Oh the Secrets We Keep, the Lies We Tell

From Episode 1: "Jane Smith Comes Out To Her Evangelical Father "

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,

John

 

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter. If you shop at Amazon, help support John by entering the site through this link right here--Amazon will then send John 3-4% of the cost of anything you buy before exiting the site again.

 

  • Amon

    This is a very unique medium indeed. The flat cartoon like quality of the characters coupled with the “speak-n-spell” quality of their morphology creates an interesting contrast to the emotionally raw and exquisitely human subject matter. As a gay man who has wrestled with ideas of god and christianity (I refuse to capitalize that) all of my life, I am reluctant to watch the episodes because I know how much it will hurt.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Wow. Okay. Well, cool. I mean, I certainly appreciate this depth of response. Thanks Amon. (And keep following: I promise it’ll start hurting a whole lot less.)

    • Tim

      Hi Amon…can I make a late observation? You might not ever see this, but you seem to feel the dimensional flatness and “speak-and-spell” quality of the Smith Family characters don’t do justice to the raw and exquisitely human subject matter. I agree. But consider the people of the church, who obviously fall dimensionally flat and attempt to express the inexplicable with a “speak-and-spell” quality that leaves us…well…too often feeling like lower case people too. No surprise that god and christ have no capital. The observation? It’s probably more of an assumption, so forgive me if I’m off. We carry scars inflicted by lower case people who represent God in a dimensionally flat medium compared to who God really is. We preach with a “speak-and-spell” quality that makes us more fun to laugh at than to listen to, yet we carry on. In the final analysis, the raw and exquisitely human subject matter is only ultimately addressable in a close and personal mode. Between His Spirit and ours. If that hasn’t happened for you, that is no indication that it won’t. Timing seems to be everything, and a moment has been selected. It’s only my opinion, but God is not fairly represented by even the closest reflection of His love…clothed in human weakness.

      Take care, Amon.

  • Mindy

    My only problem with it so far is that I want more. As each episode ends, I find myself almost annoyed that I can’t spend more time with whomever is on my screen. It is an odd venue, but weirdly appealing and engaging. I want to smack the father, I want to hug the mom, I want to reassure the daughter. And as it has stirred these reactions in me, I know it is working.

    So glad you’ve found something you find exhilarating!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Thank you, Mindy. I greatly value your assessment of this sort of thing. Cool. Fun. Thanks again.

  • Susan in NY

    John,

    I did not care for episode one and I wondered why you were so enthralled with the medium.

    Now, I eagerly await each Friday episode.

    Amazing job!

    Susan

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Whew. Cool. Dig it. Thank you, Susan. (And thanks especially for the note you sent me.)

  • http://ricbooth.wordpress.com/ Ric Booth

    I’m hooked. And like Mindy points out, it’s just too short (4mins) and/or too long in between episodes.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      I could EASILY make them longer; I work hard to keep them as short as they are. It’s been my instinct that too much longer would just … I don’t know …. be too much. But maybe not? Anyway, thank you, as always, Mr. Booth.

      • Don Rappe

        I think they are long enough.

  • Gryphon77

    I love it. I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s the kind of thing that a lot of people don’t even think about unless they specifically have gay friend or family or are gay. I’ve seen and heard similar kinds of dialog from movies and extreme religious right types to what the father says. Even watching the first episode just . . . made me mad. It makes me almost more mad knowing there are Christians like you and those that read your blog and that fact proving it doesn’t have to be the way Jane’s father sees it. It is very very hard for me to separate one’s personal views from how one expresses their religion. I don’t generally see the religion as much as fault as the person, if they have hateful beliefs. People put so much into their belief systems and then blame it on the religion. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s internal belief structure is exactly the same as the next person’s, even in the same religion. If that is true, can we not accept that we make our own choices about what we believe? and take responsibility for what those choices mean?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Oh, Gryphon. That’s just crazy talk.

      Oh, wait. No it’s not. It’s the singular hope for the world. Sorry. My mistake.

  • Suz

    What Susan said! I’m finally getting past trying to categorize it, and I really like what it is.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Sweet. That’s … the way. Thanks, Suz.

  • JauntyJohn

    On the one hand I agree with the overall message of “more! more!” regarding length and frequency, but on the other, in my humble experience, it’s generally a wise move for a creator to trust their gut.

    And as far as the medium goes I can only echo some of the observations already made. For myself, I find that the almost completely flat vocal intonation actually places greater emphasis on the words (and thus the characters’ “lines”) themselves — it’s not a completely random tonal quality, the sound flows enough so as not to distract, but without a human actor’s emotion/interpretation it’s all about What is being said — and that’s part of how it draws you in. For me, anyway.

    And I feel like this also makes it supremely fair to each character (and viewpoint). The Father’s message is delivered on a completely equal footing as the Mother’s. And does this then allow us to project our own bias onto a character, since there is no human actor adding their own filters? And if so, is that part of why I am so “into” it (beyond subject matter) because it is engaging me on a level that sitting and watching/listening to something usually can’t?

    Whoops! Drifting into over-think, perhaps.

    Regardless of the above, I’m hooked, and congratulate you on making emotional drama and engaging characters from such an aggressively one-dimensional medium.

    Thank you and I can’t wait for each next episode.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Wow. Thank you, JJ, so much for this. I really appreciate it. And I really think you’re onto something, with this idea of the hyper-objectivity of the delivery of the words basically forcing you to go hyper-subjective in your hearing of them. It is the weirdness of having the delivery stripped down to just the words that makes the whole thing so … odd—and then, counter-intuitively, oddly compelling. I mean, that’s how I’ve been experiencing it. But you know how sometimes, when you really, really dig something, you find yourself kind of … alone in left field with it. So I greatly appreciate you taking this time to share with me why you, too, are sharing in/feeling this game.

  • Amon

    Curious…why are you so interested in GLBT issues? And short of buying your book, you found God in a storage closet? I am trying to understand how an individual travels from one pole to the other (non-believer to believer?) Not sure this is the forum for my questions

  • Don Rappe

    I think the words become more powerful because we must identify them with specific people. Like theatre.

  • Lili C

    I have hesitated to respond, because I don’t want to come across as critical. You obviously worked hard on these, and since so many of your readers have been touched you clearly did a great job. But since you asked, this medium is not my particular cup of tea. I think it is great that so many find it compelling, and I think the content is obvioulsy important – so to be clear, this is not a criticism, just a personal preference thing. I only post it to say that this is obviously a new, fresh thing that you are into, but I hope that while you explore this new way of expression you will also still post liberal doses of your good old prose. I find your thoughts and analysis on various issues – especially those related to power and powerlessness – to be quite compelling. I guess I’m just a stodgy non-techie-type who likes my thought-provoing materials the old-fashioned way (although in my own defense I do now read old fashioned print on my new-fashioned Kindle, so I guess that’s progress). :-)

    Anyway, keep looking for ways to challenge people, John – you are quite good at it.

    • Lili C

      I meant to say keep looking for fresh ways to challenge…and as always, sorry for the typos.

  • cat rennolds

    I agree that the flatness of the medium adds depth to the message, because you HAVE to think about it to follow it.

    In a weird way, it is more emotionally moving because you can’t write off the speaker as “just an actor….” as if feeling is being directly transmitted through language without the interference of preconception and implication….I know that sounds odd. But I am going to ask some persons in my family who are very near the autism end of the communication spectrum, and see what their take is. It should be useful.


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