Friday, May 25, 2007

The House Between Season Two: It Begins

Well, it's about thirty minutes after midnight as I begin this post, and now I can say that the pre-production stage of The House Between Season Two is officially over. Now...we're into the actual production!!!! Yay!

In minutes (maybe hours...) I'm expecting the first round of my team to arrive. This includes stars Kim Breeding (Astrid), Jim Blanton (Arlo) and Tony Mercer (Bill Clark) as well as my special effects wizards, Rob and Phyllis Floyd. I'm excited to see all of them again. The remainder of the cast and crew will be arriving sometime during the daytime hours on Friday.

Tomorrow (Friday), I'll also be "staging" the house at the end of the universe, the central location of the series: hanging black curtains to again simulate the "null" zone around the house. My foyer is filled with props, costumes, a green screen, Arlo's tin cans and more.

We have an eight day shoot ahead of us, and it looks grueling. The scripts are more complex than they were last year, in terms of performance, storyline and special effects. We'll also be shooting some special features (like interviews and commentaries) for the impending DVD release of Season One.

So the blog will be sporadic or posted at odd hours in the next 8 days, but I do hope to get many photographs from production posted up here during that span.

After that, it's back to old-school blogging, with features on some 1970s favorites like Jason of Star Command, Korg 70,000 BC, and the animated series, Valley of the Dinosaurs.

Lots of goodness to come. Meanwhile, our production slate includes the following season two episodes: "Returned," "Separated," "Reunited," "Estranged," "Populated," "Caged" and "Ruined." I'd like to have time for another show "Distressed,' but it's an alternate, depending on fast we go, how far we fall behind, and how dang tired everybody is...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Notes on Culture Reviews Horror Films of the 1980s

Film historian, scholar and Ken Russell expert Kevin Flanagan has posted a fascinating review of my Horror Films of the 1980s on his blog, Notes on Culture. Check it out!

Here's an excerpt:

Muir is at his best when he contextualizes films and their creators. Parts I and II are the most important of the book, as they provide a substantial narrative history of the genre and show how it interacted with various historical junctures. These 300+ horror films all wrestle, in some way, with the economic, cultural, and political shifts of the age of Reagan. Ronald Reagan looms like a grim pantocrator over the proceedings in much the same way that Nixon and his scandals did over zeitgeist of the 1970s. As Muir notes throughout, Reagan's Janus-like fluidity, militarism, and leadership of a nation on the brink color the films in question.

But the cultural history presented in the remaining 700 pages weaves a subtler tale for the patient. Muir's total presentation of the horror movies of the age is, on a deeper level, a phenomenology of the historical process of the horror films of the 1980s.

Tucson Citizen Reviews Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia

The Tucson Citizen's Chuck Graham just reviewed The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia. Here's an excerpt:

Trust me, "The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia" is no ordinary compendium of cheesy movies with really loud soundtracks. For one thing, the compiler, John Kenneth Muir, takes his inspiration from that famous line Jack Black hurled at the audience in "School of Rock," where he says with complete defiance, "One great rock show can change the world."

Of course Muir changes that to "one great rock movie" and as proof offers the 1970 documentary "Woodstock." That film did indeed prove to Hollywood that rock 'n' roll would insist on being taken seriously as a opinion-shaping social force.

...More than 200 films are catalogued and there is a handy index in the back. Garage bands everywhere will want to get a copy of this encyclopedia, to stack right alongside the fake books, guitar chord charts and restaurants delivering take-out. After all, what's better after a vigorous band practice than to kick back with your band mates, enjoying some pizza and a good ol' rock 'n' roll movie.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The American Library Association likes Horror Films of the 1980s!

Another good review for Horror Films of the 1980s just rolled in.

The ALA (American Library Association) writes:

Horror Films of the 1980s, by John Kenneth Muir (829 pages, March 2007), tackles the “dead teenager decade” of horror cinema with his characteristic comprehensiveness, insightful commentary, and trenchant wit.

A sequel to his 2002 Horror Films of the 1970s (the “disco decade”), this volume contains two introductory chapters that offer a sociopolitical context for horror (“Which towering figure dominated the ‘greed is good’ decade? Freddy Krueger or Ronald Reagan?”) and an analysis of 1980s horror conventions and subgenres. Films are arranged by year, rated on the traditional 1 to 4 star system, and accompanied by quotes from critics, cast and crew, synopsis, commentary, memorable lines, an occasional interview extract, and legacy. Muir concludes that 1970s horror films were more creative and did more with less funding and effects, but in the 1980s they reached a glut of repetition and sequels and adaptations; nonetheless, the genre saved itself by transcending the slasher paradigm and interjecting supernatural elements and rubber-reality scenarios. $59.95. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-2821-2.

