Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Screenwriting, TV and Game Writing Blog


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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I'm prepping to direct a 6 minute teen vampire sex comedy, YOU ARE SO UNDEAD, based on Lisa's hilarious script. One of the most useful classes I ever took for directing was a two year class on acting at the Joanne Baron studio. One of the most useful classes I ever took for writing was a typing class in high school. I'd like to add another offbeat class you'll find useful if you want to direct: figure drawing.

I cannot draw worth a damn. When you're doing a shotlist/storyboard, it is really helpful to be able to draw in perspective. You do not want to see what my storyboards look like.

If you have a chance, particularly in college, take a figure drawing class. You may not learn to draw well, but you will learn to draw better than me!



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Monday, April 26, 2010

If you're in Montreal this evening, and want to hang out with a bunch of writer/director/producer/entertainment folk, swing by Réservoir on Duluth and hoist a few with us after 7 pm. Tonight's guest drinker is none other than Denis McGrath.


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Sunday, April 25, 2010

We watched TREMORS again Friday night. Now that is a fine piece of cheese. I like to call it an "unnecessarily good movie." Unnecessary, because it probably did not make a penny more because it has well-written, fleshed-out characters, or lovely performances, or because the characters behave sensibly throughout. (From the moment it's apparent that There Is A Problem, they are trying to get the hell out of the valley.) But it does have those things, and boy is it watchable. Even the normally giant-mutant-worm-averse Lisa enjoyed herself.

Nothing clever to say here, really. We just had fun.



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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My dear friend Shelley Eriksen gave a very touching tribute to Peter Mitchell when he received the Showrunner Award at last night's 2010 WGC Awards. The theme of her speech was that Pete Mitchell does not, in fact, hate you. But one other thought stood out. Once when she was working on a show with him, he pointed to a script he had written, and said something on the order of, "It doesn't matter who's got the writing credit," pointed to the title of the show on the script, "That's who writes the show."

The show writes the show. Your job as a writer is of course to satisfy the showrunner and make his or her job easier. YOu do that by finding the voice of the show.

You do, of course, bring your own talent and ideas. But ideally you are pouring all your talent and ideas into telling stories in the voice of the show.

I had an interesting experience on ep. 1.06 of NAKED JOSH, where I wanted to do an episode with a certain tone, and it became clear that the ship had already sailed on the tone, and I was trying to write an episode that was not the show. Even though I was the co-creator, I had to acknowledge that what the show wanted took priority over what I wanted.

The show writes the show.



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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Q. I had an independent but (from what I've heard) reputable producer say she wanted to option my script for a Web miniseries, and they've been taking forever sending me one. It's been over a month and a half of "in about a week." Should I be concerned?
No. Don't be concerned. It is probably a dead duck, but maybe it's not. You never know.

Here's how I approach these things: I send stuff out, then I forget about it. If I get interest, my agent negotiates. If the interest fizzles out, I move on. If a producer with whom I don't already have a relationship with promised me something six weeks ago, and didn't deliver it, you will have to remind me what it was, because I've forgotten it.

I try never to mourn the might have beens. I rarely stress about what may work out. I just assume things may or may not happen, and focus on the writing.

I can control the writing. I can do the writing. I can't make a producer hire me or buy my stuff. I try not to put too much energy into hoping they will. I just focus on what I'm writing.

A producer might not hire me because they don't think my sample was funny or dramatic enough. Or because they wanted a woman writer. Or a junior writer. Or because they needed someone from British Columbia. Or because they owed a script to somebody. Or a million other reasons. The only one I can control is the first one, and I can't even control the script at the point it goes out the door. I can only make the next script funnier or more dramatic.

A producer might not buy my script because they don't want a romantic comedy, or they're busy, or the market is soft, or because they already have something sort of like mine, or because they have no money after all. All I can do is write another script.

If you focus on your work, your work will be better and you'll do better in your career. But much more importantly, you won't stress about things that are completely beyond your control and your ken. The work will save you. You can't rely on anything else.



