And now for something completely different…
Unless you’ve just woken up from a coma, you’re well aware we’ve all been stuck at home for the last few months. If you have just woken up from a coma, first of all thank you for reading my Medium article before doing anything else, but you may want to take a deep breath, call a loved one and ask them what’s going on.
Anyway, the rest of you non-comatose readers have no doubt been spending the time on one side project or another. All my other articles have been about smart contract design, but as the title suggests I decided to do something a little different.
All by myself
Living solo during the lockdown comes with its own unique challenges, most of them are centred around staying sane. Although I’m not one of those people who actually enjoys being left alone in a room with no human contact for months at a time, I’ve worked remotely as a coder since I was still in high school, so at the very least it’s something I am equipped to deal with.
Back in March, about a week into solo isolation, I started posting Instagram stories of me and Quilton, an empty toilet paper roll with a face, which was supposed to be a pandemic take on Tom Hanks’s Wilson from the movie Castaway (2000). Some of them were just pictures or short, video-selfie type things, but in early April I got a little more ambitious.
At the time, a lot of the late-night talk shows had started filming their shows at home, and although I don’t have all the studio-quality equipment or host charisma, I realised I had enough for a video only my friends would see.
So I spent an afternoon transforming my apartment into the set of a late-night talk show, and filmed a short segment of Lockdown Tonight, where I interviewed Quilton (YouTube link). From initial conception, writing, setup, filming and editing, the whole process only took about 12 hours. Not a bad turn around for something fewer than 100 people would see.
People really seemed to enjoy them, so I decided to keep at it. A few friends suggested I make Lockdown Tonight into a series, but unfortunately I am cursed with the inability to half-ass something, or repeat myself when it comes to creative projects. So even though the audience was only people who know me personally, I still felt the need to outdo the talk show with something fresh.
Many many years ago, when the earth itself was still young, and I didn’t know mainframe from a picture frame, I was quite into 2D animation. Actually, my first job as a kid was creating Flash animations, and it was only through exploring the code capabilities of Actionscript that I eventually became the developer I am today. But there was a period in my youth where I spent many an evening making short cartoons and uploading them to a site called Newgrounds (which you’ve either never heard of, or which triggers some deep nostalgia).
Animation is a very long process, and the audience is relatively niche, so usually the time taken to produce anything is hard to justify. But luckily we are living in a new world, where time has no meaning, and there’s nowhere else to be. So I decided to dust off my old animator’s hat and make my next Quilton movie a cartoon (YouTube link).
The short action sequence only goes for about 45 seconds, and it took me 3 weeks to complete. I don’t mean 3 weeks of an hour a day, I mean every waking hour that I wasn’t doing my regular job, I was doing this animation. This isn’t some flex about how dedicated I am or anything, I did it because I enjoyed it. I just wanted to impress upon you how labour-intensive the animation process is. Kudos to the people who do this for a living.
I guess it’s a sign of the times we live in, but a few people asked what tool I used to make it, assuming it was just some automatic thing where you click a few buttons and it generates a cartoon based on your preferences. This bothered me a little given the amount of work I put in, but as I said, cartoons aren’t for everyone. I really just wanted to make the cleanest and tightest animation I possibly could, and I definitely achieved that.
There were some issues with the sound mixing, because the person who said they’d make music for it randomly ghosted me at the end of the project, so I had to try salvage some old phone recordings and remaster them into film quality audio. But other than that I’m very happy with how this turned out.
Well once again I was faced with my own self-imposed need to escalate without repetition. The sound issues from the last one were a bit of a gut punch, and after a weekend of deciding never to make another film, I was hit by some more inspiration.
Being the only writer, director, cast and crew member, and living in a small single-bedroom apartment, certain ideas aren’t practical. But constraints can often spur creativity, rather than stifling it, and I realised I had everything I need to make an old 80’s style sitcom.
I spent a few days watching some of the shows I remember from the 90’s, as well some from the 80’s which were a bit before my time, and really felt like I got the rhythm of it. There’s something very comforting about a laugh track in a time when you’ve been alone for 2 months.
Anyway, I etched out a script for a short episode of Isolatin’ (Youtube link), a sitcom starring me and Quilton. The whole thing was shot on one Sunday, including the title sequence. The biggest challenge was rearranging my lockdown-cluttered apartment for each shot, especially since a recent shoulder injury means I can’t lift anything with my left arm. I spent the next few days editing, mixing the sound, and ADR’ing all the lines because it was too hard to get half decent shot’s as well as decent audio at the same time when you are wearing so many proverbial hats.
Audio plays a huge roll in capturing whatever mood you’re going for, in this case that meant getting the theme song right, and also getting the laugh track right. The initial process just involved digging through the catalogue of 80s era guitary/saxaphony/keyboardy boppy music with a homey vibe. Most of my family are far more musically gifted than I, so I recruited the help of my little brother who I figured had a better catalogue of songs in his head to pick from. Ironically everything he suggested was too musical to cut up and use as a theme song. By that I mean the flowing, musically-complex qualities that make a song enjoyable after many listens didn’t fit well.
Or conversely, maybe repetitive, boppy songs can be distilled into 20 second chunks without any real loss of their substance. Or maybe some things just work while others don’t. Who knows.
Anyway, the theme I went with is Stuck With You by Huey Lewis & the News. I had to slice and dice it, pitch shift certain parts so they flowed better. Also, the original song ends with a fadeout, so I had to steal the final sustained note from I Want A New Drug and stick that on the end. But I feel like the end result doesn’t waste any time while still selling the mood I was going for well.
As for the laugh track, it’s easy to think this would just be a case of Googling laughter sound effects and sticking them in after jokes, but its actually far more nuanced than that. The audience sounds need to facilitate the gags as much as punctuate them. A split second too soon or late, or the wrong intensity or duration, and it will actually counteract what you were trying to achieve.
I started with a big waveform of a bunch of crowd laugh sounds after each other. The good thing about crowd laughter is that it’s almost like noise. You can easily chop it up, fade between different sequences and even remove entire chunks, and it will sound natural unless you have sudden jumps in intensity. So this gave me all the building blocks I needed to create the specific reactions needed throughout the episode. Then it was a case of replaying each gag over and over, making sure the pause following it wasn’t too long or short, and then building an audience response that fit.
It should be noted that since this was essentially a parody of a sitcom, the laugh track was itself a gag. Although I hope people found the regular jokes funny, I tried to suggest that this was a show that had an audience who were emotionally invested in the show, and I wanted their reactions to be funny too. A cheap way to achieve this would have been to make the audience reactions intentionally bad, just a lazy wink at the camera saying “get it, its a fake audience”. But I honestly think that doesn’t respect the people watching. If someone’s taking the time to watch my stuff they should be rewarded, not insulted. So I tried to make the audience a character in its own right.
Until we meet again…
Anyway, as I said earlier, these were all just for my ephemeral Instagram stories. But a friend pointed out that I was spending way too much time on them for them to just disappear after 24 hours, so I decided to throw them on YouTube (as you may have surmised).
I will no doubt keep making them until life returns to normal, but once human contact returns the solo film-making think will probably lose its appeal.
I don’t really run in any film-maker circles, and am not aspiring to go viral, but if you or anyone you know likes this kind of thing then I hope I can spread a little joy in a time like this. If not, I hope this was an interesting read at least.