One of the great benefits of the combined emergence of YouTube and DIY digital special effects is the popularization of the fan film: a short movie or fake trailer starring some of pop culture’s biggest IPs. Here are some of our favorites.
One of the great benefits of the combined emergence of YouTube and DIY digital special effects is the popularization of the fan film: a short movie or fake trailer starring some of pop culture’s biggest IPs, lovingly made (with zero permission from the rights holders) and produced. They often have startlingly good results, nailing the characterizations, beats and feel of the comics, games, books, movies or whatever else it is they’re adapting. Here are some of our favorites.
Batman: Dead End (aka Batman Vs. Predator)
Batman: Dead End is matched only by the Rocksteady Batman videogames and Batman: The Animated Series in its ability to truly capture the look and feel of the best Batman comics and bring them to life. Directed by Sandy Collora in 2003, it’s an amazing feat of storytelling, action and makeup, as Batman squares off against the Joker, Predator, and another special guest. One of the most popular fan films ever, and for good reason.
Similar in feel to Batman: Dead End, Superman/Batman is a love letter to both heroes. The authenticity here is astonishing; several shots are taken straight from Alex Ross’ artwork, and the titular heroes themselves seem as if they stepped right out from one of the comic book artist’s paintings. The plot is a loose adaptation of the “Public Enemies” storyline, but works in a lot more (the Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle, the interplay and differences between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent). Great stunts, choreography and building tension. Maybe an actual Superman/Batman movie could work?
PAC-MAN The Movie (The Fan Film) (aka Project Yellow Sphere)
Pac-Man will always be one of the best videogames of all time, but it has never really had any appeal beyond its core gameplay. Which is why this short film, written and directed by James Farr, is all the more incredible. PAC-MANThe Movie is a marvel of special effects and compelling story, presenting Pac-Man as a kind of friendly lab creation (think the Iron Giant in the shape of a small yellow circle that eats pellets and cherries), and his ghost-eating romps are actually training sessions. Somehow, you come out of this dazzled and loving Pac-Man the character, which has never really happened in any medium before, including the games.
The Legend of Zelda
This maybe stretches the definition of “fan film,” as it was made by IGN Entertainment as an April Fool’s prank, but it would be unfair to leave out. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, is one of the most beloved games of all time, and the idea of a big-budget film adaptation is actually feasible; the Zelda series is the closest games have come to something like Lord of the Rings. This fake trailer pays loving tribute to the franchise and fans’ ideal adaptation, with the costumes and characters all looking and sounding just like they do in the game, in addition to some impressive looking “bosses.” Too bad it was all a gag, but maybe Hollywood will wise up one day.
No list of internet fan films would be complete without a Star Wars entry. Saber, written and directed by Adam Green, is the story of two women who end up in a lightsaber duel after trying to pick up the same guy. It’s a little risque, but very, very funny, with great editing, reaction shots, and effects – in a way, it captures everything great about Star Wars. Saber deservedly won the 2009 Fan Movie Challenge by Lucasfilm, and a sequel has been announced.
With June being Audiobook Month, Flightpath took the opportunity to speak with audiobook producer John McElroy about the impact digital distribution has had on the business and much more.
While the publishing industry – and pretty much every other traditional media business – has had its struggles in adapting to digital, one facet of the book world quietly, and successfully, embraced the non-physical platform early on: audiobooks. The audiobook business has been slowly growing over the last decade, with digital distribution playing a large role in increased production, sales and visibility. In 2011, downloads accounted for 52% of unit sales and 36% of dollar volume, and look no further than Amazon’s purchase of Audible as evidence of the upward swing that digital “books on tape” – a term that really no longer applies – have taken.
John McElroy is the four-time Grammy winning producer, director and abridger of audiobooks such as America by Jon Stewart, Don’t Eat This Book by Morgan Spurlock and I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert, and for years has been one of the industry’s most in-demand creators. With June being Audiobook Month, Flightpath took the opportunity to speak with McElroy about his start in audio, the impact digital distribution has had on the business, and the (inordinate) amount of time it took to download an audiobook in the days of dial-up.
Flightpath: I want to start off with your personal story. How did you get into publishing and audio?
John McElroy: Publishing was really kind of by default. I’d just finished my Masters degree in English Literature, and I decided I didn’t want to go on for my PhD, and you know, what the hell else had I been trained for? I decided I’d go into publishing. I liked books, I knew about books. Of course, I didn’t know anything about publishing books. But I went into publishing, became the executive assistant to the Senior Vice-President of Sales and Marketing [at Penguin Putnam], who later became the President of Penguin (USA).
And I met a friend there, who was kind of a special assistant to the president. When I subsequently went back to graduate school, I got a phone call from him one day, saying, “Hey, I’ve just become the head of Penguin Audiobooks.” I said, “Audiobooks? You mean like, spoken word?” Because I had just never heard that term, “audiobooks.” When I was a kid I used to listen to LPs of Boris Karloff reading X, or Basil Rathbone reading Y. But I never heard the term, audiobooks.
So I started doing abridgments. This would be like, 1993 or 1994. In those days, the trade publishers were not putting anything but abridgments out there. The standard abridgment was about three hours, so you could imagine taking novels and cutting them down to a three-hour format. It was A) a challenge and B) there wasn’t much left. But I did probably 60 abridgments in my first year, and I realized that I didn’t like working with other producers. I decided to go out on my own. I started as an independent producer. I picked up gigs, not only abridging, but producing the project as well.
Flightpath: Was it hard when you started out, to go from abridging, which is one thing, to then having to direct people in the studio – their inflections, accents, and voices? It seems like a totally different skill.
John McElroy: That’s true. First of all, it helps to be A) well-read and B) socially at-ease. But you certainly do build skill as you go along. I think when I started out, I was very, very afraid to ask for more than two takes of something. I would back off a bit. You just realize, you know, people are there to get it done right, you need it done right. And if one take doesn’t work, you need two. And if two takes don’t work, you need three.
As a kid, I played a lot of music. You also develop a kind of musical ear. You have a sense of, “Well, that doesn’t really work. The inflection there doesn’t make any sense. The interpretation of the line doesn’t make any sense.” Occasionally, and you have to watch this with highly trained talent, you have to give them line readings. Some people appreciate it, some people don’t. [Laughs] But I don’t think there’s any way of preparing for this short of experience. You have to get involved, throw yourself in, and sink or swim.
Flightpath: Was there a specific big break for you?
John McElroy: My biggest break, I suppose, was in 1997. I was assigned to do the recordings for Charles Kuralt reading Winnie-the-Pooh. For people who don’t know who Charles Kuralt was, he was a big television journalist, who traveled all over the U.S., and had a [spoken in Walter Cronkite-esque voice] very famous rumbling way of speaking. He was a big Winnie-the-Pooh fan and it seemed to make sense.
About a month after Kuralt finished doing this, he died. And it was because of this, the Grammy people decided to nominate him for Best Spoken Word for Children. I was actually named in the award. It was, “Produced by John McElroy and read by Charles Kuralt.” I said, “Oh, jeez. How am I going to win a Grammy Award? It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” As we got closer and closer to Grammy time, the publisher began to think it’s a real possibility – we can win this thing. And we did. I’ve been lucky to win three others afterward.
Flightpath: What’s your favorite out of all the audiobooks you’ve made?
John McElroy: Well, I loved John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It was the first time it was ever recorded in its entirety. Dylan Baker [read it and] did a fabulous job. I hired a harmonica player to give me a series of kind of dustbowl pieces that I could use to mix into the project, and I think that really enriched it.
I loved working on both Jon Stewart [audiobooks]. They’re very different approaches [than regular audiobooks]. Very heavily mixed, lots of sound effects and sound gags. Relatively complex for an audiobook.
Flightpath: They’re almost like a new form of comedy album to me. They’re a little different from the actual book, they have sound effects, and they’re made to be funny. But they’re not like anything else.
John McElroy: You know, that’s probably right, which is probably the reason the Grammy people kicked audiobooks out of the Comedy Album category. They think of the comedy album in terms of, “Eddie Murphy Live” and “Richard Pryor Live,” that kind of classic stand-up recorded live routine, and there’s something to that. One of the things about comedy and acting is, you work dialectically with the audience. The audience reacts to you, other people on the stage react to you, and that’s what creates the chemistry that makes the thing work. When you’re recording audiobooks, you’re alone in a booth. And in putting together those [audiobooks] with the cast of The Daily Show and Jon Stewart, they’re just incredibly funny people. Those little sound bites really work wonderfully, but you do need to weave them together and you do need to create a base of sound effects and ambiance that stitches it all together to make it funny, or to sustain the comedy. Those are what, four-hour programs? Four hours of comedy is hard to sustain. And I think it often does sustain itself in those albums, so I think they’re fairly successful.
Flightpath: You’ve seen the publishing industry go through a lot of changes, both print-wise and on the audiobook end. With digital, all the old forms of media have taken their lumps. How do you think publishing, with audiobooks, is handling the transition to digital?
John McElroy: The funny thing about the audiobook side of things is, we were involved in the digital side of things long before the print side was. We were actually creating these programs on Digital Audio Tapes – DATs – in the 90s, and we were recording to Pro Tools digital audio workstations. When the tapes went out and we started to record to CDs and hard disks, we no longer had to work in real time. We could process things far faster than we could ever process them in the past. In the past, if you needed to roll out an eight hour audiobook, you needed to do that in real time. But all of a sudden we could process things hundreds of times more quickly.
The cost of production dropped significantly. When cost dropped, you could produce not just three-hour audiobooks, but six-hour audiobooks and nine-hour audiobooks. Now we’re in an environment where almost no abridgment occurs. And the orders of magnitude in productivity, from the early 90s to now, is just phenomenal.
Flightpath: Do you think that as things go more towards digital downloads, something is lost in not having the physical artifact?
John McElroy: I’m skeptical of that. I think that there are some people who do love to have the physical artifact, to hold it. I can see that much more in the world of print, because that object is large enough, it’s visually attractive enough. That’s less the case in audiobooks, I think. It’s a miniaturized package of the book, so the art is blown down, you’ve got shrink wrap on top of it. You know, I guess there are people who really enjoy owning them.
I’m a big consumer of audiobooks myself. I’m very happy with the downloaded version. There are digital rights management issues that make me a little uncomfortable; I bought this thing, why shouldn’t I be able to lend it to someone without any difficulty? But it’s a challenging environment in which to protect intellectual property, and I guess you need to make some allowances for that. Look, I can go away with an iPod or my iPad, and I’ve got 15 audiobooks on it. I’m a big enthusiast of the digital distribution of audiobooks.
Flightpath: And how has digital distribution impacted you both as a creator and as someone in business for yourself in the industry? Has it changed anything on either end of the spectrum?
John McElroy: Yeah. Let’s put it this way: My profit margins have gotten much narrower, but the volume of production that I do has grown enormously. Five years ago, I would do – and you could make a fair income off of this – maybe 45 productions in a year. I’ve done about 55 productions in the first half of this year. So, the tidal wave of content out there is huge. And I’m not sure what to make of that. I’m not a publisher, so I don’t really have full insight into that, but my guess is that publishers are struggling to get as much out there as possible so that they can cash in on any opportunity that may arise. They’re willing to take as many risks as possible, and because the cost of production has come down so much, it makes it a far less risky proposition to do the number of audiobooks that are now being done.
Flightpath: Do you think digital distribution will have a negative impact in terms of fewer special features produced, such as author interviews, or less of an investment being made for high-quality sound and sound effects?
John McElroy: Even when audiobooks attain some level of complexity – let’s say the Jon Stewart pieces or the Star Wars audiobooks – they’re not so complex that you can’t go to a distributor and say, “Can’t we sell this with a higher definition codec that’s not mono and acknowledges the full range of material that’s in the program?” And my guess is that most distributors will realize that, yeah, we can’t turn a heavily mixed stereo product into a successful mono product. To that extent, it’s very much in the interests of the distributors to accommodate, and my feeling is that they’re not going to have to do that awfully much. As bandwidth grows, as the speed of computers goes up up up up, and the sophistication of codecs develop, you just have to be able to retain a certain level of quality in the downloads. Are they same quality that you would get out of a CD right now? Probably not. But it’s good enough to really sit and listen and enjoy the tales being told on audiobooks.
And I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The digital distribution of audiobooks has grown many times over the past five or six years, and it shows no signs of stopping. You have extremely successful young adult books, you have people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s listening avidly, and everything in between. It really doesn’t show any sign of going away.
Flightpath: I remember when Audible launched. I don’t know if people were sure what was going to happen with it, but now it’s a household name.
John McElroy: Audible was around in the mid-90s. If you saw what they used to download things onto – I think it was called the Rio – I’d be shocked if those players held anything more than a hundred megabytes.
Flightpath: It could hold like, three paragraphs from a book.
John McElroy: [Laughs] Well, it was a heavily compressed format, so it was not full fidelity by any means. And because almost everybody by that point was using dial-up, you’d download these things overnight. I guess a 10-hour book would probably take around that long to download.
Flightpath: You could read the book in that time!
John McElroy: Exactly right! I thought they were kind of looney. But you know, things change. And they really saw around the corner. When broadband internet took off, so did Audible. I think I downloaded War and Peace in 15 minutes or something. This company [became] a public company, and then a company purchased by Amazon. And Amazon certainly knows something about distribution over the internet.
Flightpath: Do you think audiobooks is the one form that has really benefited from digital distribution?
John McElroy: I don’t really know enough to say that. [Laughs] But if my business is representative of anything, it’s the huge increase in volume of audiobook production in the United States. Just go to a site like Audible.com and see the number of audiobooks available. It’s pretty staggering.
Viral and social media marketing are commonplace for pretty much everything now, but have become essential for summer movies. Whether it’s a Facebook presence or a sly viral campaign, getting people excited about your movie now happens in the digital space more than any other. Here are two movies with the most creative viral campaigns of the summer.
There’s been a steady release of Prometheus (the maybe it is, maybe it isn’t Alien prequel by director Ridley Scott) trailers that have been whetting the appetites of sci-fi nerds everywhere. Yet the marketing team has done a lot more. There’s the fun Facebook app, “Discovering Prometheus,” which allows you to click on floating orbs, added each week, that contain new info such as images, character bios and more. There’s the unprecedented Prometheus Viral campaign, featuring online-only videos with major characters and special effects. But nothing is perhaps better than Ridley Scott’s short film introducing major Prometheus/Alien character, Peter Weyland, that debuted/took place (in 2023) at the TED Conference. It’s art, it’s social commentary and it’s also a nifty piece of movie marketing. Brilliant.
The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises has taken another path in getting people excited (as if they weren’t enough already): audience participation. In a really fun campaign, Warner Brothers announced a new trailer on TheDarkKnightRises.com, but to see it, fans needed to help the Gotham City Police Department in tracking down the Caped Crusader. (Remember, at the end of The Dark Knight, Batman is on the run from the police.) It started with an arrest warrant posted online, and then fans were asked to track down bat-signal graffiti from all over the world. Warner provided the addresses, and the fans found them (perhaps unsurprisingly, they did so pretty quickly). Deceptively simple, but engaging.
Above: One of the first graffiti finds by Twitter user @Yashasmitta.
The “Gave It A Good Try” Award Goes To:
Men In Black III
The Men In Black saga has been gone a long time, but with its conspiracy/secret-aliens-among-us themes, it’s kind of perfect for today’s viral and social trends. And that’s exactly the route its marketing has taken. A YouTube account under the name Bugeyes126 popped up, in which a kid (Bugeyes) discusses his conspiracy theories about government agents in black suits and the aliens they track. It never really caught on (there are 45 (!) videos under the account, with most only getting a couple hundred views), and probably for a couple of reasons: the kid seems like he’s acting, which kinda spoils the fun, and there’s not enough of an incentive to really invest any time with the videos. Could’ve been fun. Maybe next time.
Concluding Flightpath’s two-part interview (in case you missed it, here’s part one) with Jessica Chobot of G4 and IGN, the videogame and tech reporter talks the impact of smartphones on portable gaming, when we’ll know games have really been accepted into the mainstream, and why she sometimes enjoys checking out bad games just as much as the good ones.
Flightpath: Portable gaming is in a weird place right now, especially with smartphones having a bigger impact and being more of a threat to Nintendo and Sony than anyone may have thought. Where do you see the portable gaming industry going in relation to what’s happening with smartphone games?
Jessica Chobot: I think you’re gonna always have a market for handheld consoles in regards to PS Vita and 3DS and DS in general. But I don’t know if that market will grow beyond what it already has within it. The console market for portables, in that regard, I think might be cornered, because of the fact that the games on things like the iPad or your smartphone are getting to the point where they’re just as entertaining or just as beautiful or just as good. And [they are] a little bit more available for your everyday person that might not consider themselves a gamer, but doesn’t realize that they’ve spent 50 hours playing Farmville or Infinity Blade. So I don’t think that the handheld market is necessarily going to go away, I just think that maybe it’s going to continue on the path that it already has established. And if anything, because of those systems having to keep up with things like the iPad, [they’re adapting]. An example would be the PS Vita – now it has apps and it’s starting to develop ways within itself to compete with tablets and phones and things of that nature. It would be interesting to see what would happen to it maybe in the next 10 years versus like, the next three. I think there needs to be a little bit more time and better defined lines of what games on tablets can do versus what games on portable consoles can do.
Flightpath: I think a lot of gamers feel that games don’t earn enough respect. I think back to Roger Ebert saying games are not art, and the reaction against him online was very strong. But I think they’ve arrived in the mainstream, especially since there’s a channel like G4.
