Monday, December 21, 2009

Rednecks in a Cab

[ This is a repost from my old MySpace blog. It was originally posted December 30, 2005. ]

Back in the summer, when Helen and I made a quick trip from L.A. to Erie, we were almost screwed over by the cab company we called. We'd made a simple request -- that a cab pick us up at our apartment at a certain time -- and then waited outside. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes late. We called back. We waited some more. No cab. Eventually, purely by chance, a neighbor up the block was being dropped off by a cab. I walked over and asked the cabbie if he was allowed to take an unassigned fare. (You don't usually hail cabs in L.A.) In whichever accent, he said it would be no problem.

When it came time to fly to Erie this Christmas, I wanted to avoid that situation. I told Helen to call ANY cab company except the one that had screwed us over a few months ago. Right on time -- or maybe even a few minutes early -- the driver called up to our apartment and told us he was outside waiting.

This driver's accent was easy to determine. He was clearly Jamaican. And, just in case there was any doubt, he started playing some reggae once we were under way.

I was perfectly happy to listen to the reggae. I have a personal history of appreciating other people's music when I'm in their car. Like when Paul used to cart me around Pittsburgh; I'd be exposed to music I otherwise never would have heard. Riding in someone else's car has always been an opportunity for me to learn something new in the world of music.

After only one song ended, the cabbie ejected the disc and slipped it into one of those sun visor CD holders. The visor-holder was ridiculously overstuffed. The man had at least ten discs per slot. The fabric was stretched and hung loose. And the odd thing was, most of the discs seemed to be completely blank -- no labels, no markings of any kind. How could he tell them apart?

After stashing the disc we had been listening to, the driver slid an unmarked disc out of the middle of one of the stacks hanging over his dash. The first song began to play, and the driver proceeded to bob his head, grooving along with the music.

The song played and played. I waited for the lyrics to kick in; this song had a long introduction. Not as if I expected to understand the lyrics. You know how reggae songs are: a potpouris of numerous languages that have worked their influence on Jamaican culture. A few words here and there are English, and the rest are anyone's guess. Regardless, this song refused to gratify my expectations for lyrics. It was an instrumental.

The next song began, and it was the same thing. Only, this time, about halfway into the song, the driver started talking. I craned my head over the back of the front seat. Was the driver talking to us, perhaps asking for a prefered route or clarification on directions? He had spoken loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be understood. I tried to make eye contact with him through the rearview mirror. He did not return the favor. Apparently, he hadn't been talking to me.

The next song came up. The driver started talking again. Except that he wasn't talking, was he? He was singing. Whatever these songs were -- his own original music? reggae karaoke? -- he was well-rehearsed and didn't miss a beat. As the song continued, he got louder and louder. By the end, all inhibitions were lost. He was singing loud and clear. He didn't care that Helen and I were in the car; he was singing these songs. There was something I admired about that. I know that if I were a cab driver, I'd probably sing songs between fares, not while someone was there to hear me. Perhaps it's a confidence issue. This man was not lacking it.

Helen and I glanced occassionally at each other and cracked sideways grins. We remained completely silent, completely still. It was his cab, not ours. If he wanted to sing, so be it. I prepared something amusing to say to Helen once we got out of the cab: "I'll bet you didn't know it was going to be a ride AND a free show."

As the songs continued, the singing got more confident and more intense. Our driver was completely into the music. There was no holding back. He began turning his head to the opposite corner of the car, as if there were some little audience looking up at him from underneath the glove compartment. They were going wild for him. He sang directly to them, gestured toward them, preached to them, waved his arms at them.

More songs were sung. More English words became recognizable. During one particular song, the word "rednecks" was flung around quite a bit. I think I also heard "George Bush" mentioned in this song. "Redneck" is not the most offensive word in the lexicon, so what did I care? I certainly wasn't going to tell this guy I'd prefer he didn't say that.

Another song. The tone was starting to change. This was definitely an angry song. The incomprehensible lyrics sounded confrontational. The English lyrics confirmed it. It was starting to get a little scary in that cab.

He sang an angry song. But apparently he was unsatisfied with his performance, because he skipped back to the beginning of the track. This time, he was definitely putting his all into it. He was pissed. He was enraged. He was ready to do something about it.

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How long WAS this trip to the airport, anyway? It's usually just fifteen to thirty minutes over there. Unfortunately, we were catching the tail end of rush hour traffic. The driver had picked the most awful route, first getting onto the 405 (which was at a stand-still), then taking Sepulveda which is the "secret" alternative to the 405... except it's not a secret because every asshole in this city knows about it. What was I going to do, tell him he was doing his job poorly? I just had to accept the fact that this was going to take a while. And avoid looking him in the eye. Do NOT look him in the eye!

Finally, we arrived at the airport. And not a moment too soon: our driver's performance was reaching its climax. The crowd underneath the dashboard had obviously worked him up. His energy was high. He was convulsing, barely able to keep himself in his seat. As we pulled to our gate, the song was coming to an end. Loudly and madly, our driver was shouting over the music: "The white man makes up false allegations to keep the black man down. Fuck the white man!"

The audience was crazy, cheering, clapping, whistling, jumping up and down. Beautiful Rastafarian women were throwing themselves onto the stage. The music stopped. It was time to really drive the message home: "FUCK THE WHITE MAN! FUCK THE WHITE MAN!!!"

I looked at Helen, my eyes wide, and nodded towards her door. "We're here," I was implying. "Time to get THE FUCK out of this cab."

The airport, though not terribly crowded, was occupied with plenty of witnesses. Relief. We would probably live through this experience.

The cab driver calmly walked around to the back of his car. The trunk was popped. He withdrew our bags and walked them patiently to the curb. It did not show on his face, but I knew what he was thinking deep inside. "Here I am, doing the white man's bidding again." Perhaps he was also thinking, "But not for much longer."

I looked at the meter, rounded up, and did not ask for change. I wished him happy holidays. And then I made sure he was leaving, so that I could begin enjoying my own holidays.

[ Merry Christmas, everyone! ]

Monday, December 7, 2009

DVD Extras Are Irrelevant

This past October, in the days leading up to Halloween, I was reading the back of a blu-ray box for Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, and noticed I was experiencing a reaction I hadn't felt in a long time: the desire to watch the bonus features! I paused for a moment to think back - just how long had it been since I'd bothered with a commentary track or a behind-the-scenes featurette. I honestly couldn't recall. And that, my friends, is an Earth-shatteringly bizarre revelation.

Allow me to explain: I am a lifelong film fanatic, and I was born in 1980. Growing up, the only home video option was VHS - a format which, as John August said, "was inelegant even when it was new." (BetaMax and Laserdisc were never prevalent enough to be considered viable alternatives to VHS.) Subscribing to basic cable meant getting maybe 40 channels, most of which filled their time with reruns of old shows. Movies broadcast on TV were watered-down, edited-for-content, truncated variations of the original, interrupted by commercials. Even HBO, which didn't (and doesn't) edit for content, committed the sin of reformatting movies to the shape of the TV screen. While all of this was a marked improvement over the alternative -- the alternative being that the one-and-only way to see movies would be to go to the theater -- these were not exactly glory days for movie lovers.

The limited number of media outlets meant little room for material peripheral to movies. Actor, director, or producer interviews were mostly the domain of newspapers and magazines; and a lot of those interviews were granted only to address a recent scandal a celebrity had found him- or herself in. In the rare instance that a behind-the-scenes special would air on TV, it truly was "special" due to the infrequency of such a piece. This was the environment which yielded such shows as "TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes," which gave audiences not only a look behind the scenes, but a glimpse of famous people actually screwing up! Rare, indeed.

