Joss Whedon at the Shasha Seminar, Part II

Last time, I gave a recap of Joss Whedon and Mark Harris’s thoughts on where the media industry is going, but much of our time at the Shasha Seminar was spent talking about the nuts and bolts of actually getting work produced.

Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile
Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile

Whedon talked about his own career, and how he got his stories up on screen. He started with Buffy, who he described like so: “This is my voice. This is my avatar. This is my girl.” Buffy, the story of a “bimbo” getting her revenge on big scary monsters, was the story he needed to tell. Being a script doctor was not enough for him – because it didn’t involve creating anything. Lucky for him, as he creates, he sees the title, the trailer, the one sheet and the marketing campaign all in his head. That probably goes a long way to explain why Whedon’s incredibly off-beat concepts worm their way into the pop culture landscape – he understands that media doesn’t just live up on screen, it lives in advertising, it lives in conversations online and in person. He claims it’s not cynical to think of these things as you’re doing creative work – because “It’s going to be a dialog between the audience and us.” In other words, he’s reaching out to his audience any way he can.

For Buffy, reaching out to the audience also meant a huge amount of multi-platform content – some of which he controlled creatively, and some of which he didn’t. In the case of the books, Whedon said, “Please don’t have Buffy deny the Holocaust in any of them, I’ll be over here.” In the case of the video game, he voiced an avatar of himself. Whedon put a lot of creative effort into the comic book series, because that platform interested him. However, he also addressed the announcement that Fran Rubel Kuzui, producer of the original (and failed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, intends to revive the series without Whedon’s creative input. Whedon said that Buffy “would not have happened” without Kuzui, and that the party who would have legal difficulty creating a new Buffy TV series is, in fact, him. When someone asked if he regretted not telling more television stories in the Buffy universe, he said “I’m not long on regret.”

Whedon’s shows are widely given credit as some of the first to have massive (and well-organized) online followings, Firefly was one of the first shows without a fully aired season to come out on DVD, and now his show Dollhouse is being renewed in part due to a strong web-based viewing audience. As I noted in my last post, Whedon started shooting the second season of Dollhouse on Monday. Budgets have been cut, and he’ll be shooting in HD video instead of film. Whedon actually seemed pleased about this, saying that “When they take money away from me – I get better.” (Fox executives, if you’re reading this, please don’t take it to heart). Whedon talked about the challenge of writing a show with six act breaks instead of four (which I understand is at Fox’s request, since there are more ad breaks online than on TV). He said it was challenging not to take the audience “out of the story” with so many cuts.

When you watch Joss Whedon speak in person, what comes across most readily is that he genuinely loves his job, and believes in his own work. Much of the weekend (which I’ll get to in a third, and possibly final post) was very tied up in justifying the artistic compromises that everyone makes in order to get art to make money. Whedon still believes that storytelling can, should, and must stand for something – even when it’s happening in a staunchly commercial enterprise. Whether regular folks can do what he does – create their own Dr. Horribles without the backing of experience, prestige and lots of famous friends – remains to be seen. But it’s nice to know that there are powerful people who are still in our corner.

Joss Whedon and Mark Harris: Getting art and commerce to finally hook up

This weekend at the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns at Wesleyan University, I was lucky enough to hear from some of the biggest movers and shakers in the entertainment business.

The weekend kicked off with Mark Harris, critic and author, who spoke about the need for both the producers and the consumers of media to raise the bar for pop culture.

To Harris, the relationship between consumers and producers of media is. . . a lot like a regular relationship – that when it works, it’s participatory, fun and meaningful – a lot like sex. As Harris actually put it, “I want better sex.” He observed that “We watch three things at once, and so we watch nothing at all.” The relationship has grown dysfunctional – a product of too many screens (he described getting distracted from writing his own speech by Hulu and Netflix), and and too little quality content on them. Harris challenged media makers to do interesting, edgy, inspiring work – and in return, he promised to pay more attention.

