A tribute to Code Red Mountain Dew

The year was 2001. I was sitting on a school bus heading down to Las Vegas for a high school track meet. My event, 800 meters and shot put. I wasn’t over weight at that time. I was fairly active, especially being into break dancing. But I loved my Mountain Dew soda drinks. My track coach always got onto me how bad it was to drink a soda before a run. I never listened. My teammates teased me saying with as much Mountain Dew as I drank my blood had to be green. Fortunately we never tested that theory.

As we were sitting at the first stop in Wells on our way down I went into the convenience store to grab me a soda as I did every stop. One of my friends pointed out to me there was a new Mountain Dew, a cherry flavored drink in a red bottle. I like cherry flavored drinks so I gave it a try. They were selling them 2 for $1. This was at a time when the normal price for one was $.79 cents so it was a bargain to get the extra one. I filled my gym bag full of as many as I could spending some of my food money on getting these sodas. I was hooked instantly.

From that day on I have pretty much drank the Code Red soda basically non-stop. How much do I drink? Enough that when a new store adds it to their line they quickly sell out. I have had grocery stores that didn’t carry it add it and it became a big seller. No I am not exaggerating, I buy about 3-4 12-packs of Code Red a week. On top of that I usually go through 2-3 20 Oz bottles a day. I drink so much, yes by now you are thinking this guy must be very unhealthy. Well no, not really. I am not as active as I used to be, but I get out and walk from time to time. I still break dance when I can. I even eat healthier than I used to. Also, I don’t drink alcohol or smoke, anything. I never have. So I always justified it as my one vice, if you can even call it that really.

In later years it got to the point where I would walk into a store, go to their soda section and if they didn’t have Code Red I would instantly walk out. The only time I would ever settle for a drink that wasn’t was if every store in town was sold out and I had no other choice. I would even order cherry mix at restaurants to add to my normal Mountain Dew, if they offered that as an option. The reality is, I became obsessed with drinking this drink.

I do, as an adult, understand the health risks. Therefore I don’t put any blame on society, my parents or the soda maker. I also certainly don’t blame the Government either. I quite enjoy living in a free society where *I* get to make that choice and nobody gets to tell me how to live my life. The problem is, I am getting a little bit older now. I am in my mid-30’s which means some of the things I could do when I was younger are now catching up with me. I have tried to get off the soda before, but I never can stay away for too long. I have tried tea, juice, energy drinks, even water. Nothing really tastes quite as good as a fresh, ice cold can of Code Red Mountain Dew. The only time I ever drink the green one anymore is if there is no other option. I still enjoy the green one too, but not nearly as much as the red one.

Yes, I have written about this before elsewhere, and I will probably write about it again. It’s one of those things I write about much like Nintendo or The Beastie Boys, it’s a big part of my life. It’s a defining characteristic of who I am. This isn’t even a confession. I drink Code Red Mountain Dew and you know what, I enjoy it. I will probably stop when I get to the point where one more drink will kill me and even then it might be the last thing I do before I die.

My philosophy has always been just enjoy your life and live it how you want. I don’t let people tell me I need to quite because it’s bad for me. I don’t always feel that great after I finish a soda, but I usually still crave another one not to long after. I am sure I would probably feel better if I could get off it entirely, but really why bother? I enjoy it, it’s something I like and I think the negatives don’t really outweigh the benefits, which include giving me some comfort at the end of a long day. Everyone has something in their life that identifies who they are or what type of person they want to be. I don’t drink Code Red, or Mountain Dew before that, because of some TV commercial. In fact I always hated the image it portrays and drank it in spite of the piss poor advertising. I never thought drinking Mountain Dew made you “cool”. Listen, I was a white rapper in a town full of non-Whites, I was about as far from cool as you are ever going to get. I drank it because of one reason, I liked the taste. That’s it. You don’t have to blame Pepsi or MTV or even Xbox. Hell I never even owned an Xbox until less than a year ago, any model.

I drink Code Red Mountain Dew and it’s green big brother because I enjoy it. It tastes good. I like the fizzy drink. And above all else, it’s just one of those little things in this life that helps me get through the day. Enjoy the things you enjoy in life. Tell the haters to go jump off a bridge with all the other sheep.

 

Master P Ghetto D: A look back at a classic gangsta rap album

Between the years of 1995 to 1997 there was a war waging between the two coasts of the United States. The East Coast Gangsta Rap scene, led by Puff Daddy and his boy Biggie Smalls, against the hardened West Coast Gangsta Rap scene led by veterans of the L.A. gang scene, and pioneers of the genre N.W.A, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and newcomers Snoop Dogg, The Dogg Pound, and 2Pac. While Death Row Records was at the forefront of the West and Bad Boy was taking the helm in the East, there was a newcomer about to bust things wide open.

Shots were fired, literally, in late 1994 when 2Pac was gunned down entering the Bad Boy Record studio. He miraculously survived this attack, taking five bullets and then recovering to launch the war full force at Death Row records a couple of years later. In September of 1996 the shots fired again, this time ending 2Pac’s life. Presumably in retaliation, or perhaps as an indirect results of the gang wars, for whatever reason Biggie Smalls was shot and killed just a few months later right before the release of his double album, Life After Death.