Theme Song Flashback # 1: The Lost Saucer

Friday, May 18, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 62: MERLIN, "The Electronic Wizard" (Parker Brothers)

I wrote about "Blip" earlier in the week, and my renewed fascination with pre-video game era (1970s) electronic games. So today, I want to highlight what was probably my favorite of these items as a kid, a toy I remember receiving as a present for Christmas late in the disco decade. Actually, my sister and I each received one, as I recall. (And my next door neighbor and friend received its biggest competitor, a game called Computer Perfection).

The toy in question, is, of course, MERLIN. The trademark date reads 1978, on this item, and the back of the box asks: "Can you outsmart MERLIN? He's remarkably intelligent. With lights, a powerful computer brain and a vocabulary of 20 different sounds he challenges you to beat him at these six games of strategy, memory and skill:"

The box then goes on to list the games MERLIN plays, which include:

1. "TIC-TAC-TOE: MERLIN's aggressive tactics keep you on your toes in this ever popular strategy game.'

2. "MUSIC MACHINE: Here's your opportunity to compose music. Teach MERLIN a tune of up to 48 notes and rests. Then be entertained as he plays it back to you."

3. "ECHO: Test your mental agility by repeating a sequence of notes played to you by MERLIN. You can make this game easy or tough by selecting the length of the sequence."

4. "BLACKJACK 13: MERLIN deals and keeps score in this computerized version of the classic card game. The object: to acquire the higher hand of 13 or less."

Form a square of 8 lights by breaking MERLIN's secret CODE. This electronic puzzle changes constantly as you play."

6. "MINDBENDER: Discover the computer's mystery number. This game of logic is the ultimate challenge - to win you'll have to read MERLIN's mind."

Merlin is a red, hand-held device, with three distinct sections. The top is the speaker for the "computer vocabulary," the middle is the keyboard, the 11 notes you can hit in each above listed game. And the bottom section is the game selection, re-start functionality board. Options here are "New Game," "Same Game" "Hit Me" and "Comp Turn." Looking at the toy, it resembles the tricorder from Star Trek: The Next Generation (which came along in 1987).

Designed for 1 or 2 players, Ages 7 to adult, MERLIN is described in his instruction manual as "a remarkably intelligent computer." The same instructions also note that "as you compete with him, you'll discover that MERLIN is very talkative." Unless you remove his batteries...

The next section of the instructions notes about how to properly care for MERLIN. These words of warning sound like the rules about Mogwai: "Take care not to get MERLIN wet" (!) and "Don't drop or jolt MERLIN." And never, ever, feed MERLIN after midnight.

Featuring 6 electronic games, his vocabulary of "space age sounds" and useful portability, MERLIN was truly the cutting edge of game technology in 1978. How many of you X'ers had one of these in your childhood? I know I spent many hours in the car (on trips and long drives...) entertaining myself with MERLIN.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


The best show on television just got canceled. That's right, the CW just axed Veronica Mars after a tumultuous third season.

I have two thoughts. One is obviously, bummer. The other is that now I have no reason whatsoever to watch the CW. Methinks I need a period of mourning to get over this. And that period of mourning won't consist of any CW TV watching, that's for dang sure.

What am I going to do without my weekly fix of Veronica Mars snark?
Man, this just...blows. Oh, and CW renewed Supernatural.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Hey guys, dig this!

I found this clip on YouTube and simply couldn't resist it. Now, please - I implore you - watch the whole video. It takes a while to get good. And then it gets REALLY good. I'm posting this for my friend and DP, Rick Coulter, because I know he will appreciate it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Maddrey Misc. Reviews Horror Films of the 1980s

Good morning, gentle (and not so gentle...) readers,

I wanted to direct your attention today to a piece amusingly entitled "Die Yuppie Scum," a review of my book Horror Films of the 1980s by TV writer/producer and fellow horror scholar, Joseph Maddrey. I hope you've been visiting Maddrey Misc. lately, because Joe's blog has been looking at a lot of interesting stuff, particularly our 21st century, "culture of fear."

