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The special effects of Chad Vader Episode 5
Matt Sloan, Aaron Yonda (in costume), Tona Williams, Kathy Fischer and John Urban set up a shot at the Chad Vader Episode Five set on Dec. 8 at Cafe Montmartre in downtown Madison. I appear briefly as an extra in the new episode.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

There's more to the success of the Chad Vader saga than simply its droll writing, fitting levels of fandom, and suitability for the online video craze. One major element that's often overlooked is its special effects, particularly for a no-budget series built from scratch. "I think the special effects are important because they lend a reality to what's happening in the story," says Aaron Yonda, the co-creator of Vader. "I think if you get distracted by bad effects, it can take away from the story." This is particularly the case with the fifth episode that premiered Tuesday, Dec. 19.

Written and directed by Yonda and Matt Sloan of Blame Society Productions, the series' latest episode debuted exclusively on MySpace, a sign of its continuing growth as an online video hit. Conceptualized as a holiday episode, the creators describe this new chapter: "A tipsy Chad Vader faces a lameness crisis. He gets help from an unexpected friend." And even more so than earlier episodes, effects play a big role as Chad Vader takes the next stop in his life.

"We want it to look and feel exactly like Darth and Chad Vader are brothers," Yonda explains, "so that people buy the premise and enjoy it more." Several iconic effects from the series' cinematic inspiration are essential for the story. More importantly, they need to be realistic, at least in terms of a long time ago and far, far away.

The highest-profile effect in the series is not seen, but heard. This is, of course, Chad Vader's voice, one that sounds more akin to the Sith Lord from four episodes of Star Wars than nearly any fan flick or other homage one can find online.

"I think the voice just makes it," says Yonda. "I don't think that people would like it nearly as much if it didn't sound like Darth Vader." Nevertheless, creating the voice was harder than Yonda had expected.

Yonda enlisted his friend John Lee to help with sound engineering: "I had bought this DV sound box from an electronics company, and we spent half a day tinkering around with it." Their first results weren't encouraging: "It didn't sound anything at all like Darth Vader, it sounded more like the voice of Red Leader in Episode IV of Star Wars."

They tried again, using a synthesizer to manipulate the voice of Sloan as recorded through a PVC tube. Lee uses a rackmounted Digitech 2201 Artist effects processor to digitally finesse Vader's voice. "He is a technological wizard, and we were able to create a very good pitch level for the voice," Yonda explains. More details are described in a discussion on the Blame Society forum.

After perfecting their digital filter, Lee and Yonda started recording. "Matt came over and did his best James Earl Jones impression, and then it was perfect," Yonda says.

In the end, it didn't take them that long to pull it off, and Sloan's voice as Chad Vader has been at the heart of the story since the beginning. "It was exciting, like some sort of weird childhood fantasy where you can be Darth Vader," Yonda says. "That was when I started getting really excited about Chad Vader because I knew we had the voice down perfect."

Also important is the lightsaber, which has appeared in two forms through the series, so far. For the first two chapters in the saga, Yonda fashioned the elegant Jedi weapon. Later versions of the lightsaber were created by Saul Mandel, a one-time contributor to Wis-Kino.

"After Episode 2, I was getting really frustrated with the light saber effect," Yonda says, describing it as giant and ungainly in appearance. "I'm a good editor, but I'm not great with special effects as far as editing goes. I haven't learned enough in that area and I haven't learned to use aftereffects well." He approached Mandel, a professional editor who now operates Bare Tree Pictures in Chicago , and he created the light saber for episodes three and four.

"It's a ton better," Yonda says. "I think it helps lend to the realism of it, at least as real as a sword made of red blazing light can be."

Mandel is also working on the hologram effects, which are appearing with greater regularity in the newer episodes, which Yonda describes as more difficult to pull off than the lightsaber.

This includes the new fifth episode, in which the second half almost continuously features one effect or another. In this case, the effect is a spirit, similar to the "force ghost" of Obi Wan Kenobi seen in the final two Star Wars films. Named "Ben," this spirit helps guide Chad Vader away from a precipitous Christmastime decision at a bridge, and in the end earns his wings. The new episode follows below.

"We're starting to get into shooting in front of a green screen," Yonda explains. "When we made this episode, I started to get the feeling of what it must be like to shoot a Star Wars movie in front of a green screen the entire time," he continues, "though of course not as complicated and with barely any money or time."

Noting that the Blame Society team is really getting into the holograms as well as the green screen, Yonda reveals that more episodes are definitely on the way. Chad Vader will return in the new year.

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