Just when everyone thought the Gangsta Rap genre was going to fizzle out, Puff Daddy quickly dropped the gangsta rap persona and shifted to a more radio friendly hip-Pop sound, reminiscent of the main stream sound Will Smith was employing. The gangsta scene looked like it was going to disappear for a brief moment. Even Bad Boy’s next rising star, Ma$e, altered his gangsta image to a more MTV friendly look and their music videos reflected this by focusing more on their flashy parties and money than their gangsta life styles as previous videos had done. The Mafioso rap would live on, under the head of superior producer to Puffy, Jay-Z, as his masterfully crafted Rocafella Records picked up the pieces of the crumbling Bad Boy empire.

In the middle of all the coastal wars there was a new gangsta rap guru waiting to take over and push both Bad Boy and Death Row into obscurity. The mans name was Master P. The record label was No Limit Records. The album, Ghetto D.

By the time No Limit Records came onto the scene, gangsta rap was either west coast G-Funk or east coast mafioso, the southern blend of hard core street and down to earth thugs just trying to make a living was a different change of pace. Although No Limit Records quickly supplanted the two dominant gangsta rap labels of the day, they did so using the very same talent Death Row used to launch. Snoop Doggy Dogg, rebranded as just Snoop Dogg when he left Death Row and joined No Limit. This story is going to focus on the record that made the shift happen. Keep an eye on part two where you can learn more about Snoop’s time with Master P and company.

Ghetto D (short for Ghetto Dope, as per the albums title track) came out hitting hard and fast. The first track on the record hits you in the face with it’s message, “a shout out to drug dealers” as the record claimed. The record didn’t spend a lot of time talking about pimping hoes, drive by shootings, or hit men coming to snipe the snitch, the record just painted a picture of a working class thug trying to make a living selling drugs.

The album gets straight to the point with tracks like Weed & Money, Ghetto D, and Stop Hatin’, it’s the single and subsequent music video that really propelled the record to mainstream recognition. “Make Em Say Ugh!” quickly became a radio hit, a hit on MTV and the anthem for the new wave of hard core gangsta rap that was about to burst onto the scene. That track brought the entire No Limit studio crew right to the front of the Hip-Hop scene and proved that gangsta rap didn’t have to take a side in the deadly gang wars.

The record itself is massive. It sports 19 tracks of pure, hard core hip-hop. Not a single track of interludes, fake radio broadcasts or people talking. The album didn’t tell a story using theatrics like Doggystyle, a superior gangsta rap album in many respects, it did manage to get straight to the point. Master P didn’t need a lot of story lines cluttering up the record, he let the music speak for itself. With solid base lines, quick battle raps, hard beats, and lot’s of G-Funk melodies mixed with some southern beats, the record demonstrated there truly was a middle ground to the gangsta rap turf wars.

1998 was defined by the sounds of Master P, C-Murder and Silkk The Shocker, all who quickly dethrowned the entire Bad Boy and Death Row crews from prominence. Ice Cube, one of the founders of the Gangsta Rap scene, turned to Hollywood and left the music industry mostly behind. Dr. Dre responded to the  new label by hiring a White Boy to get his game back on track. Snoop Dogg himself even followed the old, if you can’t beat em, join em, mantra as he released several albums on the record label that left Death Row in the ashes. Silkk The Shocker would quickly follow up Master P’s glorious sounding Ghetto D with a record of his own, Charge it to The Game, featuring the hit “It Ain’t My Fault” and prominently featuring newcomer Snoop Dogg on some respectable gangsta tracks.

Much like Doggystyle before, each track serves a purpose in getting the listener to fear and respect the talents of the producer behind the scenes. Ghetto D rose to the occasion of filling in the gaps created by the decline of the two East Coast/West Coast giants. Their reign didn’t last forever as Jay Z and his Rockafella Records would soon surpass all three gangsta rap labels in terms of sales, money, presence in the market, and number of important artists all combined.

The aftermath of the decline of the Coastal Wars left Death Row in ruins, Bad Boy turned pop, and Dr. Dre selling records featuring a bleached blond Backstreet Boy lookalike. Master P stood up and reminded the world that gangsta rap music could still be about hard music with a prominent message interlaced within some head bobbing tracks. Ghetto D is easily one of the top 25 gangsta rap records of all time.

The story of a home brew part 2: A case study of one game that did it right

The Immortal John Hancock, a prominent YouTube gamer, posted a thread on June 3, 2016, to a Nintendo collectors’ forum asking for a programmer for a potential project. Antoine Fantys was the programmer that answered that call.

From his early days as a programmer fiddling around with BASIC on his Commodore 64, Fantys wanted to be a programmer.

“I came across a Commodore 64. The beauty about this machine was that you could learn BASIC programming and program simple games directly on the computer.” he said.

“I ended up learning BASIC and coding my first games on a retro platforms, which included text adventures and a horse racing game of all things.” he added.

His interest in retro games began with his NES games on a Game Boy Advance, which later developed into full blown passion once he discovered YouTube.

“I found footage of the first Super Mario Bros. on the NES. Finding out about Super Mario Bros. and all those games of yesteryear sparked my interest in retro gaming, and especially the NES” he said.

When Hancock made the call asking for a programmer, he jumped at the opportunity. It was his chance to do something for the community, and make a name for himself while honing his programming skills. He reached out to Hancock via that forum and they two went to work.

“The game was John’s idea. I believe the game was a favorite of his. It’s based on an old 1981 Stern/Konami arcade game called ‘Turtles.'” he said.

He knew right away it was a project he wanted in on.