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Q. I was fortunate enough to find a independent producer who wants to buy my script. So far, they sent me the NDA [non-disclosure agreement] which I signed and a 1st draft of the option agreement, which wasn't signed. They say they are working on the final draft of the option and they're working on funding the company so that I can get paid. They also have about 3 or 4 other projects they're developing. You mentioned you can never trust a producer who says he knows where he might be able to get the money to make a movie(s).

I was just wondering, is the signed NDA enough of a legal document to prove they're serious about making the movie and that my script has merit?
Certainly not. Asking you to sign a non-disclosure agreement doesn't mean anything. In fact it's very odd to ask a screenwriter to sign an NDA. What do they not want you disclosing? It's your idea!
They keep promising me it'll get done and that things are looking "great", but I don't know. I'm wondering if they overestimated how quickly they can get their company funded. The 1st draft of the option said they'd pay me quite well, but nothing was signed yet. Now I'm sitting and waiting for the final option.
It's amateurish of them to send you a draft option and then promise you a real option later. The draft option should represent their offer to you. Your representative then uses it as a baseline to ask for more stuff, to close loopholes, to clarify ambiguities, generally to make it a better deal for you. Then it goes back and forth between your rep and them until you both have something you can agree with.

Their saying things are going great may mean absolutely nothing whatsoever. Producers almost always say things are going great. Until it comes time to pay. Then they say things aren't going as well as they'd hoped and could they have more time, please.

As a practical note, agreements are almost never signed by the producer until the writer signs. I don't know why, that's just the way it's done. I don't really know what would happen, legally, if the producer took your signed deal and then failed to sign it. I assume that your representative could insist that he sign it or the deal would be considered void. Make sure your rep follows up to make sure the deal is actually signed by the producer. It makes it harder to hold him to terms he hasn't signed.

(It is not impossible however. Under contract law, your working under a negotiated but unsigned agreement may create a contract, and their paying you almost certainly does. But IANAL, this is not legal advice, and YMMV.)

My suggestion would be that you have a rep (lawyer or agent) send them your notes on their contract. Their draft option almost certainly contains loopholes favoring them. I would consider the project "available" to other people until you get a signed deal. Until then, I would quietly continue to shop it around. If you get a better offer, you can pit producer against the other, and that's always fun.



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Friday, April 16, 2010

Has anyone else noticed that MODERN FAMILY is actually about three nuclear families where one spouse works and the other doesn't?

Yeah, sure, one family's gay and their daughter's adopted. But an old rich guy being married to a hottie isn't exactly news. And the third family is right out of a sitcom from the 70s.

Just saying. I love the show. But the families are "modern" only in the sense that the art made in the 1950's is called "Modern" while contemporary art is called "Contemporary."

Lisa and I are working on a spec pilot called "Contemporary Family." You have been warned.


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We've been watching TREME and THE PACIFIC. One thing I find remarkable about the two shows is how strongly they seem to reject anything episodic. Not only are stories not built and resolved within the hour, often it is hard to suss out exactly what the stories are.

I like a show that has a serial arc, but I do want to feel after I've watched an hour of TV that I've been told a story. I like to bite off a piece of story and chew it for a while before I go onto the next piece. I don't like to devour a whole season of a show in a weekend; two a night is about my limit on a DVD set. (Earlier in the year we went through the entire BUFFY box set, more or less two a night. That was fun.) If I compare THE PACIFIC to BAND OF BROTHERS, I feel there was more story in BoB; likewise if I compare TREME to THE WIRE, I feel there was more story in THE WIRE. It seems an odd direction for a channel to move; though given the strong prejudice against anything serial on networks, it probably makes sense for HBO. You definitely won't see shows anything like these on a network, not even with cleaned-up language.

No doubt the shows have rich situations and fleshed-out characters. I love the music in TREME. The combat in THE PACIFIC fascinates me. I'll stick with these shows. But I hope when all is said and done I'll know what story they wanted to tell me.



