As I wrote in the previous post, some independent authors manage to create a convincing science fiction web series by adopting an “old school” approach either in narrative, style or both, while referring more or less closely to classic eras or iconic movies, making this transplant a sort of distinctive stylistic tract for the series itself.
In the series I’ve talked about, Ark, Continuum and Time Keeper, such a reference was somewhat indirect and pertaining more to narrative settings or dynamics. The following works go a little further. They “go vintage”.
Their process of embedding classical elements is heavier and we see the marriage between higher narrative ambitions (big settings, wider dynamics, more extended and complex arcs) and design choices that are highly stylized but, at the same time, matched to the story in a deep an functional way (instead of being gratuitous). And quite often, the process contributes crucially to give the whole setting a level of believability otherwise impossible, through the engaging of a sort of higher form of suspension of disbelieve.
Aidan 5 (developed from an original 2007 short movie) premiered in 2009 and wrapped its first season in 2011. There’s probably more to come. It’s produced with “zero budget” by the Ohio based 101 Productions and created by Tim Baldwin and John Jackson (author of the original short) and directed by Jackson himself with Ben Bays; the three are the main responsible for the screenplay as well, while main illustrations are the work of Ben Brown nd Jason Mowry (with the first being also responsible for the visual effects and composition with Shawn Likley). A local company that serves big Hollywood names did the make up in a crucial episode.
16 episodes, the show carries on a story of clones, underlying mysteries and obscure plots and it incorporates the pre-digested blending between sci-fi and noir of the Ridely Scott’s ’82 masterpiece (and classic itself) Blade Runner; even if I find it more resonating with the video game then with the movie itself, as far as narrative dynamics and main atmosphere are concerned (anyway, the lineage is pretty direct). Loosely, the design of the future city is, also, derived from Blade Runner and, indirectly through it, from Fritz Lang’s 1927 pre sci-fi colossal Metropolis.
It’s “classic” element here is rooted to an old fashioned atmosphere (the noir element, infused both in visuals and story) and into a narrative pacing that doesn’t indulge the web dogmas but takes it’s time to develop its arc as long as it takes (the main sub arcs are articulated in a number of episodes each – and could be re-edited as full TV episodes, I guess). As well as in the nature of a story that, somehow, you feel you’ve already been told. But, more than with the feeling of a derivative work, this astonishing series provides you with a kind of indefinite déja vecu vibe, nothing but fascinating in itself.
To fulfill the series’ ambitions, while contributing to his general “out of time” feel, is the SFX section: Aidan 5 is shot completely on green screen but with the backgrounds (may they be still or moving) totally in a hand drawn, old comic book style. Black and white; the blending of different layers is obtained though some extra textures that add grain to the live action ones, giving them a more “drawn on paper” feel. And so, this extreme aesthetic choice manages to build a feel of a totally plausible world through the powerful use of artistic visuals, totally consistent with the narrative premises and the classical approach; and there are, in fact, some plot elements based on a rather superficial and very little scientific basis (much like in a comic book, exactly) but this aesthetic choice makes them more acceptable than they would be in a full live action movie (or TV show).
You can (and must) watch it on the official site, on SFN (better quality), Blip and YouTube.
The Mercury Men
The Mercury Men (2008) is set in the Seventies, shortly after the Apollo moon landings. But it’s look digs back to old 50’s movie serials (and even older comic books that inspired them), being totally and proudly retro, with a beautiful black-and-white photography to give everything cohesion and an even more out-of-time feel.
10 episodes, each around 7 minutes in length, the series is written and directed by Christopher Preksta (known for the two times Webby nominated Captain Blasto and whose work has been shown at events like Tribeca Film Festival) and produced by Kati Lightholder.
Set in Pittsburgh, it shows how the ordinary life of a lowly government office employee is shaken by the responsibility of fighting a deadly plan from Mercury invaders (sounds marvelously vintage, doesn’t it?) together with a buck-rogers-like hero coming from the future.
