As a camera zoomed in on his face, Jon Heder widened his eyes slowly, pretending to begin his character's transformation from man to zombie.
"That's about as monster-like as you can get," director Tim O'Donnell said, watching the scene play back on a monitor and then leading the crew in a round of applause for Heder, who had finally wrapped the scene after numerous takes.
On a warm July evening earlier this year, the setting at a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles had all the makings of a set for a feature film shoot. Instead, Heder and a handful of other cast and crew members had gathered to begin production on "Woke Up Dead," a high-budget Web series that began airing on Sony's video portal Crackle on Monday.
"It feels like shooting a film," Heder, best known for playing the title role in 2004's breakout hit "Napoleon Dynamite," said while resting between scenes. "It's the idea that you have a crew, a line producer, a video village -- it's more like a production, and that's cool because you're like, 'OK, this is legit.' I thought it would be, like, five guys with a boom mike."
A live-action comedy, "Woke Up Dead" tells the story of Drex Greene (Heder), a recent college grad who wakes up at the bottom of a water-filled bathtub to find himself inexplicably developing zombie-like tendencies.
His two friends Cassie (Krysten Ritter) and Matt (Josh Gad) try to help him figure out what the mysterious changes really mean.
The series will feature 23 four- to five-minute episodes on Crackle, which was acquired by Sony Pictures Entertainment as the then-titled user-generated video site Grouper in August 2006 for $65 million and was relaunched as the video network Crackle in July 2007. "Woke Up Dead" feels especially timely, hitting the Web just after Sony's feature film "Zombieland" -- another zombie comedy -- opened No. 1 at the box office, taking in $24.7 million.
Aimed at 18-to-34-year-old males, Crackle offers a mixture of original short form programming (three to four shows per year) as well as movies and TV shows from Sony's library -- all free.
The feature film offerings -- about 100 movies, including "Spider-Man 2" and "Groundhog Day" -- popped up on the site only last April.
But similar online video ventures haven't fared particularly well in recent years. Eager to replicate the success of "Saturday Night Live's" digital shorts or YouTube's quirky user-generated fair, a number of businesses -- including NBC's DotComedy, Turner's SuperDeluxe and ABC-Disney Television's Stage 9 Digital -- have gone under due to a lack of advertising dollars.
There are still some survivors, like MTV Networks' Atom.com, which hosts inexpensive comedy videos that are user-generated or acquired in licensing deals, and Funny or Die, the comedy website run by Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow and writer Chris Henchy that features skits from celebrities who participate at no charge.
Eric Berger, senior vice president of digital networks for Sony Pictures Television, believes it's the high production quality and the stars who appear in "Woke Up Dead" that will attract advertisers to Crackle. But the site is also looking to make money in other ways.
"We're looking at a number of different models because this is an extremely viable medium that is taken very seriously by the studio," he said. "We sold one of our Web series ['Angel of Death'] to Spike as a movie and brought it to DVD and sold it electronically on iTunes. Utilizing all of the different distribution models as a studio is a smart way to go, just as TV shows go to DVD and into syndication."
But part of distributing Web programming via different outlets involves overcoming the perception that Internet content is low quality. "A lot of times Web content seems hobbyist, almost," director O'Donnell said. "We're not creating product for people to watch when you're stuck at a bus stop."
Electric Farm Entertainment, the digital studio producing "Woke Up Dead," said the budget on the series was in the low seven-figure range. "You can make high-quality stuff at that price and make it a business and surprise the audience so they'll say, 'Hey, look at this, this isn't "Lonely Girl 15." This isn't someone talking to the camera. This is real entertainment,' " said executive producer Stan Rogow, a principal at Electric Farm.
Plus, Heder added, there's the guarantee that the program will have a home -- unlike many pilot scripts for TV series that never make it to air.
"That's the fun thing about the Web, and the freedom of it was attractive too," he said. "Since it's a new area, all bets are off. It's a completely new medium so there's no hard-core rules because nobody knows exactly what it is. We can do anything we want, really. And that's what makes it cool."