I'm not sure when exactly the big media companies realized the public had such a profoundly unappeasable obsession with behind-the-scenes magic, but what I do know is that the '90s gave birth to Entertainment Weekly, the E! network, and a general proliferation of cable channels which demanded more content to fill their time... content that needed to be produced as cheaply as possible. The '90s also saw the rise of computer animated special effects, which was perhaps the ultimate elicitor of the question, "How'd they do that?" The public wanted to know, and they now had more ways than ever to find out. All of this culminated in the release of the DVD bonus feature.

When DVD arrived on the scene in the mid-90s, it was a revelation. The picture and sound quality were dramatically superior to VHS. And suddenly, there were these fun extra bonus features - behind-the-scenes documentaries, cast & crew interviews, costume and set design sketches... and the king of all extras: the feature-length audio commentary track! The actual people responsible for making this movie recount memories and trivia, talk about what went into this or that shot, how a stunt was perfected, what shots were challenging and why, etc.

For an obsessive movie lover -- and a kid who was just a few years away from entering film school -- DVD was a godsend. Each disc contained not just the movie, but the secrets to how the movie was made. Every disc I bought or rented was an event. I pored over every detail. With a voracious appetite, I devoured every last fragment of aural and visual information. No detail was too minute. I needed to absorb it all, multiple times. Even on bad movies. I couldn't get enough.

So, what changed? There are four major differences between "then" and now that have rendered the DVD extra irrelevant.

1) In retrospect, the DVD bonus feature planted the seed of what we now take for granted: specified content. Back when E! or Entertainment Weekly were our best sources of behind-the-scenes information, we were basically playing roulette. What if the celebrity they were interviewing, or the movie set they were visiting, or the cultural phenomenon they were investigating wasn't of interest to us? We had to wait until the next night, or the next issue, and hope for better luck then.

DVD extras changed all that. Any interviews or "making of" materials on a DVD pertain to the specific movie on that disc. This has changed our expectations. We're no longer spinning the wheel and hoping our number comes up. If we loved the movie and we're interested in how it was made, then we know where to get material about the making of that specific movie. We no longer have to wait and hope that EW will have an article about the movie we love; it's all right there on the DVD!

2) After watching a few hundred hours of bonus materials, it all starts to look the same. Eventually, it begins to feel like every movie is made exactly the same way. And that's basically true. There's lights, there's cameras, there's action; and wireframes, and green screens, and storyboards. Once you see it done a few times, you get the hang of what it looks like. Bonus features have had a genuine impact on how audiences perceive a movie, and have given people an appreciation of how much work goes into making a movie. But once you have that knowledge and appreciation, bonus materials begin to feel redundant.

3) Maybe it's just me, but the Netflix turnaround time is a huge motivator. There's over 100 years worth of world cinema waiting to be mailed to me, and I don't feel like I have much time to spend on behind-the-scenes material when there's so much in-front-of-the-scenes material yet to be seen. And as home video distribution begins to migrate to internet streaming, certain sacrifices are being made... one of which seems to be bonus materials. Until the technology further advances, it seems we must content ourselves with streaming merely the movie. Besides...

4) ...The internet is already giving us all the bonus material we need. This is probably the single biggest all-encompassing change between "then" and "now" that has rendered DVD bonus material irrelevant. Just as the DVD changed our expectation of what kind of material we would get, the internet has changed our expectations of when we would get it. The news cycle has sped up, and hundreds of websites are vying to have the best and most current information about any given movie, TV show, celebrity... everything! Whatever you want, whenever you want it.

The studios themselves, as well as the filmmakers behind any given project, know that the best way to garner interest in their movies is to provide behind-the-scenes material while the production is still ongoing. An on-set interview with the star can no longer wait to be released as a DVD extra, it has to go up on YouTube right away. Production notes from the director can no longer wait for that Rolling Stone interview, but must be blogged about that night. A fight with a producer can't wait to be alluded to on the commentary track, but must be leaked to TMZ that afternoon.

Myself, I'm a huge fan of podcasts - a medium that didn't even exist until some seven years after the DVD was first brought to market. I'm still as obsessed with movies as I've ever been, so I subscribe to a plethora of entertainment-related talk show podcasts. Interview shows, review shows, criticism/analysis shows, creative-focused shows, business/fiscal-focused shows... I listen to it all. And then there are all the online articles I read, covering movies from all angles - technical, creative, business. By the time I finally make it to a movie theater, the film has been picked apart for me from every conceivable angle, multiple times over. I know how much it cost, how many writers worked on it, how difficult it was to cast Bill Murray in a cameo appearance, how they flipped a real truck on the real streets of Chicago, the compromises the director had to make, how big the stakes were for the studio, and what projects the talent have lined up next.

By the time the DVD comes out, there's really not much left to explore. At that point I really just want to watch the movie, and that's about it.

And that's why the blu-ray of Dracula made me smile. The movie came out in 1992 - a time before DVD, before the internet, when a movie would just arrive in the theater and you could take it or leave it. When DVD arrived as the new medium, there was such a sense of discovery for film geeks like me. A movie would have its theatrical run, and then come out on DVD to dissect and pick apart. These days, we find out what makes a movie tick before it hits theaters. I'm not saying that's good or bad; it's a system I willingly participate in. All I'm saying is that that Dracula blu-ray represents more to me than just a movie and its bonus features. It's a remnant of a bygone era, and the sense of discovery that accompanied it. That was probably the last time a home video would have any surprises to offer me.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The problem with "Epitaph One"

-Dollhouse- starts back up tonight. I'm going to pretend Epitaph One never happened.
For the uninitiated, here's the story of writer-producer-director Joss Whedon in a nutshell: early in his career, he worked on notable, quality entertainment. He eventually made his name -- and, frankly, helped to brand an entire network -- by reviving his failed movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a TV series. He grew a sizable, intensely loyal, yet not-quite-mainstream audience through that show. But aside from "Buffy" and its spinoff "Angel," he hasn't had a hit. His reputation is now as someone who makes great shows that fans love but that networks always screw up through a combination of meddling, bad marketing, and general mistreatment of the material (airing episodes out of order, shifting the schedule unexpectedly, airing on Fridays, etc). Still, the fans follow whatever he does, despite the near certainty that any show he makes will be ended early and inconclusively.

Which brings us to his latest, "Dollhouse." Another great concept from Whedon, the show began somewhat roughly but got progressively better. Typically low-rated, the show barely got renewed for a second season. Recently, Fox announced that this second season would be the last; but in a display of generosity, the production has been given time to properly wrap up the storylines, and all episodes will be aired.

As described by the official website, the concept of the show is as follows:

CAROLINE (Eliza Dushku) - code name "Echo" - is an "Active," a member of a highly illegal and underground group of individuals who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Hired by the wealthy, powerful and connected, the Actives don't just perform their hired roles, they wholly become - with mind, personality and physiology - whomever the client wants or needs them to be. Whether imprinted to be a lover, an assassin, a corporate negotiator or a best friend, the Actives know no other life than the specific engagements they are in at that time.

Confined between missions to a secret facility known as the "Dollhouse," Echo and the other Actives, including SIERRA (Dichen Lachman) and VICTOR (Enver Gjokaj), are assigned engagements by ADELLE DEWITT (Olivia Williams), one of the Dollhouse's leaders. After each scenario, Echo, always under the watchful eye of her handler-turned-head-of-security, BOYD LANGTON (Harry Lennix), returns to the mysterious Dollhouse where her thoughts, feelings, experiences and knowledge are erased by TOPHER BRINK (Fran Kranz), the Dollhouse's genius programmer. Echo then enters the next scenario with no memory of before - or does she?