Screenwriter Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  JD Lasica /
Screenwriter Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." JD Lasica /

On Saturday evening, Joss Whedon also gave us a sex metaphor to describe the current state of the entertainment industry (what is it about Wesleyan University that inspires all this media lust?). Whedon described independent media and studio film as “. . .doing a very awkward mating dance. They’re coming together and they are going to have to have sex.” I’d say that is pretty apt. Some people in traditional media “get” new media (such as the clever webisodes from The Office) – but so far there’s a lot of flirting without anyone making a move. However, Whedon also insisted that “When the industry changes, as it can and will and must, the only thing left standing will be the telling of the story.”

Joss Whedon flew in for his talk after wrapping his film Cabin in the Woods, and before starting to shoot season 2 of Dollhouse on Monday. As he put it, the Dollhouse renewal is “Fine for you, but I had plans this summer.” Thank you, Joss Whedon, for forgoing the beach in favor of giving us something smart and funny to watch in the chilly months. Maybe the Actives can go on assignment in Hawaii?

Next up on the blog:

More from Joss Whedon’s talk: The future of Dollhouse, that pesky Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, and the creative process.

More from the Shasha Seminar: Why two esteemed TV producers would not buy a TV show about under cover cover models – aka, pitching is harder than it looks.

Movies, TV and Finding Your “Strange”

I’m about to go get a good night of sleep before the last day of the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns, a weekend seminar at Wesleyan University that has a completely different theme every year, and draws a wide variety of speakers to the campus. This year the theme is “Defining American Culture: How Movies and TV Get Made.”

The conference has given me a lot to think about. Last night, Mark Harris, film and pop culture critic, spoke eloquently about the future of media, art and commerce. Tonight, Joss Whedon addressed his own career trajectory as a guy trying to tell stories by any means necessary. Great words of advice for writers from the very quotable Mr. Whedon: “Find your strange.” and “Finish it.”

Stay tuned, folks! More commentary to come.

“I Love You, Man” Trailer Needs Spoiler Alert

This weekend, I went to see “I Love You, Man” with a bunch of grad students. Grad students are really great to take to a movie. They don’t have time to watch trailers online over and over, they don’t see commercials on TV, they read the news in newspapers, not the movie reviews. . . so they are actually pretty good at kicking back and enjoying what’s up on screen, minus the heavy expectations.

I, however, was not so lucky. I really enjoyed the trailer for “I Love You, Man,” only to find that the movie was, in effect, a much longer version of that trailer. That’s not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable movie – without a doubt, it was fun. . . but the trailer simply managed to suck out all the most enjoyable parts and deliver them to me before the movie could surprise me with them. A pivotal scene, in fact, THE pivotal scene, in which Paul Rudd tells his fiancee why he wants to marry her, is also the prominent scene in the film’s trailer.

Now, before you tell me that all of the Segel-Rudd-Whoever-Is-Hot-This-Week movies are too formulaic to have any real surprises, I give you this precious clip from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

This scene would not have worked nearly as well had it appeared in trailers or commercials. The surprise that Segel’s character has a soft spot for puppets and vampires gives his character depth. Paul Rudd’s supposedly stuffy character in “I Love You, Man” has a soft spot for Rush – something we already guessed from the air bass scene we saw over and over again. The grad students, however, seemed to really enjoy watching Rudd’s character slowly unravel – they giggled at every line from the trailer and the tv spot. I’m sure whoever makes trailers out there giggled, too, which is why all the best lines ended up so worn out.

Were I not horribly addicted to trailers, I’d give them up entirely at this point. It’s a rare joke that can make me laugh after I’ve seen it the first time (most of those are in “Young Frankenstein” – a work of comedic genius if there ever was one). But for those lesser works of comedy, it would be lovely if we could just have a nice glossed-over summary in our trailers, and save the real laughs for the theater.

