While Action Flick Chick Katrina Hill covers San Diego Comic-Con, Elizabeth Ann steps in by interviewing the webseries Shelf Life‘s Tara Platt and Yuri Lowenthal.
If you grew up anything like me, you wondered what your toys were thinking. Or more importantly- what they did when you weren’t around. I know I often found them in places/positions that I didn’t leave them. And I know my toys- Toy Story wasn’t blue enough to accurately represent them. Well, now you’re in luck! Shelf Life, the series, a web show created by Tara Platt, written by Yuri Lowenthal, and produced by the couplem answers those questions.
Shelf Life shares the online adventures of four action figures stuck on a shelf; once their owner leaves the room, they can finally reveal that they are alive. Hero Man (Travis Willingham), Hero Lass (Platt), Bug Boy (Lowenthal), and their compatriot Samurai Snake (Bryan Enk and Dee Bradley Baker) have spent two seasons reacting to the horrors of their Hitler-esque (their descriptive), 10 year old owner. Now in its third season, Shelf Life has grown by leaps and bounds from its humble beginning as an off the cuff idea.
I sat down with Platt and Lowenthal to discuss the series from its inception to its future directions. With topics ranging from the original idea for the show to the perils of creating content for the web, Platt and Lowenthal provided their comments and insight.
What was the process for creating Shelf Life? The Inspiration?
Tara- It’s kinda funny because in our household, definitely Yuri is the bonafide nerd of the house not me, – ya know, I grew up and I read comics but they were like Archie, Betty & Veronica, I wasn’t reading Superman or things like that-
Yuri- Or collecting action figures.
T- Or collecting action figures. The irony is that I actually had the idea for the show- Yuri didn’t, so he feels he lost a little geek cred on that one. We were in pre-production on a different web series… We were down in our studio one night and I was speaking sort of off the top of my head, “Oh my god, wouldn’t it be so much easier to make a show that was all done green screen”, rather than what we were building and working on at the time. “And yeah, it could be funny… could be like action figures and they’re stuck on the shelf and they can’t do anything cuz they’re action figures and it’s us as the characters”, and Yuri was like “Oh my god, we have to do that!” And it kind of took off from there.
What was the casting process?
Y- As is the case with a lot of low budget stuff, you usually go to people that you know first. And if that doesn’t work out then you can cast a wider net. We knew we wanted to play two of them, and we knew Travis Willingham was born to play Hero Man. There’s literally no one else. He’s both handsome and funny- which I don’t think should be allowed, you can have one but you can’t have both. And he’s not afraid to make an ass of himself. For our silent character- what we call the Chewbacca of the series- well he’s not so much silent but no one knows what he’s saying.
T- Well, we know what he’s saying but the audience, and Hero Man, doesn’t. They sort of have to figure it out based on how we respond.
Y- We knew we’d need somebody that could physically carry that off without having a lot of dialogue. Luckily a friend, Bryan Enk had just moved to town and I said, “Bryan you have to join us on this epic adventure,” and he jumped right in. And then Dee Bradley Baker, who you will know from anything and everything.
T- He’s amazing.
Y- So we thought- we need some sort of crazy voice, like a snake creature voice and we immediately thought of Dee.
You’ve announced Aaron Douglas and Phil Morris as guests; can you talk a bit about who they’ll be playing?
Y- Phil Morris- I don’t want to give too much away on either side but Phil is basically playing our big bad in the season finale.
T- He was so much fun to work with.
Y- Such a giving guy. And… the only problem we had with Aaron was that he was so fucking funny that ya know, we just kept laughing the entire time we were shooting. How can we describe Aaron’s character?
T- I don’t want to give anything away! Um… Let’s just say he’s representative of where he’s from.
Y- Let’s just say we’ll probably either pull a huge Canadian audience during his episode or we’ll lose all of them. We’re equal opportunity offenders.
You’re already into the third season of the series, what were some of the differences between the first and second season for you? Between the second and third? Did you find some aspects easier/harder?
T- I would say some of the biggest differences are the quality of what we’re creating is going up. Part of that is just a matter of it being a learning curve- I mean, we’d never done this before and then we started doing it and learned from our mistakes and then we did it better. The characters are getting to be a lot clearer. For season one we sort of had these archetypes in our head but we were still figuring out who those characters were, so they were a little more two-dimensional, just in the sense that we didn’t know them as well, so when we moved to season two I think they got fleshed out a little more and now by season three we really know who those characters are so we’re able to play with them on a different level. And another difference is that we have guest writers. So I hope, with each season, it just goes up a notch.
Y- That first season we were really just figuring out how to do what it is we wanted to do. And there’s still- I love all the seasons like different children, and some of the episodes of the first season are still my favorite of the-
Y- The simplicity of an episode like Nuts. But yeah, you can definitely sort of see when you watch them; we really are upping the stakes a lot.
There was a question that came up in regards to how the configuration of action figures worked out? Were there different combinations, or was it just these four? Why is there only one woman?
