Ladies and Gentlemen I am thrilled to announce that after a brief hiatus Press Start Adventures has triumphantly returned with one of my new favorite episodes “Trial and Error”! For those not in the know, Press Start is a video game parody I wrote several years back which was made into a feature
Lin-Ku squares off against ace attorney Tucson Jackson in this month’s Press Start Adventure!
length film by the excellent Dark Maze Studios. I feel incredibly lucky that the characters and universe of Press Start were well received enough that today we are just a few months away from the live action sequel Press Start 2 Continue. But most surprising of all perhaps has been the success of the animated web-series Press Start Adventures. What started off as a few crudely drawn experiments to help promote the existence of the original movie has expanded into almost forty episodes which have introduced fantastic characters, places, and situations which never would have been possible in live action.
If you haven’t watched Press Start Adventures, you can stop reading my blog now and go check it out! Similarly, if you’re already a fan but haven’t seen this month’s episode yet, stop now and go check it out! I’ll just be waiting here in this ellipse…
…Ah you’re back! I’m glad you decided to take time out of your life to indulge in some video game parody! Well I’ve got a little treat for you now. A behind the scenes look at how a Press Start cartoon is made start to finish. The journey begins, as with any piece of fiction, as an idea…
Shredder’s Technodrome was stuck in Dimension X… Count Vile is stuck in Hades. Who says the ’87 Turtles toon didn’t have some good ideas!
Step 1: Brainstorming
When director Ed Glaser approaches me to make a new batch of PSA episodes, the first thing we must do is figure out what the heck they should be about. At this stage Mr. Glaser is typically pretty hands off. But there are often a few general guidelines. For example, we hadn’t initially planned beyond season one and the movie. So in approaching season two, Ed knew we would have to breathe a little new life into the series. He mentioned that he’d been watching the 1987 Ninja Turtles cartoon.
“Shredder, Krang, and the Technodrome are always getting stuck places, and the villains are always motivated by looking for ways to escape. What if Count Vile was stuck in hell and working on getting out?” Ed Suggested.
“Capital idea!” I said (or something less sophisticated sounding perhaps). And off I went.
The first thing I want to do is figure out what kinds of video game characters, conventions, and situations we haven’t spoofed yet. Some episodes are pretty fully formed in my head already, others I have to really think about before I know I have something that might possibly work. My brainstorming techniques generally involve lists that range from very vague to very specific. Often just coming up with a really funny character to introduce is more than enough to carry a whole web short. I keep listing until I feel satisfied that I have a thorough variety of ideas. There’s no real science behind brainstorming. It’s different for everyone. Sometimes it comes easy. Sometimes not. Either way, an excellent list of ideas does not necessarily equal a batch of hilarious scripts. So the next step is to pick out the best ideas and fully conceptualize them.
Step 2: Season Pitch
Press Start Adventures, like any film medium is a highly collaborative process. So the next thing I need to do is convince my director Ed that my good ideas are actually good ideas. Often they are not, so this is an important step.
An episode pitch for PSA is typically a very short paragraph or two. In one paragraph I’ll summarize the premise of each episode. Then in a second brief paragraph I might include a few “writer notes” in which I explain any particulars or specifics for why I think this episode is going to be funny. I might mention specific gags that aren’t relevant to the plot which I’m excited about, or I might explain a joke that Ed might not necessarily get, but a lot of other games probably will. If I myself am not 100% sold on an episode but think there’s potential, I might mention that as well. A lot of times when I admit that an episode is kind of half-baked, Ed comes back at me with a great idea for how to fully bake it and we’re in business.
Ed provides me a batch of notes on my season pitch, and we do a little back and forth. After a few rounds of this, we typically find ourselves with 10-12 solid ideas for a batch of episodes. Just like with any TV show, the idea is to have a mix of different kinds of episodes, give everyone’s favorite characters time in the spotlight, and do our best to keep the pacing up and the story of Press Start moving.
Here’s the original pitch for the most recent episode “Trial and Error” including a snippet of E-correspondence between myself and Mr. Glaser:
Trial and Error: The tournament is underway and Lin-Ku is well on his way to the finals, but ace attorney Tucson Jackson has a cease and desist order! Apparently two young children imitating the fighters hurt themselves. A trial is staged to determine if the tournament is to blame.
NOTES: Mostly a spoof of attorney games for the DS as well as the ongoing debate about the affects of video game violence. Was thinking the two kids would be the Paperboy and a “bully.” This would be a chance to bring a lot of fighter characters to the stand for quick punchy gags (pun unintentional).
Ed: The videogame violence angle has a lot of potential. The trick is gonna be to use a lot of humor/satire and avoid being heavy handed and soap-boxy.
Kevin: Yes. Slap me upside the head if I’m being heavy handed and soap-boxy. If we’re going to nix the tournament as a storyline maybe we can filter it all into this one episode. What if just as Lin-Ku is about to “Finish Her” he’s interrupted and the trial starts. Then after the verdict (something like “fighting tournaments don’t cause violence”) the tournament resumes and Lin-Ku immediately rips her wings off?