“As soon as I saw the video of the game John sent me, I knew I would like to work on this game because such arcade games are fun and easy to port on a console like the NES.” he said.

Fantys got his start on the NES doing, in his words “crappy rom hacks.” From there his interest grew. He found his way onto a Nintendo fan site that had a home brew section and he began learning the programming language of the NES.

For the most part, he works alone. He will occasionally bring on help with the music, in this case he did it all.

Once the game was finish John Hancock shared the story to his YouTube channel. From there John Riggs took the game and turned it into a charity work for an gaming expo he was a part of. With the help of prominent YouTubers, Fantys was able to get his name, and work, to a wider audience.

When it comes to ROMS and the home brew scene. Fantys tends to play it safe. He doesn’t make his roms he owns available, choosing to just sell carts if he can. He indicated he would consider using a form of DRM if it was a work he owned the rights to, yet he did claim he often sells the rights to his games.

This is where the gaming community and the home brew scene can come together. While I believe it to be okay to download roms of games nobody is profiting off, of course except the re-sellers making cash on second hand merchandise, I think original games have a right to be protected. On the other hand, when it comes to games like Pac-Man, Mega Man, Mario, Zelda, etc., then the user should make a attempt to purchase, or obtain, a legal copy before pirating. In this case I tend to favor supporting the Nintendo eShop, the PSN, Xbox Live Arcade and Steam. It sucks paying money for a ROM of a game you already owned at some point in time, yet you do have to remember once you sell the physical cart you sold your rights to the program on that rom. Also owning physical carts does not automatically give you the right to the program stored on the carts rom chips.

All things considered Fantys took a game someone else already made, an arcade game, and ported it, at the request of a collector in the industry, and made it available as a clone to those who were interested in obtaining that version. Since the game in question is based on someone else’s property, it stands to reason the gamer who does wish to play the game would be better served tracking down a legit copy, or playing it on MAME if they have no other option. The real need to play a ROM of a port of an arcade game to the NES, decades later, seems kind of counter intuitive. Is it scummy, shady or illegal what Fantys and Hancock have done? I don’t think so. They made it very clear every step of the way it was a clone of an arcade game, they made it very clear they were making it available to collectors who wanted physical copies, and it was done as a labor of love to the community of home brew gamers, programmers, collectors, and retro gamers in general. All in all this is how you do a retro/homebrew based on existing works the right away.

Now if they called it Turtles, basically recreated the original game in its entirety line byline and tried to sell it a their own without recognizing the original rights owners, that would be a different story entirely. Kudos to Fantys and Hancock for creating a project that was done out of passion for the scene, the community and the love of retro games. While it is easy to get caught up in who owns the rights to what, which degree of piracy counts as infringement and where the line should be drawn, at the end of the day all that really matters is gamers get to enjoy the works of programmers who enjoy making games for others to enjoy. It’s the circle of gaming.

Be sure to check out his YouTube video discussing the game Here

 

 

 

The story of a home brew that redefined what it means to be a home brew: Part 1 the morality of home brews.

A kid turns on a small, square shaped tube television set his parents kept in the basement for some reason. Hooked up to the TV is a square, mostly gray box. Inside the box is a tiny little rectangular piece of plastic that holds some computer program inside a ROM chip. The kid turns the TV to channel 3, pushes the piece of plastic down into the slider, closes the lid hits the power button with fingers crossed the game turns on this time glitch free. If everything lined up perfectly, the cart was cleaned, the console was dust free, the stars aligned just right, the game would begin. If not, the ritual of blowing into the cart, wiping the spit/grime of with a Q-tip, then jiggling the cart in, shaking it, pushing reset 25 times, etc., would commence in hopes things would find a way to get to work.

Everyone that was a Nintendo gamer in the 1980’s went through a similar ritual at least more than once in his or her life. The reality was the NES, as fondly was we try to remember it, was actually a terrible product. It required constant maintenance, care, cleaning, the cords were fragile and easy to bend, the controllers, while sturdy, were made of a very hard plastic that could crack or break if not taken care of properly. It had sharp edges that dug into kids hands, the console it self was sharp edges that if you weren’t careful could stub a toe on or hit an elbow or in some cases just jam a finger trying to shove the stupid cart into the machine. While any game would legitimately have GOOD memories of the games they played, when they in fact worked, more often than not we tend to push aside the negative memories we really have of the NES and allow blind nostalgia take us on a trip down memory lane.

One of the reasons we forget is, aside from a small subset of eccentric collectors, most gamers don’t actually play their old NES games on physical NES systems anymore. In fact, even a growing number of those who do play using PHYSICAL carts, do so on either refurbished consoles with extra money put into keeping the machine working, or in those increasing cases, play on a clone console that actually, compatibility issues aside, works better in many cases. The need to own a physical cart is even supplanted, but still satisfied by those who purchase a FLASH cart and load it up with ROMS. The point is there are a lot of different ways to enjoy an old NES game, playing the original cart on original hardware worry free is not the number one way of doing so. Despite that there remains a retro and home brew gaming scene who prey on the customers who have desires to relive, a false version of their childhood. These people are not all predators, some are but most are just coders who have fond memories of the NES and want to share their games with others. The problem is some of them take it a step too far, going as far as implementing copy protections on games they didn’t actually create, they really just took someone else’s design and made a port, calling it their own work and preventing others from playing the games the way most gamers actually DO play NES games, on a emulator minus all the hassle of tracking down all the satanic little emblems you need to make your retro machine work. Hyperbole aside, I have never in my life had a good experience picking up a USEd NES cart, inserting it into an original NES and it just worked. Not even when I was a kid and the machine was fairly new. We would rent games from the video store and I would spend the first half an hour or so just fighting the stupid thing to get it to work. You only had a game for the weekend if you were lucky or 1 night if it was a new release, so every second you spent twisting and tugging on carts was precious sec onds you would have been playing, what could have ended up being a shitty LJN game.

