I’ve been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for years. If you’re not familiar, the show consisted of a human host and two wisecracking (puppet) robots ridiculing bad science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, and was generally a hoot! (I pay tribute to the show with my category, “…the Hell?“, which was a common refrain by Tom Servo.)
Like plenty of fans, I found myself almost uncontrollably ridiculing films and television shows, much to the chagrin of my friends and fiancée! After MST3K ended its run in 1999, the comedians on the show apparently felt very much the same way: several of them started a company called RiffTrax, in which they record audio commentaries for movies (‘riffs’) which can be played in sync with the DVD audio track. This brilliant premise means that the RiffTrax folks don’t need to fight for costly film rights and can riff on pretty much any film they like, including new and terrible releases such as The Happening!
Well, last fall they introduced a new innovation: iRiffs, in which the fans can write, record, and sell their own riffs through the RiffTrax store! I was intrigued, and started writing a script almost immediately. A recent deadline for an iRiff contest (which I didn’t really make) spurred me to finish my iRiff of the 1998 American version of Godzilla, which is now available online! I thought I’d share some observations about the iRiff construction process in this post.
It is a lot of work! I knew this on an intellectual level before I started the process, but it really hits home when one experiences it firsthand. First, there’s the multiple viewings of the same film: Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla is rather amusing the first time you see it, but becomes rather irritating by the fifth time. By the seventh or eighth time watching it I developed an genuine hatred for the shallowness of the characters and their bloody incompetence in all things related to, well, everything.
Filling out the film with a more or less continuous collection of wisecracks is also a challenge. On the first viewing (and even before), a few jokes leapt right out at me, but then nothing came to mind for other long stretches of film. For instance, I found it surprisingly hard to come up with jokes during the long, chaotic action scenes.
Once I had the script, it came time to actually record the riff. This is much, much trickier than one would think. I used the recommended audio software, Audacity, which is a good program and freeware, but recording evidently lags behind the actual film (which I’m guessing is an issue with my computer speed more than the software). This means that once the recording was finished, it ran significantly slower than the actual film and synching had to be redone manually. But synching using just the audio software itself and the DVD is pretty much impossible. Once this finally dawned on me, I went to the iRiff forums and learned about Xilisoft DVD Ripping software, which allows one to accurately ‘rip’ the video and audio from a DVD into a portable electronic format. Of course this is intended for legal uses such as watching your films on your laptop when you travel, and it also serves nicely to pull off the audio track of the film for importing into Audacity.
In addition to making the riff synch properly during a continuous run, one must anticipate inevitable ‘drift’ of the DVD or audio timing, not to mention the fact that people will inevitably have to pause the film and resynch it at a later point. The solution, parroting lines of dialogue from the film and importing them into your track as a reference, involves a significant amount of additional recording and synching.
After an entire weekend of work, totalling some 15 hours, I finally had a riff that I thought was synched properly. I needed to watch the film perhaps another 5 times during the process in order to confirm everything matched up. But more remained to be done! I needed to put together a ‘poster’ of the film to advertise it on the RiffTrax site, and also needed to write instructions for purchasers on how to properly synch things up.
With this all done, I finally uploaded the riff to the site, took a break for a little while, and then came back to watch the finished product one more time. To my utter horror, I found that the Audacity file and the final mp3 had been corrupted sometime during the final synching process, and large stretches of audio had been jumbled around, making the riff completely incomprehensible.
I can’t even describe how demoralized I was at this point. I was devastated. I pulled the riff off of the RiffTrax site with an apology to those who had already bought it, took a day’s break to rebuild my energy, and then went back to an earlier, unsynched, backup to redo the process — after defragging and error-checking my hard disc to avoid another corrupted final product. Ten hours later, I had redone the riff (adding a few more smart-ass comments along the way), and managed to get it back online.
Still I wasn’t done, though! I needed to submit a W-9 form for tax purposes, but more importantly I needed to produce a sample of my riff, with video and audio synched, and submit it to YouTube and link it to the RiffTrax site. Here I fortunately had software that could bear the load, namely Pinnacle’s Studio software. Even here I had to struggle a bit, as I initially couldn’t find a compatible video format to transfer between the DVD Ripper and Studio!
Finally, after some audio tweaking and a few days off to take care of my real job, I ended up with my sample:
Is it amusing? Interestingly, I can’t even tell anymore! I suffered so much working on the damn thing (damn you, Roland Emmerich!) that I have no objective opinion. I really like some of the jokes I made in the riff, but I’ll be curious to see what people think of the project as a whole.
Is there a point to this post? I’m not really sure. Partly, I wanted to point out how really hard it was to make an iRiff, and point out to future would-be iRiffers some of the things they need to be prepared for. Partly, of course, I’m advertising!
In addition, I found the experience, though mentally and emotionally devastating, to be a good one! My policy in life is to always try new things and challenge myself in new ways. Regardless of whether I’ve succeeded in making a good iRiff, I’m already looking back fondly on my Frankenstein-creation and even thinking about doing another one. (Pattern recognition is not my strong suit.)
P.S. Because I’m selling my iRiff, and it is technically entertainment, can I now call myself a ‘professional entertainer’?