Here's a clip of the critique, but please read the whole piece, because it's a great review whether it happens to be about my book or not:

The fact that the author goes to such great lengths to explain his evaluations of the films, and to remain consistent in his responses, makes it easy to gauge one’s own response to a film based on his reviews – regardless of any differences of opinion. It is never difficult to understand where Muir is coming from or why, and that allows the reader to make careful selections from among these 328 films, and avoid some of the pitfalls of the casual viewer. I, for one, am grateful to have a guide through this extremely varied lot of films – from top (The Thing, 1982) to bottom (Home Sweet Home, 1980) – since I’d rather read about some of these films than have to sit through them. I have no doubt that 2006 was a trying year at the Muir household, as John and his valiant wife Kathryn burrowed through the muck, but I’m glad they did it so that I don’t have to. Horror Films of the 1980s has already steered me clear of a few turkeys, made me watch and re-watch a few gems, and even forced me to reevaluate my opinions of one or two…. I have always considered the ending of Wes Craven’s film Deadly Blessing (1981) to be a cop-out, but John’s reading puts it in a different context than I did, and has made me see the film with new eyes… That’s exactly what good criticism is supposed to do!

The book also contains a series of scattered interviews with filmmakers whose work deserves to be plucked from relative obscurity: Thom Eberhardt (Sole Survivor and Night of the Comet), Lewis Teague (Alligator, Cujo and Cat’s Eye), Kevin Conner (Motel Hell), James L. Conway (The Boogens), Richard Franklin (Road Games and Psycho 2), Tom McLoughlin (One Dark Night and Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives!), and Ken Russell (Altered States and Gothic). These friendly interviews in addition to Muir’s wry, incisive commentary make this a must-have for horror fans. Like the decade it depicts, Muir’s analysis is both complex and amusing – in final analysis, more entertaining than many of the films themselves.

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK #61 Blip; The Digital Game (Tomy)

It's difficult for me to believe that this toy, Blip. The Digital Game is thirty years old! It was released by Tomy (No. 7018) in 1977, at the dawn of the Atari age and was advertised as a good alternative to new-fangled video games. The box blares: "Take it Anywhere. NO TV set is needed."

Designed for ages 6 and up, Blip, an electronic game, originally sold for 9.99. The back of the box reads: "Blip is the TV type game that you can take with you anywhere. It's player against player when you BLIP it with a friend."

Hey, I want to BLIP it with a friend...
Seriously, the game box offers a detailed diagram of the playing console, a sort of electronic tennis court in a sense, and shows a "Permanent Light Emitting Diode (L.E.D.)," "Numbered BLIP buttons," an "Automatic Timing Mechanism," "Individual Serve Buttons," "Automatic Digital Scoring" and a "Game Selector Switch."

The description on the back goes on to report how to play BLIP. "Now, press the serve button and watch the light emitting diode (L.E.D.) come at you. But don't watch it too long. To win, your hand must be quicker than the BLIP."

My hand is always quicker than the BLIP...

"Quickly press one of the numbered BLIP buttons to send your L.E.D. back where it came from. If your opponent misses, it's score one for you on the automatic digital scoreboard."

The box also admonishes us to "Take BLIP anywhere. On boats, trains, cars, rocketships and planes."

The back of the console also features instructions for 2 players. It warns you that "if you choose the wrong space" (to hit back a BLIP), "or push the button too late, the ball will stop on your side of the court." The object of the game is twin, to score up to 10 points.

In other words, this electronic fun is clearly a prehistoric Game Boy, no? And clearly, it's also a variation of Pong (a four-letter word like BLIP), a game that was very, very popular in 1977.

I owned this game as a kid and loved it. It really seems antiquated today, but I'm just fascinated by these pre-video electronic games. I wonder, would a kid raised on video games still find BLIP fun? I'm going to find out. As soon as Joel is old enough, I'm MAKING him play it.

When he's bugging me. I'm going to say "Joel, go play with your BLIP."

"But Dad..."

Friday, May 11, 2007

THE HOUSE BETWEEN Ep. 7: Departed?

In the climactic, cliffhanging webisode of THE HOUSE BETWEEN's first season, the denizens in the house at the end of the universe access a dangerous user interface in hopes of finding a way to escape their predicament. While Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) attempts to interface with the house, the others learn why they've been in trapped in the mysterious structure. When a chance for escape presents itself, however, there's a series of surprises and shocks for Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Wood). Produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC. Written and directed by John Kenneth Muir.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The House Between Episode # 7 ("Departed?") Director's Notes

"Departed?" the cliffhanger/season finale of The House Between bows tomorrow. I love the episode, and hope you will too. I think it's a fitting finale to the first series sortie. Today I'll be presenting my memories of the creation and shooting of the episode.

Firstly, I look back at the script and I see that unlike the other scripts, it has a series title on it that was ultimately rejected: "The Dwelling." I don't know if that was a good title or not. At the time I liked it because it not only described the house, but the mind state of the denizens. Some of the other rejected titles: "The House," "After Midnight," Permanent Midnight" and "Crazy People Stuck in a House." Okay, the last one wasn't a proposed title. Lee Hansen suggested titling the series "Fuck Lost!"