If you put aside the fact that most people don’t game on physical hardware, then why is it scummy for a programmer to charge money for a ROM they programmed? They put in the work and time after all? Honestly, it’s not scummy to charge for your time or work. It is, however pretty shady if the work you did was merely just porting a game some other creative person actually thought up and created decades back. If all you are doing is copying someone else’s work I, personally, think you have no right to sell it to the general public. If you want to sell your work to a collector, the physical cartridge, the art work, the case, etc., fine by all rights, but when a programmer, or coder, ports a game from another system, or just hacks a rom and calls it their own, to me that is kind of shady.

At the very least, if you can get permission from the original programmer, or their blessing then by all means do so. Sometimes copyrights are infringed but they can be done so in certain contexts without repercussions. My stance has always been respect the copy rights of those who do the actual creative work, not the pirates who stand to profit off other peoples work yet claim it as their own.

I do understand as a new programmer, especially one unwilling to actually go to college and get a job in the industry, starting out you need to get experience somewhere and porting other games to a new platform, or writing a clone program is certainly a very TRUE and legit way of honing your skills. However, make sure you let people know your CLONE is just that. I am okay with clones existing and if you want to sell a clone game by all rights you should be able to do that, as long as your clone is at least somewhat original or at the very least going to a good cause.

I did some digging into the behind the scenes development of a few different clone games, some home brew games and some rom hacks. There are cases of games like Battle Kid where the game is truly original the programmer has every right to brag about what his or her team accomplished. Games like Pier Solar are cornerstones of the home brew and aftermarket industry. Then you have the 150 thousand Super Mario Bros and Sonic 1 rip offs that just alter the sprites, rearrange the levels and try to pass it off as something original.

All of this has to have some middle ground. While I certainly do not in any way begrudge a programmer cutting his or her teethe on doing a rom hack or a home brew that is basically a clone of another game, there needs to be some honor in doing it. First, you should make sure people are fully aware it is a CLONE and do your best to reference the original game, if you CAN give credit to the original programmer, and better still if you can at least make an effort to reach and and get said programmers blessing more than anything great fantastic.

There are examples of some scummy home brew hacks who profit off other people’s work, I won’t list them you can dig up the dirt your self, google home brew. There is one hack in particular who just did a straight port of a certain PC game to a long dead nobody cared about console, I won’t say more than that except it’s not even a clone he did it entirely as a straight port. This, to me, is a gray area closer to don’t even bother. Now if it’s an open source game go ahead.

Then there is the example I want to highlight if you are still reading. This is a two-part story, part one set the stage, which is all the opinion above. Keep in mind my opinions are just that, my opinions and are meant to get people thinking. There is no need to attack me, argue with me, or hate me for getting people to think. If you disagree, share that, explain, in a civilized way, why you disagree and maybe I will listen to what you have to say. I often make claims not as my own but just to get people to really think about things so they can defend their stance.

That being said, I do think home brew games are fantastic, and when they do get a physical release for the collectors to enjoy, I am all for that. I think roms should ALWAYS be dumped at some point, minus copy protection because one, if nobody is copy protecting Mario or Zelda games, games Nintendo still profits off, then they shouldn’t be copy protecting their own roms. Two, I believe that roms should always be available for preservation purposes even of new games. The reason, the collectors who WILL pay for the game are not going to download a rom and those who WILL download the rom were NEVER going to pay for the physical cart in the first place. If you want to hold the rom until you know the collectors who want carts all have it and then dump it, DRM free at a later date, fair enough, do that. But holding a rom hostage, especially when its not a 100 percent original work, is shady at the very least. Holding roms hostage when it’s a rom hack or a prototype is 100 percent scummy, UNLESS you are the actual copy right holder and you just don’t want your failures made public, that is your right.

So when is it okay to charge for a rom and when should you limit the audience of your game? In the case of Battle Kid, that is an easy answer. If the game is 100 percent original and you did the work, then preventing people from stealing your work is your right. I also agree that Nintendo has a right to prevent you from playing Super Mario Bros. on your PC, support them buy a 3DS if you can’t stomach the Wii U, and download the rom from their virtual console. If a game was released by a company that no longer exists, and the only people who profit are re-sellers of used copies, then by all rights pirate that game all day long if you so desire. It’s technically illegal but it’s close enough to fair use you should be able to justify it.

What about when a programmer takes an existing game, say Pac-Man, and ports it to a system it never had an official release, say the Channel F, as an example? Should this person have a right to copy protect THAT rom? No, because it’s not their work. They have a right to burn the rom to physical carts and sell those to all of the collectors that are willing to pay a price for it, but copy protecting that rom is wrong and should not be tolerated. However, come on if you aren’t buying a physical copy why would you want to play an inferior port if there is no historical context? As bad as it is I do re-play the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man from time to time, because it has historical value and I had it as a kid, there is nostalgia. Nobody had Pac-Man on their TG-16, it was never ported officially to that, so if a rom hacker makes a port of that game and sells it, that is fine for a CART but wrong, in my opinion, to sell a ROM. Even releasing the ROM to Steam is wrong, not to mention that is actually illegal no question.