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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Some folks are trying to start up a Canadian SF magazine called AE. Helen Michaud wrote me:
I'm starting a science fiction magazine with some friends that will be focused on Canadian writers. We're committed to paying SFWA professional rates to all our contributors and publishing a minimum of 75% Canadian content between our covers. We hope to put out our first issue in Fall of this year.

As an additional incentive, we're running a microfiction contest: science fiction stories inspired by the word "micro" in no more than 200 words.
This is not actually a call for submissions, it's a Kickstarter call for subscriptions. Kickstarter is a site where people who want to help a creative project pledge money towards getting it made. If enough gets pledged, the project gets made.

This is how expensive books used to get made. Audubon sold copies of his BOOKS OF AMERICA before he'd printed it. He went around showing people the art and taking their money. Took him years. When he had enough, they got their gorgeous folio editions of the book. (They are now worth several hundred thousand dollars apiece.)

Theoretically, a subscription model could get, say, a Joss Whedon show off the ground. Joss posts a TV bible, and all those folks on Whedonesque put up what they'd pay for the first season DVD, and in exchange, Joss makes the series.

The economics probably don't work out. A TV show needs millions of viewers, not tens of thousands of hardcore fans. And how many people are hardcore enough to pledge fifty bucks for a show that hasn't even been made? To make Season 2 of FIREFLY you'd probably need, oh, fifty million bucks. Can even Joss sell a million subscriptions?

But they only need ten thousand bucks for their SF magazine. If you're up for it, help them kickstart it.



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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Per the LA Times.



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Friday, April 09, 2010

Yay! Jane Espenson is blogging again!


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I know I've been posting a lot about games lately. So here's a survey. Do you like the posts about games, not care, or am I terribly off topic for you?

Free Survey



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I'm currently playing MASS EFFECT 2. Although there's a neat dialogue engine that lets you choose how the conversation goes, I'm feeling something's missing.

For one thing, there's an issue of optimization. Certain dialogue options net you "paragon" or "renegade" points. You need those points to unlock missions. So whatever your inclinations, you're wise to go with the paragon or renegade options 100% of the time.

But my main problem is that the dialog is all exposition. I ask a question, I get an answer, or the NPC will say "I can't tell you." If I'm looking for info, all I have to do is keep clicking options until I've covered all of them.

Real investigative dialog is elliptical. I ask about this, I find something out about that. It's also emotional. You might have to piss someone off in order to get them to talk about something. Or butter them up.

I'd be interested in a conversational game engine that made dialog into a puzzle. Just as you have to figure out a boss's weakness to, say, fire, you have to figure out your conversation opponent's weakness. Get him talking about dogs and he'll warm up to you. Call him a traitor and he'll lose his cool and say something he didn't intend to.

How do you know when you've cracked it? When you complete a combat mission, it's obvious. There are no enemies left, or you picked up the doodad or rescued the guy or whatever. But there's no reason you couldn't do that with conversation. Once you get the info you're looking for, your "been a pleasure talking with you" option opens up. There's no reason a game can't flag an important bit of dialog so the gamer remembers it -- the game flags everything else you pick up, doesn't it?

Have any of you ever run across a game with this sort of conversational combat?

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THE WILD HUNT opens today at the AMC Forum and Cinema du Parc in Montreal, and at the AMC Yonge and Dundas in Toronto.

It's a lot of fun. Sexy, fresh, dark, and definitely something you haven't seen before.



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"Wagner," Mark Twain said, "isn't nearly as good as he sounds."

We watched INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS last night. It left me with odd feelings. In some ways it's a terrible movie. It's a gratuitously gory revenge fantasy (though actually much less gory than I was led to expect from reviews). It's hard to take much away emotionally from a movie that's so close to parody. In some ways it feels like it's less about World War II than about World War II movies. You have your wonderful charming Nazis and your gorgeous French Jewess and your scotch-drinking Brit and your tough Americans. None of the characters get much beyond stereotype -- it's all pulp.

But it is probably the most impressive pulp I have ever seen. Tarantino has the ability to play a scene for an incredibly long time without losing you. The first real dialogue scene starts about three minutes in, and ends about fourteen minutes later. Fourteen minutes in a farm house. Just talking. Tarantino really takes his time to develop tension, and does it with superb dialogue. And Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa is spectacular.