Jessica Chobot: I think they’re becoming more and more respected, obviously because of the accessibility of casual games – even though I hate that phrase – that you’d find on your smartphones and iPads. It’s introducing that world to a whole new group of people that might not have given videogames the time of day before. By giving them even just that small little intro through a Japan Life or a Sims game or an Angry Birds game – or however they end up find themselves within this group of gamers that they might not have ever thought of themselves in – they’re also going to have an understanding and respect for the other gamers that are really involved, that have the PlayStation 3, the PS Vita, the Wii U.
What I’d like to see is that videogames are no longer used for an excuse when bad things happen in society. Once that goes away, that’ll in my mind, be the height of when videogames have earned that respect. And I think they’re on that way because of the fact that games are accessible and open to more people, and the people that grew up with things like an NES, the original PlayStation, the Dreamcast and the first Xbox – those people are getting older and having families of their own and they used to play all the time, and they understand that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Flightpath: The same thing happened with comics and with rock n’ roll.
Jessica Chobot: Rock n’ roll’s my favorite example. Everybody’s like, “I can’t believe these groups of kids nowadays! They’re shooting up their schools because they’re playing too much Gears of War!” That’s the exact same argument that you, when you were a teenager, would get angry about in regards to your parents saying that Elvis couldn’t be shown from the hips down, because all the girls were going to burst out into whoredom. It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. So to me, that will be the ultimate sign of respect from society, is when society stops using videogames as an excuse for when something goes wrong within it.
As far as games not being art, it’s not even worth arguing with [Ebert] about, because in my mind he’s completely wrong. He’s just wrong. I don’t understand where he thinks the images from within games and advertising work comes from. I don’t even understand that. And I believe the Smithsonian actually has a section or has declared that videogames are art, and they’re actually accepting videogame conceptual art pieces. So yeah, when the Smithsonian says it’s okay, I think Ebert should just learn to be quiet. Of course, he backtracked. It was a completely ignorant statement on his part, and it just goes to show the generation gap.
Flightpath: It reminds me of what Pete Townsend once said about rap music. He didn’t say whether he liked it or not, but he said something like, “It’s just our generation’s job to get out of the way.” I thought that was very smart.
Jessica Chobot: Yeah. Even if he was to say he doesn’t like it, it’s fine to have an opinion and not like something. But it’s not okay to dismiss it across the board. Everybody’s allowed their opinion, but it’s another thing to just make a flat out statement and say everybody else is wrong and you’re right.
Flightpath: Reviews for videogames, particularly online, tend to have a real importance for both the market and for developers. Maybe more than any other entertainment or arts field. Why do you think that is?
Jessica Chobot: That’s a good question. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. They’re paid so much attention to because usually the people who are writing the reviews are hardcore fans themselves. Because they are such fans themselves, they really can speak the same language and reach out to the demographic that’s going to read them. Maybe I’m the exception to the rule, but I very rarely buy or not buy a game based off of somebody’s review. I’ll definitely read reviews just because I just want to hear what the game is about and what their experience was. But if I’m curious about that game, I will remain curious about that game and I’ll still go out and buy it even if that person eventually says you shouldn’t. Sometimes I buy it just because they say I shouldn’t and I’m like, “Oh, why is it so bad?” [Laughs]
Flightpath: The Mystery Science Theater 3000 aspect.
Jessica Chobot: Yeah, totally. And a lot of the people that I know still do that too. They’ll read the reviews and they’ll educate themselves. But at the end of the day they make the final decision. So I don’t know. Maybe the reason that the reviews are so taken to heart is just because these people are speaking the same language and they’re gamers the same as you and I, and they can walk the walk and talk the talk. So whether you agree with them or not, you’re still interested in what they have to say. And that’s probably both good and bad.
Gaming journalism went through a phase a couple years back – and it’s still there, it’ll never really go away – of self-importance and for lack of a better phrase, [an] “our shit doesn’t stink” attitude, and how they’re entitled to know everything upfront. That, I’m glad to see, has kind of fallen by the wayside. Because at the end of the day, this is a business. It’s a great, awesome, fun business, but it is a business. And people’s jobs are on the line, and people’s reputations are on the line, and they’ve got families that they’re raising now so they need these paychecks. To have that kind of fanboy-flaming reporting on games is not the best way to approach it.
Flightpath: What’s a typical day like at G4 for you?
Jessica Chobot: It’s kind of the same as it was when I was with IGN. I’ll just get assigned certain things and I’ll do the research on them, whether it’s reading articles that other people have written and then playing the game myself, if it involves games. The biggest difference between IGN and G4 for me is that at IGN, I pretty much covered mostly games, and what was going on in the gaming industry. G4, I cover a little bit more about the culture as well. We [just] did a shoot with Gentle Giant, and we did a shoot with a DJ – things that aren’t necessarily about videogames, but people into videogames might also be into these things. So that’s cool. It actually has helped to do a little bit more and not lock me into one particular thing. A lot of what I’m doing over at G4 is less studio-based and a little bit more out-and-about and interacting with people and kind of on-the-fly, which I also really like. Because as much as I enjoyed doing The Daily Fix over at IGN, I was very limited as far as the personality I could bring across, because I have three minutes to tell you the news and that’s it. Whereas at these events for G4 where I’m going out there and reporting on stuff, I can have a little bit more of my personality come out and show people what it is about these things that I also find interesting and fun. So that’s nice.
Flightpath: Is it different shooting things that are going out on TV as opposed to the Web? Do you feel more nervous or present yourself on camera differently?
Jessica Chobot: I actually find working for TV a little bit easier. At the end of the day, a dot com is a dot com, and you’ve got smaller budgets and limited resources as far as who’s available to help shoot and put together a production. Whereas a TV station, that is what they’re dedicated to, and so it makes things a little bit smoother.
But as far as me being in front of the camera and nervous and things like that, no. That’s actually not there. If anything, it’s making me improve faster because now I feel like there’s more of a variety of demographic watching me versus just hardcore gamers. And so I’ve got to learn to approach things that also then allows those people to be included in what it is I’m talking about. So I’ve learned to still have that fanboyism that I have for certain things, but try and make it as open to anybody that wants to view it.
Flightpath: And what can we look forward to in 2012 from Jessica Chobot on G4 or anywhere else?
Jessica Chobot: There’s some things coming out that are gonna be announced soon that I can’t necessarily talk about, but definitely keep your eyes peeled because they’re pretty awesome. Both in a videogame sense [Chobot was revealed to be playing a character featuring her own likeness in Mass Effect 3 shortly after this interview. – Dan] and in a non-videogame related sense. The one thing about doing what I do now is I’m able to go out and do things that aren’t even related to videogames at all, and that’s working out well, also.
And then within G4, I’ll definitely be doing more reporting for them, for both X-Play and for Attack of the Show, and covering games and culture. I think we’ve got a couple of Rad Jobs segments coming up, and then also some of the games that I got to see at CES will be showing up – hands-on [time] with Bioware and the Kinect and how Mass Effect works with that, and then the Wii U, I finally got some hands-on time with. All that stuff is pretty interesting.
So, there’s some things coming. [Sighs] Oh, how can I say it? Just really keep your eyes peeled in the next month. [Laughs]
Few have mastered the art of smart-meets-fun tech and videogame reporting like Jessica Chobot. After a tongue-in-cheek photo of Chobot licking a Sony PSP went viral in 2005, she caught the attention of gaming site IGN, known for its authoritative reviews but less for its video content. That would change, as Chobot – an anime, videogame and tech nerd of the highest degree – became a writer and on-air host for the site, shepherding The Daily Fix, IGN Strategize and Weekly ‘Wood to high popularity. Transitioning to videogame/tech TV channel G4 last year, Chobot has emerged as one of the station’s rising stars, bringing her wry sense of humor and genuine enthusiasm to programs like Proving Ground as well as on-the-street reporting. Fresh from CES, Chobot recently spoke with Flightpath about her early days at IGN, the evolution of her in-front-of-the-camera style, and why a refrigerator was one of the highlights of CES.
Flightpath: When you started at IGN, I remember as a fan, it seemed like they threw you right into the fire doing hosting and event coverage and writing.
Jessica Chobot: The writing part wasn’t so bad. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was not nearly as good as I thought I was at the time. I’m kind of ashamed of what I wrote, actually. [Laughs] But you know, you always have to start somewhere. And that’s actually what I really wanted to do, was to be a writer/games reviewer for the site. However, I was only kind of doing it as a freelancer, and strictly for a paid section of our site, IGN Insider. So it was a pretty light gig, but I was still doing that out of Michigan at the time. And I wanted a full-time job at IGN. So, I told them what my goals were and that if they ever had any openings to call me, and they finally did. The opening though, was to do game reviews for cell phone games. And at the time, smartphones hadn’t come out yet. They weren’t really on the horizon any time soon.
Flightpath: So these were like the Pong versions of today’s mobile games.
Jessica Chobot: Oh, very, very basic games like Snake and things of that nature. Any game that went above and beyond just that, it was a worthy effort but they were never very good. And I didn’t like them, and I didn’t want to do that. Those were not games that I wanted to review, so I went ahead and said no thank you, and then hung up with them and realized, “Oh God, that was a huge mistake. I probably should have just said, ‘I’ll take it,’ and get over there – get over there being go to California – and work my way through the ranks.” So I called them back about 30 minutes later after the first phone call and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about it and I’d love to revisit this conversation, because it sounds like a great opportunity.” And they were like, “Sorry, it’s gone,” and then basically hung up on me.
And then for a week I was just crushed, because I thought I’d pissed away my opportunity to get out of Michigan and to do something within the videogame world. About a week later, a different person from IGN called me and said, “Hey, we’re looking to start doing videos and we need a host. Would you be interested?” I absolutely hated being on camera. I’m used to it now – I still get nervous now, but I know what to expect and how to control it. But at the time, I’d never done anything even remotely like hosting or being on camera and trying to make it sound natural and all that stuff. But I just kinda said, “Yeah,” just to get my foot in the door, and I wasn’t going to make the same mistake that I did with the first offer. So I accepted the position, moved out to California, and just did the whole sink-or-swim thing, and managed to swim pretty decently. If you look back at the stuff when I first started, I have a really thick mid-Western accent, you can tell that I’m really nervous, and it was very amateur hour. But it was good, because it was amateur hour for IGN too. They’d never had a video team before, and so over the next four to five years, we grew and learned how to do all of that stuff together. So yeah, it was one of those trial by fire moments, and it worked out. [Laughs] I got really lucky.
Flightpath: And as that took off, was it hard to enjoy games like you used to, as you got more and more entrenched in the industry?
Jessica Chobot: Yes and no. Yes, in the fact that there’s so much coming out all the time, and there’s so much news coming out all the time. I feel currently too, that I go through stages where I feel overwhelmed and want nothing to do with games. But at the end of the day, that is what I love. I love this job, I love videogames, I love the people that work within the industry; I love everything about it. I always come back to sitting down and playing and really getting invested in it. The one thing I have learned though, is that to keep myself from getting burnt out as often, I only try and play the games that I really, really like. I’ll play a little bit of everything, but I really focus on the types of games that speak to me as a gamer, and that helps to keep me from feeling like it’s just this never-ending beat down of titles. So it actually worked out to my advantage – getting a job as host at IGN – because if I was to be an editor, I would have to play everything all the way through, no matter what. And so now I have to know what’s going on, but I get a little bit more freedom to be able to focus on the things that I like.
Flightpath: After you became a host, you eventually developed this style of being very funny but also informative, and that’s carried over to what you’re doing with G4. Is that something you wanted to achieve or did it just come naturally?
Jessica Chobot: You know, I think practice makes perfect, so in that sense, it was something I wanted to achieve. I would watch all of my shows and see the things I didn’t like and try to fix them while I was doing it. But also, I’m kind of a big goofball. That part comes naturally. I have no problem making fun of myself, and I have no problem making fun of others, and I have no problem having them making fun of me! And I actually find that that is the best way to approach it, because at the end of the day, this industry is fun. It’s all about fun. You can get philosophical about it – it makes billions of dollars, blah blah blah. You can talk about all the dry stuff, but at its core, it’s about playing games. And for me, I find that having a sense of humor and approaching things with a serious eye but a light-hearted attitude is the best way to make it entertaining for myself and for others.
Flightpath:You just covered CES for G4. What was the coolest thing you saw?
Jessica Chobot: That’s tough. I really liked the Toshiba glasses-free 3D [television]. They’ve got it set up where it’s finally starting to make sense to try and have it as your own personal home entertainment. Basically, what they’ve done is made it so that up to six people can sit in a room and watch 3D. Granted, those six are still locked in a fixed position so that the 3D is best for them. But if you wanted to watch 3D with a group of friends, you can.
That’s really cool, but the thing that really struck a chord with me is that they have a camera built into the frame of the TV that has facial-recognition [technology]. So if you want to watch 3D just by yourself, you flick a little switch, the camera locks on to your face and tracks you around the room. So you can see 3D no matter where on the couch you are, [and] you’re no longer stuck in that one spot, without glasses. To me, that is really finally going down that road where I see it as something I would want to pick up.
I liked a lot of the TVs. [Laughs] Samsung has a Super OLED smart TV. They didn’t give us a time for when it was getting released or cost. But it’s super super sharp, super beautiful. The colors are amazing. And because it’s a smart TV, it has facial recognition, voice recognition, and it also tracks your movement. So you really truly do not ever have to hold or screw around with a remote. You can do everything through voice or through gesture. They said that the facial recognition is good enough that if you select a group of preferences – let’s say you watch a lot of X-Play – if you sit down in the room and turn on the TV, it will recognize that it’s you sitting there and will pull that up as one of your preferences. So to me, that’s pretty outstanding.
Flightpath: Unless you live with your twin. Then, it could be a problem.
Jessica Chobot: Yeah, I forgot to ask if they’ve tested it with twins or not. [Laughs] I didn’t do that. But that’s very sharp. I should do that next time.
So the TVs really impressed me, and this also was the first year I covered a home appliance. LG has this fridge called the Blast Chiller, and it can perfectly cool a can of soda or any kind of 12 ounce beverage in five minutes. It does two cans in eight minutes and it does a bottle of wine in eight minutes. They did a demo there, and it really is perfect.
Flightpath: I was wondering about the refrigerator. Because when I saw that, I was like, “I don’t know if this is the best thing or the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. I can’t figure it out.”
Jessica Chobot: I mean, I don’t know how often you would use it. I think the bottle of wine thing, that would make sense to me. I don’t know how often I would use it for a soda, because you know, I go shopping and instinctively put my soda in the fridge. I guess if you want one right off the bat, that would work. But then by the time you go to your second or third soda, it’s fine. [Laughs]
Flightpath: It’s also like, it’s just soda. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Jessica Chobot: Yeah. [Laughs] It’s good to go.
Flightpath: And what was the dumbest thing you saw?
Jessica Chobot: We actually didn’t waste our time covering the dumbest thing. I pretty much was shuttled from one spot to another spot as far as what we were going to cover, so I didn’t really have a lot of exploration. But I’m sure there’s plenty of dumb things out there. From previous CES’s past that I attended through IGN, I remember there being a lot of really unnecessary Nintendo Wii third party controller attachments.
Jessica Chobot: Yes, like tennis rackets or boxing gloves or golf clubs. Just dumb stuff that maybe if you have a kid you could justify it that way, but I can’t imagine that anybody cared about those things.
Flightpath: I think my parents might have bought them all.
Jessica Chobot: Oh, gosh! The tennis rackets too? No! That’s a shame.
Flightpath: I was not going to ask you any PSP-lick questions, because I know you’re probably sick of that.
Jessica Chobot: [Laughs]
Flightpath: But my boss said to me, “I was watching G4 last night and saw Jessica Chobot at CES. And there were a bunch of guys standing around her, chanting for her to lick the PS Vita.” He was confused because he has no idea about the origin of it. I just think it’s funny, because now there’s been enough distance where people like my boss might see references to the PSP thing, but not know where it comes from. Now it’s this whole other thing of, “Why is this happening?”
Jessica Chobot: Yeah. It’s been a long time since that first happened. That’s weird, I’ve never thought about it from the perspective of people that might just find out about me now, and are like, “What is the deal?” It’s just an inside joke for those that have followed me for the last five or six years.
It’s kind of like my hit ’80s single at this point. It is what it is, and it’s gonna both follow me and potentially haunt me for the rest of my days. [Laughs] And that’s fine. At the end of the day, it’s a meme. I think it’s kinda awesome.
Be sure to come back on Thursday for part 2 of our interview with Jessica Chobot!
In the conclusion of our two-part interview (in case you missed part 1, you can find it here) with comic book artist and writer Ethan Nicolle, co-creator of Axe Cop and creator of Bearmageddon, we discuss his younger brother’s inevitable growing up and what that means for Axe Cop, why playtime isn’t much fun to talk about, and how Bearmageddon – an awesome mashup of B-movie horror, comic book action and smart comedy – still has heartfelt, real-life sentiment.
Flightpath: You mentioned in the commentary during the first Axe Cop trade paperback that at a certain point, Malachai is going to reach an age where he’s a little more conscious of the comic and he’s going to change, like all kids do. Do you think Axe Cop will continue through that, or do you see it coming to an end when the innocent way it’s created can no longer be?
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, I don’t know. I think one fun aspect of Axe Cop has been that Malachai is constantly changing. Every time I talk to him to come up with new stories, he’s on a whole different kick. He’s grown up a bit more, he’s thinking about different things, his mind is rapidly developing. So I mean, even Axe Cop today is not the same Axe Cop he was two years ago when we created him. [Laughs] It’s fascinating to see Axe Cop mature.
I’m just kind of wide open to whatever. We probably will take a break here and there, and we’ve kind of been taking a break. I’m working on Axe Cop material I got from him back in April, I got a bunch of material for a new miniseries and stuff. So we talk on the phone maybe once or twice a month, and that’s about all we do together on it right now. It’s all me drawing all the stuff that we got.