But what if its a clone. Not a true port but a game made to resemble another game? KC Munchkin was considered a Pac-Man clone. While I disagree with the courts decision to pull it from shelves, the fact remains it was pretty much a clone. However, there is historical context there and nostalgia. What about porting PC games to non-PC systems, or would it be okay to port Super Mario Bros. not a rom, not an emulation but a re-programmed straight port, or clone even if you will, a la, Giana Sister, to a PC? I think even this is acceptable to do, but not to profit off.

Here is where I draw the line. A truly original work that is your own, charge money for it protect your copy right until your death and leave it in your will to someone you love. If it’s just a labor of love, a practice, a port of someone else’s work to a system that didn’t already have that game, if you want to sell the physical cart to collectors fine but let the rom go to those who will download it do so. I mean as a gamer myself I don’t download rom hacks or games that didn’t exist anyways, like I said I need historical context or else I have no interest in playing Mortal Kombat on a SNES, I would be better playing the actual arcade port on PS3 or the rom on MAME.

Check back for part 2 as I investigate an outlier I think did it right, but did leave room for error.

 

The story of how a film student turned news reporter: A tale of two interests

Once upon a time, in a world gone mad with fake news, there was one man who decided to change his entire life plans for what seems like no good reason.

This isn’t going to be a full biography or even a memoir. It’s more or less just a recounting of the events that lead me to go from studying film in college to working in the news media business. It wasn’t really a long journey but there were some detours along the way.

It all started when I was 12 years old. My parents bought me an old fashioned typewriter and I set out to write my novels, screenplays, and short stories my imagination had been dreaming up. If it sounds cliche I apologize, but it’s very true. Except the year was 1994 and we couldn’t afford a computer. That is a story for another day. It would be 2 more years before I would up able to upgrade that typewriter into an electronic one with a floppy drive built in. It would be another 4 years after that before I would get my first desktop PC and 2 more years before we would get a printer hooked up to that PC.

In all that time I never stopped writing. I always said my dream was to be a writer. I didn’t care what I did I just wanted to write stories for a living. The thing is, I had no direction, no motivation and very little self esteem. In high school my interests changed. At some point I decided I needed to start a band because I thought that would impress this girl. That dream would morph into a very failed pursuit of a career as a Hip-Hop/Techno DJ. I would go back and forth mixing and scratching my way into releasing several independent, underground records. I even went so far as to scrap together enough money to start up a record studio. Okay it was in the closet of my sisters bedroom in an apartment we shared, but I felt like it counted, it had to. I never stopped writing though. I hadn’t considered myself a write at this point, a song writer to some extent but I never really counted that as “real writing” in my mind.

During this same time I also began pursuing a side career in video production. At first I picked up cameras, editing equipment and microphones in an effort to produce music videos to accompany my music career. The truth is, my interest in making music videos waned and then I shifted to making short films. I also dabbled in internet videos, migrating to YouTube once that became the big thing. Always a rebel, not a follower, I intentionally avoided YouTube only using it to host videos but sharing them on my own website and promoting them through Google Ads and Myspace because that was what I thought I was supposed to do.

Around late 2008 I was invested in starting up a new venture. I was trying to make a series of web videos that would mimic the style of content that was airing on G4 as the network was dying and I wanted to keep that type of content alive. I doubled down on video production, eventually walking away from the music for the next few years. It would take a major life change before I realized I needed to get serious and do something different with my life. I decided while I was living in a run down house in the middle of nowhere Nebraska with no job, no vehicle of my own and no plans for the future, I needed to do something real with my life. It was then I decided to try again going back to school. I had applied for loans, grants and scholarships before but since I was intent on going to film school I was always limited in my options. I tended to apply for schools that wanted more money than I qualified for. Then I decided to just take what I could get. I settled for enrolling in a Broadcasting program at UNK, that is the University of Nebraska at Kearney, in Kearney Nebraska.

My plan was to major in Broadcasting (taking video production, editing, creative writing, and other courses) while minoring in Theater. This way I was getting the technical skills I would need to make films while also getting a foundation in the theater arts. I knew I would need to work with actors and set designers in order to get any film project I dreamed up off the ground. Then something catastrophic happened. I won’t go into the details but due to hysteria following recent campus shootings, stabbings, etc., I found myself in being asked to leave my university over a hunting knife  friend gave me as a gift. Being the defensive type instead of just going along with what they were asking of me I pushed back, eventually getting to the point they revoked my scholarships and asked me to withdraw entirely from the university.

With no where to go I quickly enrolled in another school in the area. They didn’t have either a broadcasting program or a theater program, so I had to transfer my credits into the closest program they offered, Communications Studies with an Emphasis in Mass Media. It was close enough I could settle for that.

I didn’t enjoy the fact I was no longer enrolled in film courses or studying the subject I intended, but I was just relieved to still be in school working towards something. Through all of my video editing I eventually landed a summer job as a videographer for a wedding photography company. During the course of the summer the videographer who I was working with told me he was a production assistant at the local TV station. His dream was also to become a filmmaker and he had a blog reviewing films on the side. I saw this as my chance to step into the world I had been dreaming of. With his recommendation I applied for a job at the TV station, and landed a spot as a Video Editor. At last I was doing exactly the job I had gone to college to get. It wasn’t my actual dream job, it was just an entry level but I was just happy with that.