The origins for this script go back to some of my genre favorites, including Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Space:1999 episode "Ring Around the Moon" and their ilk; particularly in that one character in the play interfaces with another life form, returning to the others as a sort of intelligent "probe."

Other than that nod to genre history, I don't think there are a lot of familiar genre touches here (at least none that I can reveal.). We were too busy trying to bring a sense of closure to many of the season one mysteries and story arcs to pay homage to much of anything.. Yep, that's right - I said the magic word: closure. I'm not one of those people (like the writers of Lost or Battlestar Galactica), who believe you can just endlessly pile on mysteries, one-after-the-other until a distant cancellation. I'm much more in the Veronica Mars mode: I like to present several mysteries and bring them to a sense of closure after a season of episodes. Now that doesn't mean there aren't more show mysteries to come in the season ahead. I devised a three season story arc at the beginning of this project (to be culminated with a feature film...), and we're sticking to it. But each season has a different leitmotif and movement. We'll see how it all plays out.

What's "Departed?" about? In very simple terms, a door. If you saw the preview last week, you saw the door opening. However, I didn't want that to be the end point of the episode, but rather somewhere around the midpoint. We have five characters who regard that door differently, and that's part of what the episode is about. Who would want to walk through the open door? Who wouldn't? And if they didn't...what would be the reasons? Part of the reason I enjoy The House Between so much is the simplicity of the best stories: they're about people reacting to a mirror, a diary, a song, an open door, entrapment, that sort of thing.

As far as how the script climaxes, suffice it to say that you won't see the ending I wrote. The script was 32 pages, I think. And we closed down at page 27. Why? Well, let me just say that the "missing" end will play into the mystery of season two, and that several actors, crewmembers and friends told me that the original ending was so dark and disturbing that it would have sent viewers scurrying home in tears and anguish. The ending we have now is different, but I think quite beautiful. Mateo and Cesar have outdone themselves in terms of scoring the finale too. My favorite piece of music in the series arrives in the last few minutes of "Departed."

So far as shooting, "Departed" was a weird day. We were all acutely conscious that it was our last day together. And I think everyone was grappling with two contradictory feelings. One feeling was that this was the most fun ever and we never wanted it to end. The other feeling was that we were exhausted beyond imagination and couldn't wait for the experience to end. Just try holding those thoughts in your head simultaneously. I do know that I grew emotional (internally) as the day ended. When we were shooting the last shots, and I was filming, I got all choked up behind the camera as each character/actor finished the show and the day. I hated to see them go.

Another weird thing: several of us had minor nervous breakdowns that day. I broke into a fit of unstoppable laughter and giggles during a scene involving Tony Mercer, Lee Hansen and Jim Blanton on camera and Alicia A. Wood reacting off camera with Kim Breeding. I set up a simple, easy shot, but just something about the utter absurdity of the enterprise struck me as I peered through the viewfinder. Alicia was saying all this bizarre tech stuff, and there I was watching my buddies Tony, Lee and Jim reacting to it and it was weird. I had gotten used to them as their characters, but in that moment, I was suddenly conscious of their other identities too, and it just cracked me up: the notion that I had put my good friends through this crazy experience and here they were - exhausted - listening to weird techno-dialogue from a psychic from the future. I couldn't finish the scene. Every time we started, I broke down and cracked up. I finally had to go sit in the corner.

The utterly fantastic thing about this is that about two hours later, I guess, Jim Blanton had a virtually identical breakdown. It was a scene involving everybody, at the front door of the house, and for whatever personal reason, something just struck Jim as unbearably funny, and he lost it. After his giggling fit, we were able to re-start.

Reflecting on the experience of "Departed?" I think I've suppressed most of my emotions and feelings about the day of the shoot. Truthfully, I don't remember that much of it. I think that's because I had just experienced one of the best weeks of my life, with people I had grown to not just admire but actively love, and here it was - ending. I could see the "end" on the horizon, and I hated it. I had fallen in love not just with Kim, Alicia, Tony, Jim, and Lee, but the characters they played. Each had officially become "voices in my head." There was a magical chemistry there that I'll never ever forget, and will always cherish. To hear my "BIG FIVE" as I call 'em, speaking my dialogue, acting their hearts was truly astonishing and touching thing. I must also note, I had fallen in love with my crew too: from the ever-dependable and supportive Joe, to the strong but silent Rick, my camera man, to my awesome make-up artist and fight arranger, Rob (and his fantastic wife and our outstanding script assistant, Phyllis), to my always-impressive lighting team, Bobby and Kevin

So I wish I had more to tell, but it was so hard to say goodbye to my stars and my characters, that I think I just closed down a few memory circuits for that day. I remember cracking up. I remember Jim cracking up. I remember Lee having a tough time with one dialogue scene. I recall scurrying about doing re-shoots, and going up on the roof as a thunderstorm rolled in. But not much else.