It’s really astonishing to see the high quality this production has reached, while remaining low budget. Part of the success is, of course, consequence of the design premises, that follow the same logic already seen in Aidan 5: to create a believable world through a boldly unrealistic design. And thus, clearly fake and (probably) cheap props fit into the old-comic-book-like aesthetic, becoming totally acceptable; the black-and-white photography, as said, helps the viewer to suspend disbelief, and even a modern times CGI animation (done mostly by Preksta himself and used to create the aliens, quite cleverly designed as undetailed glowing white figures) blends in a totally organic, unobtrusive way. Of course, character evolution (predictable, but still well played), the fluid writing and a coherent overall pace, together with perfect cast and crew, contribute as well; but most of the fascination comes from the visual elements of the show.
You can watch it for free on Syfy.com (even with director’s commentaries) or Hulu, or download it from iTunes, in a special two long episodes edit (3$ each).
If Aidan 5 indirectly refers to the silent classic Metropolis, Pryme (2012) goes there straight. And note that it’s technically impossible to go any further in a process of classical reference for the genre: because, even if the movie is largely considered to be part of it, today, the term itself, “science fiction” was still to be invented and adopted in 1927.
The series is an original production by the SFN, a web-series-only network that hosts selected and awarded shows. It’s directed by SFN’s president Stewart St. John and produced together with Todd Fisher (SFN co-founder). 9 episodes between 8 an 12 minutes, plus a downloadable digital comic that works as introduction.
The show, obviously in black and white too, heavily relies on the Metropolis and silent era’s aesthetic as a blueprint for designing sets, town miniatures, costumes (but there’s also a really bothering Matrix influence), and make up. Quite understandably, we’re talking about “inspiration” and not a faithful copy, but “extreme” enough to convey a deep sense of unusual and chronological exotic, if you pass me the definition.
Again, it is not simple stylistic pretension. Along with the visuals, background elements in the story refer to the blueprint, too: the social organization/division into two contrasted worlds (the surface and the underground), an oligarchic detention of the power, and even a female salvific image. In this world, though, we see two “versions” of the humanity, as they appear in the wake of a previous conflict: the decayed “old” one (starving and striving on the surface) and a new breed obtained with genetic manipulation, inhabiting the underground. Different worlds in a more than precarious balance. The classic/vintage elements are applied to the latter, creating a bigger and expressive contrast than a simple hyper-tech design couldn’t have done, while at the same time, perfectly evoking and expressing a militaristic, tyrannic and menacing attitude.
It needs to be said, though, that the higher ambitions of the series are not fully fulfilled: if the visual element is clearly fascinating, at the same time is mainly prominent compared to the execution in general, and so the series misses that perfect balance between design and storytelling that makes The Mercury Man unassailable. Plus, narrative and visual echoes of other science fiction classics (like Time Machine, both novel and movie), while giving the story a good and definite dejà-vecu feel, here smell a little too much derivative, contributing to the narrative weakness in comparison to the visual strength.
Anyway, Pryme remains one of the most interesting ad original science fiction web (and not web) shows out there and it’s totally worth watching. So don’t even try and skip it.
Exclusively on SFN.
Bonus: Yesterday Was A Lie
I’ll be quick on this one, since I’m going out of topic two times: talking about a companion web series that, in itself, doesn’t fit the profile so much.
But its “father” movie, the 2008 noir/sci-fi Yesterday Was A Lie does it perfectly, and since an homonymous (and presumably promotional) web series was made in 2011, it’s worth a quick inclusion.
The movie, again, blends noir and sci-fi by transplanting the whole vintage aesthetic and narrative setting, in imitative style. But it does it so that everything seems like a canonic noir movie, with the sci-fi element sneaking in slowly. As in previous examples, the stylistic choice acts as an expressive reinforcement of the deep premises of the whole story; but here, if you will, you may also find a diegetic justification to this blending. But I can’t tell you what that is without spoiling. Let me just say that time travel is involved. Don’t worry: not in the way you imagine.
(The web series, by the way, is a collection of vlogs/video messages sent by some minor characters to the lead one and it’s supposed to be happening a the same time of the events narrated in the movie. Given to the extremely cheap nature of the product, the genre blending it’s practically invisible. Maybe more details are contained in the limited edition cross-media comic book, that I haven’t read).
- Like in future, good old days (1): science fiction web series that “go classic”
- Good old horror flicks. In a web series format
- Alien abductions, vampire cops, dystopias: a selection of derivative web series