Yeah, so I don’t know what comes next. We’ll feel it out. At some point we’ll go, “You know, this is kind of tired. So we should give it a rest or shut the door.”
Flightpath: The Internet can sometimes be an ugly place in terms of comments and people trolling. There’s a lot of positivity around Axe Cop, but I’m sure you get the occasional jerk. I’m guessing you can take it, but do you shield Malachai from that?
Ethan Nicolle: He hardly ever even reads comments. He doesn’t even get why people want to sit there and talk about it. Once an episode is done, he’s done and on to the next thing. A lot of people want to interview him, and he doesn’t say much when they interview him, because he doesn’t understand why you want to sit there and talk about it when you’re done.
He just sees it as playtime. So if you play with a kid, and then two days later you go, “Let’s talk about playtime the other day. What made you think about that? How’d you come up with that?” It’s like, “What? Why don’t we just keep playing? Why do we have to talk about it?” [Laughs] I don’t think that’s even on his radar right now.
There’s an occasional curmudgeon on the Internet that freaks out and writes a blog about how stupid Axe Cop is and how he hates kids, and the guy just usually looks so ridiculous. He just looks so miserable – the person that writes it is always a guy – he just looks so angry, you kind of feel sorry for him. And usually there’s always a big reaction from people defending Axe Cop, which is great, but not required. So I mean, it happens every once in awhile, but I’ve actually been impressed. I don’t know if we’ve had any trolls on axecop.com. I don’t think we really have. There’s been a couple of people who’ve used bad language and I just deleted the comment. But other than that, people have been really respectful and I’ve been really impressed.
Flightpath: As it’s gotten more successful, I’m guessing a whole other set of responsibilities have come your way – merchandising and marketing.
Ethan Nicolle: That’s one of the tough things. I can only put so much time into that. I might be able to accomplish more if I could clone myself. One thing that’s definitely helped has been that I now have a licensing company, Surge Licensing. They did all the licensing on the Ninja Turtles originally, and they’re huge Axe Cop fans, they love it. They’ve gotten a few things off the ground – they got a Halloween costume made, some tee-shirt deals, and the big thing that we got recently was Munchkin Axe Cop from Steve Jackson Games. It was really successful, and they said it was one of their bestselling Munchkin games. That’s been awesome.
My online store is something that started out of necessity. I was dirt poor, I had no job when Axe Cop hit. I had had two jobs, and I had been laid off from both in the same week, about a month earlier. It’s really what made me able to dive into Axe Cop as a job, because even though it was getting tons of exposure, no one was paying anything for it.
Flightpath: Is there any chance we might see Axe Cop action figures at some point?
Ethan Nicolle: We’ve come close a couple of times. You’d think at the point we’ve gotten, that you’re gonna see something. There’s nothing for sure right now, but I just feel like there’s gotta be eventually. I mean, it’s an easy action figure, right? [Laughs]
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, just take a C.O.P.S. toy, slap an axe in his hand. We’ve actually had fans make them, and one guy at Comic Con gave one to Malachai at our panel. He still has it and was playing with it at Christmas.
Flightpath: What have you found in terms of monetary support from people who read your comics online? I noticed you have a college fund for Malachai.
Ethan Nicolle: You know, I’d have to talk to my dad, because he gets all the money directly for Malachai on that. I could always check, but I just never do. I don’t think it’s a ton, but it’s a little bit of money here and there. On Bearmageddon I put up “donate and get a free wallpaper,” and I’ve actually been impressed. They have the option of $1, $5 or $10, and the majority have been $5 and $10 donations. That’s really impressed me. We’ve probably had around 50 donations, and most of them have not been $1. There’s a thankfulness that people have online. A certain group are very kind.
Flightpath: And what comes next for Axe Cop?
Ethan Nicolle: There’s a third volume of Axe Cop coming out – I think it’s at the end of February – so I’m looking forward to that. It’s another collection of the online stuff. And then the new Axe Cop miniseries, which I’m working on right now, starts coming out in July. It’s called Axe Cop: President of the World, and it’s funny because we didn’t plan it out, but it’s going to be during the election. [Laughs]
Flightpath: You also have Bearmageddon going right now, and I’m curious how you approach creating a webcomic like that, because it’s one continuous story and not standalone stories.
Ethan Nicolle: It’s actually a script that I wrote. So I wrote the entire story out in film script format, and then I’m doing chunks of pages at a time. I’m working on basically three projects right now. I’m working on Axe Cop the webcomic, then I’m working on the new Axe Cop print-exclusive series that’s a follow-up to Bad Guy Earth, the other one we did with Dark Horse. And then I’m also doing Bearmageddon. I’ll just do a group of pages from each one at a time, and try and keep ahead of all of them, as much as I can. [Laughs]
Flightpath: People should know that Bearmageddon is really not like Axe Cop. It shares certain sensibilities in that it’s funny and it’s violent, but it’s more an adult story.
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, it’s not for kids. Malachai’s a little mad at me that I’m making a project he can’t read. [Laughs]
Flightpath: What are the plans for Bearmageddon? Will it be going for a long time? Will there be print versions as well?
Ethan Nicolle: It’ll go as long as it takes to tell the story. Depending on how long it is, I might release it in two volumes, or I’ll just release it in one. I haven’t even talked to a publisher at this point because it’s still so early. My guess is that it’s gonna be around 200 to 250 pages. So it’ll still be awhile, because I’m only doing two pages a week.
Flightpath: I noticed in a lot of your work, including Bearmageddon, that there’s a real blend of humor, action and gore. What’s that informed by? What did you enjoy as a kid growing up?
Ethan Nicolle: I grew up on Ninja Turtles and stuff like that, but I did get into independent comics. I was a big fan of SLG [Publishing]. I’ve always had a thing for cheesy movies – Mystery Science Theater, I got into really big-time when I was younger, and that was kind of my gateway drug in getting into really bad movies on my own. I love the really bad violent movies, that are just over-the-top crazy. Stuff like Dead Alive, that are so violent and could never happen in real life. That kind of thing is hilarious to me. I guess I’ve always liked the combination of action/comedy, and I like action/comedy/horror too, which is a genre that I don’t think has been done a whole bunch. Shaun of the Dead is probably the best example. Ghostbusters is good. I like being a little more light-hearted, but still getting to have monsters. Just all the stuff that I love in entertainment. I love action and I love monsters, and I like to laugh.
Flightpath: Not that I know you [Laughs], but there are some elements of Bearmageddon that seem like they could be autobiographical. Particularly the relationship between Joel and his little brother. They seem to have a very warm relationship.
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, that, for sure. In fact, I think I even wrote a pretty heartfelt blog on Bearmageddon, on one of those pages where he’s talking to the little brother. I was always the oldest brother in my family. I have three brothers total, plus I have two little sisters. And my brothers always looked up to me, and they always treated me like I was a hero of some sort, even if I never deserved it. Before I was ever any sort of success, they treated me like I was already. So it’s special to me, and I see it more now. As I’ve grown up, I look back and go, “Man, I didn’t even appreciate it as a big brother when I was younger.”
Flightpath: Ken, the store manager of Wow Mart, is my favorite character. I just love his put-downs; he seems like he could be a Mr. Show character. Will he be making a return?
Ethan Nicolle: [Laughs] Yes. We will be returning to Wow Mart eventually.
Flightpath: It seems like things have worked out for you in that you’re getting to do webcomics, release a print version later, and also make original graphic novels.
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, and I always have the book in mind when I make my comics. I’m always thinking ahead to the book. So even if I go, “You know what, this episode is going to be kind of a dud today. It’s not going to be very exciting for people to read this,” I’m thinking ahead to the book. Because that’s going to ultimately be the more important audience. You want it to work more in the book than you do one day on the website.
That was one thought that I had when originally I decided to do webcomics. I went, “You know, there’s a good chance I could expand my audience by a bunch of people. But also there’s a good chance that a bunch of those people won’t buy the book even though they read it for free online. But just say like 10 percent of those people buy the book – it’s probably gonna be a pretty good deal.”
Axe Cop, Avocado Soldier and Uni-Baby. They don’t sound like the names of traditional comic book characters, but then, there’s nothing traditional about the bizarre-yet-brilliant webcomic in which they appear. Launched in 2010 to massive viral success, Axe Cop stars, true to its name, an axe-wielding police officer in adventures featuring vampire ninjas, a T-Rex with Gatling guns for arms, and a female Abraham Lincoln. It is crazy, hilarious stuff, making for one of the most original and downright fun comics in years – online or in print. And if it sounds like it comes from the mind of a child, that’s because it does: Axe Cop is written by 7-year-old Malachai Nicolle and illustrated by his older brother, the Eisner-nominated artist Ethan Nicolle, whose gifts for straight-faced humor, action and storytelling help make the comic so effective. In part one of our two-part interview with the elder Nicolle – also creator of the excellent new Bearmageddon horror/comedy webcomic – we discuss how Axe Cop came to be, how it quickly went viral, and the origins of some particularly strange story details.
Flightpath: I know you were doing creator-owned print comics like Chumble Spuzz before Axe Cop. What led from that to launching a webcomic with Axe Cop?
Ethan Nicolle: Well, I got into comics before the Internet was a big thing. I was in high school still, and the Internet hit when I was around 15 or 16. So, I always thought the way into comics was through a publisher. You gotta get them to print your book, and then they gotta sell it for you. I was always working towards that goal, and I finally accomplished it with SLG Publishing, with my book Chumble Spuzz. I realized that after all that work, they finally print your book and they put it back on a little shelf in the back corner of a comic book store, and very few people are willing to go back and spend the money to actually buy that book and check it out. And I started realizing that my goal wasn’t to make money off that bat like that, my goal was to build an audience; and if I just want people to read it, why not just put it on the Internet? I had planned to do my next book that way, which was Bearmageddon, but then I wasn’t sure how to go about doing a webcomic.
So I wanted to do a practice run first, and I had these Axe Cop comics that I created over Christmas with my brother. We were playing and Malachai wanted to play “Axe Cop,” because he had been given a toy fireman axe but wanted to fight bad guys. As we played, the first episode of Axe Cop happened and it was so funny, I drew it. I ended up drawing the first four episodes during that visit. We were like, “Well, we’ll just throw these up online and make kind of a quick website.” Just to test the functionality and see how people react to the way that we lay it out and everything.
I could never have foreseen the success. Basically, in about two days, it exploded and became my job overnight.
Flightpath: That’s amazing. You did have a lot of critical success though, with Chumble Spuzz. You were nominated for an Eisner.
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, a little bit. I had an Eisner nomination, it got some great reviews. It’s just that hardly anybody actually read them. The people that did read them loved them, but that was the thing. I was going, “Man, people that actually read this love it. But I can’t get anybody to read it. They don’t want to spend 10 or 11 bucks on it.”
Flightpath: So you had some Axe Cop stuff in the can that you did with your brother, and you decided to put it out there. Once you posted it online, you said it became a success in just a couple of days. Did you do anything to actively promote it, or did people somehow find it?
Ethan Nicolle: You know, I had a small amount of fans that followed me at that time from Chumble Spuzz, from the rock band I used to be in. So there was like a handful of fans that any time I posted something, they’d check it out and share it with their friends. We put all the sharing buttons on it, as you usually would do. StumbleUpon, Digg, a Facebook button, all those things. The best I could do, tracing back how it went viral, it was through sites like Reddit and Meta Filter and these sites where a lot of people go on and share stuff. It was just all over those websites, and it all happened kind of in one night. Entertainment Weekly [named it Site of the Day], that was a big one. It was just a really fast climb.
Flightpath: Did you log back in and check the visits? Were people emailing you? What was the signifier that something was going on?
Ethan Nicolle: Well, that night I was actually not even at my house [or] at my computer. I just had my phone, which was receiving emails, and emails started coming in like crazy. “Ask Axe Cop” questions just starting rolling in really fast, and I had my Twitter account set to notify me when a new person started following it, and I just started getting rapid amounts of Follow, Follow, Follow. [Laughs] It was just going crazy. And every time I checked my email, a bunch more emails would be in. It was just rapid fire emails all night. I fell asleep for like three hours that night, and when I woke up there were like another 100 emails in my inbox. It was crazy.
Flightpath: Going into your technique for creating Axe Cop – how exactly does it work with your brother? Do you sit down and guide him through story construction, or do you draw what he’s telling you, as he’s telling it to you?
Ethan Nicolle: There’s lots of different ways that we do it. It really comes down to playtime and kind of an interview. It’s almost like I’m a cop at a crime scene and I’m interviewing him because he’s a witness, and I’m trying to get all the details I can and piece it all together. [Laughs] He tells it to me out of order, and the story constantly changes here and there. So I find the pieces that fit.
The first few episodes, I credited him as “creator.” The first few episodes I never even planned on publishing, it was just something for the family. So I just decided to call him “writer” and me “artist.” But my bigger job beyond just drawing it really is piecing it together, especially as we’ve gotten into these bigger projects, where [there’s] a full-on big story. It’s the part of the project that’s, I don’t want to say a headache, but it’s a real struggle, you know? [Laughs]
Flightpath: Do you see his storytelling chops evolving as you do more and more of these?
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, he gets the hang of certain things. Earlier on, I would have to try and explain, “For it to be a good story, we need something bad to happen, so that something good can happen and we can be happy.” So I’ll try and find out, “Do any good guys get killed? Does anything bad happen to the good guys?” One thing I just started doing was have us pretend to be bad guys, so that we’d actually start inflicting lots of damage on the good guys. So if I keep switching sides of Malachai, because a lot of it’s role playing, he’d give me what I wanted. It’s not that I want him to come up with a specific outcome of the story and repeat it back to me, but I just look at the story and go, “This needs a big fight here, it needs some kind of conflict.” Just a general idea. And I ask him questions until I have a full story, basically.
Flightpath: There are a couple of recurring themes or motifs in Axe Cop, and I wanted to get your opinion on them and where they come from.
Ethan Nicolle: [Laughs] Okay.
Flightpath: I noticed there are lots of decapitations.
Ethan Nicolle: [Laughs] Yeah. If you think about kids playing with toy swords and just fighting each other, they’re fake fighting, swinging the swords, going, “I cut your leg off! I cut your arm off!” They’re not imagining that guys have blood shooting across the room. [Laughs] They’re not reveling in the gore. What makes Axe Cop funny to me is you take that kind of innocent look at [violence] – I wouldn’t even call it violence, in the context of what Malachai’s playing, because he’s not thinking violently –
Flightpath: It’s like Looney Tunes violence.
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah. And so you take that, you put it in the world of Axe Cop, you illustrate it out and you put that dead serious look on his face, and it’s comedy gold. [Laughs]
Flightpath: There’s another one, which is someone getting something on them, like blood from a dinosaur, or they eat something, and then they become that thing. Where does that come from?
Ethan Nicolle: [Laughs] I don’t know where he got that. All I know is, that [while writing the] original Axe Cop, that first episode, we were playing together and we’d just cut off some dinosaurs’ heads. I love horror movies, over-the-top gore Peter Jackson kind of stuff, and I was like, “Oh man, I just got blood all over me!” And then Malachai goes, “I got dinosaur blood all over me, too! I’m turning into a Dinosaur Soldier.” [Laughs] He decided right there that if you get something’s blood on you, you turn into it. And it just became a running thing.
Flightpath: It’s funny because it kind of established the rules of the Axe Cop universe, in a weird way.
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, and it’s funny ’cause when we started playing together, he assigned me to be Axe Cop, and he was Dinosaur Soldier. And since for the story I needed Axe Cop to stay Axe Cop and not keep changing, it worked, because he gave me that control. So I keep Axe Cop as Axe Cop, and he kept transforming. [Laughs]
Flightpath: You were talking before about how you wanted to break into comics, you got published, but you ended up going to the Web, where you could reach a lot more people. Do you think that’s the future, especially as the print industry changes? Will webcomics take up more and more of the comic book landscape?
Ethan Nicolle: Yeah, I think that the Internet is effecting all forms of media, for sure. I don’t foresee in my lifetime the printed book dying off completely. I think most people that have held a book are going to want to hold a book later on, but that’s because I’m ignorant of what technology may come down the road. There could be a device invented that’s a great replacement. They’ve got the Kindle now, but I don’t think that’s a great replacement for comics. The iPad is kind of cool, but I don’t feel like I own the book until I have it in paper form.
People are now used to getting to sample things more because of the Internet. They’re used to more interaction. They’re also ordering things online now more, so you’re getting less people walking into stores and flipping through pages to buy your book. Things are just changing, so you have to have an online presence. It just doesn’t make sense not to. I’m interested to see where it goes with comics and books myself.
Flightpath: If you had decided to self-publish Axe Cop in print, do you think it could have possibly reached the level of popularity that it has as a webcomic?
Ethan Nicolle: No. Number one, I don’t think I ever would have, unless I’d gotten a bunch more done. I’d only done four of them [when we launched it]. At the point that I had those four done, I was only thinking that every time I’d visit Malachai for a holiday, I’d do another couple of them with him. I wasn’t thinking that it was gonna be what I did all the time. [Laughs] And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to, I just didn’t think that was the reality. It was like, “I can’t spend all my time playing with my little brother and making these goofy comics. I gotta work.” [Laughs]
Be sure to come back this Thursday for part 2 of our interview with Ethan Nicolle!
In the final installment of our two-part interview with Jeff Rubin (in case you missed it, here’s part 1), the writer and performer discusses the new College Humor spinoff site, Jest, writing comedy for the Internet, and whether or not we’ll ever see a Street Fighter: The Later Years type sketch for a certain NES game.
Flightpath: What I read about Jest is that it’s aimed at an older demographic. What can you tell us about it, and what does it mean that it’s targeted towards an older demo?