Well, these are the last directors notes for The House Between: Season One. The gang returns here Friday, May 25th to shoot the seven episodes of Season Two. I can't wait to see everybody again, and I have to admit, I'm terribly excited about seeing not just my real life friends, but Astrid, Bill, Theresa, Arlo and Travis too - back in action. I've missed 'em something awful.

New House Between episodes will begin airing in 2008, but in the meantime, I hope you decide to re-watch the series after learning some of the revelations in "Departed." I'll also be writing here about the DVD release. And if you want more THB, don't forget to check out our discussion board here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

McFarland New Releases!

Well, McFarland has a bundle of book treats for us this month. There's a book that gazes at the golden age of Sid and Marty Krofft productions by scholar Hal Erickson (and which I'm reading right now...), and also a re-issue of the best book about the Godzilla films ever released. Then there's David Deal's study of 1970s made-for-tv horrors like Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Add to that a history of female action heroes (like Ripley in the Alien saga). Very cool stuff.

Here's the lowdown:

Universal-International Westerns, 1947–1963

From 1947 through 1963, the merged studios of Universal and International produced mostly highly entertaining westerns that ranged from classics like Winchester ’73 to forgettable films better left unmade. Entries on the 114 Universal-International westerns of the period are collected here. While other films may have contained western elements, only films that truly fit the genre are included.Films are arranged alphabetically by title, and each entry includes release date, alternate title, cast, credits, songs, location of filming, source if the film was an adaptation, running time, plot synopsis, commentary from the author and from the actors and directors, and representative excerpts from contemporary reviews. Also included are tag lines used in the original advertising for each film. An introduction to the book provides details on the Universal-International merger and a history of the studios’ productions.

Television Fright Films of the 1970s

If the made-for-television movie has long been regarded as a poor stepchild of the film industry, then telefilm horror has been the most uncelebrated offspring of all. Considered unworthy of critical attention, scary movies made for television have received little notice over the years. Yet millions of fans grew up watching them—especially during the 1970s—and remember them fondly.This exhaustive survey addresses the lack of critical attention by evaluating such films on their own merits. Covering nearly 150 made-for-TV fright movies from the 1970s, the book includes credits, a plot synopsis, and critical commentary for each. From the well-remembered Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to the better-forgotten Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, it’s a trustworthy and entertaining guide to the golden age of the televised horror movie.

Sid and Marty Krofft

H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Land of the Lost: For a generation of children growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, these were some of the most memorable shows on Saturday morning television. At a time when television cartoons had lost some of their luster, two puppeteers named Sid and Marty Krofft put together a series of shows that captivated children.Using colorful sets and mysterious lands full of characters that had boundless energy, the Kroffts created a new form of children’s television, rooted in the medium’s earliest shows but nevertheless original in its concept. This work first provides a history of the Kroffts’ pretelevision career, then offers discussions of their 11 Saturday morning shows. Complete cast and credit information is enhanced by interviews with many of the actors and actresses, behind-the-scenes information, print reviews of the series, and plot listings of the individual episodes. The H.R. Pufnstuf feature film, the brothers’ other television work, and their short-lived indoor theme park are also detailed.

Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation
Paring a novel into a two-hour film is an arduous task for even the best screenwriters and directors. Often the resulting movies are far removed from the novel, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptations have consistently been among the best Hollywood has to offer.Kubrick’s film adaptations of three novels—Lolita, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket—are analyzed in this work. The primary focus is on the alterations in the characters and narrative structure, with additional attention to style, scope, pace, mood and meaning. Kubrick’s adaptations simplify, impose a new visuality, reduce violence, and render the moral slant more conventional.

A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla® Series

Though sometimes dismissed by critics, particularly in the United States, the Godzilla movies are some of the best-loved but least understood films in the world. The modifications made by American distributors—adding unsuitable footage, making changes in the musical score, even altering the plot—take away from the subtlety that makes the movies so popular in Japan. Then there are the dubbed voices—a matter of ridicule for American audiences and critics alike.This work is a thorough and critical account of the Godzilla movies focusing on how differences in American and Japanese culture, as well as differences in their respective film industries, underlie the discrepancies in the Japanese and American versions of the film. For each film, there are exhaustive filmographic data for both the Japanese and American versions, including plot synopses, cast, credits, and detailed production notes. The various political and social subtexts of the movies are also thoroughly covered.

