What goes on in the natural food-laden aisles of the Willy Street Co-op at 2 a.m.? They're dark and quiet most nights, the only sound coming from the hum of the refrigerators and freezers, and more rarely when the call goes out at the fire station next door. Over the course of more than a few late nights since early summer, though, the east side grocery was bright and busy serving in the role of Empire Market.
This is the primary setting for Chad Vader, the online television series that's made quite the impact in this summer of YouTube. Written and directed by Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda of Blame Society Productions, the first three episodes of the story featuring Darth Vader's marginally competent and even less confident brother have garnered millions of viewers. The fourth episode in this saga of the helmeted grocery store manager -- actually more man than machine -- was released online this morning after segments were broadcast on ABC's Good Morning America.
Curious to get an inside look at the making of an online TV series, I asked the creators a while ago if I could help out with an upcoming production. They agreed, and I spent two shoots as a production assistant for scenes in the third and fourth episodes. In fact, I even appear briefly in this newest episode. As with any production of this type, there's far more going on beyond the camera's view, with many, many hours of work necessary to produce a single five-minute episode.
On the set
Conducted on a Friday and Saturday night apiece, the two recent Vader shoots got rolling with an 8:30 p.m. call time for the crew. At this time of night, things are winding down at the Willy Street Co-op. As Co-op employees closed up for the night at 9 pm, the Vader crew was busy unpacking and preparing equipment for the night's shots. Most cast members arrive later, staggered though the night as their turn in front of the camera arrives.
Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda call the shots, writing, directing and cutting the final product. However, their work on the set is more specialized.
Yonda was busy at both shoots portraying the title character, spending much of his time in a Vader costume working opposite the other actors in nearly every scene. He doesn't sound like the Sith Lord, though. If you've ever seen behind-the-scenes documentaries for the original Star Wars trilogy, the raw footage shows Darth Vader (portrayed by David Prowse) speaking with a British-accented tenor voice, quite unlike the famous bass provided by James Earl Jones. The same dynamic is at work with Chad Vader, as the well-done and widely-praised voice of the character is provided by Matt Sloan and some audio magic during post-production.
Sloan works primarily as the director, conducting everything from scene blocking to deciding which take will be the last as he shepherds the shoot -- basically everything that one typically thinks of when they hear the word "director." He views every take from behind a monitor displaying the scene as it appears on camera, using this to decide whether or not an additional take is necessary. Sloan also portrays the character "Clint," but didn't have to step in front of the camera on either night I attended. When that does happen (and at other times during the shoots) the direction is assisted by Yonda, oftentimes remaining in the Vader costume sans helmet.
Behind the camera is Tona Williams, using primarily a handheld DV camera with (and mostly without) a tripod and a set of headphones. There's much more required of her than pressing the record button on and off in her work as cinematographer and art director, though. The camera's position and focus remain constant concerns for her and the director through multiple takes of each scene, complete with close-ups and varying perspectives on every active actor in the shot. Setting a baseline white tone (for the camera) and ambient noise recording (for the audio track) is also necessary for every scene.
The lighting and assistant direction is provided by John Urban, the Madison photographer and host of the local music TV program "Urban Theatre." He provides multiple light sources and types, regularly working with Sloan behind the monitor to make sure everything appears presentable and as the director envisions. Urban is assisted by Doug Chapin, who helps ensure everything else is operating smoothly during the shoot.
This description by no means includes everybody essential to the project, as numerous other persons assist the production during its many nights of shooting and in post-production. This particularly includes its producer and casting director Courtney Collins, who was out of town during both shoots I attended.
I assisted both Urban and Williams during my time at the shoots. Moving and placing lights, cleaning up the set, preparing the next scene, and wrangling cords (particularly during mobile scenes) were regular assignments. I also helped operate the boom microphone during my second night, playing the well-known game of getting the mic pointed as closely as possible to the actors while remaining out of the camera's view.
Whole scenes unfolded from both perspectives, either very close to the view of the camera or well behind the immediate setting of a particular shot. There were at least several takes for every line uttered by an actor until the director was satisfied. Particularly challenging was the most recent shoot, featuring the talents of a trained dog that plays a significant role in this latest episode. Skye, a sheltie trained by Sarah Kalnajs of Blue Dog Training & Behavior, completed multiple tasks on cue: eating spilled dog food (along with well-hidden string cheese and peanut butter), tussling with Vader, running from Vader, and running through Vader's legs. Everything was completed, though, and Sloan and Yonda moved onto the scenes only requiring human characters.
This is when I briefly played the role of a late-night customer, purchasing a bag of cereal from the slightly deranged cashier "Lionel" (played by Bill Bolz) prior to his next encounter with Vader. Not having done any sort of acting in more than a decade, and never for an on-screen production, I found it an interesting and gratifying experience.
Both shoots ran well past 2 a.m., each devoting more than five hours to shoot footage which would be edited into roughly one-sixth to one-fifth of the final five-minute product. I know very little about screen productions other than what I have gleaned from popular culture, but everything looked to be run proficiently. From the actors' releases to the attention paid to the details in the Co-op, the shoots were approached seriously. This is a serious matter, after all, as Blame Society Productions has been favored with a large online fandom, one that Sloan and Yonda hope to build upon.
Enough with the words, though, what about the episode? Here it is:
What comes next for Vader? The show's creators have considered producing different numbers of episodes at different times, with five as a commonly mentioned number. Nothing's assured, though. There might be several more episodes, or this fourth one might be the last. Is the circle now complete?