mouth that constantly gets him in trouble, as they navigate the ups and downs of the academy.
While the project was originally going to be one short film, Lifson decided to write it as if it were the pilot episode of a new series. He hinted that there was more to the story, and kept things open enough for additional material to be explored while tying up loose ends enough that it could stand on its own.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan. He had started a Kickstarter to get funding for the short, but he realized a couple weeks before production was supposed to begin that he needed a lot of help to make it all happen. Luckily, former MCAD classmate Jacob Gulliver had previously expressed interest in the project.
“Two weeks before they started shooting, I get a message back, 'Hey, I actually need a lot of help. Could you come help me out with this?'” says Gulliver, who came on originally as an assistant director and line producer.
After the pilot was completed, they decided that they still wanted to keep creating. So they formed Hot Chocolate Media LLC, and started throwing out ideas. What started out as a decent size group of creatives boiled down to Kyle Dekker, Gulliver, and Lifson. About a year after the completion of the Super Academy pilot, Lifson brought up the idea of turning it into a web series.
They liked the idea, but knew there needed to be a few tweaks, such as adding a few characters to the story to make it a more diverse cast. They used the pilot, which got over 30,000 views, as a proof of concept to help fund the next episodes through a Kickstarter. The first campaign did well, but fell short of meeting their goal.
“Timing can be everything, and we timed it too close to the holidays,” says Dekker. “We had a lot of people tell us, 'If you had done your Kickstarter some other time, I would've had money to give you'.”
Before launching the next Kickstarter, they decided to cast the new characters, and then film short videos introducing them. The second time around proved successful, as they raised $11,000 and surpassed their goal of $8,000. They ended up putting roughly $18,000 into the project.
A lot of the support came from comic-book aficionados, cosplayers, and fans of CONvergence. The project's first supporter was the late Nick Post, the original owner of Source Comics & Games. The first episode is dedicated to his memory, with a special piece of artwork created by Christopher Jones, a Minneapolis-based artist who's done work for Marvel and DC Comics.
They had planned to release the first episode of the season on YouTube on July 31, but Dekker got a response back from nerd culture website The Escapist a few days before expressing interest in Super Academy. So the release was delayed to explore a distribution deal.
“If there's one thing The Escapist stands for, it's the passion for geeks of all stripes for their hobbies,” Josh Vanerwall, editorial director of The Escapist. “Once I saw the pilot for Super Academy, I knew this was a group that shared this sentiment.”
What sealed the deal for Dekker and company was the fact that The Escapist was going to let them have complete creative control over the series. The only thing they wanted to change was the show's logo so that it would fit with the rest of the site.
“We wanted to maintain that indie spirit, that indie nature of the series,” Dekker says, adding that the main deal is about distribution. “A couple other places replied to me, but they wanted a lot more control over things.”
When each episode premieres on The Escapist, it will also go up the same day on YouTube, which Dekker says is helpful in case there are countries where the site is blocked by firewall.
In addition to the Escapist deal, they also recently got an invitation to have one of their episodes screened at the upcoming Twin Cities Film Festival. It will be part of the web series portion of the festival, and they will also show an episode of Fang & Talon, which helped them home their skills for Super Academy.
“We'll be able to see Super Academy and Fang & Talon on the big screen at the ICON,” Dekker says. “Which is gonna be awesome.”
He also hopes it puts the Minneapolis arts community on the map when it comes to creating quality content.
“Everyone that is in this production, cast, and crew, is all from the Minneapolis and St. Paul arts, theater, and film scene,” he says. “So this has a huge influence from the local community. This is a great indie project coming out of the local film scene that's starting to get some national attention.”
Check out the pilot below, and watch more episodes at The Escapist.