Super Bitches and Action Babes

With actress Pam Grier’s breakthrough in Coffy and Foxy Brown, women entered action, science fiction, war, westerns and martial arts films—genres that had previously been considered the domain of male protagonists. This ground-breaking cinema, however, was—and still is—viewed with ambivalence. While women were cast in new and exciting roles, they did not always arrive with their femininity intact, often functioning both as a sexualized spectacle and as a new female hero rather than female character. This volume contains an in-depth critical analysis and study of the female hero in popular film from 1970 to 2005. It examines five female archetypes: the dominatrix, the Amazon, the daughter, the mother and the rape-avenger. The entrance of the female hero into films written by, produced by and made for men is viewed through the lens of feminism and post-feminism arguments. Analyzed works include films with actors Michelle Yeoh and Meiko Kaji, the Alien films, the Lara Croft franchise, Charlie’s Angels, and television productions such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Alias.

Library Journal likes The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia

Well, the first review on my new book, The Rock & Roll Film Encyclopedia has come in.

Library Journal calls it a "witty, riff-filled romp" through rock film history. The review notes that the book is "unabashedly (and quite refreshingly subjective)," as well as "idiosyncratic" and opines that the format allows for the author to "display his deep knowledge and affection for the subject."

Rock and roll, baby!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Muir Article in Filmfaxplus!

Hey readers! FilmfaxPlus continues its detailed coverage of the classic 1970s Saturday morning dinosaur adventure Land of the Lost this month! Ross Plesset did an inteview with stop-motion artists Gene Warren and Wah Chang, and I interviewed Mike Westmore, creator of the Sleestaks and Pakuni, and series production designer Herman Zimmerman. Both of these incredible talents moved on to Star Trek in the the last twenty years, but they still talk about Land of the Lost with great enthusiasm. The issue is on sale now, so check it out!

Monday, May 07, 2007

The House Between: Composer's Notes!

(Here's a special treat: composers Cesar Gallegos and Mateo Latosa have submitted a a piece on scoring my online series, The House Between! Thanks guys for sending this in!)

Production Diary: Scoring “The House Between”

By César Gallegos/Mateo Latosa

Our discussions with the director, John Kenneth Muir, during the pre-production phase gave us a good idea of what he was looking for in terms of a score. The overall tone of THB was described to us as mysterious, apprehensive, mournful, and strange.

John was very clear that despite the series’ science fiction trappings, that he didn’t want an electronic (spacey) score. Rather he wanted the instrumentation to feature traditional acoustic instrumentation and for the series to be scored as a drama.

We understood his sentiments, though we knew that this would prove, for the most part, impossible given the limitations we faced. However, we also knew that an electronically created score using samples of acoustic instruments would provide us with a workable alternative.

Ironically, during our first recording session, in which we laid down seven “demo” tracks (including "Ominous," "Sad Chords," "After the Death," "Waiting," Introspection," and "Wistful Thinking") —to give John a sense of our style and approach to scoring the series—the piece he liked most was the one we had been convinced he’d reject ("Sad Chords") because of its use of undisguised electronics. In fact, this piece became the very first one he used (in Trailer #1). As well, the other pieces recorded during this initial session were used on the rest of the trailers and throughout the series.

Character Themes
In most scores, themes will be written for each of the major characters and often for particular locations as well. The score to THB is no exception. Sometimes a generic cue was chosen by the director as a particular character’s theme, for example Astrid’s theme ("Introspection"). Other times, we’d compose a theme based on our perception of the character (Arlo). The rest of the character themes were written to fit the needs of the director. John would send us an email with a description of what feelings a theme should evoke, and we’d get to work.

Purposed Music
Scoring a film or a television show presents the composer, simultaneously, with an inspiration for creativity and limitations on it. Each cue has a purpose to fulfill. It has to underscore the emotional or physical beats of a scene. As well, cues often have pre-determined lengths, which limits our ability to fully develop and resolve musical themes.

Often we had to turn away from musical directions that beckoned… Nevertheless, it became a challenge to think economically, to push ourselves to get each cue to work to work its magic quickly.

Throughout the process we kept reminding each other that, indeed, less is more. Layering on instrument after instrument would only detract from a cue’s ability to fulfill its purpose—concisely—often in only seconds. As well, a score must walk the tightrope between underscoring what is on the screen without, at the same time, drawing too much attention to itself and overpowering the images.