Jeff Rubin: 25-year-olds and 35-year-olds, I think, would find a lot of the same things [funny]. I know for a fact that there are a lot of older people that are on College Humor. But College Humor is always going to be about college, and I think there are some people that will never go to it just because of that. And there are things that are popular online that don’t really fit within College Humor, so we wanted a way to address those.
So what we’re doing with Jest is, it’s a very topical site. We’re still working on this, but we’re trying to develop, conceive, write, shoot and edit videos in 24 or 48 hours, as much as possible. We had an NBA lockout video, we shot something about the iPhone 4S, like the day after it came out. So we’re trying to turn those kinds of things around quickly.
And even other things, like we did this sketch about Gatorade. It’s a commercial for Gatorade, but instead of it being an energy drink that will help you win at basketball – by the way, how clear is it that I don’t know anything about sports where I’m like, “It will help you win at basketball,” that’s what I think energy drinks do – it helps you get over your hangover. It was a funny idea and I think a funny sketch – and even that’s a little College Humor-y – but our sketch was more about getting through the day at work, as opposed to getting out of your dorm room bed and going out to party again. So I think it was a slightly different take on it. You know, we’re doing things that I think people in college would enjoy, but aren’t necessarily made with them in mind.
Flightpath: Going forward now, will you have content or a hand in stuff that shows up on Dorkly and College Humor?
Jeff Rubin: Yeah. Yes, I will. Maybe not as much as I had in the past or at a certain time, but I definitely will continue to contribute to those websites. They’re not gonna get rid of me that easily.
Flightpath: When people think about comedy writing, I think they maybe still think of the SNL model or the Mr. Show model. What’s different about comedy writing for the Internet?
Jeff Rubin: I’ve only ever written for the Internet, so I don’t have much insight. I would say that the rules are a little freer. I feel like we’re free to make up formats. We can make a video that’s one minute and really funny, or we can make a video that’s five minutes and really funny. Where if you’re writing for TV, it has to be 22 minutes and fit into these exact chunks at these spots. I personally find it very exciting that a lot of the rules are still being written. It’s changed so much just since I started working, and I think that’s pretty exciting.
Obviously, there’s things on TV that come along that completely change everything, like Arrested Development. But I think it’s harder on TV because of how much money goes into everything and how long the process is, whereas I feel like we have the chance to really come up with something new and innovate every single day.
Flightpath: So what’s your official role at Jest, and what’s a typical day like?
Jeff Rubin: I am the Editor-in-Chief of Jest. I’d say the site’s new, there’s no typical day yet. We’re still kind of trying to figure out how to keep up with the news cycle and how to best react to it. It’s not hard deciding when to make a video, it’s hard deciding when not to, because there’s something in the news every day. “Is this the thing we really want to focus on this week, or should we hold off?” There’s writing meetings. We try and pay attention to the news and when something comes up, we have that conversation – is this something we should be talking about? And that’s just the original content. There’s this whole other side to the site that is aggregating the best comedy on the Internet and presenting it to you almost like news of what’s funny.
Also, I work a lot on designing the site itself. It’s still very much in beta. There’s, I think, a lot of work to be done in the best way to present this material. So there are a lot of different elements that involve working with a lot of different people. And that’s fun.
Flightpath: Will mixing original and aggregated content be a differentiating factor for Jest?
Jeff Rubin: College Humor aggregates content too. There’s lots of just funny videos on College Humor, and they’re very popular on the site, too. Sometimes we labor for months over a sketch, really working hard on it, and we think it’s great and we’re really excited to put it up. And then a video of like, an elephant shooting water at a baby, blows it away the day it comes out. [Laughs]
But we have a bit of a different take on it on Jest. You can kind of browse by person, or by topic, or by show. Jest also works with Hulu to incorporate more “legit” type of stuff and mix it all up. So when you go to a page for Will Arnett, you get all the funny videos he’s done online, as well as all the TV shows he’s on, which includes both episodes of Arrested Development that are maybe on Hulu, as well as episodes of Up All Night from NBC.com.
Jeff Rubin: It’s funny. I obviously have a wide variety of guests on. People will comment on the randomness of the guests, but to me it’s not random. It’s all cool stuff! From my perspective, there’s a complete line you can trace through everything, because it’s all just stuff that I’m into.
Flightpath: What do you get from the podcast that maybe you don’t get from your other work on Jest or College Humor?
Jeff Rubin: I really enjoy the medium. The gateway podcast for me, as I think was for a lot of people, was Marc Maron’s WTF Pod. I’d listen to that, and I’d enjoy it. What was remarkable was that I was enjoying it as much as I might enjoy a book or a good TV show, but I was enjoying it in a way that was totally different. The way I was enjoying it was completely unique. I really like the connection I think you forge with people, because it’s not just like a five minute Internet video, where someone’s watching it and as soon it’s over they’re onto the next thing – maybe they don’t even finish it. You’re really in someone’s head for an hour. It’s a much deeper connection. I really enjoy how deep you can get with things. Some are 30 minutes, some of them are an hour and a half, and I think they’re equally good and each one is exactly as long as I want them to be. It can be about whatever. So there’s a lot of fun to be had with it, and I honestly just enjoy doing it.
Flightpath: Now you have a podcast, you’ve written for some very successful comedy sites, you’re active on Twitter. Why do you think the Internet has become such a big destination for comedy?
Jeff Rubin: I don’t think the Internet’s become a big destination for comedy. I think comedy is just always popular. You know, some of the first plays were comedy, some of the first TV shows were comedy. We just have this new thing, and I think as a society maybe, we like comedy and were like, “Well, how are we gonna laugh at this thing?” I think it also doesn’t hurt that everyone’s always on it. Comedy is always tempting and you’re always connected to the Internet, so it’s kind of interesting that you can always find something that makes you laugh.
I actually installed the Reddit iPhone app. Not that Reddit’s necessarily comedy per se, but it’s fun. [Laughs] And I installed the iPhone app today, and I was like, “Oh, well, I guess I’ll never be bored anymore. There’s like a constant stream of interesting things going into my phone at all times.”
Flightpath: Do you ever get tired of the omnipresence of not just the Internet, but the constant connectivity? Like, “You know, I just don’t feel like writing Tweets today.”
Jeff Rubin: Yeah, and you know what I do when that happens? I don’t write any Tweets. I certainly don’t Tweet every day. The podcast, I’m sort of committed to doing weekly, and I treat it like it’s a TV show, but if I didn’t want to do one next week, I could just not do one and it would be totally fine. I like to go camping; I do sometimes feel like, “information overload,” and I try and make a conscious effort to get away from it. But I also embrace it.
Flightpath: Is there anything on Jest we should be looking forward to that you can give us a little preview about?
Jeff Rubin: You know I really can’t, because I don’t know what we’re putting up next week yet. We’re waiting to see the news, which is exciting.
Flightpath: Finally, just since Jest is skewed towards an older demo, does this mean there will never be a Burger Time: The Later Years?
Jeff Rubin: No, probably not. But on Dorkly, which is our videogame site, there’s hundreds of bits, and if there isn’t a Burger Time one yet, it seems inevitable that there will be. It’s totally perfect for that format.
And that is, I think, what’s cool about what we’re doing at College Humor Media. There’s outlets for all these different types of jokes. I could have an idea that’s maybe more appropriate for College Humor, or more appropriate for Dorkly, or more appropriate for Jest. And I think it’s exciting to develop all these different outlets.
Over the last decade, College Humor has become one the Internet’s biggest comedy websites, featuring a mix of sketch comedy, animated shorts, interviews and lots, lots more. It dared to incorporate geek culture – especially videogames – into its content before almost anyone else, and in smart, non-pandering ways that earned it significant cred among comedy and game aficionados alike.
A big reason for College Humor’s success is Jeff Rubin. One of the main creative forces behind College Humor, Rubin has been writing and performing for the site almost since the beginning. His sensibilities, including a deft comedic touch and a love of gaming and pop culture, have played a large part in influencing the site’s tone and content. Lately, the performer has expanded his online offerings to include a podcast, The Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show, and is now shepherding the recently-launched College Humor spinoff, Jest, which is targeting an older demographic. In part one of our interview with Rubin, we discuss the early days of College Humor, the legendary Street Fighter: The Later Years series of sketches, and why he’s not like The Wizard.
Flightpath: How did you come to be involved with College Humor?
Jeff Rubin: I started here as an intern. I had been out of college for a few months, and I actually found the job on Craigslist. And I was the first employee hired for the company past the owners themselves. They were looking to kinda kick things up. They had been in San Diego for a year and they moved to New York, and they were trying to grow the site and they were looking for someone to help out. I guess they hired me as an intern to help with a lot of the content. It was pretty clear that they were looking to grow and that if I didn’t mess up, I could have a job, maybe. And I’ve been here for seven years since.
Flightpath: How did your role evolve from intern to Executive Editor?
Jeff Rubin: I guess, initially, I had been involved more in curating the content and looking for other funny people online that we could maybe work with or feature their content, and sorting through these submissions. And I still work on those things to an extent, but that was among my first responsibilities. Then it became more about putting together a team to make those efforts even more successful, but also creating our own content – writing, and occasionally acting on camera in stuff that we were making.
Flightpath: That’s one thing I wanted to ask about. College Humor evolved to have such a breadth of content. There’s interviews, there’s sketches and animation like The Jersey Shore RPG. What’s the creative process in funneling all this different content into the whole that is College Humor?
Jeff Rubin: That’s a good question. I don’t know. You know, I guess we don’t think about it much. To me, they’re kind of one product. We try to give everything a similar sensibility, whether it’s something you have to read, or something you just look at and immediately get, or a video you watch for a few minutes. I hope that they’re all cut from the same cloth and are all from the same type of people – and in many cases from the same people.
There’s a surprisingly small writing staff. Everyone knows each other, so we have a shared sense of humor. We’re into a certain type of thing, and I think you can see that represented in all the work we do over different types of mediums. We didn’t used to do original videos, we used to have a bigger focus on pictures, we didn’t used to write as many articles, we didn’t take articles as seriously as we do now. There used to be naked girls. So the site’s evolved a lot over time.
Flightpath: So for something like The Jersey Shore RPG, how does that come to be? Because it’s very different from writing man-on-the-street interviews or sketches.
Jeff Rubin: Yeah, I mean, it’s not that different from writing a sketch. I know it’s animated, but it follows the same structure, I’d say, as one of our live action sketches – where there’s a viral idea, taking something that’s popular, and putting a fun twist on it. Taking this idea and exploring all the different sides of it. We also react to the zeitgeist and whatever’s popular, and I think there was a time when everyone had to have a Jersey Shore sketch. So we knew we had to do something about Jersey Shore. I don’t know how we really came up with the idea to present it as an RPG, to be honest. I think we were just looking for a unique angle on Jersey Shore, and I feel like we like doing things that a lot of people are into, but you wouldn’t necessarily see on Saturday Night Live. They’d never do an RPG sketch on Saturday Night Live, even though there’s a large, large number of people out there who are familiar with the tropes of the genre and the format.
Flightpath: I think my first exposure to College Humor was Street Fighter: The Later Years.
Jeff Rubin: Oh, that’s interesting, because that’s one of our first original videos. We had done a few that starred us, and were kind of low budget – us going out with the camera kind of thing – which are still on the site somewhere. Then we started making videos with the idea of getting them spread around.
Street Fighter: The Later Years was a huge, huge hit for us. It’s still one of our biggest hits. I think it was like the third or fourth video we ever made. I feel like a big moment in that video is with Dhalism – who was a character in Street Fighter that could extend his limbs to two or three times their length, and it was a fighting game, so he could punch people from across the street. Everyone’s kind of down-and-out from their street fighting days, and Dhalism, who is now a cab driver, I think…Maybe he’s not a cab driver. For whatever reason, he’s driving –
Flightpath: He was a cab driver.
Jeff Rubin: Okay good. I was afraid I was being racist just because he’s Indian. So they’re turning a corner, and he reaches his arm out, and he has these kind of extendo-arms, and he grabs this lamppost to swing the car around the corner. I think that was a big moment because it’s a fun special effect, and that was at a time when you weren’t seeing a lot of special effects with that kind of production quality in Internet videos, additionally in a funny video. Also, that’s where we started to hit upon this idea – that’s a nerdy example, but there are also non-nerdy examples – of doing these things that are out there that people are into, but you wouldn’t see a Street Fighter sketch on Comedy Central, necessarily.
Flightpath: I was wondering if that was a conscious decision. I love the Street Fighter: The Later Years sketches, I think a lot of people did, with all the in-jokes. One thing I’ve noticed about College Humor, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it seems like it filled a niche, or created a kind of gaming-slash-pop culture influenced form of comedy?
Jeff Rubin: That’s definitely true, because a lot of us are dorky and we think that stuff’s funny, and it was often successful. Videogames are like movies and music, but they’re still a little underground. And [the videogame sketches] were so successful, in fact, that we spun them off into another site called Dorkly, which I also work on. Dorkly is just pure videogame humor, and we do two videos that take place inside a videogame every week, and every day there’s comics and articles about videogames.
My favorite things on that site are articles that you have to have played the game [to understand]. There was this great one, “The 7 Most Difficult Cases in L.A. Noire.” One of them was like, “Murder At The Beer Bottle Factory,” which if you played L.A. Noire, is funny, because in that game there’s a lot of picking up bottles and examining them for fingerprints. And you have to have played L.A. Noire to get that joke. But it was a very popular thing and there’s an audience for that kind of humor.
So it wasn’t intentional, but it was something we liked doing, we were proud of, and we recognized that there was a very hungry appetite for that kind of material on the Internet.
Flightpath: Are you as big a gamer as you used to be?
Jeff Rubin: I’d say that’s true. I do a lot of videogame humor, but I think I play videogames less than people would expect. It’s almost like a book to me. I’m not always playing videogames; I’m not like The Wizard, I’m not like, incredible at any game. But when there’s something out that’s good and has a lot of buzz and gets good reviews and people say is interesting, like L.A. Noire, I’ll check it out. Right now, Arkham City, the new Batman game, I’m totally obsessed with. I very rarely get obsessed with a game. But yeah, I’m still playing videogames. I’ve always done it my whole life – enjoyed it like that.
In the final installment of our two-part interview with Bill Hunt, the creator of The Digital Bits discusses his site’s landmark Alien Quadrilogy feature, the future of home video, and helping two of Flightpath’s favorite films get the special edition Blu-rays they deserve.
Flightpath: I wanted to ask about the Alien Quadrilogy feature. It was really rich with information and you seemed to get a level of access that I’d never seen before. How did that come about?
Bill Hunt: The backstory on that is, the producer of that set, Charles de Lauzirika, [became] a very good friend of mine. That happened because when the very first Alien was going to be released on DVD, I talked to the people I knew at Fox, and they said, “Next year we’re going to be doing our first special edition, and it’s going to be Alien.” And I put that news in The Rumor Mill on The Bits. I got an email within a couple of hours, basically, from this fella named Charlie, who said, “Listen, you don’t know me, but I’m an assistant. I work for Ridley Scott. I saw this news and I told Ridley, and he had no idea that Fox was going to be putting his movie out. He would love to be involved. He would love to do a director’s commentary and all that kind of stuff for it. So who do I contact to make that happen?”
Flightpath: That’s amazing.
Bill Hunt: Yeah. So I put them in touch with Fox and got them all talking together, and as a result of that, Charlie got his sort of first special edition producing job. And he’s of course since done some of the greatest special editions on both Blu-ray and DVD that have ever been done – Gladiator, Blade Runner, the Alien Quadrilogy, and the Blu-ray version of that – amazing, amazing work.
When he was just getting into that, we sort of hooked up and became friends. So when that Quadrilogy project began to happen, Doogan and I were writing a book about DVD. It was called The Digital Bits: Insider’s Guide to DVD. It was something you could take to the store, find out what the good discs were, and figure out how to hook up your DVD player and that kind of thing. And I wanted to do a feature on what it takes to put a really good special edition together, because I had never really seen anything like that. To me, a good special edition producer is almost like an archaeologist for one of these catalog films, because they’re going back in boxes and they’re interviewing people who worked on these films 20 years ago. It’s this kind of really in-depth research that’s involved. So I told Charlie, “Listen, I think it would be a great topic for a whole chapter of the book.” And he thought it was a great idea, so we went to Fox and said, “Can we have permission to do this? We’ll go behind-the-scenes for the year-and-a-half or whatever it takes to document it all, but we won’t put any of it on the website until the title gets announced – we weren’t going to leak secret information – but we’ll release it in the book. And then at a specific time, when the title gets announced, we’ll do a series of stories on the website.” And they agreed. It was amazing. They signed off on it. So literally, for a year-and-a-half, for every two or three weeks or whatever, I went to commentary recording sessions, and into the Fox archives to look at all the boxes of material. It was pretty extraordinary.
For the very original DVD release, I was at one of the sessions where they were doing the hi-def transfer for the original Alien. I was there in the capacity of doing that stuff [for the book], but also as a friend of Charlie. And it was riveting – sitting in the room with Ridley Scott when he was doing commentary. Ridley would be in the booth doing his commentary, and we’d take a break, and he’d come out and have a drink or something. It would be Charlie, the recording engineer, and Ridley and I, sitting in the room and we would just start talking about the films, and it was amazing. Then he would go back in and complete the commentary. We did that for all the actors involved – Tom Skerritt and all those people – and it was really amazing.
Flightpath: Did that lead to you doing advising on bonus features or anything like that?
Bill Hunt: We do a lot of that. It’s very often not credited stuff. I did get a credit on one of the Alien box sets and a couple of other things. But a lot of it is when the producers are working on these things, and then they have a question [like], “I’ve got two options [for bonus features],” or “I’ve got this content and this content but there’s only room for so much, and I’ve got to choose one.” That kind of thing. Producers or studio people will call me and ask my opinion about things.
