Bewildering Stories Interviews
Joshua Sikora, of New Renaissance Pictures
|Bewildering Stories invites Joshua Sikora, of New Renaissance Pictures, to discuss his multimedia science fiction production The Black Dawn.|
about Joshua Sikora
In 2005, he founded the Sikora Media Group and New Renaissance Pictures, which are breaking new ground in the creation and delivery of the next generation of multimedia. Sikora’s latest endeavor is WebSerials.com—an online network for serialized media, which is host to several Sikora productions, including “Project X,” Cataclysmo, and The Black Dawn. With more than three million views to date, the serials have been dubbed by YouTube “some of the best dramas the web has to offer.”
The Black Dawn recently became a nationally-syndicated TV series and Sikora is actively developing new concepts for the web and television. He also occasionally teaches film for the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He lives in La Habra, CA with his wife Alisa.
The Black Dawn is a post-apocalyptic science fiction multimedia experience produced by New Renaissance Pictures. The dramatic story is told in a variety of mediums, spanning a feature film, TV series, web series, short film, comic book, and videoblogs.
The mystery behind the Black Dawn is unravelled in an unprecedented interactive, cross-platform, story-driven experience as viewers are able to engage with any of the individual components and move through the story non-linearly, in whatever manner they so choose.
Or, the short answer: it’s a really cool, innovative new sci-fi series full of action, mystery, and drama. Here’s the link to The Black Dawn.
What are the plot and story of The Black Dawn? Who are the characters?
The story centers on the survivors of a worldwide virus that kills all but these thirteen college students. How the virus spread and why these thirteen people survived are at the heart of the mystery behind the Black Dawn. In their search for answers, the survivors find themselves at odds with each other.
Adam, the series’ meek and unlikely hero, is pitted against an intense, unstable student named Lee, who makes himself the de facto leader of the survivors. We follow their conflict as they struggle to protect their fellow survivors and follow clues to learn who was behind the Black Dawn.
Stories in other mediums (the short film, videoblogs, the online comic) also explore some of the peripheral characters, for instance the Catalyst spin-off tells the tragic story of a scientist before the Black Dawn and how some of his research ends up contributing to the worldwide outbreak in a surprising and deadly way.
What is the final format of the The Black Dawn, and how will it be distributed?
We consider The Black Dawn to be a multimedia experience — that is, it doesn’t have one single final format or distribution platform. The series began on the web, distributed through our partner company WebSerials.com, with videoblogs available on sites like YouTube. But now, the series has moved to television and is airing in syndication around the country. Early next year, we plan to release the central story on DVD as a feature film, focusing on the main character of Adam.
Again, the whole idea here is to give the audience a unique, multi-faceted experience. This isn’t one single, linear story that you have to experience from start to finish. We see this as a huge world, with many stories, characters, and events that the audience can explore. With much of the content already available online at WebSerials.com, viewers can easily navigate through the series and follow the characters or stories that most interest them.
Can you outline the creative process of The Black Dawn from idea to download?
Well, the series was originally conceived as simply a feature film, but as we developed that concept, we quickly saw how rich this world was and how exciting it would be to tell other stories that connected to our central concept. While series creators William Hellmuth and Abraham Sherman focused on that main story, I helped develop the surrounding content and stories.
Having produced a number of web serials before The Black Dawn, one of our primary concerns was losing audiences with another heavily serialized story. It had proven remarkably difficult to retain a consistent audience when the story was unfolding in such small pieces (usually just five minutes a week). Our hope was that by building a richer surrounding world and giving the audience the freedom to interact with the story more non-linearly, that we’d give people more points-of-entry and a greater variety of reasons to stay active and involved with the story.
Over the six months that The Black Dawn premiered online, our theory proved to be remarkably successful, as we found a devoted fan following forming around The Black Dawn and the mystery behind it.
We also were pleasantly surprised with the diverse range of audience members, as different viewers were attracted by different parts of the world. Some of the integrated content was more humorous, or had less science-fiction. We had videoblogs that appeared to be real to many viewers. The sheer variety of content within the world of The Black Dawn attracted a broad range of viewers to the franchise.
What are the plots of your other movies, such as Cataclysmo? What do you look for in plot, i.e., what constitutes a good plot for a movie?
In our partnership with WebSerials.com, we’ve produced a lot of science-fiction content, including two seasons of the cult sci-fi adventure Cataclysmo and the suspense-filled creature series “Project X.” Our team happens to love science-fiction and it’s a natural fit for many of the stories we want to tell, but at the heart of everything we do, we really just want to craft entertaining experiences with fun, likable characters and great drama.
What can you tell us about dialog and the importance of dialog in scripting a teleplay? What constitutes good dialog in a story?
That’s a great question. I don’t think you can hone in on any particular “dialogue style” and say that’s how dialogue should sound in a movie. It really just needs to fit the characters and the world they inhabit. Some of our productions have very heavily scripted dialogue. By that, I mean that it sounds written — like a play. It may be witty or over-the-top, or just have a unique sound to it. That can be very fun, especially when you have a writer that can bring a really clever voice to the characters.
Other times, we go for a more grounded, realistic sound. Sometimes this comes from scripting, but we also love working with actors who have strong improvisational backgrounds. They can work from a script or even just an outline and deliver incredibly natural, realistic dialogue that comes straight out of their own life and personality.