The Process
Similar to the Japanese practice of composing music for “Image” albums, where a preliminary score is produced to storyboard images and discussions with the director, prior to filming we started work on scoring THB with only our conversations with John as a guide. The two alternate (rejected) main title themes were written during this time.

The next step, upon receipt of rough cuts of the first three episodes, was to record a number of demo tracks (as discussed above). These demos were tracked on the pre-launch trailers and one of them was used as the Main Title for Episode #1: Arrived ("Wistful Thinking").

Subsequently, John would send us detailed notes for the cues he wanted for the episodes with specific times and a breakdown of the onscreen emotional and physical beats. We were literally composing to email! Normally, a composer would have a “click-track” to work to, which allows the composer to see the scene he is scoring and note to a fraction of a second the emotional and physical beats so as to allow him to tailor his cues precisely. Must be nice.

Despite this, every episode of THB has its own score. Considering that the original plan had been to utilize library music for the series, this gave THB (we hope) a distinctive and unique musical flavor.

One interesting thing is the way in which the filmed sequences and the score affected each other. When a sequence was filmed and edited into its final form, we would receive precise instructions as to the length of the needed cue and the physical beats to be underscored. But when we got ahead of the editing process and scored an as-yet-unedited sequence, John would occasionally edit the sequence to fit the music. Though not unheard of, this is not standard practice. Most films are scored after the final cut. In a sense, the director allowed the internal logic and structure of the music to guide him editing choice.

Equipment and Instrumentation
The score was recorded at Mardelante Studio using the following equipment and instrumentation: Sony VAIO VGC-RA826G, Toshiba AE35-S159, Mexican Fender Stratocaster with Roland MIDI Pickup (w/ Ernie Ball Super Slinky Strings, a Fender medium-gauge pick, and a jar of capers), a Ceremonial Mexica prepared Conch Shell from Cancun, Mexico, Alesis S4 Quadrasynth, Yamaha Portable Grand DGX-505, Roland GR-33 Guitar Synthesizer, Roland ED UA-100G Audio/MIDI Processing Unit, Jose Ramirez Classical Cutaway Guitar, PG Music Power Tracks Pro-Audio Version 8.0 Sequencing/Mixing Software, Finale Notebook, Samson R11 Microphone, and Windows Media Player Version 10.0 and one human voice. The recording itself is a mixture of analog and digital elements.

Despite having two composers scoring the series, we worked as a single unit, bouncing ideas off one another, taking turns at the performance and engineering tasks. The word “compromise” never entered our minds—to be quite frank—we’d work out the melodies, chord sequences, keys, patches, and overlays with a spirit of experimentation and openness, each suggestion taking the pieces in new directions. There isn’t a single cue in THB that doesn’t have creative input from both of us.

In the creation of each piece, rather than just composing music that will “fit”, it was more like scoring for the emotion we wanted to portray. Once we “felt” the emotion we needed to underscore—then the music flowed. Composition was an intuitive process separate from theoretical considerations. This made the music “work”. It was encoding emotions into sound using the tools available. There was a joy in doing it. Certainly, we’d show up with chord sequence sketches and melodic notation. But that was just the starting point. We’d talk over each scene, throw out ideas, experiment, play music, turn the process on its head and then go to lunch. Creating the music for THB was a social experience. We felt no monetary pressure…or in other words that pressure was equivalent to our budget. This fact, combined with John’s immediate and positive feedback allowed us the freedom to try new things and methods without worry. It was a very satisfying experience. Like a sanctuary from the everyday world.

Final Thoughts
We are grateful to John for asking us to score THB and as much as we are glad to have finished (whew!), we are happy with the work we’ve produced. We’d been looking for a creative project on which to collaborate for years and are proud to have contributed our small bit of sonic atmosphere to The House Between.

We’d like to thank our families for their patience and encouragement, especially Debee and Tonalli. Also, we’d like to thank our friends for musical and technical advice: Bill Latham, Phil Merkel, John and Kathryn Muir. Finally, we’d like to thank the actors for bringing life to John’s characters and for making them “resonate”. From a composer’s perspective, that is very important indeed!

Friday, May 04, 2007

The House Between Episode # 7 Preview ("Departed?") - and discussion board

One short week until the startling season finale of The House Between. (And only a few more weeks until the gang reunites to begin shooting Season Two...). The sneak preview this week is a brief one, since to give too much away would be to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say, there are surprises and shocks aplenty in "Departed?"

