Interview with “Hangin On” Producer Icon Serpentine

by Alphaville Herald on 11/04/05 at 5:28 am

By Cienna Samiam

With the advent of 1.6, streaming video is now a reality in Second Life. Theaters and mini-screens are rapidly becoming common across the grid, and everything from movies to animated shorts to comedy and more are finding their way into our virtual living rooms. Amongst the trickling stream of new media, there are also projects that look to take digital entertainment on the ‘two way’ – instead of bringing new content into Second Life, looking to create content within our virtual world for delivery to the real one.

One of these projects is ‘Hangin On’, which is currently ramping up for full-scale production. I caught up with producer Icon Serpentine shortly after his call for acting and production crew went out to the forums, and he was kind enough to give SLH the scoop on the direction and plans for the project, along with some hints and thoughts about the future of wholly digital media products…

CS: How did you come to Second Life, and how long have you played?

IS: I’ve been playing Second Life since November 2003. How I got here is no grand story — I was just querying google and got the right keyword combo to bring up I’ve always been on the lookout for new virtual worlds – from BBSs to MUDs/MUSHes and so on eventually to SL.

CS: Tell us about Simple Ninja Productions.

IS: Simple Ninja is just my little creative company. I use it to support my bigger projects such as Hangin On and I also use it to do freelance creative work. It’s just a name and number really, nothing special.

CS: During research for this interview, I noted a reference to your work at Share with us your part in that project and tell us — did that experience play a part in paving the way for ‘Hangin On’?

IS: FreezeDNA is a design and advertising firm a friend of mine owns. I just did some creative work for him and developed an animation to display on his website that would showcase the main characters from his recently launched comic-book, Blac Ice. The book has been getting a lot of media attention locally due to its unique ethnic angle on the super-hero paradigm.
I will be doing more work with his company in the future — redesigning some of his workflow and possibly producing animated shorts.
As far as Hangin On goes, my work with FreezeDNA is rather unrelated. It just pays bills so I can work on projects like Hangin On.

CS: How did the idea for an in-world production occur to you?

IS: It was during one of those “wouldn’t it be neat if…” daydreaming scenarios we all sometimes get. I’m a big idea person and come up with a lot of them all the time. To produce a series in SL just seemed like a good one that I couldn’t let up.

CS: Most people have very little insight to what is involved in a production like this… can you give our readers a general outline of how this project will proceed — how many people you expect to be involved, etc.?

IS: Sure — TV and film seems complicated and glamorous. Many of us are dazzled by the spectacle. We don’t often sit down and think about what goes on behind the scenes of a set. Sometimes our DVDs give us a little “behind the scenes” glimpse at what it’s like to work in TV/Film… but it’s all still showbiz glitz.
Animation in particular has always been a distant realm. Until recently, it was a rather complicated and expensive process. Today animation is accessible to pretty much anyone with a computer. Whether 2D or 3D, computers have sped up and streamlined the process of animation. With the advent of machinema and now SL, it has become even more accessible.
As for the process by which this show will be made — well it will sort of blend Film/TV production and animation. The animators, writers, storyboard artists, costume designers, and such will prepare for each episode. Then at filming time, a camera crew, technicians, a director, and set/prop people will film each scene. Then we take the captured video and I give it to my post-production team here in Toronto, Canada where it will be sliced, diced, and will have audio added. Finally, it will be ready for viewing and distributed via BitTorrent to our audience — never leaving the digital realm.
Pretty neat, eh?

CS: That really is a fascinating prospect. So will ‘Hangin On’ be a “live” show, or recorded and edited for viewing?

IS: People are welcome to watch us film the episodes as long as they don’t get in the shots. However, it will be edited and put through post-production before people will download and watch it.

CS: The challenges of creating a tightly orchestrated show in Second Life are somewhat more technical (literally and figuratively). For example — In traditional mediums, actors have the training to present specific actions and reactions in accord with direction and scripting. How do you plan to meet the need for ‘realistic’ animations within this genre? Will you rely solely upon actor/tress control of their avatar, or create custom animations as ‘mannerisms’ for each actor?

IS: ‘Acting’ is SL is where film/tv blends with animation. We still need “live” actors to be on set however, we have pre-made avatars for the characters and yes — we will animate them almost completely. There are a few instances where it’s technically easier for us to give the actor control of the avatar — shots where they need to walk a fair distance or run; however for the most part our animation team will be controlling them with animation over-riders, custom gesture sequences, and clever scripting from our scripting department.