Barely 2 weeks into working at the TV station there was an immediate hole in the production team. A morning camera operator quite suddenly and unexpectedly. They asked me, since I had worked as a videographer, to step into the role of camera operator for a couple of days a week. This was in addition to the three days a week I was video editing on the evening shift so it gave me full time hours and I got to work in the studio not the newsroom. I was excited just to be in the studio. I was happy to do the grunt work, micing up the talent, situating guests, running cords, and pointing cameras where they instructed me. They were so impressed with how quickly I adapted they offered me a full time promotion to Assistant Producer, complete with a raise in pay and benefits. I was so happy I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be living my dream.

I never stopped wanting to write. I kept working on my blog on the side hoping eventually I could work my way into reporter or newscaster because I wanted to get out of production and into the exciting world of news. My first news report came when I answered the phone and learned a local family had been killed in a major wreck. I scrambled to take down the info, ran to my desk wrote up a short little news brief, turned it into a reader (that’s what we call it when the newscaster just reads the info no graphic or video) and sent it over to the booth. It was my first chance ever writing a breaking news story, an the thrill was unbelievable. I would slowly get to help out writing stories as I worked in the newsroom. I wasn’t a full reporter, I was mostly in charge of re-wording AP stories we pulled off the wire but it was still better than nothing.

After nine months doing this I realized I needed a change of scenery. It was a small market TV station in the middle of Nebraska. Most of our stories centered on community happenings, local sports and a lot of corn and livestock stories. I even found myself producing a weekend, pre-taped agriculture show. I needed to spread my wings and get out of Nebraska. I made a life-changing decision to move to Texas.

Once I arrived it was time to find a job. I tried the local TV news stations first. The ABC affiliate hired me right away. I had previously been working at an ABC station so it was an easy fit. But something was wrong this time. They didn’t have an opening in production or the newsroom. I didn’t have enough experience as a writer or reporter to get an on-air job so they stuck me in Master Control. For those that don’t know MC is the room where all the switches are. It’s the person in the dusty closet making sure the commercials run. It’s your job to watch all the shows, log the commercials that air, the time they air, and cross them off if they get dropped. For the most part, it was a boring job sitting watching TV all day while also making sure you were keeping the programming going back and forth between local and network. It was a lot harder than it sounded but it was still easy. The problem is it wasn’t anything at all what I wanted to be doing. There was no writing, no video editing and no camera work. It was just sitting in a closet pushing a button when they light flashed. My first day taking the helm the guy training me took a lunch break at a time he thought was the easiest. Once you get into Prime Time it’s basically all automated. At that point you just put a check next to the name of the commercial when it airs. In other words you just sort of sit there babysitting but not doing anything productive. The problem was the transition hadn’t occurred. There was still one more local commercial break, the lead into Prime Time. I missed my cue and the station went into Wheel Of Fortune, blank. It was totally black for 2 whole minutes. It was actually 3 minutes, 2 minutes of commercials and 1 minute into the show. That meant the station lost thousands of dollars due to a mistake I made. Needless to say that was the end of that job.

With no prospects and the other TV station not returning my calls I decided to try something different. I got in touch with the career counselor at my University, I was still enrolled as I was finishing up taking online courses. She helped me re-write my resume with an emphasis on my writing and creative talents. Then I sent my resume out to radio stations, newspapers and local print shops. I had an interview with a radio station for an internship. I was excited for the offer, but it was an unpaid internship that required college credit. I began the process of writing up a lesson plan, finding a sponsor at the university I was attending and then I realized I still had a car payment due, and other bills piling up. I took a part-time job delivering pizzas for Dominoes. I don’t know what had changed from the time I did it before or if Texas was just different but they were taking my tips out of my paycheck and taxing me for them. I was driving 18 miles to work and wasting all my gas to get a very minimal paycheck. Between that and the unpaid internship I was sinking into debt, fast.

In order to get by for the summer I pawned all my video games. My PS2, PS3, PS4, Wii, Wii U, all my games, DVD’s and Blu Ray discs. I still had to pay that ticket back so I was scrambling. Finally literally on my birthday I got a phone call from the local newspaper. Literally the local newspaper in the very town I was living had an immediate opening for a staff writer. It was exactly my perfect dream job and it came to me, on my birthday. I felt like that was God’s way of saying here you go, you worked hard, persevered an stayed faithful now have at it.

I have been at that weekly newspaper for 2 years. I can honestly say it truly is my dream job. I always wanted a job where I got to write stories for a living and that is what I am doing now. I still found I have time to write for my own blog on the side and even keep working on those novels, screenplays and short stories whenever I find the time, or motivation. You never know where you are going to end up but I read these kinds of stories all the time when I was working at a gas station for minimum wage buying scratch tickets on the off chance I might win enough money to afford a pizza that week. Now I have my own apartment, a decent car, am paying down my student loans and truly am living the American dream. It’s not the dream I set out to pursue but if you have a skill, talent, or vision don’t give up just hang in there and see where life takes you. No matter what happens, take every opportunity you can get because you really never know where this life with lead you

That’s how I went from studying film and dreaming of becoming a Hollywood producer to writing for a weekly newspaper. When I look at the careers of some of the most famous authors and artists of all time, many of them worked at newspapers during the day and wrote their other works on the side. It’s sure a whole lot better than selling gasoline to a bunch of angry people who just want to get back to whatever it is they are doing.