The advantage of that concept is that the show is able to become something different each week - an action adventure, a soapy drama, a murder mystery. And tying it all together were the situations involving the clientele and the employees of the Dollhouse itself. The series did a great job exploring the moral and ethical complications that would arise from a situation like the Dollhouse. (Does voluntary slavery make slavery less immoral? Is it "prostitution" if an Active truly believes she's in love, and isn't receiving direct compensation?) And as with any decent sci fi, the audience is left to ponder analogies in the real world. In other words, this show had a lot going for it. Then came the episode titled "Epitaph One."

[ Here, I suppose I should put a SPOILERS warning, in case you were planning to get caught up on season one DVDs. ]

"Epitaph One" is a strange case. It's unofficial, yet completely official. It was never aired by Fox, yet this isn't a situation of the network mishandling a Whedon series. It was produced due to complicated contractual agreements that separated the network's requirements from the production company's requirements. So while the network never intended to air the episode, it needed to exist for overseas and DVD sales.

Before I dig in any deeper, I should say that I don't think "Epitaph One" is bad in and of itself. It's an interesting concept, and would probably make for a fascinating TV series. But that series would not be named "Dollhouse."

At the time the episode was produced, it was uncertain whether the series would get picked up for a second season; so the episode was written as a de facto series finale. "Epitaph One" takes place ten years after everything we'd seen in the "Dollhouse" series. We're introduced to an entirely new group of characters, and they're seen in a post apocalyptic environment of some sort. As they go about dodging and hiding from some intimidating-looking groups of people, they find themselves taking shelter in what we, the audience, recognize to be the Dollhouse.

All well and good. But then, through a series of flashbacks and some detective work by these new characters, we learn that the apocalypse plaguing Future World was caused by a technological advancement developed by Dollhouse staff and exploited by some of the less-scrupulous elements within the Dollhouse organization.

Again, interesting. But that is NOT what "Dollhouse" is about!

Previous to "Epitaph One," we'd watched twelve episodes of a series that was about the various adventures that these Actives were on. We'd watched a series about a business that operates illegally, providing an ethically ambiguous service to wealthy clients. We'd examined issues of class, gender, and moral relativism. We'd followed a character, an Active, who was unique amongst her peers in ways we were just beginning to understand, and whom we'd hoped held the key that would bring down this exploitative organization. Now we were being told that the series wasn't really about any of these things. What we were really watching was the day-to-day operations of a company that would eventually, inadvertently cause the apocalypse.

By shifting the perspective of the series to this apocalyptic future, "Epitaph One" nullifies the relationships the audience had built with these characters and the subject matter of the series. Essentially, it tells us we've been wasting our time, distracted by the wrong things. We shouldn't have concerned ourselves with the moral and legal implications of indentured servitude, the legal immunity enjoyed by the rich, the value of and right to individual autonomy. No, we should have been thinking about the collapse of civilization!

I understand how the creative team on "Dollhouse" justifies this story. There were seeds planted within the series that allow for this ultimate conclusion. The problem I have with it is that it's a complete thematic departure from the rest of the series. It tells us that everything we cared about for the previous twelve episodes was literally worthless, because this whole ship was going down anyway.

There's an implicit contract between a show's creators and its audience. While the audience wants to be surprised by the direction a show (or any story) takes, those surprises have to fit within the rules that the series has created for itself. "Lost" can become a show about time travel because we always knew there were paranormal elements at work. "ER" can end with an entirely different cast than it began with, because we always knew this was a show about the workings of a hospital. "Epitaph One" breaks our contract with "Dollhouse," because it tells us that "Dollhouse" was actually about the fall of humanity, when we had been led to believe that it was about the redemption of these specific characters.

As the second and final season comes to a close, it will be interesting to see if the remaining episodes try to justify the "Epitaph One" future, or if they ignore it in favor of giving us a satisfying resolution for the characters we've been meant to empathize with all along. My vote is for the latter. As I said back in September, in order to enjoy season two -- and the series in general -- I'm going to have to pretend "Epitaph One" never happened.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Short Story About the UTA List

My first taste of working in the entertainment industry came in the form of an unpaid internship at a music video production company that doesn't exist anymore. The intern station was four small desks pushed together, with three available computers. There were five of us who would rotate computer usage, as fairly as we could, when we weren't active on a task.

One would assume that all five of us were interns, since we all made use of the intern station. This was incorrect. I would eventually learn that one of the five was actually a personal assistant to an executive at the company. There wasn't any space in the office to provide him his own separate desk or his own separate computer, so he was stationed with us lowly interns.

Even when slumped down deep in a chair, Adam was tall. And slump he did, every time he sat; a habit acquired, no doubt, during an adolescence rife with ridicule about his height. His long legs forced his chair a fair distance away from the desks, but his similarly long arms would branch casually back to the desktops. He walked slowly, but got there before you did. His face, always expressionless, gave a false sense of apathy. He rarely spoke, which is why I was able to carry on so long assuming he was just another intern.

But the news came fast, in a one-two punch. The day I learned that Adam wasn't an intern was the same day I learned he was leaving the company. He'd landed a new job, and would be starting the following Monday.

That was a lesson I learned early during my internship. People come and go quickly in the entertainment industry. All jobs are basically freelance, and therefor quite temporary. Even the jobs that sound permanent -- like chairman of a network, or head of production of a studio -- will only get you a decade or so of work. And that's only if you're good at it. With a few exceptions (hi, "The Simpsons"), a hit show is only going to run five to ten years. Most shows aren't hits, so you'll only get half a year of work out of it. Or less. It's a very transient business. Don't get comfortable, don't settle in, don't decorate your cubicle.

When you wrap out of a job, the best way to find your next job is to reach out to friends and acquaintances you've made during previous engagements. "Anything opening up at your company?" you ask them, or "heard of anything else out there?" You'll repeat those questions a few dozen times during your job hunt. And a few dozen times, the response you'll hear is, "I'll put the feelers out." This town is being constantly molested by friends of job-seekers.

But every once in a while, you'll get a less common response: "I can send you the UTA list."


The UTA list is an ultra-secret, clandestine, very exclusive Hollywood job listing... Except that everyone has heard of it, people speak openly of it, and it's not very difficult to get your hands on. Also, you'll never meet anyone who has claimed to have gotten their job from a UTA listing. But everyone seeks it out as if it's going to lead them to their next gig.

The namesake of the list is the United Talent Agency, one of the biggest talent agencies in the business. (Click here for a short list of some of their high profile clients.) UTA will neither confirm nor deny that they're the ones responsible for compiling and distributing the list. It's officially unofficial.

Some people deny altogether that the list even exists, which is preposterous. Of course it exists; everyone has seen it. Whether the job listings are actually legitimate is the point worth debating. Although you can find a copy of the list with a simple web search, it's difficult to trust what you find on the internet. You're better off getting the list from a friend. Who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend... and who knows where it originated? And during this game of telephone, who can say what's been added, removed, or screwed with in some way?

Back in the day, the list got passed around from fax machine to fax machine. That seems like a lot more fun, a lot more like a spy novel. Higher stakes. Assistants and other underlings had to be sneakier about it, had to risk getting caught abusing company equipment.

Now it just bounces around from e-mail address to e-mail address. Yet it retains some of that underground mystique. When you open the file, you find it lacking a heading; nothing in the body identifies it as the UTA list. It begins, simply, "(As of [date])" followed by a couple of warnings. "NOTE: Unless specific permission is given within the listing, DO NOT CALL about positions or to follow up." And, "Please do NOT post this list anywhere online without express prior written permission." I'm not sure how you would acquire such permission, considering "the list does not exist" and you got it from no one nowhere.