T- I really don’t know how to say this any better than, like, when I thought of the idea. I just saw four action figures and it was sort of just like the little vision that popped into my head and of course, because I wanted to play, I was one of them. And then I immediately saw it almost just like Superman-Wonder Woman so I needed there to be—if I was Hero Lass, which was the name that sort of came into my head, I wanted there to be a Hero Man, and then I sort of liked the idea of some sort of creature, ‘cause I didn’t want all the characters on the shelf to be from the same world. I wanted them, just like the action figures on my husband’s shelf (Yuri laughs), I wanted it to be a mix of things. I was like, “well, if these two characters are from the same world, they’re clearly superheroes, Hero Man and Hero Lass, what’s another kind of creature? Oh, you know, sort of like one of those, like a Cobra Commander kind of character sort of thing so I thought of Samurai Snake who was a samurai, but he’s half snake and so suddenly that creature came into being, and then because Yuri voices the character of Ben 10 on “Ben 10 Alien Force,” I was tickled by the idea that you can have sort of what would be this action figure for a character but the character doesn’t actually have any superpowers, because if you put the action figure of Ben 10 on the show, the character of Ben 10 doesn’t have any superpowers, but—
Y- He’s in the techno-jacket
T- He’s in the techno-jacket but all the aliens that he transforms into, which would technically be other action figures, are the cool action figures, and so I sort of thought of this idea of this character of Bug Boy, which is this boy that rather than Ben 10 (‘cause I didn’t want to get in trouble with real IP information there), of the character that changes into all these bugs, but the bugs are the cool action figures and he’s just, like, a weirdo in a suit… (Everyone laughs) …with no real powers. So it kind of all happened at once in my head as far as how I saw the four main characters on that show, and it’s not that there are no other action figures in the boy’s room, it’s just that those four are on the same shelf together.
Y- We knew we were going to try to keep it within the types of constraints we knew we’d be able to handle, both budgetarily and production-wise, we’d have to keep it kind of small to start, and then open it up later and start adding in other characters, which is where we’re headed!
T- But I also thought that—and it wasn’t that I wanted to be the only girl on the show (because I totally do) — because I felt like it was a young boy, I figured boys don’t tend to have as many girl figures—
Y- Not at that age, but certainly when I got older I started collecting weird Japanese manga—
T- But that was because they have breasts.
So in season 2, Hero Man got a BEARD.
Y- It always comes back to the beard.
T- Let’s just say Travis Willingham, who is a very talented actor, he’s known, right? Got tapped for a project and had to grow the beard out and we were not able to push our shoot date, ‘cause it would’ve been months and months and months for us to wait, and so we said, “You know what? You keep that beard and we will make it work.” And so we came up with some clever, uh…
Y- That’s the beauty of writing your own show, if something comes up like that, you just write a line that explains it. And we’ll go from there. Plus, he’s very handsome in a beard! I’ve had a lot of YouTube comments recently saying how they’re loving third season but they miss Travis’s beard.
I didn’t really feel that it worked for a superhero, because, you know, when Superman tends to grow scruff, he’s evil or he’s really dark and depressed and broody.
Y- Yeah, the goatee version is always the evil version.
T- Yeah, that’s why we tried to make a joke of it, about it being his Shadow Zone, or his five o’clock Shadow Zone look, because otherwise, we couldn’t have shot with Travis and the show would not have been able to go on.
How did Bear and Brendan McCreary end up being involved with the music of the show?
Y- Right?!? I know! We’ve known Brendan and Bear for a long time. Bear and I met, working on a student film at USC, and have been friends ever since. When it came to the web series, I went to him to get in touch with Brendan to see if he’d be willing to make the theme and he said Brendan would love to. And then Brendan did. And he wrote this amazing theme, which we will make available in the IndieGoGo perks. Bear’s always up for a challenge, ya know- as busy and as in demand as he is, he’s always up for it- and when we presented him with the idea of this and asked if he knew anyone who might be interested, he got excited and was like, “why don’t I try doing it, can I try this?”, and we’re like, “you’re a genius, you can try anything you want”, and they stuff he went with was exactly what we needed
T- And also, just having that level, that quality of a score, just up-levels the entire show, which is so nice.
Y- We’re all BSG fans, ya know- it’s a geek feather in our hat.
What’s the shooting schedule for a show like this?
T- The way that we’ve been doing it is- we try to have all the episodes for a season written and passed out to the actors, so that we can do a rehearsal, and then we do the shoot over the course of a weekend, all ten episodes that are in one season.
Y- Recently, since the show’s gotten a little more complicated we’ve had to add time onto that because we don’t want to rush it too much. But generally we try to keep it to about 2 or 3 days. And then schedules may make things a little funny sometimes and we have to add a day here or there. We try to wrap it all into one- it keeps the cost of the show down, for sure, and the commitment.
How much improvisation is allowed on set?
Y- Well, as the writer, I think no improvisation happens.