Meanwhile, if you can't get enough of The House Between, please check out the brand new series discussion board located here.This is a place for fans to get together and talk about various episodes, ask questions and so forth. I'm registered there too and will be joining the discussion as often as possible, and posting updates on the shooting. It's gonna be great, and I'm sure some of the cast and crew will be joining in as well.

Won't you join us?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Mego Star Trek Communicator

Here's one of the true treasures of my office collection, a Star Trek "walkie-talkie" communicator, copyright 1974 (with belt clip!) Direct from Mego, this toy features two "real" Star Trek communicators "with authentic sound."

These walkie talkies send and receive "voice communication" or a "2-phase warp sound," according to the packaging. The walkie talkie also features a "telescopic Rod antenna," a "push-to-talk switch," a "speaker-microphone" and a "green/red alert signal button," among other features. This is so you can instruct Spock just to beam up the landing party, and not the Klingons, vis-a-vis "Day of the Dove," I guess...

In terms of fidelity to the original prop seen on the show, this toy communicator doesn't rate particularly high. This communicator is blue, larger than the device seen on Star Trek, and the flip-up grille is emblazoned with an Enterprise logo that wasn't on the communicator on TV. Still, who's to complain? This toy rocks. I can remember spending literally DAYS playing with these walkie-talkies communicating back and forth on a "landing party" on the wooded trails near my house in New Jersey. What fun!

Anyway, to punctuate this blast from the past, here's a YouTube clip, a commercial for this very toy. God bless the person who posted this. Note how serious the kids are in this commercial! That was me as a youngster too! My oh my...

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 60: Space Academy Action Figures

With the recent official release of the Space Academy DVD, it's a perfect time to remember a rare and special collectible from 1977...the action figures from the same disco decade TV series. If you recall, I've blogged the series as part of my Saturday Morning Blogging (which I'll soon be resuming...), but here's a refresher: it's the story of futuristic young cadets at a university in space; flying on missions in Seeker space craft and learning lessons about the galaxy at large. The late Jonathan Harris played the wise instructor, Isaac Gampu.

These four action figures were released in 1977 and distributed by Woolworth Co., (New York, NY, 10007). They were produced by Hasbro/Aviva, and their price tag shows they cost $3.99 at the time (though Loki, being shorter than the rest, was $3.33). I'm old enough to remember seeing these toys on the shelves and wanting desperately to own them. And what I would have given for a Seeker space craft toy or model! Anyway, at the time, as a youngster (in second grade...) I just assumed the series would continue and become popular like Star Trek. Didn't quite happen that way, however since 1977 also saw the release of a little production called Star Wars...

Leaving that aside for a moment, there are four figures in this set. The packaging, as you can see, is quite exciting and colorful; each figure is adorned with eight photographs from the series, showcasing the fabulous set interiors as well as the impressive miniatures. Each figure boasts the Space Academy logo and the line "A Flying University, Almost a City in Size."

The Gampu figure features an illustration of the character (dressed in blue...) amidst several computer read outs. Unfortunately, his name has been misspelled as Issac instead of as Isaac. Oopsy. On the back of Gampu's box is this description: "Instructor in Space Academy and Favorite of the students, Professor Gampu, "Issac" to his classes."

Chris Gentry, who is here described as a "Member of Space Academy" is shown in his illustration showing off his muscles. Although they didn't make a figure of his sister, Laura, they should have...because these two shared a psychic link in the series. On the back of his box: "Chris is an athlete, a linguist and has earned a reputation as being the Academy's most proficient cadet pilot."

The third action figure is "Tee Gar Soom," and his card reads "almost Super-Human Strength." His illustration reveals him hurling what appear to be giant purple and blue gum balls or something. The back side of the Soom card reads: "One of the Orient's contributions to the Space Academy, Tee Gar, or "Tiger" as he is better known, is a medical student, enrolled in the academy's school of space medicine." We don't use the term Orient in 2007, so I doubt we would in the thirtieth century either...

Last but not least is "Loki," "Everybody's mascot." He is described as "a young boy, perhaps thirteen, possessing certain supernatural power that enables him to become invisible." The whole Loki character and background, by the way, got assimilated for Odo on Deep Space Nine. (An orphan; in search of his home; with unique abilities that separate him from the humans he works with...).

Anyway, I love these figures, although they are now showing their age (three decades this year!). All the figures' hands have fallen off'; their glue long-since having lost their adhesion. Still, I also have a loose Loki (that sounds dirty...), and remarkably, his hands haven't fallen off yet. My cat did try to eat one, however. This was the same cat, by the way, who urinated on all my Star Trek: Voyager action figures, which I always took as a telling comment on the quality of that series.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...