Next come the jobs, organized by broad categories (Executive and Management Positions, Assistant Level, etc). They're usually written in vague language, so you're never quite sure where you're applying. (This is not dissimilar to classifieds or Craig's List.) "Once-a-week personal assistant with experience in the film industry needed for feature film screenwriters in Pacific Palisades. Tasks include, but are not limited to: office management/organization, running errands, manage household projects, personal planning. College educated, Mac proficient, good communicator. Send resumes to..."

So you send your resume, and you wait, and you never hear back. And when a friend asks for it, you pass the list along. And so it goes.


"Everyone, be sure to congratulate Adam. This is his last day with us. Starting Monday, he will be Rob Schneider's personal assistant."

"Really?" I asked the nearest available ear. Still so new to the business, this was mind-blowing. Things like that really do happen! "How do you end up getting a job like that?"

"The UTA list," came the response.

"Oh!" my supervisor said with surprise. "So you really can get a job off the UTA list!"

Yeah, maybe. Just that once.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Netflix on PS3: Pros and Cons

At long last, Netflix has made their Instant Streaming capabilities available to owners of the PlayStation 3. As a PS3 owner myself, this is a welcome addition to an already capable machine. It certainly makes their new "It only does everything" slogan slightly truer.

If you own a PlayStation 3 and have a Netflix account, go to Netflix and sign up for the Instant Streaming Disc right away (if you haven't already). You'll need this disc every time you want to watch streaming movies, which is probably a con for some people. Personally, it doesn't bother me that I have to put a disc in the machine to watch a streaming movie. I already use my PS3 as a DVD/Blu-ray player, so I'm used to making the long journey from the couch to the machine when I want to watch something. Netflix and Sony have said that sometime next year, instant streaming will become part of the PS3 software, at which point we'll no longer need the disc. This just adds convenience to convenience in my opinion.

Pro: The disc is yours to keep at no additional cost, and does not count as one of your rental discs. You can continue renting your three movies at a time (or however many you get) by mail.

Con: Poor imagine quality. Whether it's the fault of sub-par internet speeds in the U.S., or just the way the videos are compressed at the source, streaming movies can look pretty bad. This is perhaps not such a big deal for, say, The Ten, which is one of the first things I test-watched via streaming. But when I see that visual masterworks like A Clockwork Orange or Wall-E are available for instant viewing, I shudder to think how much people are missing if this is the only way they'll see them.

It's interesting that in an age when people are demanding bigger TV's with the highest of progressive scan high definition quality, they're simultaneously willing to sacrifice all that quality for convenience. I'm sure that picture quality will improve as the technology advances. I just hope that happens sooner rather than later.

I also test-watched an HD episode of "30 Rock" via streaming. The picture quality was much better, but definitely not the HD quality you receive via cable/satellite.

Pro: The interface. While it could certainly stand to be improved in some ways -- such as adding the ability to type in a search -- the interface works very well. Reminiscent of Apple's Cover Flow, it lines up your movies in the order you've organized them in your Netflix queue, and allows you to easily scroll to the one you want. It also offers you the ability to find movies you haven't added to your queue via category tabs at the top of the screen (new releases, popular, comedy, sci-fi).

Con: Hit-or-miss selection. We're still in the very early days of this method of distribution, and content owners and licensees are still very uncertain about how to proceed. Because of this, Netflix offers a rather limited selection of movies and TV shows for instant viewing. And it's constantly shifting. A movie you've added to your Instant Queue might become unavailable by the time you finally decide to sit down and watch it. Someday this will all be worked out, whether it's Netflix who accomplishes it or not. In the meantime, content availability is difficult to predict.

Pro: No additional fees. With the X-Box 360, you can only stream Netflix movies if you subscribe to the Gold plan for X-Box Live, which requires an additional $50/year. Sure, that's less than $5/month, but extra money is extra money. Netflix on PS3 comes with no additional expenses.

Con: PS3's terrible wireless internet card. This has been a point of contention for me since I first got my PS3. Wireless internet drags on the PS3; system updates and video game downloads take forever. The connection often gets dropped altogether (this happens less frequently now than it used to). To date, this hasn't been too much of an issue; I rarely download games, and system updates are only an occasional thing. But I intend to take full advantage of streaming movies, which is going to severely tax my PS3's wireless card.

My test viewing of The Ten went off without a hitch; the movie played start-to-finish with no problems. But when I attempted to watch Bright Young Things in HD, the stream failed in less than a minute, and was not able to restore itself within three minutes of failing. Concerned about the implications of HD streaming, I queued up an episode of "30 Rock" in HD. That played start-to-finish without any problems. I ran another episode just prior to writing this, and it failed within the first five minutes. It restored after only a few seconds, but still... any interruption breaks the spell a movie is meant to cast. I'm hoping these glitches are something that will disappear quickly as the technology progresses.

(Note: Running a hard wire to my PS3 would be difficult given the layout of my house and the location of my modem and router. Besides, it shouldn't be required; that's the whole point of wireless internet.)

Pro: Every new, legal video streaming service that comes into existence represents a positive step toward quelling piracy and developing a new economic system that will allow the movies and shows we all love to remain financially sustainable.

Netflix is doing something extremely rare: giving customers a value add without increasing the cost of service. While the selection is limited, a great deal of the content available for streaming via Netflix is stuff you want to watch. And one presumes that the quality and breadth of content will only increase as we move into the future.

Netflix's continued push toward streaming content is both a response to and a push toward the inevitable future where media will no longer be distributed via physical materials. Make no mistake, discs will linger for many years. But Netflix, along with iTunes, is leading the way to the future, and providing an early working model for what will soon become the norm.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Will Apple lower my cable bill?

For many years now, I've been looking forward to the day when I could completely disconnect from cable or satellite television providers and get all the movies and series I want delivered to my TV through the internet. There are several entities out there that want to make that happen. Leading the pack are Apple and Netflix. But there are also Amazon and Hulu and Boxee, and who knows what else?

The concept is simple. I should be able to save money by trimming the fat. For the last several years, I've been paying around $100 a month for access to some 400 TV channels. The thing is, I don't watch 400 channels. I set my channel guide to about 20 favorite stations, and rarely have reason to venture outside that range. Of course, those 20 channels are never packaged together in a low cost tier; so I have to keep adding tiers to get everything I want, which leaves me with 380 channels I'll never touch.

So the rumor that Apple is meeting with network executives to discuss a $30/month subscription-based, iTunes-powered TV service comes as welcome news to me. It also makes me extremely skeptical.

That $30 price point sounds too good to be true. Which means it is. I anticipate one of three things happening: 1) the actual cost will end up being higher; 2) the available content will be severely limited; or 3) Apple has no intention of completely replacing your cable/satellite. Any of these possibilities falls short of the ideal scenario where one could save money by trimming the fat.

The problem with rumors, of course, is that they offer so little detail. How would this whole thing work? Would it be instant streaming, along the lines of Netflix and Hulu? Or would it be file downloads, allowing for mobile viewing on iPhones? Would there be limits on the amount of hours you could view per month (a method Netflix originally implemented, then later dropped)?

Reliability would be an important issue. Would every episode of every show be available always, or would older episodes and/or series get dropped with no warning or explanation (another common occurrence on Netflix)?

How would it interface with your TV? According to the rumor, this service would not be tethered to the Apple TV, which makes it sound like it would be just another Hulu: great for when you're at your computer, but complicated to rig to your TV. As tech commentator Alex Lindsay points out, the newest iMacs come with a 27-inch display, which is larger than the average TV was 20 years ago. Apple may be positioning itself as a manufacturer of TVs that just happen to have computers inside of them.