“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” Trailer Ruins My Childhood

In September of this year, Sony Pictures will release Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which tragically seems to bear almost no resemblance to the book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. First published in 1978, written by Judi Barrett, illustrated by Ron Barrett, the book is charming, scary and goofy all at once. It was a staple bedtime story in my house when I was growing up.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs Cover
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs Cover

The trailer for “Cloudy” shows the story of a clumsy mad scientist who invents a machine that turns water into food, then unleashes it upon his unsuspecting town. In the original book, we listen in with two kids as grandpa tells the tale of Chewandswallow, a town where three square meals a day rain down from the sky – a perfectly lovely, if strange, place to live – until suddenly everything goes haywire. Which story do you want to hear more? I don’t understand the obsession with throwing gadgetry into every single kids’ movie out there. The book is notably without gadgets (the denizens of Chewandswallow end up floating out to sea on large pieces of toast). The idea of making houses out of giant bagels and sailboats out of sandwiches sparks a kind of creativity that is absent from the story of an inventor who comes up with a big box with blinking lights that does something improbable.

I’m reminded of Marc Hirsh’s thoughtful response to the Watchmen film over at Monkey See. He asks why we need to turn everything into a movie – especially perfectly good graphic novels that have an artistic life of their own. What are picture books, anyway, other than graphic novels for kids?

For an example of how NOT to ruin a beloved childhood book in trailer form, check out the creepy, musty, delightful trailer for Where the Wild Things Are. Much has been made of this trailer, and how good the movie MUST be. I’m going to reserve judgment, but there’s a warmth to the “Wild Things” trailer that is missing from “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” The aesthetic reminds me of the old Jim Henson “Storyteller” series:

Jim Henson’s Storyteller Intro

Is “Race to Witch Mountain” Too Violent?

In slightly less indie news, Race to Witch Mountain (Disney’s remake of the old Escape to Witch Mountain) appears to be last weekend’s number 1 movie. Huh. I found this review of Race to Witch Mountain to be particularly interesting. Wesley Morris, Boston Globe film critic, reacted poorly to the movie not only because it was bad, but because he felt it was a very violent movie, given its young target audience.

Dwayne Johnson interview at HK Disneyland as a part of movie Race to Witch Mountain asian junket.
Dwayne Johnson interview at HK Disneyland as a part of movie 'Race to Witch Mountain' asian junket.

In slightly less indie news, Race to Witch Mountain (Disney’s remake of the old Escape to Witch Mountain) appears to be last weekend’s number 1 movie. Huh. I found this review of Race to Witch Mountain to be particularly interesting. Wesley Morris, Boston Globe film critic, reacted poorly to the movie not only because it was bad, but because he felt it was a very violent movie, given its young target audience.

Morris asks two very important questions at the end of his review: Will kids freak out [at this movie]? Could they already be desensitized to that sort of thing?

What kind of violence is okay in kids’ films? What even makes a movie a “kids’ film” and not a “family film?” I remember watching “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” as a kid, a movie that depicts sex, violence and one incredibly scary Christopher Lloyd. And yet, there’s something about the cartoon nature of the violence that made it seem like a family film way back in the day. Then again, what are we trying to protect children from? Are we preventing nightmares, or are we more worried that they’ll mimic what’s on screen?

New Media Showdown at Columbia J-School

On Wednesday, the NY Mag Daily Intel blog posted about the Columbia Journalism School’s struggle to integrate new media skills with an old-school journalism curriculum. Linda Holmes of Monkey See points out that the good dirt is in the comments section, where, of course, a lot of posters claim that the Daily Intel has published information without citing sufficient sources.

Let’s put aside the veracity claims for now: I think it’s safe to say that all of us who work in new media have heard the phrase “you’re just playing with toys” at one time or another (Daily Intel attributes it to a J-school professor). The reality is that new media “toys” wield an enormous amount of power. Why else would a whole bunch of respectable journalists and journalism students flock to the Daily Intel website to refute claims about Columbia? If it was just a toy, it would be easy to shelve and ignore.

The dean of the j-school points out:

“You can go to the Learning Annex and take a Flash course. I don’t think what we should do is be replicating courses you can take at the Learning Annex. But you have to have some familiarity, or you’re not able to execute a website.”

In other words, journalism schools aren’t supposed to turn out graphic designers or Flash programmers. Nobody has really figured out yet if new media is an art, a science, a trade, or some other profession entirely. When you simultaneously integrate design, engineering and content, it’s pretty difficult for traditional academic categories to keep up. But where does that leave institutions devoted to teaching traditional media? Do the “new” and the “old” have enough in common to be taught in one curriculum?

