The animations of the Smith Family Chronicles are severely stilted. Their voices are the robotic monotones of the fully automated. Their arm movements are limited and jerky. They never walk anywhere: the two characters (and for any “movie” there can never be more than two) just stand there, facing each other, on “sets” that aren’t exactly marvels of complexity.
Such are the limitations that come with the online tools available at Xtranormal.com. Yet I’ve now used those tools to make three weekly episodes of The Smith Family Chronicles. Each four-minute episode of the show has taken me about twenty-five hours to write and produce.
Writing and producing SFC is pretty much all my wife and I have talked about for a month. Who are the characters in the show? What happens to them—and how, and when? Who’s sleeping with whom—or has, or will? Who’s lying—and about what, and why? How long have people been keeping the lies they are? What has keeping those secrets done to their lives, and to the lives of those nearest them? What happens when those secrets get revealed? What damage is done; what alliances are torn; what strengths are born?
Marital loyalty and infidelity. Sexuality run amok. Christians suddenly faced with adult non-aborted children raised Muslim. Pastors with secrets no one should have.
Oh, it’s all here, baby. And sooooo much more.
It’s so exciting!
Or not. I have no idea if people generally will respond to FSC as I (and, in truth, those nearest me) certainly have. The weirdness of the whole Xtranormal thing just … deeply appeals to me. The medium itself is defined by such dramatic limitations and stylistic idiosyncrasies that, fascinatingly, it must finally become inextricable from the message. You can’t just plug normal language into these characters; they must speak in a way that works with how they look and move. Finding that way meant reformulating the language used by the SFC characters; it meant creating an odd hybrid of unadulterated emotion and normal conversational convention that ultimately felt organic to them.
And then you’ve got to pace their words—stretching out phrases, trimming or adding syllables—in order to properly sync them to their movements. And that’s after you’ve finally gotten them to correctly pronounce the words in the first place.
There’s a very definite craft to this particular art: getting it just right is an insane amount of work. But I love it. I love it all. Because I love what it results in.Those results—the individual episodes of the series—are the one thing so few things ever are, which is utterly and completely new. I’ve never seen anything like The Smith Family Chronicles. That’s an absolutely remarkable thing to be able to say. It’s exhilarating. Truly new is the rarest thing in the world.
Last week a Lutheran pastor friend of mine sat quietly watching the second episode of the series (“Is It Really God’s Will That I Live Alone?”). When it was over he turned to me, and I saw that his eyes were filled with tears. “Amazing,” he said. “Just amazing. It’s so moving. It’s so gripping. And the weird thing is, it forces you to take it on its own terms. As I was watching it, I kept trying to categorize it: I wanted it to be a cartoon, or a movie, or anything else I’d ever seen. But finally I just gave up on that, and began purely experiencing it. And then it just … had me. It’s really extraordinary. It creates its own rules.”
Bingo. Those are exactly my feelings about it. If in your head you try to make SFC be like anything else you’ve ever seen, it fails, because it’s not like anything else you’ve ever seen. SFC forms its own, unique, one-item-only category. It insists on its own paradigm. If you let it have that—if you relinquish essentially trying to control it, and instead just let it be what it is—then it does the magical thing, the beautiful thing, the art thing. Then it becomes something beyond the sum of its parts.
If you take it for what it is, it turns out to be a lot.
It does for me, anyway—and for my wife, and for … well, at least the (as of this writing) 98 people, I would think, who’ve joined The Smith Family Chronicles Facebook page. (And also, I assume, for the editor of Huffington Post Religion, who every Friday on his page is featuring each new SFC episode.) I love this form of storytelling: I love its feel; its look; its strange blend of low and high tech. And I love how readily it would adapt to other forms of storytelling: SFC is made to be a novel (which I may write next), a cartoon series, a television show, a graphic novel. It’s a root from which all kinds of flowers could grow. As someone who’s spent their whole life trying to be as creative as possible, that’s seriously exciting.
One of the things I’ve always tried to do on this blog is take my readers with me wherever I go. I’ve very definitely gone to the writing and producing of The Smith Family Chronicles. I’d like to know to what degree, if any, you’ve come along with me. Have you watched the show? Do you like it? Do you hate it? (If it’s not at all your cup of tea, of course no worries; as much as I wish it could, I know such work can’t be for everyone. From the beginning I’ve also known it would take six to eight episodes for people to really sort of get what SFC is all about anyway.) As always, I’d certainly appreciate hearing whatever thoughts you might care to share.
Yours in the ever-new,