As you might have guessed from these early conceptual notes, my first crack at PSA season three included a longer ongoing plot about a fighting tournament that was rightfully consolidated into just this one episode. In fact, out of the original twelve episode pitch only about five and a half of them ended up resembling the final product. Many were smooshed together, severely altered, or ditched entirely as we worked out major plot points and seriously evaluated their comedic value. It pays to plan.
Step 3: Scripting
Once we have a solid batch of ideas, it’s finally time to sit down and do some serious screenwriting. Scripting web cartoons is pretty fun and organic for me. But if I had to break down the ingredients for a good PSA script it would probably look like this…
Setup: Lin-Ku and Morgan Le Slay are fighting in a tournament and Lin-Ku is about to “finish her!”
Conflict/Entanglement: The self-righteous Tucson Jackson shows up to put the fighters on trial for their violent ways.
Gags: References to games, spoofs of particular characters, conventions etc. The best PSA episodes usually try to mix and match different kinds of video game genres. “Trial and Error” is heavily influenced by fighting games on the surface but it’s also got a hefty dose of other stuff: attorney games, sports games, sandbox games, and real life social issues related to video game violence.
Resolution and/or Punchline: Lin-Ku outsmarts Tucson by pointing out that violence is an intrinsic part of human nature and the violent ways of the fighters resume.
Sometimes in comedy shorts a true resolution is not reached. The punch line serves as a climax and we don’t need to know or understand how a character gets out of a situation. In the PSA episodes which feature Count Vile vs. the “Dreadful Yellow Chompy Things” the problem is never solved. We just work our way up to the biggest or funniest gag and end. In “Trial and Error” the conflict of the trial is resolved, but the issue of the affect of violence on youths is left open to debate as Lin-Ku’s murderous actions seem to have a direct influence on the children after all.
Step 4: Rewrites
As with episode pitches, nothing comes out perfect. There’s usually even more back and forth that goes on with scripts. Remarkably, by the time I scripted “Trial and Error” Ed didn’t have any serious notes to pass back to me. But normally I get lists of comments like these…
▪ Maybe include a little exposition, Vlad video screen to tell E Penguin to get ax.
▪ Vile should repeat Zippy more. “HEY” “HEY”
▪ CUT quadruplicating sword joke (too naughty)
If Ed Glaser didn’t have the guts to tell me when a script was no good, we wouldn’t have episodes like “Grand Theft Awful” to replace them.
Although we try our best to solidify the season before scripting, there’s always at least one dud that gets scripted. For season three it was a highly mediocre episode about Zack, Sam, and Lin-Ku trapped in a haunted art gallery that was a holdover from my original concept about a fighting tournament at Vlad’s castle. Fortunately, inspiration struck and it was replaced by the much better “Grand Theft Awful.”
Some episodes like “Shoplifter” are intrinsically good, but need some kind of major change to get them moving. Originally that episode opened with Vlad and Morgan listing off a bunch of “spooky sounding” groceries to one another that dragged out for a good page before Vlad got to the part where he was messing with the self-checkout machine. Ed said:
▪ Goes on for too long, pacing wonky. No build.
▪ Morgan doesn’t need to be in it??? Don’t need to establish they’re in a store.
He was right. We would see right away that Vlad is shopping in a store. Nobody needs to talk about it. Schizoid Cricket and Vlad had such funny interplay at the checkout though, so once we expanded that and gave some of Morgan’s lines to him the episode really clicked.
A lot of aspiring writers like to believe that literary gold just oozes from their pens, and love butting heads with editors and instructors that are telling them when things don’t work. Revision is critical. Have lots of faith in yourself as you sit down in front of a blank page or screen. But let your pride end there. Find yourself a good editor with an excellent sense of pacing and trust him or her 95-100% of the time.
Step 5: Voice Recording
Here’s the really fun part for me! Once we have a batch of great scripts Ed takes over and starts working his directorial and editorial magical mumbo jumbo that I don’t really completely understand.
I look mad so I must be voicing Lin-Ku here…
Remember that Press Start Adventures episodes are normally planned and worked on in batches of 10-12. So Ed schedules each of our very talented voice actors to record an entire season’s worth of shorts at once. Without the extremely talented cast of PSA the humor would fall flatter than Mr. Game and Watch, so we are incredibly lucky to have wonderful actors like Peter Davis, David Humphrey, J.W. Morrissette, Arin Hanson, and many more lending their hilarity and professionalism to our series.
Many of us in the PSA cast voice multiple characters so we’ll generally work our way through a batch of scripts one character at a time. I like to start with Trenton Belfast and any others that I may be voicing, then once my voice has gotten a little hoarse from all the other stuff I move on to the gruff and gritty Lin-Ku voice. I myself am not as talented a voiceover actor as many of the others in our cast, so I imagine I need a little more direction than most. I will say each line a few times, and then Ed will give me a few suggested line readings and we move on at a steady pace. Voice acting is the ultimate no pressure situation for me as an actor. Just cut loose into a microphone. No inhibitions, no live audience, no problem if you screw up, no worries about whether or not you look stupid. You just have to sound good and have fun.
