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Chapter 4. Formats > Make a Mystery Science Theater Podcast

Hack 25. Make a Mystery Science Theater Podcast

Create podcasts that act as an alternate soundtrack to some of today's worst movies.

He did a good job cleaning up the place. / But his bosses didn't like him, so they shot him into space. / Now they send him cheesy movies. The worst they can find. / He has to sit and watch them all while they monitor his mind. / Now keep in mind Joel can't control where the movies begin or end. / Because he used those special parts to make his robot friends.

—"Mystery Science Theater 3000" theme song

"Mystery Science Theater 3000," or MST3K to its fans, was a show running from the 1980s through the 1990s that started on public access television and then went national with Comedy Central and, later, the Sci-Fi Channel.

The idea was simple: talk extremely clever and funny trash about very bad movies for two hours. The central portion of each show had the three main characters—a human (Joel or Mike) and two robots (Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot)—silhouetted against a screen that showed the movie. You could hear the movie's audio track, with the characters' snide comments on top of it.

The show was a cult hit, and a feature film was produced. But today it's rarely shown in reruns, even though fans, known as mysties (subcategorized into Joel or Mike fans), are hardcore in their love of the show. Check out the show for yourself at its official site, http://mst3k.com/.

Podcasts present a new opportunity to create alternate commentary and soundtracks for movies. To test this idea I got together with two friends to provide extra commentary to George Lucas's Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. We learned several things in the process:

More is merrier

Several hours of funny commentary is a lot for a single individual to fill. Having more people in the mix makes it easier to relax and find the right time to jump in with your commentary. It also opens up opportunities to riff on what the other co-hosts are saying.

Preparation is key

Watch the movie at least twice. Use the first time to take some notes and to get some ideas. Use the second time for the actual taping. Use sources such as the Internet Movie Database (http://imdb.com/) to research the actors and their previous films. The database also has comments, quotes, and goofs from the movie. Films that were more popular will have better information.

Timing is critical

For the audience to follow along with you they have to be in sync with the commentary. Get your recording setup ready, and then rewind the film to the beginning of Chapter 1 and hit Pause. The readout should read 00:00:00. When you start recording, say, "Press Play on my mark in 3, 2, 1, mark," or something like that. Then press Play on your mark and have at it.

Running gags

While you are doing your homework on the movie, find some running gag for a couple of the characters. With the "Episode II" edition of the show, we used Queen Amidala's hair and outfits, which changed from scene to scene, often at inappropriate times. It's fun for the audience, and it's easy to extend over the film.

Pick the right movie

Not all films are good comedic material. Make it easy for yourself. Pick something that's pretty bad to start with: old Schwarzenegger films, mid-80s teen films, B movie sci-fi flicks, or Catwoman. These films have enough bad acting, outrageous accents, and horrible effects to keep you occupied for the whole movie.

Gear up the audience

It's worth giving your listeners a few ideas about how they should listen to the show. I recommend using open-air headphones such as the Sennheiser HD570. Another option is to use just one side of the headphones because the commentary is mono, and leave the other side off so that you can hear the movie.

These should get you on your way to the right content. But what about the sound setup?

4.7.1. The Sound Setup

For the first show, we set up everything in my living room. We used two different studio microphones: a Neumann U 87 and a Shure KSM27 [Hack #13]. These went into the left and right channels of a Marantz 660 solid state recorder [Hack #69]. We monitored the recording levels by watching the indicators on the front of the unit.

We set the Neumann U 87 in omnidirectional mode so that we would sound uniformly close to the microphone. The Shure KSM27 is a cardioid microphone that has no setting. The output of both microphones was roughly similar, but we chose to go with the Neumann in the end.

We positioned the microphones above the coffee table in front of the couch. They were dead center between the three of us and about 4 feet away.

To hear the movie, we connected the RCA output of the DVD player into a headphone amplifier that fed three different headsets and allowed us to tweak the levels individually. You can just as easily use a cheap headphone splitter from RadioShack.