And it goes on in that style. The movie is almost entirely set pieces. There's no run and jump. There are no montages. There are a few flashbacks and inserts, but most of the movie develops in these long, long, long dialog scenes, often in French or German, that develop slowly, yet hold your interest, even when you know more or less where they're going to end up. (But that, too, is in the pulp tradition, isn't it, Bill? Corman always had long talky scenes, because long talky scenes are cheap to shoot.)

I'm not sure I've ever liked a Quentin Tarantino movie. But he is a master of his art. The editing and cinematography are masterful and surprising. And the dialog is brilliant. If you don't mind a little on-screen scalping in a movie, take a good look at this one.



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Thursday, April 08, 2010

After my little issue with Final Draft 7 and the Mac OS 10.6 Snow Leopard installer, the Final Draft people were kind enough to send me a review copy of Final Draft 8.

FD8 isn't a spectacular leap forward over FD7; there just isn't that much more you can do in a script formatting program. Mostly they have made improvements to all the bells and whistles.

For example, they have improved their very useful ScriptCompare tool. If you have two scripts, ScriptCompare will mark the changes between one and the other -- very handy if people have been making changes without using Revision mode. FD8 does a better job of recognizing when you've only changed a word or two, rather than marking the whole sentence as changed.

They've improved FD's ability to work with index cards. You can turn your beat sheet into index cards, move them around, tweak them, and then put them back into script format in the new order. You can also color your index cards to help you track your A, B and C stories.

FD8 stores its scripts in a new file format (.fdx instead of .fdr). The .fdr format was opaque to Mac's Spotlight universal text finder; the .fdx format is transparent, so you can use Spotlight to find the script where you used the phrase "rabbit stewardess" if you so desire.

Script Navigator is now Scene Navigator, and you can keep your scene list open while you write pages, rather than having to go back and forth between your beat sheet and pages.

And, there's a nifty new feature that lets you cheat your page count globally or locally.

Overall, there's no new "killer app." But there are some very nice improvements to a program that I continue to find user-friendly.

I have heard many people say nice things about Movie Magic Screenwriter, and I expect it integrates better with Movie Magic Scheduling and Movie Magic Budgeting. If you're on a production, that might be important. I'll let you know if I ever change over.

In the mean time, you can buy Final Draft here:

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Denis covered this in depth, but I thought I'd mention the Toronto Screenwriting Conference happening this weekend. They've got some pretty exciting speakers, like an Exec Producer of THE SIMPSONS, and the writer of ZOMBIELAND and a Co-Exec Producer on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and the showrunner of STARGATE. And they've all promised to talk in depth about craft, and not just tell war stories. It sounds like the sort of thing that you could come away with some real nuggets of craft. And, you'll meet lots of fellow screenwriters and maybe some producers and even execs. If you're within striking distance of Toronto, definitely check it out.


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Owen Coughlan has written the first 3D screenplay! Sure, there have been movies in 3D. But now you can read his script, Doktor Fang in glorious 3D!

One of the happiest comments I got as I developed my craft was that my scenes "leapt off the page." But now you don't have to wait -- using 3D technology, your words can jump right off the page without the need for craft!

Requires red and blue 3D glasses. Not available in stores.



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Saturday, April 03, 2010

Lisa was a TV kid. She watched tons of TV when she was a teenager. She says up to twelve hours a day in the summer. I spent a great deal of my teenage years playing wargames -- military simulations with dozens or hundreds of little chips representing units, and rulebooks that went to twenty pages in six point type. Oh, and I read a ton of science fiction.

I wonder how those experiences shaped the way we think.

My stepson watches very little TV; just a few shows he likes to watch with us as a family. He spends as much of his free time as we'll allow playing games. He is a voracious consumer of games.

I wonder how the game playing will shape him.

I have to think that watching a ton of TV, even bad TV, gives you some insight into how people's stories turn out. You start seeing patterns in how people behave. You learn to interpret what people are saying. That's something that Lisa's childhood watching TV must have given her.