The Spiders Lair Podcast Episode 11

Listen to episode 11 of The Spiders Lair Podcast. In this episode I talk about my thoughts on the differences between B-movies, blockbusters, popcorn flicks and a bunch of other movie topics. I also give my thoughts on two movies I watched recently, How to be a Latin Lover and Alien Covenant.

Are review shows taking over YouTube?

The first time I discovered YouTube it was to check out a friends short film he had posted to the site. It was a very no-budget 80’s b-action movie rip off. The acting was bad, the story was very basic and the special effects didn’t really exist. But it was a very interesting concept. Broadcast yourself. As a budding filmmaker I was excited for the potential. A world where indie and low budget filmmakers could showcase their works to the world. I immediately grabbed my camera, a group of friends and set out to produce a talk show where we would discuss comic books, video games and movies. I set up a desk, lights, microphones the whole nine yards. I was expecting to utilize this new technology to really capture that dream of alternative, user created content that would lower the barrier of entry.

I first started to notice things weren’t quite going as I pictured when I noticed the insanely popular viral video of two dorks lip syncing to the Mortal Kombat theme son g. While the short video was entertaining, at least good for a chuckle. I was shocked to learn the two who uploaded the video shot to super stardom almost over night. Of course I am referring to Smosh. It soon became a race to be the next viral super star and thus the race to the bottom began. There was that Numa Numa video, Soldier Boy Tell Em, and a host of other copy cats. I hadn’t lost hope yet, I still felt there was a budding film making industry just lying in wait.

Then YouTube was bought out by Google and everything changed. Suddenly the need to get millions of hits in order to attract ad dollars meant that the need to make quality videos that required true creativity was replaced by quick videos to cash in. Sure some decent productions managed to slip through the cracks, but even those had to rely on a gimmick. Shows like Angry Video Game Nerd, Pat the NES Punk and Nostalgia Critic, among dozens of others, quickly resonated with audiences.

Partly cashing in on nostalgia and partly adapting to the changing audience, review shows quickly became the prominent format for the quality film makers to get their product out there. Some, such as the aforementioned Angry Video Game Nerd, would slip in their more creative short films onto their channels as specials or filler to tide their audiences over while they worked on other projects. Others, like Pat the NES Punk embraced the narrative format from the beginning finding creative ways to mask his reviews as miniature episodes of an extended parody show that focused on a character that was obsessed with Nintendo games. Before too long the AVGN videos would also weave narratives and production values into his videos with story lines that spanned entire seasons at times. This continued into the Board James series, a show that reviewed old board games.

In the years following review shows have become a powerful force vying for the attention of the fickle YouTube audience. New short forms of videos have sprung up such as vlogs, unboxing videos and long form videos exist in the form of Let’s Play’s. The haven for budding film students to showcase their creative works was quickly supplanted by culture of becoming the next big viral video.

This presents a problem for the budding filmmakers. Some of these review shows formed out of the need for the film makers to hone their craft of writing narrative videos and editing them into coherent stories while masking them as review shows in order to find an audience. Some of the creators, such as James Rolfe himself, have stated their original desires were to be actual filmmakers and they originally used YouTube as a means to showcase their works. Many of them even uploaded videos outside of YouTube before they realized it was the platform of choice. But has doing so stifled their creativity shoehorning them into roles they might otherwise have been able to break out of had they not fallen into the trap?

The complexities of YouTube’s ever changing advertising policies means that content creators who are in it for the money have to constantly be adapting to what the advertising giant requires. Google makes all of their money off ads and in recent months they have come under fire from advertisers to take a stronger stance on content. This, in turn, has forced the content creators to again adapt their videos to the changing landscape. Many of the review shows do have hints of great, very creative TV shows hidden within them. The trouble is how does a creator, such as Rolfe or his contemporaries, break the mold and release content that doesn’t rely on them simultaneously reviewing a product most don’t even remember that fondly? Even when you look at the AVGN videos, the best videos are the ones where the review takes a back seat to a more compelling narrative story. Perhaps the only way to make great quality videos on YouTube is to build an audience doing review shows before slowing moving onto other types of content?

YouTube Review: Techmoan

Techmoan is a Youtube channel run by a British man who only goes by the name Mat. The show mainly focuses on reviewing old audio/video equipment and HiFi stereo components, usually from the 1970 and on. In the videos the host demonstrates the different pieces of technology. He then discusses how he acquired the individual item before taking it apart and showing off the individual components. Sometimes the videos lack the break down and instead focus on showcasing the different technologies. For example he has demonstrated videos that show the differences between content contained on pre-recorded cassettes, both in the audio cassette format as well as VHS. Sometimes he picks a single component or device and reviews it.

The series quality ranges from episodes that look like they could have been aired on public access TV to those that have a professional vibe similar to what would have been shown on a Discovery Channel or TechTV sort of program. The topics are usually well researched with the host providing a bit of background information on the item or items he is reviewing. Since he only reviews machines from his personal collection he often reminds his viewers he needs help in seeking out the items he wishes to review. In this aspect he can come off as asking for donations from time to time. It’s not entirely a bad thing, a lot of channels on YouTube do take user donations. The turn off is how he sometimes makes it sound like it is the responsibility of his viewers to help him acquire the devices he intends to review. If it were a commercial run Television production he would probably have sponsors help pay for these portions. However, since the show is focuses mostly on reviewing older and out dated technology, it’s unlikely the tech companies would consider his reviews valuable marketing for their current business products.