If it is indeed Apple's intention to compete with cable and satellite TV services, then they shouldn't introduce this service without offering everything -- or at least damn near everything -- that those services provide. (I would be particularly impressed if they were able to get HBO and Showtime to cooperate.) Only by offering everything could they entice a sizable subscribership away from cable and satellite. Otherwise, they're asking people to pay an extra $30/month for what can only be a supplemental service. I wouldn't pay for that from Apple, and I wouldn't pay for it from Hulu either.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Variety Show Ad Method

One of my first jobs in television was on a show called "Pepsi Smash." It was a summer concert series on The WB (back when that network existed) wherein popular groups with popular songs would hop up on a stage in front of an audience full of teens and do a couple of their most popular numbers. I was just a production assistant, so the pay was low and the hours were long. But there was free Pepsi! I drank many a can of Amp during those long days.

When the episodes started airing, I was surprised to discover something they included in the broadcast: commercials. The show had as much time set aside for commercials as you would expect in any other broadcast. Despite the fact that Pepsi's logo was visible at nearly every camera angle, that people said the word "Pepsi" throughout the broadcast, and even that Pepsi was the very name of the show, the broadcast still had additional sponsors. While we were shooting, I'd assumed that the show would air commercial free. You know, like in "the old days," when TV shows like "Texaco Star Theater" were named after their sponsors and didn't take commercial breaks so much as pause to have the star of the show deliver a quick sponsorship message to the camera.

"Pepsi Smash" aired in the summers of 2003 and 2004 -- around the same time that TiVo was digging its foothold into the television landscape. The frightening prospect back then -- all the more real now -- is that viewers could easily skip commercials, thereby negating the entire economic system around which broadcast television is based. Shows like "Pepsi Smash," I assumed, were going to be television's response. You can't TiVo past the name of the show.

It's disheartening to think that some day we might be watching "Kraft General Foods presents 30 Rock" or "AT&T's CSI: NY." But on the other hand, I'd prefer such conspicuous sponsorship awareness rather than the attempted deceit practiced in most forms of product placement. You're watching an episode, and suddenly two of your favorite characters erupt into a conversation about how much they like Oreos. The afore-mentioned "30 Rock" has taken so much heat for their product placement that when a storyline featured Tina Fey's character enjoying a Snuggie, she was compelled to deliver the line: "It's not product placement! I just really like it."

To date, I'm not aware of any sitcom or drama being named after a product. For now, let's assume that won't happen. But when it comes to variety shows, that's been a time-honored way to make money. It's a good fit. And I could see reality shows easily going in that direction.

Which is why I gave a knowing smile and nod when I heard about "Family Guy Presents: Seth and Alex's Almost Live Comedy Show." (That's Seth MacFarlane and Alex Borstein.) The half hour comedy special is set to air commercial-free, with brief pauses for the stars of the show to deliver a message about Microsoft's new Windows 7. Yes, just like the old days.

Well, that was the plan anyway, until Microsoft executives saw the actual content of the show and decided it "didn't fit their brand." (Translation: they're scared that people will be offended and then boycott Microsoft.) This is a rather cowardly move for the company to make, and a situation they could have easily avoided by simply watching other Seth MacFarlane shows. He's not exactly an unknown quantity; he has three shows in current production on Fox, and reruns syndicated all over the place. Have you ever seen any "Family Guy" or "American Dad"? You can't exactly plead ignorance about his comedic sensibilities.

Perhaps this is the reason broadcasters wanted to get away from the single-sponsor model in the first place. It leads to a situation where the sponsor has too much power, and can make or break a show with the snap of a finger. "We don't want people associating our brand with these ideas." And just like that, your integrity is gone.

The "Almost Live Comedy Show" will go on. Fox is seeking another sponsor, and new messages will be recorded and integrated into the show. Seth MacFarlane is far too profitable for Fox to toss away this special just because Microsoft wanted out. This is merely a bump in the road.

The show airs November 8. If it's a hit, it could point the way to exactly what the networks have been looking for: a TiVo-proof way of deliver advertising to viewers.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"The Blob 2"

For reasons I recently explained, I'm something of a newcomer to the horror genre. I grew up during a period when horror was at its worst, and mistook this bad streak to mean that horror was an inferior genre in general (read here). Now I have an immense respect for what a good horror movie can do -- the way it can subtly and playfully address an issue, comment on our times, make a moral or sociopolitical point.

That being said, to a large degree I still don't completely understand the genre. Obviously, I understand the concept of something scary/creepy happening on screen = the audience getting scared/creeped out. But there's so much I don't understand about the craft, both in the storytelling and in the art direction. That sense of dread created by the imagery... When and why a character dies... I still have a lot to learn.

Last October, I watched the original The Blob for the first time. It was "charming," as my friend Cooper said. It was clearly limited by its small budget, as well as what they could get away with portraying on screen in those days. To a certain extent, I don't think the filmmakers completely understood how to structure a narrative. Still, when the movie ends, you just smile and nod. "Yeah, that was all right."

Not long after finishing The Blob, I was struck with the perfect idea for a sequel. An idea that made me smile and nod, just as the original movie had. I had no particular avenue for pursuing this as an actual for-real project. But, hey, an idea is an idea. If I should ever find myself in a position to pitch an idea for a Blob sequel, I'd know exactly where to begin. But first, I had to check into the remake...

In 1988, TriStar Pictures released a remake of The Blob. Directed by Chuck Russell (whose next movie would be The Mask), co-written by Frank Darabont (who would go on to write and direct The Shawshank Redemption), and starring Johnny Drama himself, Kevin Dillon, the remake... well, is pretty bad. As you might expect, they "improved" upon the original by making it gorier (you can see people being dissolved inside the Blob once it engulfs them), and making the Blob faster and more threatening. And I'll admit, it's a bit of a jolt the first time the Blob spits an arm out to snag someone rather than roll over him.

As any crappy '80s horror movie was required to do, this Blob left the door open for a sequel in the form of a deranged preacher who was waiting for a sign from God to release a fragment of the Blob that he had collected during an encounter. Yeah, just really dumb. In order for my sequel idea to work, this version of The Blob has to be completely ignored.  Which shouldn't be too difficult, considering the remake didn't exactly set the box office on fire.

(There was also apparently a sequel called Beware! The Blob in 1972, directed by Larry Hagman (!).  I've never heard anyone talk about this, and assume it's also to be ignored.)

Okay, so at the end of the original The Blob -- spoiler alert! -- the Blob doesn't win.  The townsfolk discover that the Blob is repelled by cold temperatures.  So they use fire extinguishers to freeze it solid.  Then we see a crate being flown by military plane and dropped into the frozen arctic, where it is to remain permanently frozen, keeping the world safe from this monster.

Which is why now is the perfect time to make a sequel.  Global warming, people!  The ice caps are melting.  So we open on a crate buried on the edge of an ice shelf.  Hot sun blazing down.  There's dripping and melting around the crate.  We hear shifting, cracking.  Suddenly, the crate breaks free and splashes into the water.  It drifts with the current.  Eventually, it hits land.  We hear creaking.  The crate begins to bulge.  The wood warps with stress.  Finally, it breaks open!  The Blob is free!

So right off the bat, you've got the issue the movie is addressing.  Global warming leads to man's downfall... in the form of the Blob.