A similar thing happened on the Blade Runner set when Charlie was in Warner Bros. working on the first DVD release. I was kind of behind-the-scenes on some stuff there too. These executives at Warner Bros., many of whom I’d known for years at that point, said, “We just don’t know about this. We’re really putting a lot of money and resources into it, but this is a film that has never sold well on any format. We just don’t know.” I turned to them and I said, “Trust me. You’re going to sell just so many copies of this, you’re not going to have any idea.” It was one of the first DVD titles that was ever released – in a real bare bones format – and nothing had been done with it since then. It was one of those legendary cult titles, so it was just ripe for that in-depth treatment.
And then there are a couple of titles that we have actually helped get on DVD. Synapse did a release of the Leni Riefenstahl film, The Triumph of the Will, that we kind of helped happen. And then there was another film called Six Days in Roswell, which was this great comedy/documentary that a friend of mine actually had directed, and he was looking for distribution on DVD. So we put him in touch with a company and sort of helped that happen. So every now and again, we do that.
There’s things that we say on the website and that we reveal, but there’s also a lot of things we hear and learn and information we’re given that we don’t reveal. It’s not necessarily to be controlling of information, or any kind of an ego thing. It’s just that, what we’ve learned over time is that with a lot of these special edition things, if information gets leaked too early, they can actually fall apart. Sometimes when a studio is planning to do a release, they haven’t contacted the director yet, or they haven’t contacted the actors yet. They plan to, but they haven’t done it yet, because they’re preparing the gameplan and trying to pull assets together. A couple of times it’s happened where information has gotten out early, and an actor or an actor’s agent has heard about it and said, “Well, they’re obviously going to be coming to us for something, so we’re going to jack up our price.” Whole titles have been scuttled because of leaks breaking out on the Internet. So we try to be careful not to say anything until a project is well underway. It’s a really interesting balancing act.
Flightpath: There are other sites – I won’t name them – that get into the game of posting spoilers for upcoming movies. I feel like that’s something you’ve resisted, or at least when you get to advance screenings, you’ll give your impressions of the film, but you try not to be a source of spoilers. Is that a conscious decision on your part?
Bill Hunt: Yeah. Very, very much so. I’m kind of a mixed-mind about spoilers. I remember as a kid, how amazing it was to see the ending of Empire Strikes Back and have to wait three years to get the answer to that, because there was no Internet, and magazines didn’t cover it very much. So, yeah, I definitely think those things shouldn’t be spoiled. When I see a theatrical screening of something, I’ll go on the website and review it or talk about it, but I very much try and just give an impression. When I do a little synopsis of the story, what I try and do is just set up the story. I don’t go through and do a recap of the whole thing and reveal everything. I just try to give people everything they really need to know to go in, and that’s it. Give them just enough to get them intrigued or get them interested, or tell them why it’s good, why they should go check it out, and that’s it. Let them go and see it themselves. That’s something we’ve always tried to do, is not ruin it for people.
Flightpath: Where do you see the industry going from here? It seems like the streaming wars are really heating up, and at the same time, they’re still trying to push Blu-ray.
Bill Hunt: Physical media is gonna be around for another 20 years, is my feeling. But what you’re gonna see is, is it’s gonna shift in importance. There’s an inevitable trend toward all-digital – streaming, downloading, that kind of thing – and I think that’s unavoidable, and that is gonna be the future, probably. But there will always be some physical media, in terms of like, a really gorgeous box set with nice packaging and all that, that our generation is going to continue wanting to buy. Physical media will still be around. How are old are CDs? You can still go to the store and buy CDs. We still have them, we still use them. So DVD and Blu-ray, I think, are gonna be around for awhile, and you’ll still be able to buy them. But they’ll be rarer and the importance of that will change toward the digital.
One of the great things about the disc format is, you know, you put the movie on there, and then you’ve got all this extra room. The tendency with the studio is, “Okay, we’ve got all this extra room. Let’s fill it up with good stuff.” You don’t have that concern with a download. There’s really not a lot of reason or incentive to include all of the extra ancillary bonus content as part of the download, because really, most people who download just want to see the movie. They don’t care about all the rest.
The other interesting thing I see happening is, I really kind of see the whole industry contracting in the same way that the music industry has. Look, you can charge $39.99 for a physical disc, and people will buy it. A lot of them will wait for a sale, but you can charge $39.99 for a physical disc. You can charge $99 for a box set. You can’t charge that for a download. At best, you’ll get maybe 10, 15 bucks for a download – at absolute best. So what will happen is, the amount of income coming in will go down. You can say, “It will be cheaper for people,” and all that jazz, and there’s certainly good aspects to it. But one of the concerns I have is, you’ll see a lot less extras; a lot of that stuff will go away. The amount of money coming into the studios from the DVD boom, a lot of that went right back into remastering and preserving and restoring the catalog. That’s kind of changing. A lot of studios are selling their catalogs. Disney let the Miramax catalog go. The financial value of the catalog right now – in a world where DVD is fading and Blu-ray is still only a percentage of DVD – is down. So, money isn’t being put into restoring films as much. Certainly, a big classic like Citizen Kane or Ben-Hur, is going to get the money to do a restoration. But, for example, with Godfather, Steven Spielberg had to step in and help pay for the restoration of the Godfather films. Paramount wasn’t all that interested in spending the money to restore those films. They needed restoration, and Steven Spielberg said, “Listen, I’m going to put money into this, because it’s important.”
One of our guys who occasionally writes for The Bits, Robert Harris, he’s also one of the greatest film restoration guys in the business. He did the restoration on Godfather, he did the restoration on Lawrence of Arabia. A dream project of his has been to restore the original road-show version of The Alamo, the John Wayne film, which is in terrible shape right now. It’s in absolutely terrible shape, and if a restoration isn’t done fairly soon, that film might get lost. That original version. There’s just no money. He’s been trying to get that project going forever, and there’s just no money. The studio’s just not willing to spend the money, and nobody’s stepping forward with the money, and it’s just a really complicated, political thing.
So, that’s kind of my concern. There’s a lot of advantages of digital. But with everything going digital…record stores, video stores, book stores are closing. There’s a whole sort of infrastructure that’s going away.
Flightpath: It’s like an ecosystem that gets effected just from the format change.
Bill Hunt: That’s absolutely right. In some ways there are good aspects of the downloading thing. And I get the convenience – I get all that – Netflix and stuff. But at the same time, it sort of feels like the golden age of this stuff has passed. And as things go more and more to the download side, it gets a lot less interesting for people like me. What we love covering is the special editions and the features and all this stuff, and that really is going to be less important going ahead.
Flightpath: I have one last question for you, and it’s related to this. I wanted to know if you could use your powers and your influence to get a special edition made of a movie that I feel really needs its due.
Bill Hunt: Sure. I do it all the time!
Flightpath: I don’t know if it’s something we would agree on or not, but it’s the Martin Short comedy, Clifford.
Bill Hunt: [Laughs] Nice!
Flightpath: It’s one of my all-time favorite movies.
Bill Hunt: This is part of what I do every day. People email me and say, “Hey, this movie should be out. It should be a special edition.” [Types on computer.] That is an MGM film. I will absolutely put in the good word with all the right people. I will tell you that the odds are really long. [Laughs] There’s a lot of titles that deserve special edition treatment.
Flightpath: Well, the other one I was going to say is Ghostbusters II. It’s also one of my favorite movies.
Bill Hunt: Oh, totally. The first Ghostbusters has been given a really good special edition, but II never was.
Flightpath: They kind of ignore it. It’s not even out on Blu-ray.
Bill Hunt: I think there’s a possibility of that. Clifford‘s a long shot. [Laughs] Ghostbusters II is more likely. But I will put in the good word.
For years, The Digital Bits has been a leading source of home video news, thoughtful reviews and industry discussion, developing a huge following among cinephiles and casual movie fans alike. From the beginning, it has been a champion of film restoration and presenting films with the best picture and sound possible; it helped establish the language of what constitutes quality bonus features; and it has an uncanny ability to offer smart film and disc critiques while addressing the technical aspects of DVDs and Blu-rays in an easy-to-understand manner. Today, its review archive is a treasure trove of insights and information on film and home video releases. In part one of our interview with Bill Hunt, creator of The Digital Bits, we discuss why he launched the site, the events that helped it make gains in popularity, and his new role as Star Wars therapist.
Flightpath: Can you talk a little bit about your life prior to The Digital Bits, and what led you to start the site?
Bill Hunt: Well, I’m originally from North Dakota, and I studied film at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And right out of that, rather than getting into film, I actually got into video production. Did a lot of corporate stuff. I lived in Minneapolis for awhile after college and did a lot of directing and editing of corporate videos – training things, that sort of stuff. And that actually brought me out to California. In kind of a sideways way, I was doing video out here, and once I was out here I thought that maybe I’d establish some contacts in the film industry, and maybe see if I can’t put my foot in those waters and get involved there.
The interesting thing is that I actually became friends with a lot of people who worked at the studios. I’ve always been really interested in the technology of home video – video technology, film technology – and so when DVD was being developed, I had a lot of contacts at the studios, and so I was following it really closely and I was learning a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes things about the technology. At the time, like many film enthusiasts, I was a big LaserDisc fan. I kind of thought, for quite awhile, that a movie disc format with discs the same size as a CD would probably be a huge hit if it happened. That wasn’t necessarily the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood. There were a lot of people, very early on, who didn’t think that was going to be the case – people that I talked to at the studios.
But when it became clear that DVD was happening, they were developing a format, I started writing about it. I was using EarthLink at the time and I had a free homepage.
Flightpath: And what year was this?
Bill Hunt: This was ’97. Real, real early. When I would talk to these folks at the studios, I would put on this EarthLink site the interesting information I’d heard from them – what discs were being planned, what the technology was all about, what studios were going to be supporting the format. That sort of thing. It initially started as like, an email newsletter that I sent to a few friends, and then I moved that to the EarthLink site. But then within a month, EarthLink called me up and said, “You’re getting way too much traffic. You need to do this as a business.” Because what was happening was, there was really nobody covering DVD. Even Variety and Hollywood Reporter weren’t covering it. Video enthusiasts – Videographer and magazines like that – were sort of talking about it a little bit. But really, there was nobody who was diving into it, especially online. It was a time when there were very few websites devoted to this stuff.
So what was happening was, I was posting this information online, and all the Hollywood people who worked at the studios and the movie directors whose movies were potentially being considered for DVD, and just the whole Hollywood community, jumped on board, and just the whole enthusiast community jumped on board, and traffic just went crazy. So, within a month I bought a domain name and started doing The Digital Bits. I ended up quitting my job doing video production, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Flightpath: Where’d you get the name from?
Bill Hunt: You know, it’s interesting. I was trying to come up with something that wouldn’t be obvious, which is both good and bad, because obviously on the Internet, if you want to read DVD news or Blu-ray news, you search “DVD” or “Blu-ray.” But my thinking was that everything was going digital. All these things were moving from analog to digital, so digital had to be in the name. And “bits” just seemed like bits of news, bits of information, and it tied into the actual binary bits of digital information. And it all just kinda worked, and it’s good because a lot of other DVD websites have come and gone or had to rebrand themselves later. And we are still plugging away.
Flightpath: What were some of the tougher learning curves in launching the site yourself and developing it? Because as you said, there just wasn’t much around at that time.
Bill Hunt: Yeah, there really wasn’t. Just learning how to build a website – and this was of course, ’97, which was very, very early, so it was very early HTML – that was definitely a learning curve. And it’s still a learning curve, because after I got it up and running, it took off so quickly that I’ve never had a chance to go back and redesign. So I’m actually, right now, doing a redesign that will take The Bits from sort of the original HTML model into blog, database-driven content. Yeah, so I’m just now doing that. And the reason is because, in addition to being the web guy, I was the reporter; I was the main contact with all the studios. So there just was never enough time, and that’s what I’m doing now.
Flightpath: I was going to ask about that. That’s one thing I always kind of liked about The Digital Bits. I feel like I’ve been visiting it as long as I’ve been interested in DVDs and movies, but you know, it’s always kind of felt the same. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but I’ve always liked that you seemed to resist the sometimes knee-jerk reaction of websites to redesign every year.
Bill Hunt: Yeah. It was both purposeful and not. One of the reasons it’s taken so long to work on a redesign, is because one of the things I hate about a lot of websites these days is that the blog format tends to really McNugget everything. I used to read the old music magazines – Crawdaddy and those kind of magazines, and the LaserDisc Newsletter, and some of those things – and one of the things I liked is that you’d get one long column in which the person would go from one topic to another, and kind of tie them together, and give you a little context. And so you’d get lots of news, but you’d also get some background information, and you kind of would see how it all fits together. You also got some personality, because there was room to add a little personality to it. That’s kind of always the way I wanted to write and the way I’ve always done The Bits. The problem is, when you go to the blog-driven format, the tendency is for every single piece of news to become a news McNugget. And so you get like 20 posts a day versus one or two good, long, substantial ones. The struggle has been to try and figure out how to adapt to the blog format without losing that personality. You know, everyone is trying to drive up hits and drive up content, and the more posts you do, the more hits you get. So there’s that theory. But my feeling is that, the people who like The Bits and who have stuck with us over the years, like The Bits for what we don’t do as much as for what we do. [Laughs] It’s like you say, there’s personality and we don’t do the McNuggeting. I have no desire to take a press release that I get from a studio about a Blu-ray release and just copy and paste it, and upload it and call that a post. Anybody can do that; it’s just not very interesting.
Flightpath: The problem with shorter content is that you can’t inject as much personality, or really, thought, into something.
Bill Hunt: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, the news is everywhere. There are a hundred websites that are posting this kind of news. But what people tend to come to us for is perspective, so that’s what we try to bring to it.
So that’s been a challenge. And then I would say that the other challenge has been sort of the business side. Trying to figure out how to dive into the advertising model, and selling advertising and dealing with the other side of the studio – the ad buyers and the media people. One of the most challenging aspects of that has been that in the film industry, at the studios, there’s just a gigantic revolving door. So people go from one of the PR agencies to one of the studios, and then they go back to another studio, and then they go back to a PR agency. So it’s this constant churn of different people you’re dealing with.
Flightpath: Are you doing all of it? Those are very different hats to wear: creative and business.
Bill Hunt: I do a little of each of it. My wife, Sarah, does a lot of the business-end now. I really tend to focus on content and looking behind-the-scenes in the industry, maintaining those contacts, and doing reporting on those issues. We have columnists. For example, Barrie Maxwell, who does our classics column, reviews all the different formats but from a classic film perspective. Adam Jahnke does a lot of our more eclectic, more offbeat things. There’s also Tim Salmons, Todd Doogan, Jeff Kleist, Mark Altman and a few others who cover different things. And another good friend of mine, Matt Rowe, started a site called MusicTAP. So we partner with him on music content. We try and spread things around. But my whole day is spent answering emails, answering inquiries, talking to people in the studios, talking to DVD producers and special edition producers. That really is, I would say, the lion’s share of my day. And that’s hours, some days.
Flightpath: The Digital Bits launched way prior to things like Facebook, Google+ and social media. What did you do to try and spread the word?
Bill Hunt: The answer is we did almost nothing. The real advantage was that we were doing this before anyone else was really doing it, so there were very few other places to go. There were a few other good websites: DVDFile happened around the same time, plus DVD Review, Home Theater Forum. And Steve Tannehill’s DVD Resource Page was doing its thing. There were a handful that started around that time, but we were fortunate to be among the first. So everybody in that group, in that interest field, knew who we were, and it kind of spread via word of mouth within the industry and within the enthusiast community. And then certainly that was helped by the fact that we were right in the thick of the original format war, which was DVD versus DivX.
Flightpath: Yes! I still don’t understand DivX.
Bill Hunt: [Laughs] It was so ridiculous. We actually broke the news of DivX. We were the first publication, in print or anywhere, to reveal that Disney and Fox, for example, were going to adopt this format called DivX, which was sort of a pay-per-view flavor of DVD. And then we actually contacted DivX, and within a couple of weeks, we actually went to DivX and did a really substantial feature on the technology. We gave it a very fair shake, originally, and reported all the details of what it was and how it was intended to work and what it meant. After that, we sort of did a separate thing and said, “Well, here’s what we think about it.” And it really just kind of took off from there.
Flightpath: Related to that, was there a specific review or a feature that you ran, which really turned the corner for the website?
Bill Hunt: I would definitely say the DivX thing did, because that format war supercharged interest. Interest was really picking up, in terms of DVD, at the time. That topic just absolutely went everywhere. It was all over mainstream media. Attention coming to DVD was really [borne] out of that controversy about this format war. So I would say that.
And then also, when the Star Wars special editions came back to theaters, which I think was ’97, there was talk that those were the obvious movies to bring to DVD. Those are the movies that everybody would want. And I think it was in 2000 when The Phantom Menace came out, there was this controversy – it came out on VHS, it came out on LaserDisc, but it wasn’t on DVD. It was a huge thing. It’s like, [George] Lucas is very progressive about technology, and these are obvious films to bring out. And so we, along with several other websites, did this whole Star Wars-on-DVD campaign. And Lucasfilm took notice, and they basically said, “We’re gonna do it.” And a year later they put out Episode I on DVD. So we were covering that, and that also was a big landmark event for the site.