CS: Do you intend to make the video filmed in Second Life available in other mediums (i.e., web stream, DVD, etc.)?

IS: Oh definitely! I’ve been really excited about the release of 1.6! Be prepared to have the ability to watch a show synopsis in-world and then click on a box to get taken to the bit-torrent download for the full episode.
Other mediums will come with demand. If people really do like the show a lot and it starts garnering the attention of more than just SL residents, I’m definitely prepared to author special DVD releases of each season. I hope the show will get to this point, but it’s not a requirement for its success.
The show will be successful if I can get at least the first season finished with volunteer work alone! In the future however, if we do reach a point where we’re making real money from selling DVD versions and merchandise (both real and virtual), then I intend to share that with everyone who helped make the show. You never know, maybe one day they will actually be ‘hired help’ rather than ‘volunteers.’

CS: Will you be making this series available as streamed video within Second Life; possibly as one of the first ‘on demand’ video offerings now possible with version 1.6?

IS: I will make episode trailers available to stream on-demand in SL if possible. With in-world URLs, there’ll be a button in the theatre that will take your browser directly to the bit-torrent download of the full episode.

CS: Is this project an attempt at a ‘proof of concept’ for potentially larger projects (as alluded to in your forum posts on the matter)?

IS: Yes definitely. Media is a very powerful component of modern culture. I wholly believe that a shared interactive 3D environment that is now capable of streaming several types of media will open up new ways of interacting with media and culture in ways we’ve never imagined. I fully intend to take advantage of that and explore many things through media in Second Life.

CS: What about the ‘Hangin On’ project do you think will attract viewers in Second Life?

IS: Already many machinema shorts have become classic favorites to many residents. I don’t know if anyone remembers, “Prims in the Wild” or any of Pierce Portacarraro’s work — but they’ve been well received.
Hangin On goes beyond the short. We’re producing a series of 22 minute episodes with stories and characters I think people will really find funny and attractive. Plus I hope it will also encourage people to be more involved with Second Life and have another reason to love it even more.
For me, when someone creates something new and exciting in SL, it’s one more thing I can point to and say, “See? Another reason why Second Life is so awesome.”

CS: With the plethora of online video and animated serials available via outlets such as Atom Films (, do you think there is potential for this project to ‘cross over’ into the mainstream?

IS: Yes of course. We’re producing the show in 22 minute episodes just for that contingency. We wrote the show so that the story and characters aren’t based around themes and ideas specific to SL. That way people who’ve never been in SL can still watch it and have a laugh… basically so that it could be picked up by the mainstream if there is an audience outside of SL for it.
However, there will also be ways to involve SL more than just as the animation platform behind the show. We’ve got a few goodies that will definitely leave a mark with the SL community.

CS: It is unusual to see a production company reaching outside the trade for what is traditionally considered technical or professional work in-trade (e.g., costuming, acting, etc.). Tell us about how your views on the goals for this project effect this choice… is it strictly a matter of being more feasible from an ‘in-world experience’ stance, less time to produce, an effort to draw the audience close to the production process, or all of the above?

IS: It’s all of that. From a technical standpoint — I can’t do everything myself. There are people who are better at making clothes than I am. There are people who can build things faster or better than I can. All of that and there’s still the limitation of actors — I still need avatars to be the puppets!
I’m a busy guy too — being an entrepreneur, I chase a lot of my ideas down and work on a lot of projects. This is one thing I want to create, but I can’t spend all my time on it. I hope that I will find enough interest from volunteers (which I hope to one-day hire and pay if this grows into a commercial venture) to be able to just hold the reins and let the production crew take the initiative.
Also, it is an experience — we all think TV and Film is such a glamorous industry and never imagine that we have the skills and talents to work in it. This is sort of a hands-on open chance to anyone who’s ever dreamed of it to try it out. You can be a part of the team just for the fun of it or to satisfy curiosity – anything really as long as you are as passionate about it as I am.
It also gives people who volunteer their time an opportunity to get credit on a real production. If they really like working on this show and decide that they want to find other opportunities in the field of animation or television and film — they’ll have something to start with and show on their resume. It may not be much — but imagine if we all worked hard on this show and a television network picked it up! Wouldn’t be such a small thing then, would it?