Ensuring that the movie sound doesn't bleed into the recording is critical, for two reasons. The first concerns legal issues (we discuss this in the next section). The second concerns the lack of perfect synchronization. Watching video where the sound is slightly out of sync is an extremely frustrating experience. If you have some or all of the audio track in your recording and the video is more than 100 milliseconds off, your audience won't be able to watch the movie and listen to your audio for very long. Let your listeners use open-air headphones to listen to your sound and the movie simultaneously.

4.7.2. Legal Issues

As we noted, you should be aware of some legal issues if you incorporate parts of a movie, such as the soundtrack, in your recording. You can avoid legal issues by making sure you have perfect isolation so that the audio from the copyrighted work doesn't bleed into the recording.

Even so, is this legal? Movies are copyrighted, and copyright law provides for what's known as fair use. There are a number of fair use scenarios, a few of which apply to this activity. The first two are commentary and criticism. If you are providing commentary on or critiquing a film, that's usually fair use according to section 107 of the U.S. copyright code. It helps that the film industry calls alternate soundtracks commentaries.

Two other fair use options might also apply. The first is parody, where you are mocking the film. The other is for teaching, if you are using your commentary as a teaching tool.

Keep in mind that since this is a new activity, it hasn't been tested in court. And a company with a registered trademark can sue you for damages if it feels your work has hurt the film's marketability and is infringing on its copyright. If you have reservations about the legality of this activity, but you still want to pursue it, get the advice of a copyright attorney and request permission from the copyright owner to use the film.

It certainly can't hurt that listening to your podcast legally requires that individuals either rent or buy the DVD, or record the film on their DVR or VHS unit.

4.7.3. More Ideas

Providing comedic commentary is just one possibility for this new medium:

Scene-by-scene critique

Break down the classics such as Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and The Godfather with a scene-by-scene critique.

A whole new audio track

Create a whole new audio track for the film. I saw this done live in Australia with a comic troupe spoofing on a cheap Greek Hercules movie. I laughed so hard I was in pain. Because it was originally in Greek, the lack of synchronization with the characters' lips made it even funnier.

Little-known facts

Use the material in the Internet Movie Database (http://imdb.com/) and other movie-specific fan sources to create an informational soundtrack that augments the viewing experience.

Try something other than movies

Spoof your favorite shows, such as Star Trek, Scooby-Doo, or Teletubbies. All of these are available on home video. Or folks can tune their TiVos in to the show and find the episode for which you are providing a new audio track.

Who knows; maybe you can make the next MST3K. There are certainly a lot of recent bad movies worth spoofing. And since you aren't including the copyrighted material in your podcast, the gloves are off.

If you do create an MST3K soundtrack for a film, be sure to register it with MST3K (http://mst3k.com/). They have an archive of fan productions, both live and filmed.

4.7.4. How MST3K Was Produced

As part of my research for this hack, I had a chance to talk with Mary Jo Pehl, who played Pearl Forrester and was a writer for the show. Each show was produced in seven to nine days. The first three days were spent watching and rewatching the movie, brainstorming ideas and lines, and coming up with ideas for dialog for the host segments. The host segments were the portions in which Mike or Joel and the robots appeared in the ship and not in front of the screen.

On the fourth and fifth days, they edited the dialog they came up with for the characters, and assigned the lines. The lines were specified with a time code that indicated where they should come in.

Day six was a rehearsal day. On day seven, they shot the host scenes; on day eight, they shot the movie sequence. About 98% of the lines you heard were directly from the script. While the first shows on cable access were unscripted, later shows had between five and eight writers. Each writer was free to concentrate on portions of the film they thought would yield the best comic gold. The last day was for editing and cleanup.

Picking the right movie was a matter of finding one that had enough dialog to spoof and wasn't so poorly made that it didn't work as a film. In all, the movie would be viewed four to five times before it would end up as a produced show.

Mary Jo's advice to all of us potential Joels and Mikes: "Have fun with it; don't be afraid to use all your knowledge base, no matter how trivial or inconsequential it might seem. Look, a bunch of complete nerds made a good, fun living doing just that on MST3K."

If you're wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts, / then repeat to yourself "it's just a show" as you breathe and just relax. / For Mystery Science Theater 3000.

—"Mystery Science Theater 3000" theme song

4.7.5. See Also

James Polanco and Jack Herrington

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