It's unclear where exactly the crate was dropped at the end of the first movie, so we could start pretty much anywhere cold.  But since the first movie took place in Pennsylvania, I'm thinking the crate could have been dropped somewhere up in Greenland.  That way, it's feasible that the crate could float over to North America, perhaps around Newfoundland.  It could eat its way down the Canadian seaboard, cross into upstate New York (where customs are very lax; the Blob would have nothing to declare), and eventually start rousing the suspicions of...

The grandson of Steve McQueen's character from the original movie!  This role could be played by, say, Zac Efron.  He always thought his grandfather was just telling him crazy stories, but these recent news reports of people disappearing and slime being left behind are starting to sound suspiciously familiar.  He starts telling people his theory, but they, of course, think he's either joking or crazy.  After all, it's been a few generations and the Blob's original attack in the 1950s has been forgotten by time.  So he has to go investigate the situation himself, and convince the authorities that he knows what he's talking about.

Any plans they make to freeze the Blob again will fail.  Don't want to pull the same trick twice there.  And besides... where would they keep the Blob permanently frozen?  Some laboratory with a massive freezer?  That would make a sequel too easy.  Power goes out, freezer fails, Blob escapes... boring!

So how will they defeat the Blob this time?  Well, if I were ever seriously working on this project, I might have come up with something.  But some news came out a couple months ago which renders the whole idea useless.  It turns out Rob Zombie has recently signed on to do a whole new remake.

It's just as well.  I wasn't serious about this idea, and don't feel like I've lost anything.  Just thought it would have been a good approach.  But it's definitely off now, which is why I'm submitting it to you, the reader.

Rob Zombie has made some pretty good movies, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he'll do with The Blob. Anybody who pursues a remake of The Blob must have some great ideas for it, because the concept isn't as commercial as most of the other horror/slasher properties out there.  Shooting is scheduled for this spring, so I assume it will be out next fall.  I'll see you in line.

In the meantime, Happy Halloween, everybody!

Monday, October 5, 2009

When will movies be iPodded?

Homer: There can only be one truly great music festival a lifetime, and it's the Us Festival.
Record Store Clerk: The what festival?
Homer: The Us Festival! Yeesh! It was sponsored by that guy from Apple Computers.
Record Store Clerk: What computers?
This was from a 1996 episode of "The Simpsons," and very accurately represents the state of Apple at the time. Windows was beyond dominant, and Apple was little more than a distant memory of green screen graphics and "Oregon Trail." But after the '90s, Apple built itself up to being one of the largest corporations in the world. How did they do it? With the iPod.

That may be a reductive argument, but it's essentially true. Apple didn't make the first mp3 player, but they made the best one. They made it compatible with Windows, which greatly expanded their market. And once Windows users started getting used to an Apple device and Apple software (iTunes for Windows) on their computers, more of them started looking into owning other Apple products. Now, Apple computers are in more homes, and the iPod is so ubiquitous that no one even tries to find an alternative music player.

These are the reasons I was so excited, back in 2006, when Apple announced their new digital media receiver, the Apple TV. Basically built as an intermediary between your computer and your TV, the Apple TV was meant to encourage people to buy movies from the iTunes Store just as they'd been buying music. DVDs would become a thing of the past, as CDs had before them. The future had arrived! Media would no longer be exchanged using a hard format! Apple TV was the iPod of the motion picture!

So, three years later, why are we still swapping discs?

When we all got our iPods, the first thing we did was sit in front of our computers with our CD collections and transfer the music we already owned over to our new music player. No such luck with DVDs. The studios, scared to death of piracy, are not allowing software makers to break the copy protection code on DVDs. Committing to a disc-free movie library would mean starting from scratch and re-buying all the movies you already own. We already went through that a decade ago when we switched from VHS to DVD. Asking us to do it again so soon -- especially when we know our computers could convert DVDs for free -- is an insult.

In the last two years, people have been told they should upgrade to HDTV, have been forced to convert to digital broadcasting, have been offered two different types of high definition discs, and have been told that most of their favorite movies and TV shows are available for free, legal streaming via various websites. Can you blame a person for being confused? None of these alternatives to DVD has pulled ahead as the new dominant format, so nobody knows what to commit to. As a consequence, not only is there no new market leader, but sales of DVDs have also dropped dramatically because nobody trusts that they'll be around for much longer. Hollywood's fear of piracy is paralyzing its own progress.

If we hadn't been allowed to easily and legally convert our CDs to mp3, it's very possible that the iPod and Apple as a company would not be where they are now. The iPod would have died out from lack of interest, the iPhone never would have happened, all these people making money via the App Store would be nowhere... A whole train of progress would have been capped at the knees, and the world would have a little less awesome in it.

Hollywood is engaged in an ongoing tug-of-war with new media. For every episode of a TV show put on Hulu, there's a copyright infringement removal on YouTube. Until Hollywood gets over its fear of new media, the market will continue to be confused and scattered. There's no question what people want: cheap, simple, instant access to movies and TV shows. And until the content producers provide it themselves, people will continue to turn to piracy.

Additional Material:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My horror movie lineup

Every October, my Netflix queue is dedicated almost exclusively to horror movies. This is, of course, to help get into the Halloween mood; but it's also to help me catch up on a part of my personal film history education that had been severely lacking. I didn't watch many horror films growing up.

Being born in 1980, I was too young to catch that wave of originality with the early '80s teen slasher flicks. I didn't have cable for most of my childhood, so I wasn't able to sneak a peek at illicit movies behind my parents' backs. By the time I was old enough to start renting horror films, the genre had been diluted by inferior sequels and knock-offs, and I developed the assumption that the entire genre was unworthy of serious consideration.

Boy, did I miss out! Because once you reach a certain age, these movies lose the ability to actually scare you. Sure, they can still be enjoyable - tense and squirm-inducing. But I'm past the age where I'll wake up in the middle of the night from a horror movie-influenced nightmare. Now that I'm older and I understand and respect the genre, I want a movie to be so scary that it keeps me up at nights. Children are the only ones who truly get scared that way by a movie.

At any rate, I now take advantage of the month of October to get caught up on all the classic horror movies I missed when I was a kid, and to stay a little bit on top of some of the better current ones. I also, of course, like to rewatch some favorites. And Helen and I like to introduce each other to movies the other hasn't seen. We have a lot we're trying to squeeze in this year. Here's what's on tap, in no particular order:

Alien and Aliens - Helen hasn't seen these yet, and it's been a long time since I have. I don't think we're going to go past the second one, though.

They Live

Westworld and Logan's Run - I'm not sure how "horror" these are, but they're movies I've been curious to see and they seem dark enough to fit the season.

Let the Right One In - Looking forward to this one; it was a critical sensation last year.

Child's Play - Despite the fact that Chucky has saturated pop culture, I've never seen this.

28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later - I didn't care for Days when I first saw it in 2003, and I skipped Weeks. Helen wants to see them, and I'm willing enough to give them another chance.

Soylent Green - Again, I'm not sure if this is horror so much as sci fi. This movie has been so influential on pop culture, I'm sure it will feel like I've seen it already.

Little Otik - This comes recommended from a friend. I know little about it, which is a rare experience. How exciting!

Midnight Meat Train - This comes highly recommended from highly trusted friends. Looking forward to it.

The Thing

Amityville Horror

Planet Terror - I haven't seen this since the theater; Helen hasn't seen it at all, and she's into zombies.

The Signal - I've heard good things about this little indie.

The Mist - The day Frank Darabont stops adapting Stephen King material is the day cinema loses something special.

The Woods - Another trusted friend recommendation.

The Fog

Teeth - A concept that I simply cannot allow to go unwatched.

Cat People/Curse of the Cat People - An old school horror film that comes recommended by Martin Scorsese, who I'll go ahead and consider a trustworthy source.