CS: On a more technical note — will you be storyboarding the show or actually presenting written scripts for your acting staff, or both?

IS: We will have the storyboards on set, but scripts aren’t necessary in this production. The reason being is that we’ll be adding all the lines in the post-production process.
Typically in animation, there are two ways of recording actors’ voices — before or after. Often, scripts are acted before the animation process is started in order for the animators to work with the emotions in the voices of the actors and draw those emotions in the characters. In the other school of thought, the animators work with the scripts and the actors work with the final product — adding their voices after the characters have been animated — both ways present challenges, and in SL we’ll have our own.
The major one being that our characters can’t be lip-synched! This has been one major hurdle I’ve been trying to work out which has been delaying production. My first idea was to just use exaggerated body language to compensate for the lack of facial expression. I then thought that perhaps we could do some special effects compositing and add animated and lip-synced mouths to the video in the post-production process. That idea while possible, proved to be too much of a challenge for the resources I have on hand at the moment… so we’re going to stick with exaggerated body language. Which also opens up it’s own doors to a unique way of expressing our character’s emotions.

CS: How will you be handling sound and music for the project?

IS: Post production. I have a team here in Toronto that I’ve assembled that is willing to work on this project. Music will either be Creative Commons licensed or original compositions by contributors.

CS: Will you have a ‘studio audience’ or will this be shot ‘closed stage’?

IS: I want people to be able to show up and watch us film on set… we’ll have to see how that goes however. It’s far too easy in SL for someone to jump into a shot and ruin a scene, so we’ll have to see how people react to and respect our work. If we have too many problems, then yeah it will be a closed set during filming.

CS: On a more artistic/thematic note — You have mentioned an interest in “challenging mainstream stereotypes and norms while not being stupid or smug about it.” How do you expect this project to accomplish that goal?

IS: Through clever writing and characters. The problem I see in a lot of mainstream media is that people are compartmentalized and categorized and stereotyped. All too often even shows that feature characters not typical in the mainstream like “Will and Grace,” expand stereotypes.
Often it’s in the name of humor — which is great. But I think our need to laugh at things is becoming something we depend on because the stereotypes have become far too real for us.
For me, I want this show to not use the stereotypes as a crutch for humor but as ingredients in a social experiment. That way I hope the characters won’t become two-dimensional and predictable in the “expected behavior” sense. If they are going to become predictable, it’s because people will come to “know” them. Or so I hope.
In less esoteric terms, we have some pretty out-there characters — i.e.: the “Duo,” a pair of preppy emo hair metal gangsta thugs (my personal favorite and characters I think will become instant classics). But we also have other more realistic characters. There’s a mix of different lifestyles and personalities… and I think it’s a mix that people will be able to feel close to and to which they can relate.
As far as the story and setting go… well some of it is lifted from my real-world experiences, some of it is fabricated from pop-culture simply to spite it. It’s light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, and a little wacky… with some drama mixed in, though I try to stay away from drama since there is FAR too much of it on TV, in music, and pretty much everywhere. This is one show that I hope will lighten people up a bit. And make for a good laugh.

CS: What kinds of issues do you expect to address with the show?

IS: Oh wow… so many. Stereotyping is a big issue and it is presented and dealt with in many ways in this show. For example, there is a character in the show who is lesbian (I won’t say who — you have to figure it out for yourself!). The typical lesbian stereotype of the pop-culture mindset is a sexy, seductive man-hater or else they are the girl-next-door tomboy. In both instances, it is very obvious and a big deal is made out of it. By way of contrast – you may not even notice the lesbian character in our show.
We’ll never bring up the issue of this character’s sexual identity directly because making a big deal out of it is the stereotype in this angle. We wanted a real lesbian in the show — one that wants to be like anyone else and not “the lesbian.”
It’s a difficult situation to approach for some people, which is fine for us — we’re not here to make a drama. We present these issues in a humorous way to open up dialog about them — partly because they exist, and partly because I barely understand many social interactions. I think that the approach of someone who’s not coming into these scenarios with pre-conceived notions and prejudices that are popular and prevalent allows for a certain light-hearted quirkiness that we don’t often find in the mainstream.


Thanks for your time, Icon! I will be following the production process closely and look forward to speaking with you again when you’re further along in production!

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