Monday, September 09, 2013

Johnny Cocktail: Obscured By Masks production notes

On 20th October 2011, beat combo Keshco unveiled an hour-long psychedelic comedy film starring Robert Follen as unorthodox lifestyle guru/private investigator Johnny Cocktail. This particular project had a long and tortuous journey before making it onto YouTube; indeed, that it even appeared at all is testament to a certain kind of unhealthy obsession that should be a lesson to any would-be film-makers out there. So, Johnny made it past the masks, but how did he get so obscured?

If you've read the previous blog, you'll remember that we intended an entire series called "Johnny's Quest For The Truth", starting with Johnny recovering from an off-screen breakdown and finding his way again through exploration of art, food, religion, nature etc. As part of the first episode, Johnny was to have a pill-induced seizure, and whilst unconscious to have a brief dream sequence, before waking up fresh out of hospital. This little sequence turned out to be the most enjoyable section to film, and we rapidly went way beyond any notion of fitting the sequence into 90 seconds. Characters, visual metaphors, dialogue... we kept filming more and more for the dream, whilst the series around it ground to a halt. Eventually there was an awful lot of random dream footage. Faced with this confusing about-turn, we got stuck for direction and put the project to bed for a while.

In mid-2008, I took another look at all the dream footage and edited it down into about 45 minutes, 45 rather unsatisfying minutes as there was virtually no understandable plot progression save a couple of scripted scenes. Now we had a better digicam at our disposal, we could add new footage and push up the overall quality. This would be a nice quick process, just to get it out there.

By 2010... well, we'd got a little further, picking up the threads every 3 months or so. Every new scripted scene and silly moment helped the overall flow, with my repeated passes through the video editor aiming to keep the overall run time under 1 hour; and an actual plot developed, involving a race of clones from another dimension, and the idea of Johnny's essence being harvested to provide fresh creative impetus for a war fleet - they were scanning the galactic frequencies when they came upon transmissions of Johnny's old programmes, and took his false-advertising statements of world-saving heroism seriously.

From here, all the new footage was planned and scripted first, leading to that familiar Keshco phenomenon of chance elements weaved together through the thinnest of references, to give a false impression of coherence. It's not a script you'd sit down and write from beginning to end, that's for sure; but our overall aim was for something peculiar and daft, not watertight. Some scenes are almost definitely in the real world, some scenes are almost definitely in a dream world, and the narrative/pictorial logic works both ways at different times.

It's quite sad looking at the YouTube stats which show a massive viewer drop-off midway through part two, just after the baddie has outlined the full horror of his nefarious plan to Johnny. It suggests that the viewers so far were predominantly wrapped up in concerns of plot. The fools, they've got it completely the wrong way round! The result is that most people haven't seen the best effects sequences of the film (and a couple of the best jokes) which are in the last 10 minutes.

Yes, the video effects. Moving from the glitchy VideoStudio 10 to the barely-less-glitchy VideoStudio X2, I faced a tedious amount of lost saves (the program crashing on preview, or usually on exit) and broken effect chains. Overlays would be programmed, then lost and angrily reprogrammed. VideoStudio has many restrictions as a creative tool, though this forced me to find workarounds that were often well worth the effort. The FX-heavy nature of much of this project made real-time previews impossible. I'd have to render sections, make notes on the wildly off-target effects, then take best guesses before rendering again.

We must ponder Robert's sterling character work in all this. In another world Robert would have been the next Kenny Everett, and indeed JC is menaced by a film producer in one section who acts just like one of Kenny's creations. This was only one of many, many characters you meet in the whole film who are brought to life courtesy of Robert's mastery of costume, make-up, prosthetics and accent.

The rest of us filled in where we could, with Luke contributing some clients and Caroline taking the important role of Johnny's long-suffering PA.

Ultimately, it was a valuable learning experience, and has taught me a lot about editing and timekeeping, but it's still searching for its appreciative open-minded audience. I suspect those who enjoyed "Lint" by Steve Aylett may be receptive.