The reviewer has a very relaxing tone to his voice. He conducts his reviews in a very matter-of-fact method. This is one of his strengths as it allows him to shy away from over the top antics as some review shows on YouTube rely too heavily on. The reviews range in length depending on the topic. Generally speaking the videos tend to be thorough with plenty of background information in addition to the technological info that tech fans would enjoy. The videos are more informative than entertaining, however. This isn’t a bad thing it just might limit the audience to those who prefer videos that are more straight forward.

The show channel does offer a decent glimpse into the history of audio/video technologies. There is one slight draw back to the series. As the reviewer is based in the United Kingdom, his videos tend to have a very British slant. This can be interesting when discussing technology that was more popular in the U.K than in the United States, for instance. However it can be limiting when it comes to reviewing products that either had more success in the US or didn’t exist in the U.K. at all. For example he reviewed CED Discs which were a lot more popular in the United States so his exposure was limited. Also since his reviews typically cover PAL products he tends to have an emphasis on PAL signals which might be confusing to some residents in the US. This isn’t necessarily a negative of the show. After all he does a great job explaining the limitations when they do arrive. Yet it still has the potential to limit the audience or at the very least the enjoyment of those who are not as versed in the U.K. region.

Summary: Techmoan offers reviews of different technologies mostly from audio/video sectors. He often digs into the history of the individual technology he is reviewing while breaking down the items to demonstrate how they function, or how they were intended to in the case of items he was unable to repair. The host has a sort of dry personality that might not appeal to some foreign viewers, especially those in the US that are more used to the flashy reviewers who rely heavily on satire and over the top antics for their shows. As such the audience is limited.

The show has decent production values. It’s well researched with good lighting, editing and transitions. The draw backs include the hosts British sensibilities, his tendency to drone on, as well as having some times limited scope when it comes to items that were more popular in the United States. He does often admit to his shortcomings. The show comes off as more informative than entertaining which might be a turn off to some viewers.

Rating: 3.5 stars.

Youtube Review: Cracked After Hours

Michael Swaim, Soren Bowie, Daniel O’Brien and Katie Willert co-host a comedy variety show on YouTube via the Cracked.Com network.

The show centers on four co-workers sitting around a table, typically in a diner, discussing different aspects of popular culture. The individuals each portray a different character type. Soren is the rugged, handsome leading man type, Daniel is the nerdy, unsure of himself social anxiety OCD type. Micheal plays the cool but clueless character who is often impervious to other people’s feelings with Katie filling out the roster as the chick. She sometimes plays the feminist, others she plays the typical girl in a guy group. Most often she is used as fodder for the table to crack jokes as her expense.

Each character supplies a topic of discussion from one episode to the next, then they either enthusiastically or begrudgingly (depending on the topic) discuss the topic at hand. Some episodes discuss what-if scenarios, while others ponder the real-world ramifications the actions of a certain film would have if the rules of society applied.

Each episode is mostly self-contained. Although references do occur from time to time, they often happen in the form of quick flash backs, typically call backs to a previous joke, such as Katie’s changing hair styles or the waitress reaction to the group’s orders.

The jokes often rely on a combination of the characters reactions to the topic as well as satirical references to the topic. A character might behave with “nerd rage” if the topic disproves a popular myth about a particular pop icon that individual character held dear. An example was in the episode where they try to prove Batman is terrible at his job.

There have been rare occasions where the setting will move outside the diner. Some other locations have been camp sights on the side of the road or when the diner burned down they had to move to a new diner and the characters didn’t even notice for several episodes.

The topics are varied enough to keep the viewer coming back. Some episodes will center on a comic book icon or an animated character, such as the Simpsons. While other episodes will discuss the issues of a certain sitcom, or theme of sitcoms as in the episode that breaks down the fatherless sitcoms of the 1980’s.

The show is written by a team of comedy sketch writers who work for the website, Cracked.com. The characters are also featured in other video content on the show. The main “host” Daniel O’Brian is the head of video on the website, taking on a larger role in other shows the team produces.

The production values are high. The sets look professionally built and well lit. The extras are professional in their takes. The hosts deliver their lines as believable characters in the world they inhabit. The acting is probably the only down fall of the series. The characters are more or less caricatures of the personalities the individuals exhibit elsewhere on the channel. When they do show emotion it is often over the top. While this is clearly done for comedic affect, it can become repetitive at times. The actors have demonstrated in other videos they have a limited range so it’s quite possible the episodes are written to their strengths. All in all it’s a fairly entertaining series with short episodes that often provide a brief distraction from the monotonous while also providing alternative perspectives on popular tropes in Hollywood.

 

Summary: The series combines aspects of Seinfeld with a group of friends sitting around a diner talking about random topics. The comedy relies heavily on the way the characters react to what is being said rather than the delivery of the jokes. The series is well written and professionally produced. The show should appeal to those who are fans of films and television that want to get a nice break from the norm with a entertaining and often humorous look at  films and TV shows.

The over acting can be a distraction at times depending on the episode. The series can also rely on slapstick comedy which is hard to pull off when the characters are confined to their seats. These are minimal nitpicks rather than true flaws, however they could be potential negatives to some individuals. The comedy is typically good while the shows topics are usually varied enough to remain mostly fresh.

Rating: 4.5 stars.