I've written elsewhere about how computer programming gave me the habit of writing my screenplays in a very top-down way, structuring the story, then the acts, then the beats, and only then writing pages. I wonder if wargaming contributed too. I think I have a visual sense of story. I'm looking for a story's weaknesses. I try to shore them up, the way a general might shore up his defensive line. When I figure out a solution for a story structure problem, I can feel how it makes the whole thing stronger.

I must have learned something from playing all those wargames.

What is Hunter getting out of playing games? Back in my day you couldn't do much more than increase your thumb-eye coordination. But games have advanced immeasurably.

You're not going to learn the same skills as you do watching TV or reading novels. You're certainly not going to learn how to tell the difference between what a girl is saying and what she means from playing MASS EFFECT 2. NPC's in videogames still tend to tell the unvarnished truth, or failing that, a baldfaced lie. A bit of truth and a bit of lie? Maybe in the next generation. They still hire one actor to voice a character and another to do his gestures, so how much subtlety can you communicate? They still haven't got the mouths to sync up with the dialog convincingly.

But you will learn something about the cost of love playing HEAVY RAIN. Or PASSAGE. You get to test your moral impulses in FALLOUT 3. Yes, at a very simplistic level, but if you keep doing it, you learn something about morality, just as Lisa learned something about human character even watching prime time TV in the late 70's.

You learn (or so I read) dark things about society and the ends justifying the means from PATHOLOGIC. You learn weird things about fate and free will from BIOSHOCK, notwithstanding what Ubisoft überdesigner Clint Hocking calls its "ludonarrative dissonance."

These days kids don't seem to go out and play in the neighborhood. The boys play video games alone, and then they get together and play video games. An entire generation is going to grow up having learned everything they can learn from WORLD OF WARCRAFT and HALO and ELDER SCROLLS and various other games of the year.

As a parent, I worry about the bad lessons of games. Games make things too safe. Life will not tell you that you have picked up eight of the ten mithril hockey pucks hidden in this dungeon, or that your health bar is getting low. Life does not come with a walkthrough. Life cannot be reloaded from a save game.

But that is the point of games, after all. They're a safe place to experiment. When we watch Buffy beat the crap out of a demon, we're only worried to the extent we choose to get emotionally involved, and we can turn her off at any time, and anyway, she has core cast glow and can only be killed in a season finale. The point of reading a novel or watching TV is to see someone else go through stuff that could potentially kill us. The point of wrassling with your best friend is that he is not really trying to permanently damage you.

I wonder about the valuable lessons of games. I wonder what skills Hunter, and the other kids his age, who are spending fifteen or twenty or thirty hours a week gaming, will come out of childhood with.

He must be learning something. He can kick my ass in a wargame.



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Friday, April 02, 2010

I'm like the bazillionth person to remark on how oddly affecting Jason Rohrer's little game PASSAGE is.

In the game, you're a tiny little man, really about four by eight pixels tiny, in a maze of obstacles and occasional treasure chests. When you get to some treasure chests, stars come out, and your score goes up a lot. Other treasure chests just contain flies. You have five minutes to wander through the maze and find treasure chests.

As you move to the right, your score goes up slowly. So you can keep increasing your score just by going to the right. But there are fewer and fewer treasure chests.

You can't see downscreen, only right and left, because the screen is a very wide but short panorama.

There is also a tiny little woman. If you bump into the woman, you both fall in love and spend the rest of the game exploring the maze. It is much harder to explore the maze with the woman, because you can't go through the narrower passages.

If you're at all interested in games, stop reading this and go download the game and play it a few times. The computer versions are free. You can download it onto your iPhone for two bucks. It only takes five minutes.

* * *

Did you cry?

* * *


So halfway through, you and your wife go grey. You get old. Then she dies. Then you die.

You had five minutes to explore your world, and then your time was up.

How does such a ridonkulously simple game tug at your heartstrings? Maybe because it resonates with your experience?