T- We definitely have improv. I would say 95% of what you see is on the page. We do, as actors, I think we do stick to it, but we just have fun with it and usually what will happen is we’ll do a number of takes as written and then if someone has a great idea- whether that’s Stephen the director or Travis-
Y- It’s usually Travis.
T- Ya know, if someone has a brilliant idea or starts to riff, we go with it.
Y- I think that as the show has gone on and people have gotten more comfortable and developed their characters more and more, more improv comes out of it.
T- It’s easier to do when you know who you are.
Y- At the end of an episode, where it just ends naturally, just keep going and every now and then something genius comes out of it that’ll make it into an episode, that wasn’t scripted at all.
T- So we’re starting to actually have like Easter Eggs at the end of an episode.
Y- Our Shawarma moment.
T- There’s these little Easter Eggs at the end, after the credits, they’re sort of this one little tag just because it was too funny to not put out there.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced bringing the project to life?
Y- Peoples schedules would be one.
T- In addition- one of the biggest challenges is getting viewership and an audience. Because what’s ultimately going to keep it afloat and on the air, in this case- the web-, is enough people tuning in that our numbers speak highly enough that we actually can bring in some money- whether it’s from ad revenue or whatever product sales that we could go with. I’m very proud of the numbers that we have, but when you look at it in terms of what people are watching on the web- we’re not even a blip on the radar. Unless someone’s watching it, it really isn’t successful- so I think that’s the most challenging part- getting it out there and having people see it.
Y- I used to think that the hard part was going to be actually making the thing- I’m constantly learning and relearning that the hard part is actually, especially in the climate that we have with the web right now where there’s so much content out there, is actually directing people to it. Because we’ve found that generally the people who would like this show- when they see the show, they love it! But finding new people who may also like the show and pulling them in the direction has been hard.
So who’s your target audience?
T- That’s kind of a tricky one! At first I thought it would be like guys in their twenties or thirties, but I’ve been really surprised to see who’s actually tuning in to watch. Yes, there’s a large demographic that is in that age bracket, just because if you look at Yuri and the target demographic, he’s sort of in that age bracket, but I find that there’s a lot of chicks who are tuning in as well, which I really like.
Y- Its hard to say exactly, but I’d say it’s probably pretty close to even, which is exciting.
Y- I think people who like nerdy and naughty at the same time. I think, whether fortunate or unfortunate, we get a lot of viewers who might be too young for the show.
T- Yeah, it’s not really for kids!
Y- Yeah, but I’m not going to fight them on that. Yeah, I think people who love comic-booky type stuff, or action figures, or who always wished Toy Story were a little dirtier (laughs), and who once again, don’t necessarily want to tune into a twenty-two minute show, or who only have a few minutes here and there, because I think the attention span is still quite short on the web. It’s changing, slowly, but I think in general, even for myself, like on a video that says seven minutes, I’m like “yeah, I don’t know if I have seven minutes,” even if I do. But if it says like, a minute and a half or three minutes, I say “yeah, I’ll give it a shot.”
How has the fan reaction been to the series? It sounds like it’s been very positive, but anything to say on that?
T- It has been very positive, which is really great. Occasionally we’ll get negative comments, but it’s kind of funny because we don’t tend to respond to the negative comments, but it’s actually kind of nice because the fans will stand up for us, and we’ll be like, “Yeah, you tell ‘em!” (laughter) But yeah, it has been really nice. There have been a couple of people who have said to me that they want to cosplay as Hero Lass, and I’m like, “That is the coolest thing ever!”
Y- When that happens, that will be a landmark day, when we show up at a convention and somebody is cosplaying one of our characters, I will probably kiss that person, much to everyone’s…but yeah, just back to your last question, it’s the Comic-Con crowd, I hope, because those are my people and I love them.
T- And we will be there in a week and a half!
Y- We will be there in a week and a half. We’ve been really excited, back to before, we wish we had a bigger audience, but the people who are watching it love it. They want to know, they’re like, “I can’t wait till next week; I wish this was a TV show; why haven’t I seen this before?”
T- One of the reasons we came up with the perks that we got for the IndieGoGo campaign is the feedback from people saying “I want an action figure of these characters,” so we’ve actually got action figures made up of the action figures, or people wanting the theme song or people wanting DVDs, we’re trying to be responsive to the people that are our viewers and our audience.
Y- They’re the ones, when you’re not making a million dollars an episode, working on a show, its fan reaction that’s going to keep you going.
Y- So we have them to thank for that.
Y- Also we put together a promotional comic book for San Diego, and it’s been amazing to see, because we went out to all our artist and writer friends to contribute to it, and basically they had to do their artwork and their writing based on what they’ve been getting out of the show and what they love about the show, and it’s been amazing to see the response from these artists as to how they view it and what they think is fun about the show. We’ll have issues of the comic at SDCC, but we’ll probably put the comic up on the website eventually because it’s too beautiful.
To be continued tomorrow…
Follow the show on Twitter: @ShelfLifeSeries
“Like” Shelf Life on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ShelfLifeSeries
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