Feel free to leave recommendations in the comments. As you can see, my slate is already pretty full for this year -- I only get one month! -- but the worst-case scenario is I'll drop it down my Netflix list and then drag it back up next October.

Happy Halloween-month, everybody!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interview: Chris McKay [part 2]

Chris McKay began working at Shadow Machine in 2004, first as an editor, then later as producer and director on the hit animated series "Robot Chicken" and "Moral Orel." (Click here to read all about it.)

This Sunday, Cartoon Network debuts his latest directorial effort, "Titan Maximum" - a sci-fi adventure comedy from Tom Root and Matthew Senreich. "We're trying to make it look like a Michael Bay movie or a Tony Scott movie, you know? Something that's bigger than it is."

Your Daily Joe: How was "Titan Maximum" sold to the network? As a finished pilot? As a pilot script? As a series outline?

Chris McKay: I wasn't 100% involved in every aspect of that. First off, "Robot Chicken" does really well for Adult Swim, so they're gonna get more leeway maybe than somebody else going in with a project. But I think that the series bible, which is a pretty extensive bible that Tom and Matt have put together, was what sold the show. Cause the series bible had, really, the entire pilot broken down. It wasn't a script, but it was broken down beat-by-beat. It had an entire seasonal arc, and had in fact arcs for several seasons. It had a couple of episodes. It had really elaborate character descriptions and a really elaborate world overview. So the show was essentially sold on that. They got an order to do the scripts. And then when the scripts came in, they saw that they liked how the scripts were coming, so then they ordered us to go into production.

YDJ: Does Cartoon Network give you more freedom because of the success of the previous shows?

McKay: Adult Swim is a very creator-driven network. And I think that they're really good at giving really appropriate notes, and then also being hands-off in ways that a lot of other networks sort of meddle. Having edited at other places for other shows and things like that, it's a huge difference between Adult Swim and other networks. Because I think they focus on the right details and have very specific things to say, and then for the most part kind of leave you to create the show you want to do. And one of the smartest and probably kindest things that I ever heard from, I think it was Nick [Weidenfeld] at Adult Swim, was just, at one point he was talking about somebody's show and the thing I remember him saying was he wanted to make the show that that guy wanted to make. He was sort of giving a critical note about something, but it was like, "Look, here's what I want you to do with the show. But I only want you to do the show that you want to do. So this is my suggestion." That's their philosophy and it's really great to work with people like that who, when they have notes, they have great notes. And otherwise, they don't sit there and try to nitpick everything and focus-group it and all that kind of thing. They're a great network to work with. Really, they're artists themselves. Keith Crofford was a film producer. Nick understands story. So you know, they're real smart.

YDJ: For the storyboards and animatics, you're not the storyboard artist. How closely do you supervise? Are you hanging over the storyboard artist's shoulder the whole time?

McKay: No. These guys are artists. It's great to pick their brain, another point of view. What I do is just break down the shots in the script. So I'll highlight a certain area that I think, you know, we're gonna be on a medium shot of this character here, we're gonna dolly over here. I'll just write in these notes. And we'll probably talk about those notes a little bit. And then we'll probably talk about sort of overall tone. Like I'll say, "Well, the show is supposed to look like 'Battle of the Planets,' or 'Neon Genesis,' or 'Voltron.' So I want us to compose things like this. It should be a wide shot where we see this huge monitor behind them. We can frame this thing floor-to-ceiling and our character's only this tiny little thing in the frame. Because it's supposed to be a science-fiction movie, it's supposed to be a big scale, future world stuff."

So I'll talk to them about things like that. They'll do a pass on it. And then I'll get that into the system. And there'll be things that, you know, they'll see some idea and they'll say, "Hey, what if we tried this... Let me try this." And they'll pitch me an idea on how to do a scene or a shot or something like that, and I'll cut it in and we'll see if it works.

Sometimes I'll reframe things cause I want it to be a pop-zoom in or something. You'll realize something works better wider, so I'll push the board back so it makes it look like it's a wider shot. Or I'll have them do a revision. It's like, "No, that idea just doesn't work. This really needs to be told as a point-of-view shot, not as a following shot."

I think it's really important to, when you're working with guys like this -- I mean, these guys are artists -- to really use them as sounding boards and have them bring stuff to the table. It makes for a better show, ultimately.

YDJ: Are the storyboards usually there after the first pass, or do they go through a lot of revision?

McKay: It depends on the episode. Because sometimes it all depends on, do they get the tone of that story? And with "Robot Chicken," the tone can be changed every five seconds. So if they think that this is supposed to be super dark, and it's actually supposed to be super light, yeah, you're gonna get something back that you're gonna end up needing to revise. Or the eyeline is really supposed to be traveling right to left, not left to right, and without doing that then this whole idea is gonna become confusing. You know, sometimes there are those things where it's like somebody doesn't totally understand what the joke is. Like, the joke is that this thing is concealed, there's something that's concealed up until a specific moment.

Or there's a lot of the kinda crazier camera moves that I'll try to describe to somebody. And you can describe it to them 'til you're blue in the face. And ultimately it's like, sometimes I'll just take the camera onto a set, or put up some cardboard characters or some toys or something like that, and just go, "Nope, it's gotta go around them like this, and it's gonna feel like this." It's just about communication. These guys are really smart and mostly get it. I would say like 75% of the time, it's right on, and there's 25% changes.

YDJ: Do the animators rely mostly on the storyboards and animatics, or mostly on direction that you give them on the stages before they begin a shot?

McKay: Well, it's essential to have a storyboard, from a performance standpoint, that reflects what the idea is you're trying to get across. Or that, at the very least, reflects the stage direction that you want to try to get across. The animator -- because this is something that's done over an extended period of time -- relies on the storyboard heavily. And it's important to make sure that that board reflects your best idea at all times.

However, there are so many factors. And this is where animation and stop-motion is exactly like live-action filmmaking. Your set conditions, your animator's relative height, the costume, the wear-and-tear on the specific puppet they're using that day... all those things come into the factor as to how you're gonna get that shot done. So you will need to understand also how to adjust your plan at a moment's notice. [If] that puppet's eight inches tall, and the back of the set is twelve inches tall, pretty soon you realize, "Well, I can no longer shoot this camera low because my puppet's head is peaking up over the top of the set." And you can't put a ceiling on it, cause it's lit. So you gotta adjust your plan and figure out another way to shoot that. Plus, where's that animator gonna go? If it's on a smaller stage, how's your animator gonna fit in there without breaking their back?

And, again, the dialogue with the animator. Sometimes the animator comes to the table and they've got an idea about how this moment should play out. And it's really important to hear that, and listen to it, and see how that fits into it. Because these guys are awesome. They know human beings' behavior so well. Like I said, it's just like dealing with an actor. That's their instrument. Watching people, watching what people do, and understanding how that can be portrayed in this puppet.

YDJ: How many puppets do you make for one character, say a main character like Palmer?

McKay: The puppets are expensive, and time-consuming to make. And we need to use them for, in this particular case, an entire ten-episode cycle. For "Moral Orel," it was 20 episodes.

For a main character like Palmer, there's probably ten of them. There's probably half a dozen flight suit ones, and we had a couple in his leather jacket, and then we had a [bare chest] one for the volleyball scene. But yeah, those ten puppets have to last.

We have fifteen stages. Between twelve and fourteen animators working at a time. So at any moment, there's an excellent chance you're gonna need Palmer. And so you have to be careful how you schedule it. If you don't think smart about how you're gonna use your sets and how you're gonna use your puppets, you'll just fuckin' screw yourself. Because then you'll have an animator just sitting there not doing anything, and that could be, not only could that just be that shot blown, that could be your ability to get an entire set up there and built by the end of the season. So you have to realize and think about that ahead of time.