Step 6: Rough Audio
Once Ed has collected all of the lines from his actors, the next thing he’ll do is create rough audio tracks for each episode and get them to me early in the month in which that episode will premiere. The rough audio just has the actor’s lines and a selection of key sound effects for timing purposes. Once I have this sound track, I can animate to it.
Step 7: Rough Animation
Now comes the most tedious part in the process for me. Animating! Typically, there’s no trick to it. I just plop the audio into my Flash file and get to work, animating the episode from start to finish. Usually I’ll have done a little prep work beforehand. Any new backgrounds, characters, or interesting little bits of animation I know we’ll need for the episode may or may not be ready to go. Fortunately, even if they’re not, PSA has a very cut and paste style of animation, and the more episodes we make, the bigger our stock of materials becomes.
“Trial and Error” required quite a few new models, props, and backgrounds. Tucson Jackson, Spanish Ninja, and the Bully were all making their PSA debuts. We’d been to a fighting arena in the Press Start movie once before… but never in a cartoon. So I had to design that with the movie in mind. And I actually did have quite a few stock “fighter” characters. But as it turned out, about half of them were established to be dead and in Hell with Count Vile. So I had to make a bunch of new ones anyway. This
Thai Fighter, Toxique, and Eyeballctopus are “original characters like Ricky Rouse and Monald Muck!”
ended up being great because I was able to pay tribute to a few popular fighting games that weren’t otherwise referenced in the script.
In fact, animation adds a whole new level of gags to the story. I’m a firm believer in pause-button comedy. I think there should be hidden jokes for people to catch the fifth or sixth time they watch the video. So any time there’s cause for a newspaper, poster, letter, etc. I make sure I take time to flesh that out as if someone cares enough to stop the video and read the whole thing. (Even if they don’t, it’s fun for me.)
The amount of time to complete the rough cut varies. I’m going to make an uneducated guess and say between 24 and 36 hours? But it’s spread out over the course of days and weeks so it’s hard to say for sure. What I’m mostly grateful for, however, is the fact that people can forgive simplicity, crudeness, and cut and paste recycled animation as long as they are laughing. If not for that, we would never be able to keep a monthly schedule and we wouldn’t have a show.
Step 8: Animation Notes
Revision, revision, revision! That’s the key to any successful project. I’ve gotten a lot better at staging, framing, and cinematographing the heck out of my rough cuts. But I know that my director has a better sense for that stuff. So there’s always another set of insightful notes for me to address. A sampling of just some of the animation notes I got for “Trial and Error”…
▪ I like that the set looks like the one from the movie, but I never liked the white walls. Any chance of trying something darker and seeing how it looks?
▪ With a name like “G. Fourman’s Greatest Hits”, I feel like the cover should show him punching a guy?
▪ “Legal Flash!” — I’d kinda like to see him throw the thing and catch fire in the same shot, if possible
▪ Wing-ripping might be a little too bloody? What do you think?
Like I said, trust your editor almost 100% of the time. As usual everything he suggested was pretty much spot on. My only contention…
Kevin: “I like the bloodiness of the wing ripping and feel like it’s not so gratuitous since we’re specifically spoofing video game violence this time. But I’m open to debate about it.”
Ed: “Good point about the blood, let’s leave it as is for now.”
Woah! It got a little tense there for a second! We get along pretty well.
Step 9: Final Audio
While I’m tending to his notes, Ed is typically working on the fully fleshed out final audio. Aside from being an insightful director, Mr. Glaser is also a top notch sound editor with a very comprehensive library of sound effects and non-copyright infringing stock music. When you’re making a web cartoon having quality sound is one of the best ways to set yourself apart from all the other random stuff on YouTube. Once again this is all Ed. I couldn’t begin to make a cartoon sound as nice as PSA does on my own, so I won’t bother pretending like I understand all the hard work that he puts into this. All I know is that in a matter of days (sometimes even one night) he will send me a master sound file that fully fleshes out the episode with detailed sound effects and music.
Press Start 2 Continue is right on the horizon folks!
Step 10: Publish
Once I’ve tended to all the animation notes and dropped in the final sound mix, we’re ready to roll! I send it to Ed who publishes it on the Dark Maze website, YouTube, Newgrounds, and That Guy With The Glasses. Everyone does their part to promote their hard work and spread the word that yet another PSA episode has debuted on schedule and hopefully you all laugh really hard at the quality gaming humor.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this behind the scenes insight about Press Start Adventures. Keep watching for more Press Start related blogs in the coming months. Remember, there are three more episodes left, debuting on the last Friday of every month. But most importantly Press Start 2 Continue will be here in just a few short JackaMonths!