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ISSUE 120 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 3/23/2007

New media movies freshen old films

By April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, March 23, 2007

Mixing the old and the new is a technique that has been used by artists for as long as there have been new things to mix with old things. Now this art form has been put on film. Beloved old shows and movies overdubbed with new vocal tracks have been springing up all over the Internet. Nothing is safe from a witty, snide reinvention – even much-loved children’s films can get burned.

The whole idea of taking a film and adding one’s own commentary isn’t new. The concept got popular in the late ‘80s with “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K), created by Joel Hodgeson and later continued by Mike Nelson.

The concept was simple: A guy is trapped on a spaceship with some robots and forced to watch bad movies. So, to keep sane, he and his robot compadres make fun of how ridiculously awful said movies are. Episodes would show the film, with the silhouettes of Joel (or later, Mike) and his two closest robot friends in front of it. We would both see and hear the movie, with the commentary on top.

Having the audio from the original film in the episodes did two things: First, it let the audience keep up with what’s going on. Secondly, it let the original filmmakers keep some ownership over their work.

The commentators who took their cues from MST3K respect no such boundaries. The second wave of movie-commentary is sometimes called “New Media.” While New Media generally referes to interactive computer media, the name comes from the fact that most of these parodies are disseminated using the Internet.

One of the most popular New Media movies is “Wizard People, Dear Reader” by Brad Neely. “Wizard People, Dear Reader” comes in two parts. First, there is a copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” The viewer has to find his or her own copy. The second part is a vocal track to be played over the movie. This is downloaded from Neely’s website.

The two parts are played simultaneously so that the audio synchs up with the video. The end result is that in place of the music, sound effects and dialogue of the film, the viewer has Neely’s narration. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does. Despite a few brief lag times, Neely is definitely funny enough to carry the whole two hours by himself.

Along the same lines, New Media vet Mike Nelson has another project going. RiffTrax works just like “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” but is available for a wide variety of recent movies. True to MST3K’s original spirit, Nelson frequently “riffs” over really bad movies, but he also has some good ones available. Nelson’s aim in picking movies is to pick those that will be both fun for him and accessible for his audience.

Nelson will also feature on his website “fan riffs,” tracks of his fans making their own comedy tracks to movies. There’s a burgeoning scene of these sorts of videos in various other places on the Internet as well. YouTube, the premier place to upload videos on the Internet, is brimming with them. You can’t search for any popular ‘80s or ‘90s TV show without turning up a few “humorous” overdubs made by some kids with a microphone and some mixing software.

But YouTube is like the rest of the Internet: For every one funny thing you find, there are a hundred decidedly unfunny items. It’s barely even worth the effort. That’s why if you’re looking to enjoy movies in a way you’ve never seen them before, I would definitely recommend sticking to the classics and starting out with “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” MST3K and RiffTrax.

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