But I guess – probably the biggest thing that’s really helped The Bits grow over the years is that we’ve just assembled a really great group of columnists. I mentioned some of them earlier and there have been others as well that made key contributions and moved on. But for example, Todd Doogan coming on board and bringing his experience as a laserdisc reviewer and his time at TNT’s Roughcut – that was a big deal. Adam Jahnke – who started as a writer for Troma – brings a really refreshing and unique expertise and writing style to the site in his Bottom Shelf and Jahnke’s Electric Theatre columns. And Barrie’s passion and knowledge of classic films is as strong and deep as anyone I know. Each of our writers comes from a different place and a different perspective, but we’re all of very similar mind in terms of our love of this stuff and what we’re trying to accomplish. These guys are a big part of The Bits’ success and popularity. Even more importantly for me though, is that they’ve all become really great friends. Hell, they’re like family at this point. So I guess that’s really the thing I’ve gained and appreciate most from The Bits over the years – the friendships with them and others in the industry.
Flightpath: You mentioned Star Wars…it’s funny, because I’m a Star Wars nerd. And I feel like, reading your review of the Blu-rays and all the Star Wars releases where Lucas makes changes to the films, you almost have to act as a therapist for Star Wars fans.
Bill Hunt: [Laughs] It’s really true. It is true. And the funny thing about that is, I’ve said a couple of times, even in my reviews, is that I’m the same way. I grew up with those films; they had a huge impact on my life. It’s taken me years to learn how to sort of separate my practical, just common sense perspective, from the feelings I have connected to Star Wars. But having done that, having been able to do that, now I find that a lot of other people still aren’t able to do that. [Laughs] So in my review, I just try and say, “There’s good and bad here, but it’s not the end of the world. This isn’t rocket science, it’s not brain surgery. The films look good.” There is an aspect of that.
The other interesting thing about this website – tied to both format wars, tied to Star Wars, tied to you name it – is that I get hundreds of emails a day from people. Just readers who have questions or who want help. One of the things I tried to do very early on was to keep The Bits very focused at sort of a mass audience. Widescreen Review is a great publication, but you have to be a real expert and enthusiast to really appreciate all the detail it’s going into. My goal was to always say, “Okay, I want to do two things. I want to expose people who are new to DVD or Blu-ray to the technology, and explain it to them in a way that they can understand, and help them to appreciate it, to get the most enjoyment out of it. And then on other side of the coin, I want to expose people to a lot of films that they maybe haven’t seen before.” One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was in college, as a film major. Growing up in North Dakota, I didn’t have a chance to see a lot of foreign films, or independent films, or art house films. And suddenly, I was a projectionist for the film department, and I was watching [Akira] Kurosawa and Sergio Leone and [Federico] Fellini. That was just an amazing time for me – discovering all these great movies from around the world. So, what I was trying to do, was sort of bring my love of those things to people who may never have seen a [Stanley] Kubrick film or a Fellini film, and say, “You know, you might really be interested in this, and here’s why.”
We didn’t want to talk to the in-crowd, necessarily. We wanted to talk to everybody. We wanted to get everybody into the fold and let everybody share in the fun. Because of that though, we’ve developed a readership where, whenever they have a question or an issue, they start emailing. [Laughs] So, you know, half my morning is spent just going through emails and trying to answer as many as I can.
Flightpath: With great power comes great responsibility.
Bill Hunt: [Laughs] I guess so. I guess so. And the other fun thing about the site is, the longer we’ve been doing it, people just sort of feel like they know you. It feels like a family, to a degree. People have no problem emailing and talking about stuff, I think, because we do put a little bit of our personality into the site. They feel like they know who we are.
Be sure to come back later this week for part 2 of our interview with Bill Hunt!
Mike Nelson is a hero to those who love (or love to hate) bad movies. Having served as head writer and host of the classic TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, Nelson played a large role in elevating movie riffing into a new form of comedy. After the show ceased production in 1999, he kept the flame alive with various projects, but most significantly with the 2006 launch of RiffTrax. An innovative site where users download audio commentaries and sync them with DVDs and Blu-rays, RiffTrax – which features Nelson and fellow MST3K stars Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett – lampoons everything from Michael Bay’s Transformers to classics like Casablanca to oddities like Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. RiffTrax has also produced a series of successful live shows that are simulcast to movie theaters nationwide, with the latest installment set for August 17: a riffing of the low-grade 1962 fantasy adventure, Jack the Giant Killer. We recently spoke with Nelson about taking a chance on Twilight, sending the Tweet that may have started an Internet forest fire, and blowing up a cheese factory.
Flightpath: I know that after MST3K, you started doing some commentaries for Legend Films on DVD releases like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Little Shop of Horrors, and that led to RiffTrax. But when did the idea of “let’s record commentaries on MP3s and have users sync them with their DVDs” actually hatch?
Mike Nelson: It was actually quite awhile ago. I think probably the first time we ever did some specials for MST, we got to use modern movies because we were just taking bits of the EPK and using that. People were like, “Why aren’t you guys doing this,” which is fairly obvious, why we weren’t. We were thinking in the old days about bundling DVDs with the commentary, kind of before MP3s really took over. So it had been brewing for awhile.
Flightpath: I find that part of the charm of RiffTrax is the syncing. It gives it kind of an underground feel and adds to the experience.
Mike Nelson: You know, we sort of tentatively launched it. We knew that there was at least some demand, because I would get emails. A lot of people saying, “Why aren’t you doing this? This idea is so obvious, you should do this!” And so I knew that there were at least some people who were interested in it, but people say a lot of things. We get suggestions for movies, and people are like, “This would be killer, we would love this,” and then nobody buys it because it’s just a little too off the beaten path. So this seems like it could’ve taken that route, but like you say, there’s a savviness to people who like to be early adopters, and there’s something fun about it.
Flightpath: With RiffTrax, you can do anything because you’re only offering the audio files. Was that really freeing for you compared to MST3K, where your scope was more limited?
Mike Nelson: Yeah, and time limits [on MST3K] were kind of frustrating. Not always, because sometimes you could edit a film and make it actually better than the filmmakers did [Laughs], so you could leave out all the dull parts. But a little bit restricting when you were cutting a lot of stuff that was funny. And that was frustrating for us because we’d write the movie first before we’d edit it, because we just didn’t know how much time we could have. And you’d have to cut a favorite passage because if you didn’t include another part that you needed for the plot…it just presented a lot of complications. So to just be able to do the movie, is sort of freeing.
Flightpath: I wanted to know if I could go through a few RiffTrax with you, and you could give your thoughts on the movie itself and how you attacked it.
Mike Nelson: Sure.
Flightpath: Okay, Birdemic?
Mike Nelson: [Laughs] Well, it’s one of those things we’ve been talking about a lot lately, because a couple of people have emailed and said, “Why did you make me sit through that?” And I think they meant it sincerely. [Laughs] A lot of times people are kidding. It’s one of those things where it’s like, it’s totally indefensible that I like it, because generally, despite what I do for a living, I like to champion good things. But there’s this fun side that’s undeniable, and sometimes things that are totally inexplicable make you laugh. And again, this is one of those where I find it absolutely delightful. And yet if you go, “That is the worst thing. Banish it to the deepest pits of Hell,” I’d be hard pressed to disagree with you.
Mike Nelson:Twilight was very risky for us. In fact, I had a bet with the CEO of Legend, who we partner with. He said, “No, it’s a girl movie. It’s not our audience at all. It’s a bad idea and it’s a risk.” So I bet him a sushi lunch that it would be a success. And it was one of our biggest ones, and it was really, really fun once we weighed it in, because obviously none of the people who work at Legend would be watching these movies or know anything about them. So screening it was a delight, because we were like, “Wow, this is the movie we’ve been waiting for.” [Laughs]
Flightpath: I just felt that with its long dramatic pauses and how serious it took itself, it was perfect for you guys.
Mike Nelson: Yeah, we always are laying out the criteria. We say it has to be sincere, and you know, the pauses – that’s just sort of a technical thing, you have to have room to say something – and it has to have goofy elements. And, boy oh boy, does it excel at all of those things.
Flightpath: The Room?
Mike Nelson: That was also a risky one. We had heard the rumblings about this being the “new B-movie.” There’s something about these really bad movies that you have to know the story going in. You have to know, is this sincere? Is this a put-on? Because how do you relax and enjoy how bad it is when you’re sitting there going, “What is this? Who made this?” And that was my concern about it, that it was just too weird. But then like, two viewings of it convinced me. Once you sort of see the disjointed logic and everything, and you get the story of it, it really helps, and that made it enjoyable. And it was successful for us. But again, another movie like Birdemic, that stands on its own, but we think is enhanced by us.
Flightpath: And you met [The Room director and star] Tommy Wiseau?
Mike Nelson: I didn’t meet him face-to-face. We had several discussions with him; he was concerned about our RiffTrax, and he called us up. I think he really thought that we were stealing his movie or something. I don’t think he fully understood what we were saying, that it was just a commentary to it. But he – for a long time – tried to talk us into settling a lawsuit that he was going to bring, and I think we just couldn’t get through to him.
But then after that, coincidentally, he was at Comic-Con, and my son who had seen The Room went and waited in line for him and got pictures with him and with [Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in The Room], and he mentioned who he was. And again, Wiseau seemed confused, but [Greg] was like, “Oh yeah, I heard about this. I heard it’s really funny!” And he’s since admitted that he loves it. So at least somebody knows and understands the spirit of it and thinks it’s funny.
Flightpath: The Internet has evolved into a real destination for comedy, from Funny or Die to College Humor to RiffTrax. Why do you think that is?
Mike Nelson: I think [it’s] immediate access to things that you really like without the filter. You can pick or choose what or when or where. Now that that’s becoming just totally ingrained, I just don’t see that changing. I don’t see the tides of that changing, especially with Hulu and all of that. It just makes no sense. The gatekeepers, I think they’re in trouble as far as that goes, because you can make something and give it directly to the people who want to have it for exactly the kind of arrangements you want to make on it.
I love it. I mean, obviously RiffTrax couldn’t be possible without that, and just connecting on that level and reacting to what people want to see very quickly, I think makes it exciting.
Flightpath: Kind of an extension of that is Twitter, which has drawn a lot of comedy writers and comedians, and you got on board pretty early. What do you think of Twitter?
Mike Nelson: I like it. My use for it is fairly limited. People like me to crack wise about stuff, and that’s pretty much what I use it for: mostly jokes, a few advertisements about what we’re doing – which I never feel bad about, because I’m talking to the very audience who presumably likes what I have. I just try to make it a nice balance of very light stuff and things of interest, pointing things out to people and jokes, and then a few bulletins about what we’ve got going on. It works for me, and then all the people that I think are funny or want to pay attention to, I do the same. It’s perfect.
I know from the outside, when I first was looking into Twitter, I just didn’t understand. “Why? Who would do this?” You have to maybe spend a couple of hours actually doing Twitter and reading what’s going on, and then you get it. “Oh, okay, I understand how these little bulletins work.”
Flightpath: I’d imagine it’s also kind of a good comedy workout, in that you have 140 characters to say what’s in your head perfectly and funny.
Mike Nelson: Yeah. It’s very similar to what we do with RiffTrax, because you get this setup and you get this amount of space to say it in. So we’ve been well-practiced at that. I did a book once [in the Pop Ink series with the Charles S. Anderson Design Company]; it was graphics mostly, but they wanted commentary on it. When I collaborated with them, they would send me the pages back and say, “You need to trim three letters from this.” [Laughs] You know, it became so unbelievably technical. But I had been trained for like, “Okay, make it three letters shorter. How do you reword it to make it fit?” I kind of like the challenge of that.
Flightpath: Did you send the Tweet that basically created Rebecca Black? Is that true?
Mike Nelson: I have been credited for that. We were watching that over the weekend that that happened, and it did sort of fan out from my Tweet about it. Usually just by sheer scale on Twitter, when you post something and you get the replies, you’re kind of like, “Okay, I got 30 or 40 or whatever, that’s fairly decent,” – direct replies or ReTweets or whatever – and this one was just like, insane. Just so many people responding, and it just went on and on. I happened to be traveling that weekend, so I was sort of paying half an eye to it. But another writer here, Conor Lastowka, was Tweeting me, “Uh, we’re up to however many million, and it’s climbing.” So that was kind of fun to watch. It did seem to fan out from there. And obviously you never know for sure. It’s like the forest fire thing. It’s really hard to know what was the thing that started it all.
Flightpath: How do you compare writing for RiffTrax, which is released quickly and online – people can get it instantly – with writing for other mediums you’ve worked in, like TV and print?
Mike Nelson: I just consider the writing of RiffTrax a hard slog at times, because you’re concentrating so much that the amount of time that it takes would probably surprise people, and probably be pretty daunting to most writers. But once you get the efficiencies of it, and you understand what you’re doing – and obviously we’ve done this a lot – there’s something very nice about relaxing into that. It’s like, some people just like doing manual labor to think. This is kind of the opposite. It gets you away from all of the other writing. You know, writing is hard, and I always try to avoid it. Even though I do it for a living, and I’m constantly writing.
When I hear people say, “Oh, when I just have some downtime, I just love to do some writing,” I’m like, “Really? Are you insane? It’s really, really hard!” But there is an element of relaxation to doing it for RiffTrax, where you know what you have ahead of you and it looks like a lot of work. It’s kind of like when I was a kid, I used to like when my dad would to tell me to move a big stack of wood. It was just like, “Well, you know, you just have to do it.” And there’s something about that, of just having this large task ahead of you, and just putting your head down and doing it.
Flightpath: RiffTrax is going back to movie theaters with a new live event. What can you tell us about the movie that you’re going to be riffing and the live experience?
Mike Nelson: Live is always exciting for us, because rarely do we get the immediate feedback. Like I said, you’re sitting in a room doing the slog of writing, and then when we get together amongst ourselves it’s always fun to sort of refine the script. That’s got a writing room feel to it. But you’re still not interacting with an audience, and so that’s always a blast, and the feeling of the infectiousness of laughs is just good for the soul.
The movie that we have is sort of a lift for us, because in the past we were sort of limited to public domain movies, and we’ve worked a lot of the best ones. Titles that could be recognized by an audience and get people excited, we’ve already done. And so this being a brand new one is pretty exciting for us. It’s Jack the Giant Killer, which is kind of a Sinbad adventure-style movie, with stop-animation giants, and wizards and witches and leprechauns in jars, and stuff like that. So it’s pretty perfect for us. It’s not quite an A-level version of that movie; it’s definitely in the B camp.
Flightpath: I have one last question. This is one thing I’ve always wondered. How close was the actual young Mike Nelson in real life compared to the one seen in the MST3K episode Time Chasers, who had hockey hair, temped in a cheese factory, and was in a band called Sex Factory?
Mike Nelson: [Laughs] It wasn’t very close. The cheese factory simulation was spot on, but I was basically playing guys that I had worked with at the cheese factory. I was the odd man out there and looked on as kind of strange, but yeah, through college I worked nights at a cheese factory. It was like 12 to 14 hour days, and I just did it because it was a job that was close. About a couple of years into it I realized that everyone I was working with had been making like five times as much as me, because it was the most hated job in the world and no one would do it. I was like, making minimum wage, putting in 14 hours a night. Stories of the cheese factory never ended in the writing room, and finally the guys were like, “Can we just do an episode about this?”
Flightpath: Well, I’m glad you got out.
Mike Nelson: [Laughs] I did, I did. My fantasy was that I’d make it big in Hollywood, and I would buy the cheese factory, I’d pay off all the workers, have a huge party, and we’d blow up the factory. That’s every guy’s dream when you have a bad job.
Star Wars has had a surprisingly rich history in video games. From the Super Star Wars trilogy for the Super Nintendo to the recent Force Unleashed series, there have been racing games, side-scrollers, RPGs and more, all designed to further engulf game and movie fans in one of the most successful film franchises of all time – but often with mixed results.
Yet some of the most beloved Star Wars games are also some of the earliest: the arcade shooters of the ’80s, starting with the classic vector-graphics based Star Wars, where users piloted an X-Wing in the first film’s Death Star battle.
In 2010, Vertigore Games created Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner, a fast, fun love letter to Star Wars and its early arcade titles, but with new technology – touch screen functionality, motion controls and augmented reality – updating the experience for today’s audiences. Published by THQ Wireless and available exclusively for the iPhone and iPod Touch, Falcon Gunner has players twist, turn and tap their mobile devices to control and fire the Millennium Falcon’s gun turret in over twenty levels, including The Empire Strikes Back‘s asteroid field chase and the climactic Death Star battle from Star Wars. Or, with the use of the camera, they can turn the game’s setting into their immediate surroundings – the living room, the subway, or wherever. It’s exciting, looks great, and stands as one of the best Star Wars game releases on any platform in the last few years.
We recently spoke with Josh Shabtai, CEO and creative director of Vertigore, about his love of Star Wars, how his mother may have provided the inspiration for Falcon Gunner, and the game’s surprising original premise.
Flightpath: Just from playing Falcon Gunner, I could tell you were a huge Star Wars fan because of the level of detail in it.
Josh Shabtai: Oh man. Star Wars has sort of dominated life. I was born in ’79, so I wasn’t even old enough to see the original one in the theater. I’m not really sure what my first exposure to it was. I think I had the books on tape or something. But I ended up collecting a lot when I was a kid. Well, not really collecting so much as begging parents and relatives to buy me every toy.
I had hundreds of toys. I had an original Yak Face, which has gotten more and more valuable. My brother buried it, along with a handful of others, in Virginia Beach when we were on vacation. They’re gone. This was like, when I was eight. That’s kind of the one that got away and has tormented me all my life.
I’ve always been able to weave Star Wars throughout whatever I was doing professionally. I’ve been in PR for awhile, and I worked at an agency called Ketchum. And when I was there, I was on the marketing team that launched Geek Squad, as it transitioned from an independent brand to becoming owned by Best Buy. And I actually convinced them in 2005, the second year they were around, to become sort of the unofficial sponsor of Star Wars-related absenteeism around Episode III. We basically hijacked the launch in all kinds of crazy ways. We built a series of tools so you could get out of work, like an absentee excuse note that was customizable, or things that would automatically block your Outlook calendar. We then partnered with the fans who were waiting on line outside the Ziegfeld, and sponsored that line, and we went for 30 days. So I actually got work to pay for me to wait on line for Episode III. [Laughs] It was amazing. We rented this bus and skinned it to be sort of like the Millennium Falcon, and then inside we made it look retro and really crappy, like the inside of the Millennium Falcon. And there were all these wi-fi stations, so people could connect to work. That was sort of the brand tie-in. But that was the first time I able to somehow merge Star Wars with work.