You can find treasure chests if you look. But some only contain flies. You can also rack up a score if you just keep slogging along. Treasure chest hunting is more rewarding. But eventually you run out of treasure chests, and you have to just keep slogging.

After I played it through a couple of times with a wife, I decided to see how far I could get on my own. I had a much higher score alone. I could get to all sorts of treasure chests I could never get to with a wife.

And then when my guy got old, what did I do? I did not want to finish the game without him ever having met the love of his life. So he trudged back to the beginning of the maze to fall in love.

Lasted about twenty seconds, their life together. After that he was very sad. But it seemed much more important to get him to experience love than to up my score more.

Some reviewers have questioned whether this is a game. This is an odd question -- there's a maze, and there's a score, and there's a time limit. It is definitely a game. It seems to be more than a game, though. Or at least, it is what a game ought to be -- both a fun challenge, and an emotionally moving experience.

Rohrer says he wrote this for his wife. I'm not sure what it meant to her -- she's an obstacle, and then she dies first? Not exactly a love letter, eh?

But I will tell you that although it is harder to play the game when your tiny little guy has a tiny little wife, it is much happier. It is not much fun searching for treasure alone.

This game is not my life. My wife makes it easier for me to find treasure chests. And I'm getting more treasure chests as I get older.

But the game is open to interpretation.

Isn't that a nice thing to be able to say?



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Q. I was particularly curious about the way you had to do each CHARLIE JADE episode with only five days main unit / two days second unit -- could you let me know what tricks you had to use to take that into account in the writing? Limited locations, lots of simple two-hander scenes, farming whole plot threads out to the second unit, that sort of thing? Any other bits of
Elifino. I asked Bob Wertheimer, our showrunner, if he could add anything. He says that 'by the time we were reduced to 5 day shoots, the crew was pretty solid and knew the show. And good. So that saved time. And by then we weren't getting a lot of network notes, so we never had to redo anything.'

You can't farm a plot thread to second unit. Second unit isn't for shooting dialog. It's a stripped down unit for shooting long shots, cars driving, inserts, stuff like that. If you tried to shoot dialog you'd need another director, sound guy, etc., so you'd be paying for a second first unit, and at that point you might as well just lengthen the schedule.

We did do one bottle show, which was also a clip show. A bottle show takes place only on studio sets; you can usually save a day on the schedule. A clip show reuses clips from previous shows; the less new footage you have to shoot, the more time you save on the schedule. To take the curse off the clip show, we made it a Rashomon episode, where we kept showing the same footage, but with new beginnings and ends to the clips, to change the meanings of what we'd seen earlier. Props to DMc for penning that episode so beautifully.

Oddly, we didn't shoot the bottle show on studio sets. We wound up shooting it at some sort of abandoned factory. Because who doesn't love an abandoned factory?

It was an oddly structured show from a production point of view. We had a studio. But the only sets we had were the Evil Corporation Headquarters, the Sidekick/Mentor's Office, and O1 Boxer's Club. Our hero, being as he was on the run from the Evil Corporation, couldn't plausibly have his own place. In other words there was no set for the A story of each episode!

So we gave a lot of business to the guys in the Evil Corporation, O1 Boxer, and (to a lesser extent), Sidekick/Mentor. Fortunately the corporate HQ and the club existed in multiple dimensions, so it didn't seem so narratively claustrophobic.

We did have a bunch of locations rented for the duration of the show, and those places also existed in each dimension. So we could have Charlie's Place in Alpha (lovingly restored by Sew Sew Tukarrs) and Charlie's Place in Beta (once we came up with a good reason why Vexcorp wouldn't find and kill Charlie on sight).

With a location, you have an interesting challenge. Production hates a location move. It takes more or less two hours to wrap up all your lights and camera and stuff, drive anywhere, and unload again. But if the writers can write exactly one day or exactly two day's worth of stuff at a location, then there's no location move and no loss of time. So, ten to twelve pages at one location = good. Six pages = not so good. Eighteen pages = not so good. Twenty to twenty-four pages = good again.

Overall, we didn't have tricks. We just had a great South African crew working their Boer buns off. Props to them for a great-looking show.



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