And, you know, it's also a costuming thing. The flight suits are an elaborate costume to make. And we have one person who does all the costumes. She has a team of interns that come in and help her out. But there is one person in charge of costumes, and that is a fucking huge job. Any extra puppet needs a costume. So you really need to be careful.

YDJ: Will they be able to use the same puppets to shoot season two, or will they need to build a whole new crop?

McKay: They'll probably take a look and see who's still a workable puppet. I mean, some of those puppets will end up getting repurposed as background puppets maybe. But they'll probably have an assessment, probably the animation director [will] go over the puppets that are left and check them for weakness and strength, and go from there.

YDJ: You have fifteen stages going at a time. You're shooting all ten episodes of the season simultaneously. How do you keep all of that straight?

McKay: [laughing] Some people would say not well, depending on who you talk to. But that's part of the job. You have to be really clear about where you're going. You have to understand the arcs of where the characters are going for these scenes and stuff like that. And you gotta check your notes and be thorough. And then, hopefully you've got a good team of people. You know, great animation director, great lead animator, great animators and production designer, DP [director of photography], people there to help you out. Schedulers and people like that are able to help you out and just remind you, "Don't forget, we're gonna need that thing over here. You're gonna need to do this, you're gonna need to do that." So that's definitely a huge part of my responsibility. You're telling a story over time, so you better know that stuff rock solid.

YDJ: This show was made on a larger scale, with larger puppets and larger sets than both "Robot Chicken" and "Moral Orel." What was behind that decision?

McKay: That's just because we wanted more expressive characters. "Robot Chicken" is based on toys, so everything needs to be Mego scale, because we might end up using a Mego toy in it. So it's eight-inch scale. And that's because it's easy to find costumes and props and things like that that we might need. If you need a baseball bat or a machine gun or a club, instead of having somebody build that you can go to a toy store and find something that is appropriate, find a costume. So that's why we kinda stay with "Robot Chicken" in eight-inch.

[With "Titan Maximum"] we jumped into twelve-inch for the performance aspect of it, cause you get more detail. The more an animator can get their hands on the puppet and manipulate that puppet, the better the performance you're gonna get.

YDJ: Was it more expensive to make "Titan" on the larger scale?

McKay: Yeah, because the sets have to be bigger. And our [production] building should be bigger. To be able to really do this show, and do this show well, our building should be bigger. Because, you know, we're trying to figure out ways to not see off the set. And when you got a puppet that's four inches taller than the Mego set, that means your set at least needs to be four inches taller. And again, probably more, because to get that wider shot, you're gonna need to go back further. So it's a huge increase in cost, and time-consuming in planning.

YDJ: So whose decision was it to spend more on this show - the creative team at Shadow, or the network?

McKay: I'm sure there was a negotiation. I'm sure there was a very unrealistic number from the network's perspective that we came up with, and that was probably shot down. [Then Shadow] came back down to a number that was closer to what a "Robot Chicken" budget is. We're really not that far from a "Robot Chicken" budget. We just had to figure out a smart way to use it.

But here's the thing. On "Robot Chicken," you have to change your sets every five seconds because it's a sketch comedy show. Here, we can keep the sets up longer. So that, over time, becomes a cost-saver. Because then you can figure out ways to reuse that set or to use it in another episode, or when some big location is called for, where it's "Let's go to the exterior of the Titan base," and I as a director and producer go, "Well, I already have the hangar set up. Why don't we set the scene in the hangar? It's up, it's lit, it requires these same puppets that are already there. Let's do it there, because then we don't have to take a set down or somebody has to build a set. They can concentrate on something else, and we can shoot that scene there."

YDJ: How much influence do you have on the scripts as a director, and how much influence do the writers have on your direction? Are there ever any major conflicts when you want to change a location to save time and money, and maybe they feel it ruins something story-wise?

McKay: I wouldn't say that I influence the writing very much. I probably give some performance notes, or I might say you don't need this dialogue exchange here because a shot would do a better job than this dialogue exchange. But it's not like I'm sitting in the writer's room with Tom and the rest of the guys telling them how this thing should get written.

And at the same time, they're not necessarily telling me how this thing should get directed. They are the producers and they are the creators, so their input is obviously something I'm super interested in understanding because the shows comes from their minds and their point of view. But they give me a lot of free rein to do a lot of stuff with it. I mean, when I edit the animatic, you know, they [write] "Spud falls out of a balcony," but it's up to me whether that fall is two seconds or we try to make it funny over a minute.

But there's things like that. How that dialogue scene gets shot and, you know, how sympathetic or not sympathetic this character is, or whose point-of-view we're seeing it from. I mean, all of those things are part of the director's job. But if you're a director who's not trying to figure out what your writers' intent is, then you're not doing your job as a director. Cause again, it came from their minds and you have to respect that and build from that.

But they trust me. And I trust them. So it's great. This is the best working relationship that I've ever had, and there are conflicts every day. You're gonna run into those conflicts. And ultimately, everyone has to learn how to figure it out and trust each other and get along. Our relationship works great. But we run into those problems all the time, because that's the nature of doing this job. It's a highly collaborative job done under incredibly constrictive time and budget restraints.

YDJ: There's a lot more computer generated imagery in this series than any previous Shadow Machine show. Should we expect a fully CG show in the near future?

McKay: I imagine. And part of the reason why we're trying out the CG stuff here is to figure out a smart way to incorporate that in other shows. And I'm sure that there's other shows that they're pitching that would be CG shows. You know, it's all filmmaking.

Stop-motion is one of the most fun. It's amazing how endearing a real puppet can be compared to some other kind of art, whether that's CG or Flash-based. This stuff is made by people putting their hands on this thing and using their instincts one frame at a time to tell a story, to deliver an emotion. So it's an incredibly personal art form. There's nothing like stop-motion. And this company has made its name, and will continue to do stuff with that I'm sure. But they're an animation company. They want to try other things. And they're a filmmaking company. They probably want to do some live-action stuff at some point. It's just a matter of what's right for the project, what's right for that thing. And right now, for these projects, stop-motion is the right thing.

But you know, we've experimented with some stuff. Done paper cut-out things. You know, animated different things in "Robot Chicken" to try different forms out. You know, that's what's great about doing a sketch comedy show like that, is you can try different things out, see what works and what doesn't. But yeah, I think that they'll definitely experiment with other things. And it's fun, because animation, at its heart, is the purest form of filmmaking.

YDJ: What's next for you personally? Do you have shows you'd like to pitch for Adult Swim? Do you want to get back to making features?

McKay: Yeah, I hope to pitch some shows to Adult Swim, as well as develop my own stuff. After "Titan Maximum" is over, I'm gonna take a little bit of time and, you know, do some writing and pitch some shows. So yeah, I'd love to work on a show as a creator. But right now, today, every day is about learning something and growing. And so being able to do this, work for really strong, really great producers who give me a lot of freedom, has been a really great learning experience. And right now, that's been the most important thing to me. Hopefully I'll be able to get a show on Adult Swim or some other network. But this, right now, has been the most fun for me. And I'm gonna start taking steps to chip away at that next thing when I get a little more free time. But it's a 24/7 job to produce a show like this, so that's what I'm concentrating on right now.

YDJ: And you get to play with toys for a living.

McKay: Yes, exactly. Can't beat that.

"Titan Maximum" airs Sundays at 11:30 PM on Cartoon Network, beginning September 27.

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