Flightpath: And then you got into game development?
Josh Shabtai: Yeah. So I went from Ketchum to an Israeli startup, where one of the guys on our board is a serial entrepreneur. He’s put together a really neat incubator-slash-entrepreneur sort of resource calorie. So he not only funds companies, but he also has a layer of human resources developers that connects the business managers and owners with talent, so it actually gives you all the tools to run your own business.
And he was working with these guys on the beginnings of this [shooter] game engine, and as soon as I saw it, I was like, “You know, it’s kind of cool, but what would make it a ton cooler is if you were sitting in the gun turret of the Millennium Falcon. You have to do that.” And basically, Edo – his name’s Edo Segal – he’s like, “Really? You want to do a Star Wars game?” This was February 2010.
Flightpath: So that was where the idea for Falcon Gunner came from.
Josh Shabtai: Yeah. It was a game engine that let you move 360 degrees across three axes, so when I saw it, I was like, “This is serious Millennium Falcon territory.” It was a sprite-based engine, sort of a World War II [setting] for shooting planes that were flying sideways. But the cool thing was, Edo was like, “Look, if you really want to do this, let’s do it.” So I ended up, just sort of on a whim, writing up a 40-page design document and then working with the team to build a demo. And we tracked down THQ Wireless, who owned the license, and we were able to go to them with a working demo and a real design document.
Flightpath: You built a Star Wars-themed demo before you had any approvals?
Josh Shabtai: Yeah. I mean, when we were building it, there was no guarantee we would get to make anything. It really came just from, “I have to make a Star Wars game.”
This will sound like a canned narrative, but this is completely true. When I was a little kid, like three or four, I used to love the Star Wars arcade game. My mom would hold me up to the machine, and I actually got relatively good. For a four-year-old, I could play for probably five to seven minutes at a time. When Episode I came out, I actually flew back home to Erie, Pennsylvania, and bought tickets for my mom, dad, aunt and uncle and all my cousins, and we all went to see it together, because that’s how obsessed I was. And that’s when my mom first told me this story. There was a time where she was holding me up and was getting exhausted, and she actually wanted me to stop playing the game. She was like, “Look, we gotta go. I hear there’s a Millennium Falcon game at the other end of the mall.” And that’s what got me to stop.
Flightpath: Was she lying or was she telling the truth?
Josh Shabtai: No, she was lying! And they never made a Millennium Falcon game! They never made one in the arcade.
Flightpath: So maybe that was the genesis of the idea.
Josh Shabtai: Well, I would bug her. I would always be like, “Where is it?” So then when I started making Falcon Gunner, she was like, “You know, you’ve been working on this since you were four.”
Honestly, my entry point to video games is that I played a ton of them. I was obsessed with understanding how they work. I started to make some alternate reality games, so I was never really making video games as much as games that could be played in real life, and stuff like that. A lot of the work that I was doing in marketing and PR was basically designing entire marketing campaigns that would push people’s buttons to elicit responses, so essentially applying game design thinking to developing integrated marketing campaigns. You’re creating content you know people will interact with. I’ve always done it from that perspective, so when I saw what Edo was doing, I jumped at the chance to do that.
I don’t know if I’ve really told anybody this. Originally, the game design that I wrote up was not Falcon Gunner. My first instinct was to make an awesome Millennium Falcon game, but then second, I was like, “Man, you could make such a cool narrative experience.” So I wanted to actually make a game called Death Star Gunner. The idea being, you start off as the lowest guy on the totem pole in the Empire, basically a space janitor, who ends up graduating to becoming not the Turbo Laser operator on the Death Star, but just a turret operator. Like literally, just running one of those little stupid turrets on the side. [Laughs] Like, it’s so sad. That’s as good as it’s gonna get, and then ultimately…
Flightpath: You get blown up.
Josh Shabtai: [Laughs] Yeah, you get blown up! I wanted to make this awesome thing where you start as a janitor on one of the small frigates, and in the middle of a battle you end up taking on one of the turrets. Basically, your face would be covered the whole time by one of those black helmets. It’s so sad. And then there would be moments where he’s with his wife and kids. It would be this really weird, dry comedy set in the Star Wars universe. Ultimately you graduate, and then at the end when you’re on the Death Star, you get one shot at the Falcon. He literally zips by. If you hit him, the game ends with Vader wiping out Luke and the Empire winning and Vader getting all the credit, and no one ever knew your contribution to it. Or you blow up. [Laughs]
Basically, I put that together thinking, “We’re never gonna really make a Star Wars game, so if we’re gonna make a demo, let’s just do that.” Then I sort of dug deeper into who had the license. We found THQ Wireless had it, and had been making some games for awhile. And then we found we had a real shot at it, and I was actually afraid to pitch this off-the-wall concept.
Flightpath: It’s not a safe bet.
Josh Shabtai: I had no idea how it would fly. I think it’s funny, but will anyone else? So we were like, “Let’s go back to the original idea,” which was a Falcon game. So we went out to THQ, who was really great to work with. I just have to say, I find that so often, ideas get killed because they’re presented in idea form. So to be able to walk in and say, “Hey guys, here’s a working augmented reality Star Wars game,” totally unsolicited, it was good.
I remember the first title for the game was 12 Parsecs. But it sounded too much like a racing game.
Flightpath: How was the development process? What were the stages in creating the game after you got the OK?
Josh Shabtai: First thing really was rebuilding the complete engine from scratch. By the way, the engine that the game’s built on is our own. We call it the Immersion Engine. We built it from the ground up. So when we first started out, the engine we built the demo on was a sprite-based engine, and we gutted it and recreated it so it would be able to have full 3D models and things like that. So we started there. The game that we ended up building was essentially the design document that we put together to present, so a lot of the pre-work had been done, in terms of really outlining what the user progression structure was going to be, what the menu interface system was going to be like. All that work really was done upfront, and then we spent the next couple of months just building all this stuff. We got official sounds from Lucasfilm, and that was pretty cool, and obviously you have to have the real music.
We made a few bets on what the control scheme would be like. The original engine that we had was a simple touch-the-screen to shoot. There were no thumbsticks, so we added that in. In game design, it typically works that you have an idea you think is going to be cool, you implement it as a prototype, and you find out it sucks. So you have to go back and forth. Where we landed with how the control sticks work, the speed with which you can spin to manipulate the position of the turret – all those things – they changed a bit from the final version, but for the most part we nailed a really fun control feeling from that early demo. A lot of credit goes to our devs.
That was a dangerous first game to start with, because when you’re like, “Wow, this is fun with no effort,” you start to feel like that’s the way it’s gonna be on [making] future games. And I can say from experience now that it’s not. So we really lucked into it early on. It was pretty cool.
Flightpath: Was there anything that was off-limits? Characters or locales that Lucasfilm wouldn’t let you touch?
Josh Shabtai: Everything we laid out, they let us do. It was awesome. It’s funny. I feel like in the past, Lucasfilm got a lot of grief about how they played the fan community. But I have to say, they were amazing in terms of providing any assets we were looking for.
Flightpath: And once it was done, how did it feel, both as a designer and as a Star Wars fan, to have made a Star Wars video game?
Josh Shabtai: It hasn’t worn off. I really went into it saying, “Okay, I just want to make a Star Wars game. I don’t even care about anything else.” And trying to make one that would hopefully live up to what I loved about the X-Wing series, and the original arcade game, and to some degree, Rogue Squadron. I dunno man, it hasn’t worn off. It’s still pretty crazy. [Laughs] I really can’t even put it into words. And honestly, when I talk to Star Wars fans who are like, “Man, that game was awesome,” [I get] that good feeling of, “I was able to make something real,” that a lot of people had dreamed of for awhile.
And frankly, what’s funny is that it actually ended up spawning a company, and we’ve made two other games since then, and we have some other stuff coming up. It’s starting to become a significant thing. But I don’t even know if that’s as interesting to me as just having made a Star Wars game.
Flightpath: Well that’s a nice thing to check off your list of things to do in life: Star Wars videogame.
Josh Shabtai: Yeah! I’d like to make more!
Flightpath: Is there a chance for a sequel? Maybe one with speederbikes?
Josh Shabtai: I hope so. [Laughs] But speederbikes are definitely one of the things I’m dying to make.
Flightpath: I don’t know if you feel comfortable answering this, but Star Wars has a big legacy in video game history. Where do you think Falcon Gunner fits in that legacy?
Josh Shabtai: I was obsessed with the X-Wing series. The X-Wing and TIE Fighter series were unbelievable in terms of making you feel like this stuff was real. My favorite game of all time is Knights of the Old Republic. I actually think that nailed the themes behind Star Wars probably better than even the prequels did.
Realistically, I sort of feel like…you know, those games are incredible. You know, Knights of the Old Republic, X-Wing, TIE Fighter, not even just amongst Star Wars artifacts, but just amongst games, they’re unbelievable. I mean, we basically made a fun arcade shooter for iPhone. I’ve gone back and played Rogue Leader on Gamecube, and it’s amazing, some of the things they did in that game. It looks good, it plays well, it’s immersive. I feel like those guys really killed it.
I’m psyched that we introduced augmented reality to it. I think [Falcon Gunner] is closer in spirit to the original arcade game than any of the others. It’s more arcadey, and really, the design objective was really simple.
One part from A New Hope was probably my favorite when I was a kid, and it was when Luke got in the gunner seat and got really excited when he shot [a TIE fighter] down. Han says, “Don’t get cocky!” There was something about that moment. I love that feeling, where he’d never done that before. He’d never sat in a seat like that, he’d never fired those turrets. And for me, that moment where he was elated, and he figured out how to do it and master it, that’s the fabric of the Star Wars that I love. If the game did one thing, it would create that feeling in you. It’s kind of hard to figure out how the controls work well, and then all of a sudden, you lock into it and you have that feeling of elation like Luke did.
I feel like, Knights of the Old Republic, their objective was to immerse you in a universe where you feel the shades of gray between being a Sith and a Jedi, and the political ramifications of decisions being made throughout the galaxy. Those are experiences that are more intricate in nature, so I couldn’t put Falcon Gunner up with those experiences. But at least we nailed that feeling [from A New Hope‘s turret scene], and a game hadn’t done that yet. So, hopefully we earned our place amongst those games.
In the final installment of our two-part interview on the history and future of 3D with John Carey, Professor of Communications and Media Management at Fordham University, the co-author (with Martin Elton) of When Media Are New discusses YouTube’s foray into 3D, the hurdles still facing the technology, and what will succeed it.
Flightpath: It seems to me that Avatar fueled the new 3D craze, including the push for 3D TVs. Was that the case, or were the TVs in the pipeline, and then Avatar just happened to be this huge success?
John Carey: I think the TVs were in the pipeline, and Avatar helped. Now, having said that, 3D TVs did not do well last year. As I understand it, they are not doing that well this year. Now, there are lots of reasons for that. You have the problem of multiple standards, which you had in the early days of HD also. In other words, there are three or four 3D standards, different types of glasses, and when people see that, they tend to say, “I might bet on the wrong horse here, and I’m gonna wind up with the wrong 3D, and no one’s going to produce [content] for this.” So that’s an issue. There’s also the cost of the glasses, which is a big issue. There’s active and passive 3D. The passive glasses can be as cheap as the ones you had in the old days for the movies, and essentially they don’t cost anything. And the active ones are like $150.
Once again, I’ll do a comparison with HD. How did HD get known by people? Often, it was some big television event like the Super Bowl, and you invited 15 people over, and they saw your HD television set and they said, “This is fabulous, I’ve got to get one.” If you did that with 3D, you’d have to have 15 sets of glasses. Well, that’s $1500. That’s a big problem.
Flightpath: If you have 15 people in a room, can you all be looking at it from different angles? Or do you have to be directly in front of the TV?
John Carey: That’s another issue. Once again, it varies with the standard. With some standards, you have a fairly wide viewing area, with other standards you have to be pretty much directly in front. So if you had 15 people in a room, yeah, that would be a problem.
Wearing the glasses for a long period of time is an issue. If you think about it, these active glasses, they’re somewhat heavy. Think about people who are doing something else while they’re watching television; they’re reading the newspaper, many of them will have their computer open. So you’re gonna have the problem of, essentially, looking at the screen and then looking down and having to take off your glasses. That’s a significant issue.
The other thing that’s a challenge to 3D TV is that 3D without glasses is coming along. You already have it with one of the new videogame systems.
Flightpath: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the Nintendo 3DS. They were able to introduce glasses-free 3D to the mass market.
John Carey: It’s called auto-stereoscopic, and it works. There are two issues. You have to be looking directly at it, but since it’s typically one person using the videogame [system], that’s okay. It also is, at the moment, outrageously expensive for anything but a very small screen. So if you have a [portable] game [system], and it’s five inches by five inches, that’s okay. If you tried to make a TV set that was, say, 40 inches, it would cost several thousand dollars. Having said that, like all electronic technologies, the price will come down. The estimates I’ve seen are that auto-stereoscopic 3D will probably be feasible for regular television sets in five to seven years. In that sense, 3D with glasses has a [small] window of opportunity.
And then, coming behind that, will be holographic television. The Japanese have the 2020 Summer Olympics and they say they will be broadcasting that or cablecasting it in holographic television. Other people say that’s too ambitious. Now, holographic television exists. It’s used a little bit in medical imaging, but a set right now would cost about $40,000-$50,000, so that’s not feasible. And it’s roughly 10-15 years away.
So these are all the things that are coming down the line, and the current generation of 3D has to kind of find its place before these other things take over.
Flightpath: Do you think that without the use of glasses, 3D will be the success people wanted it to be in the ’50s, or will it always play second fiddle to 2D?
John Carey: I think it will ultimately be successful. But I think what is gonna happen is that it will not be like HD, where let’s say, 75% of programs [are available in HD], and it will eventually be 100%. 3D, I think, will never be 100%, and there are a few reasons for that. One is that, with 3D with glasses, if you watch it for a long period of time, like five or six hours, almost everybody gets a headache. So what that means is, unlike HD, where your goal would be that you’d get an HD set and then everything would be in HD, with 3D, the goal would be you’d get a 3D set, and then maybe one of two hours a night, you would watch shows that lend themselves the most to 3D and then the rest would be in 2D. It’s likely [that] sports will be big-time 3D, and then in terms of other genres, I’m not quite sure which will be successful. And it also may be that over time, production techniques will change to take advantage of 3D. That’s happened with HD. If you look at production over the last 10 years, HD lends itself more to bright colors and pastels. It lends itself to moving shots, like from a helicopter, so you see more of that in production. It doesn’t lend itself so well to dark scenes. So like, Law & Order really doesn’t look particularly good in HD. A different set of issues will come and play out in 3D, as we learn what works in 3D.
Flightpath: A key to early television adoption was having TVs in bars, and the same was true for HDTVs. Do you think that will be a key for 3D TV?
John Carey: It’s absolutely a key thing. The story about early television in the late ’40s and bars, that’s absolutely right. With HD, they actually did a fairly poor job early on. If you went into an electronics store in say, 2000, or 1999 when they were first introduced, they had HD sets but they weren’t hooked up to an HD service. They were hooked up to regular analog television, and people looked at it and they said, “What’s the big deal? This doesn’t look particularly good at all.” And they actually missed the boat. What they really should have done is subsidized them and put them in sports bars. And they did eventually do that, but it wasn’t until around 2004 or 2005, that when you went into an electronics store, it was hooked up to real HD and bars were getting it. And that’s, by the way, when HD started to take off.
Now, with 3D, you have the same issue. Right now, I think they’ve done a really poor job of marketing it. The World Cup, some of that was in 3D. There were some tennis tournaments in 3D. There were very, very few demonstrations of it. It’s been a little bit better in Europe. The U.S. hasn’t really had much at all.
The issue is, people have to see 3D if they’re going to eventually buy it. So you’ve got to have some content, and you’ve got to have a place where you can see it. Now, some electronics stores are exhibiting it, but not all of them, and certainly not enough. The obvious place to do it would once again be sports bars. In a sports bar, let’s say it’s a big football game, you could have one set that is [showing] the game in 3D, and then two or three other sets with the game in 2D. So everybody can see it, and those who buy or rent the glasses [from the bar], they can experience [3D].
There was an interesting thing I saw, a photograph of what Sony is doing in Japan. In Tokyo, on sidewalks, they have a big panel, and in the panel there are cutouts. The glasses are built into the cutout. So you can walk up, see a sample of 3D, and not walk away with the glasses. And it doesn’t have to be manned or anything like that.
One way or the other, they’ve got to deal with that issue of demoing it for the public. And they have not done a good job so far.
If I were betting, I would bet that 3D TV with glasses will be a failure. But what will happen is, as before, it will sort of fade. And then, when auto-stereoscopic 3D without the glasses comes in in five or six years, by that point there will be enough content that will have been produced, the problem of the glasses will have gone away, and I think at that point it will find a market.
Flightpath: What about 3D making its way over to computing? YouTube just launched its 3D channel. Do you see that as being anything more than a gimmick or a way to get in the 3D game, or will it play a role in the future of experiencing content on the computer?
John Carey: I think, in the computer world, the biggest early opportunity is videogames. There are some videogames in 3D, and if you think about the type of person who might wear glasses for three or four hours, and would put up with all kinds of things in order to have the most super experience, it would be the gamer. So that’s certainly where I would start.