Anna in Paris

I’m in the process of mastering Final Cut Pro and Final Cut Express (unfortunately, my old MacBook doesn’t have the graphics capability to deal with Pro – so this video was created in Express).

I’m not a natural at editing, and I’m hoping that people reading will have some tips to help me make this video better. All shots were taken with my Canon still camera, this July, in and around Paris, France. The music is from Yo-Yo Ma’s “Obrigado Brazil.” What can you tell me? How can I improve? What tricks do you use when editing?

Paris Cut 1a from Anna Pinkert on Vimeo.

Chris Carter’s Green Set for X Files Sequel

First of all, I’m posting this from a BUS! Yes, indeed, I have finally tried out Bolt Bus, and the wireless internet is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.

Image from Eleven Eights Photostream
Image from Eleven Eight's Photostream

In honor of Jewish tradition this week, I rented a bunch of movies that I missed in theaters, including the long-awaited X Files follow-up, I Want To Believe. The movie itself is much like a big long X Files episode, except that Mulder has a beard and Scully has really long hair.

However, I really like the extras on the DVD.  The blooper reel is outstanding (as, by the way, are all of the blooper reels from the original show).  In addition, X Files creator Chris Carter gives some insight into how he made his set more ecologically friendly.

Ford donated hybrid cars to transport cast and crew to and from airports, the crew limited the number of scripts and sides photocopied each day, and biodiesel generators powered equipment.  The crew had a no-idling policy for all vehicles, and used sand instead of salt on their snowy location shoots.  All food was produced less than 100 miles from the set.  It’s actually not that different from the suggestions I made in a previous post about green production and the potential for “slow film.”

Carter says that he had “lost some interest in what I do, because of the waste. . . and the mentality was spend a lot of money, make a lot of money, and don’t think about the product of your process.”

The X Files often dealt thematically with how humans encroach on the natural world, and I think it’s great to hear that Carter takes his own message so seriously.

Battlestar Galactica’s Face of the Enemy: Evidently Quite Kissable

I’ve been waiting, quite nervously, for the return of Battlestar Galactica in January.  It’s been so gosh darn long since the end of the first half of season 4 – what if I don’t remember what happened?  Lucky for me I can still Catch the Frak Up.

We’ve also got webisodes to help us get through the holidays, this time penned by Jane Espenson.  The first two webisodes are already up. (Warning: this webisode contains spoilers for the last 4 seasons, so don’t watch if you don’t want to know):

At around the two-minute mark, I had to pause, take a few deep breaths, and restart the video.  Two men just kissed – in SPACE!  Hoshi and Gaeta are not particularly surprising choices as gay characters (Lt. Gaeta had a rather puppyish attachment to Gaius Baltar early in the series). My first reaction, after decades of waiting in vain for a gay relationship on Star Trek, or really anywhere in American spacefaring drama (I hear Torchwood is very progressive, but it’s still British), was pure joy.  Two actual male characters, one of whom has been integral to the storyline, kiss in a non-sensationalized moment on screen.  Can anyone think of another show that has done that?  I can’t even think of another male-male kiss in space, let alone one that uses existing characters.

But as with so many great gay moments in pop culture – there’s a little bit of disappointment mixed in with that joy.  The gay kiss isn’t happening on the show proper, but on a webisode that regular viewers can watch or not watch as they choose.  If the relationship had been a part of the intricate plot of the main show, it would be impossible to ignore, since it is nearly impossible to skip an episode of Battlestar Galactica and still get what’s going on.  It seems that from Jane Espenson’s commentary, the webisodes were some of the last scenes filmed on the BSG set, which leads me to believe that the relationship will not be portrayed at all in the final ten episodes.

So what do you think?  Historic moment in science fiction or a cop-out?

If Star Trek was on the air today, might they have unrolled a character arc much like this one on the web, and thus had the opportunity to test their viewers’ reaction before moving it onto the regular show?  Can webisodes, extended scenes, and other out-of-show content play in creating a more inclusive narrative – or do they make it too easy for producers to bury anything that might not sit well with audiences?