The YouTube 3D [channel], at the moment, I’m not going to say [it’s a] gimmick. It’s a novelty. They have to get content. They’re trying to encourage people to shoot 3D and put it on the YouTube channel. It will be a novelty. What will be interesting is, will people, especially the amateurs, come up with something that’s totally new? In my mind, when I hear about something like that, I don’t say yes, I don’t say no. I say, “Let me take a look at it. Let’s see where it goes.”
3D technology is seemingly everywhere. Blockbuster movies are now routinely released in 3D, 3D television sets are for sale at every Best Buy, and the Nintendo 3DS has introduced glasses-free 3D to video games and the mainstream market. Recently, YouTube launched its own 3D channel, bringing user-generated 3D into the cultural and creative mix. While 3D has come and gone over the years, it has proven to be a resilient technology, and has never been more omnipresent.
To get a better understanding of 3D, from its history to where it’s going, we recently spoke with John Carey, Professor of Communications and Media Management at Fordham University. Carey, co-author (with Martin Elton) of When Media Are New, has researched new media development and adoption for over 25 years, and has conducted studies on everything from consumer use of mobile video technologies to the impact of HDTV on viewing behavior for clients such as A&E Television Networks, Cablevision, NBC Universal and more.
In part 1 of our two-part interview, Carey explains the origins of 3D, its failure at being adopted on a mass scale, and the role that sports and other content may play in the future success of 3D TV.
Flightpath: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you talk a little bit about the first time 3D was introduced? I have an image of those kind of cheesy black and white photos from the ’50s, of a packed movie theater where everyone is wearing 3D glasses, as representing early 3D. I think a lot of people have that image. Is that really how 3D began?
John Carey: It actually begins a lot earlier than that. If you just take the general notion of three-dimensional images, it traces back to the 1840s. The very first attempts to do photography, they were trying to do 3D. And the reason is kind of obvious. If you think about photography, and then you say, well, “How do people see?” People have two eyes, and two eyes allows for depth. So they were trying to figure out a way that they could get depth in photographs. And it actually existed by the late 1850s. There were these stereoscopes that allowed you to see 3D. All through the late 19th century there was some 3D photography, and then it actually became quite popular by the late 1890s. So from say, the late 1890s to around 1920, stereo photographs were very common. They ultimately lost out in terms of real popularity to the simplicity of a photograph on a piece of paper that you could hand to someone, because the stereo photos all required that you use a special viewer.
Flightpath: It sounds like they were viewing the photos in a View-Master.
John Carey: The View-Master that you may be familiar with was sort of the remnant of the 3D photography experience. As far as I know, it still exists. It certainly existed when I was a kid.
Flightpath: Were people buying 3D cameras back then? Who was using them?
John Carey: In the 1890s, [3D] was high-end amateur photography, and certainly professional photography, and many people were shooting 3D images. It was quite popular for awhile. I don’t want to exaggerate. 2D photography was way more popular and used than 3D. But 3D had a significant niche in that world.
Flightpath: And when were 3D movies introduced?
John Carey: The first film I’m aware of is in the 1920s. There was an experimental 3D movie, and there were also some experiments in the ’30s and ’40s. Then 3D movies took off in the early 1950s, and the reason for that was that the movie theaters were getting clobbered by television. People who used to go to the movie theater two or three times a week were now going maybe once, and they were hoping to bring them back into the theater. So they tried actually a number of gimmicks, and one was 3D movies. There was Bwana Devil and Dial M For Murder, a Hitchcock film. There were probably about 20 of them in the ’50s.
They would try anything [to get people back into theaters]. They had things like Smell-O-Vision, where they’d introduce smells into the theater. They introduced panoramic, very wide screens. All of these were just an attempt to bring people back to the theater.
But, in every decade after that – the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s – some 3D movies came back. And once again, they had a little bit of popularity, and then they went away.
Flightpath: It’s funny because 3D being introduced by the movie studios to get people back in the theaters is exactly what they’re doing now. But what led to the marginalization of 3D? Did the market just say, “This is a gimmick, we don’t want it,” or were the glasses too much of a barrier?
John Carey: It wasn’t the glasses, it was the fact that [3D] was a one-trick pony. By and large, what they did was, they would find a way to throw something at the camera, or shoot something at the camera, and that was the appeal. After awhile it just sort of wore off. “So, the tomahawk from the Indian is coming at me. So what?” Some people also argued, and this is an issue today, that with live-action actors, the 3D can get in the way of the story. That you notice the technique and that makes it harder to get into the story.
I don’t think the glasses were the issue. The projectors were an issue, and how many theaters could project 3D. The glasses were not such an issue because it was still a rarity. In other words, you’d go to maybe two 3D movies a year. That wasn’t such a big deal. That is more of an issue with television, if you’re going to be sitting there watching it for three or four hours a night.
The big boost for 3D movies was Avatar, because it was a huge success. The question is, would Avatar have been significantly less successful had it been in 2D? My opinion would be no. I think it still would have been quite successful. But it certainly was one of the best 3D movies ever made, in part because they did very little “throw-something-at-the-audience,” and they used depth of field instead. If 3D is gonna make it, that’s what’s gonna make it – not some axe coming out towards you in the theater.
So Avatar was successful, but then if you look at the movies that followed, not so [much]. There were a few successes. I think Alice In Wonderland was successful. There’s another key thing here. Many of the successes, especially in the last 10 years, have been animation. 3D seems to lend itself very much to animation and somewhat less so to live-action actors.
Flightpath: Roger Ebert is famously anti-3D. I just saw Thor in 3D, and I was underwhelmed. Watching scenes in a coffee shop in 3D didn’t really add anything to the experience, and I thought the image seemed muddled.
John Carey: That points to a problem, which is, if there’s nothing that’s taking advantage of 3D in a scene, is that helping or hurting your experience? If it’s clearly and explicitly designed or shot to take advantage of 3D as Avatar was, which had beautiful depth of field, then yes. But that’s kind of a rarity. There are some directors who are dead set against 3D, and there are some who are in favor of it. But even the ones who are in favor of it say, “You have to shoot it right.” You have to take into account exactly what 3D is good for and then shoot to it. If all you do is have a 3D camera instead of a 2D camera, chances are, it’s not going to help the film.
Flightpath: When did 3D come to television?
John Carey: You had experiments with 3D [on television] going back at least to the ’70s. They tended to be of one kind. They tended to be commercials, [and] they were promoted – because you had the issue of where are you going to get the glasses – so there was often a tie-in between the commercials and let’s say, 7-Eleven. So you’d go to 7-Eleven and you’d get the glasses, and then there would be a program that would have some 3D in it. And the most recent one like that was the 2009 Super Bowl, that had some 3D commercials. You had some in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but not a lot.
Several things were responsible for 3D coming into television today. The penetration of high-definition TVs is now very high, and they make very little money now on selling an HDTV. The early sets, around 2000-2002, they’d make $1,000 profit. And now they might make $20 or $30 profit off an HD set. So the manufacturers needed something to boost sales and to boost profits, and there was also a lot people looking at 3D movies being successful and saying, “Well, if that’s what’s going to drive people, let’s start to launch it.”
There are number of obstacles for 3D TV. When HDTV came in in the late ’90s, there was a lot of content available. Virtually every movie made since the ’20s was made in 35mm or 70mm, which is more than enough for high-definition television. So you had all that content, and then beginning in the early ’90s, most television programs were shot either in HD videotape or they were shot in film. So once again, you had all this content available to you.
So, one of the challenges for 3D TV is, where are you going to get the content? There are a number of places. What’s the total inventory of 3D movies? It’s probably about a hundred. So there are not that many, but there are some. You can up-convert from 2D movies to 3D, and I’ve seen it; it’s okay, but it’s not nearly as good as if you shoot originally in 3D. They’re gonna up-convert Titanic and the Star Wars movies, and it’ll be interesting to see what they look like.
The other thing people are banking on a lot is sports. If I was gonna place my bets, that’s where I’d place my bets. But there’s a lot to it. Some sports seem to lend themselves better to 3D than others, and some of this is surprising. Golf is quite good in 3D. Football is surprisingly more difficult to do in 3D, and one of the reasons for this is the angle of the cameras. With golf, inherently, the way they’ve been shooting it, someone is standing and looking at the player, so you get this sort of straightforward thing of the ball coming at you. With football, most of the cameras are high up, and they’re looking down. So if you shoot 3D that way, you’re not going to get very good depth, because it’s between the player and the field. What you have to do is put the cameras closer to the field and then you get the full depth of the players themselves. So what they have to do, as I understand it, is have two crews.
Flightpath: You have to have two separate broadcasts.
John Carey: That’s right. Now that also makes it more expensive compared with HD, because with HD you can just downgrade it to standard resolution.
So you have some movies, and more movies are being produced. You have sports. It remains to be seen how much they’re gonna shoot of other things.
Be sure to come back next week for part 2 of our interview on 3D with John Carey.
Fastball and its co-lead singer, Tony Scalzo, first found success with the band’s 1998 hits “The Way” and “Out Of My Head,” which became radio and MTV staples just prior to the rise of Napster and the Internet’s leveling of the music business. But even as the industry changed, Fastball continued to create its own brand of tight, catchy and smart records, quietly resulting in a stellar catalog. Throughout, Scalzo’s blend of Paul McCartney-esque melodicism and craftsmanship with Elvis Costello-style wordplay has filled Fastball’s albums – including the group’s latest, 2009’s excellent Little White Lies – with numerous pop gems. Now, Scalzo is planning his first solo album and has turned to Kickstarter for help in making it happen. At Kickstarter, fans pledge at different levels to assist in funding creative projects of all kinds, from albums to movies, in exchange for certain rewards. The rub: if the monetary goal is not met by a certain deadline, the artist gets nothing.
We recently spoke with Scalzo about why he’s using Kickstarter to get his solo project off the ground, his views on the Internet and its role in music today, and what it’s like to play a concert in someone’s home.
Flightpath: Fastball’s last album, Little White Lies, came out in 2009. What made you decide that now was the right time for a solo album, and what led you to Kickstarter?
Tony Scalzo: Well, [Little White Lies] was over two years ago. We went on tour with that record, probably put about 45,000 miles on the road. Three or four months of touring, opening up for Sugar Ray for a month. We were totally active. We did lots of radio stuff. A lot of that touring though, we really didn’t make a lot of money, because we were piggybacking with Sugar Ray. It was supposed to be an exposure thing, but unfortunately, the tour didn’t really do us much good.
So we basically struggled through the process of paying for the record we’d made, and our touring [profits] went to paying back the credit card debt we’d incurred recording Little White Lies, which was substantial. And then last year, ironically, having not really put out anything for a year, we played a lot of one-offs all over the country, and we did really well [monetarily]. And we still do that; we’re planning on having a really big summer of weekend shows. It pays the best and we get to stay home for most of the week.
So anyway, I guess about seven months ago, Miles [Zuniga, co-lead singer of Fastball] starting working on his [solo] record. He has lots of songs that he’d been writing over the years. And he got that going, and I watched how well he did on his Kickstarter program to get the money together for his. So you know, it’s a great tool, where you don’t really have to put yourself in debt [to make an album]. The only thing you have to do is honor the rewards that you promise people for donating. Some people see a lot of value in some of those rewards, so they’re willing to throw down and be a part of the actual making of a record. And I think that’s really cool. I don’t know if I’m going to do quite as well as Miles did. I’m kind of behind right now. But I’m happy with the way I’ve gotten tons of support.
Flightpath: How did you come up with the rewards? It seems like you had a list of everything a fan could dream of. It was like, “Autographed CD, check. Unreleased demos, check. Acoustic concert in my home, check.”
Tony Scalzo: Yeah. I went around the whole Kickstarter site to see what other artists were offering and how much they wanted. I just sort of went from there and decided what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t really want to call people and wish their mom a happy birthday, or sing to their mom. [Laughs] That’s cool and all, but it’s not really what I’ve got in mind.
But I have some other cool things, you know, like recording a video of me in my house, singing a song [on request]. I like the [listening] party idea, to get those mid-range pledges all together and have a party. Treat them to some drinks.
Flightpath: You also already have a pledge at the $2,000 level.
Tony Scalzo: That’s true! That was like, the first day, too. So you can imagine, I was like, “Oh, wow, this is going to be no sweat.” It happens to be someone I knew, and someone local, which is awesome.
Flightpath: Have you ever played someone’s house before?
Tony Scalzo: Oh, yeah. It’s usually a pretty special thing. It’s pretty worth it. Miles and I have done a lot of that kind of thing, and actually plan on doing more of it in the future.
Flightpath: If this works, do you think you’ll stick with Kickstarter for your next album?
Tony Scalzo: Well, the record, it’s gonna be a long time before this whole thing is complete. I think it’s a little longer than a lot of people might think, too. Miles’ record is still not out, and he got his funding months and months ago. I’m not saying that I haven’t started, ‘cause I have. I’ve done some basic tracks, but it’s gonna be a little while in that studio. Then there’s the manufacturing, and I plan on getting some promotional people together. To really have a campaign, you have to.
Flightpath: That was one thing that struck me in your Kickstarter video. You’re kind of listing all the things that are going into this, and there are some things that I’m guessing you’ve never done before. Stuff like manufacturing the CD, and just being in charge of the whole project in a new kind of way. How do you feel about that?
Tony Scalzo: Well, I must say — this is important, because this is the new world, right? And you know what? Having done really well in the old world [Laughs]…the new world, for musicians and artists having to deal so much with business, it distracts. There is such a thing as separation of left and right brain, and it takes away. I’m not writing [songs] for the last couple of weeks. I’m playing a lot, because I’m doing gigs, but I’m dealing with [trying to finance my album]. I do have those [business] fears, which I think is legit. You end up becoming a record exec instead of a musician.
I’m a musician; I’m a songwriter. That’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do. I play my songs, and that’s really all I care about.
Flightpath: In the Kickstarter video, you talk about how with today’s digital technology, anyone can make records in their basement, or wherever they want, for really cheap, but that you’re used to working in studios to create better sounding recordings. And you can hear it on the Fastball records. With tracks like “Wind Me Up,” there are layers of harmonies, guitars and strings.
Tony Scalzo: It’s true, man. I have to be honest. If anybody thinks that I can just go and make a record in somebody’s kitchen on substandard mics and all digital, and do the kinds of things [I want], and reach the standards that I have with Fastball, they’re just wrong. There are fans that are going to be short-changed.
Why should the quality of music go down with the technology going up? If I want it lo-fi, I’ll do it. But the stuff I do, I really want all those textures, and I want fine lines. I want those values in there. It’s super important to my fans. I know that. That’s why they like Fastball.
Flightpath: Can you talk a little bit about how you’re approaching the writing and the creation of the album? It’s the first time you’re really doing it on your own.
Tony Scalzo: Yeah, and at the same time, I have a team of a few people, including the guys in my [solo] band, that I’m working with. We work out a lot of the songs in rehearsals and at shows. These new songs can be heard live. I do play them live. They’re not recorded yet; they’re only in demo form. One of the rewards, which I think is cool, like we talked about, is the demos of all these songs. You get to hear the evolution of the album.
So I work all that out with the band, but I call the shots, as far as the final word. But it’s great to bounce ideas off people. I can’t just run in and play all the instruments. I’m gonna get a lot of ideas from the musicians that are gonna play on it. There’s already a couple of tracks that are underway. We’ve got drums, bass, acoustic guitar and scratch vocals on three songs. So, we build on those, which are gonna be the nucleus of the record.
Most of the songs are written, but not all the songs are completed. I think that I’m gonna be running around last minute, writing lines and filling in things. That’s the way I’ve always done stuff, and that’s the way Miles has always done stuff. We both get to an impasse and say, “Okay, I’ll see you in about 10 minutes,” and run off somewhere and try and figure it out. And one of us comes in and makes it work. So, I’m looking forward to that stuff. That’s the real energy of creation. That’s when it really feels like you’re doing something.
Stephen Belans is producing it. I’m actually gonna be using Joe Blaney [to] mix it. He’s done Keith Richards’ solo records, he did Combat Rock by the Clash. He’s just an awesome guy and I’ve been wanting to work with him forever. I’ve got George Reiff playing bass on a couple of tracks. He plays with Jakob Dylan.
Flightpath: Will Miles play on it?
Tony Scalzo: Actually, a couple of the songs are collaborations with Miles. Some of them are Fastball songs that never made the grade or whatever. I’m putting a couple of those in there. Some of them are just from these last few months of writing.
A lot of it’s gonna be along the same lines of what people expect from me. Hooky melodies. I don’t really like to go off into Radiohead land. I think there’s too many bands doing that anyway, and I like to hear a tune.
There’s a band called The Belle Brigade, and they’re incredible. They sound like Simon & Garfunkel meets Fleetwood Mac, circa ’75. I’m going to be using their record as a textual template. You sort of bring records to the studio, and you A/B them with what you’re doing. “Does it come close to this? Are we getting in that zone?” In Fastball sessions, we’ve always tried to make things sound like the records we love.
Flightpath: Finally, as a musician, how do you feel about the Internet? On one hand, it’s kind of responsible for the destruction of the industry with file sharing, yet on the other hand, it’s given artists new ways to promote their music or even with Kickstarter, to fund it.
Tony Scalzo: I think the Internet is awesome, and I think we’re just trying to figure out how to optimize it. I get a lot of new music off the Internet, off of things like Facebook, especially. Just that one little vein of social networking really provides the bulk of my informational intake. I find out about new bands, I find out about local stuff. Also Twitter, you can put up links that get out to a lot more people a lot faster.
With Kickstarter, so many people are throwing down and showing support. They can also help by just sharing the link. So that’s awesome. I think there are ways to really optimize with Kickstarter.