In The Black Dawn we have a great mix of styles. The film, TV series, and web series were all scripted with some great dialogue from Abraham Sherman and Brian Walton. There’s some great scripted moments in the story, where I can’t imagine anything but the exact words that Abe & Brian wrote. But we also had these videoblogs that feature each of our characters, and all of the actors improvised those without a script. They’re amazing to watch because they feel so real and yet they play directly into the story and world that we created.
How important is characterization vs action in writing for movies? What are the elements of strong characterization?
I guess it really depends on the movie. If you’re aiming for a big crowd-pleaser like Transformers, it’d seem like action is obviously the highest priority while characterization is all but forgotten. The science-fiction genre is quite broad though, and obviously some of the best sci-fi stories are incredibly character-driven and more cerebral.
Many of our web serial concepts were born out of the action-packed, over-the-top world of comic books and old sci-fi serials (like Flash Gordon), but to connect with modern audiences, I think it’s essential that you go deeper than a lot of those stories are known for.
We also don’t have the budgets to create huge action set-pieces that may distract you from an underdeveloped script, so we really have to prioritize and focus on crafting as strong of a story and characters as possible.
I’ve read all of the popular books on screenwriting and storytelling, which are the sort of “guidebooks” for so many of today’s writers, but I honestly can’t stand most of the advice in those books. It’s not that any of it is particularly wrong as much as it’s just presented so formulaically — like if you just put these moments in your script and your character has these qualities, you’ll have the makings of a hit. I think audiences can see right through that, though. It’s easy to spot those stories — I call them soulless, because you can tell that the writers were painting-by-numbers, rather than really connecting with their characters and breathing some fresh life into the story.
Some of the best foundations I’ve found for writing come out of reading about philosophy and psychology. Anyone serious about storytelling should check out Aristotle’s Poetics — it’s a dense but short read and will give you a far better foundation for stories and characters than any of today’s “how-to” books.
How did you get into writing and filmmaking?
For me, it’s been a dream since I was a kid. I picked up a video camera when I was ten-years-old and really never put it down. For a lot of people on our team, it’s the same kind of story. We’re all pretty young and thanks to today’s technologies, we’ve been able to build our own professional production company completely independent of the traditional Hollywood system. It’s exciting and challenging being on the fringe, but I love the freedom that it gives us to really experiment and pursue cutting edge projects like The Black Dawn that use today’s mediums and technologies in fresh and unique ways.
How did you acquire your interest in sci fi?
I grew up on Star Wars and Star Trek and many of the other great sci-fi franchises of the eighties and nineties. I think for me, it’s the imagination behind sci-fi as much as anything else that I find interesting and exciting. It’s just that sense of anything you dream up could happen. You can go anywhere and do anything with sci-fi, which is far more compelling to me than creating some show about doctors or lawyers.
At the same time, I think working in this genre has given me a lot of tools to take into other stories. Even now, as we develop concepts that aren’t necessarily sci-fi, the imaginative, anything-goes mentality that often informs our work can carry over into these more grounded worlds. Thinking outside the box like that has brought us to some really cool and clever concepts that have nothing to do with science-fiction.
What is a “web serial” and what is the business model, in general terms, for a site like WebSerials.com? Is it advertiser supported?
WebSerials.com was partially born out of a need we faced when we were first completing one of our early films, “Project X” — we’d made the film with the intention of releasing it over the internet, but at that time long-form content was still a really difficult sell online. YouTube had just become popular and sites like Hulu didn’t even exist.
We realized that the best way to release “Project X” would be in short, bite-size segments that would appeal to the YouTube crowd and out of that, WebSerials.com was born. We were one of the first, if not the first, company to serialize a feature-length film online like that — a model that was quickly imitated by other web series, like Michael Eisner’s Prom Queen.
Now, over time we’ve had to adapt. Hulu came onto the map last year and quickly revolutionized how many of us consume media. I know I’m not the only one who has stopped watching broadcast TV almost completely and watch most TV and films online through sites like Hulu and Netflix. I think these days, the short five-minute web serials are getting lost amongst the more popular and bigger-budgeted long-form content.
So, we’re still working with WebSerials.com to develop new concepts for the internet, but I think the model is definitely going through a lot of changes right now. The Black Dawn was the first example of that, where instead of just being a web series, we’ve really leveraged every possible medium we can. To me, that’s really the future — it’s not about creating a web series or a film anymore. We really have to be creating whole worlds that span all of these mediums and can constantly engage audiences in new ways.
Do you write all your films or will you collaborate with other authors? Are you interested in seeing new stories? What kind?
I work with a fantastic team of writers here at New Renaissance Pictures. They’re some of the most talented and imaginative people I’ve ever met. Developing new stories with them is an absolute joy and the highlight of my job. While I do a fair bit of writing myself, I’m thrilled to be working with a team of people who are so talented — what we come up with together is always far better than anything one of us could create on our own.
Do you also read sci fi/fantasy? Who are your favorite authors? What are your favorite books or movies in the genre and what have been your influences?
Most of what I read is actually non-fiction — everything from philosophy and biographies to lots and lots of books about filmmaking and business. When I do get a chance to read fiction, I love a lot of the classics — Dickens, Hugo, Shakespeare. Every now and then, I’ll pick up a sci-fi or fantasy book. My wife keeps trying to get me to read Lord of the Rings, but for now, the movies must suffice. Most of my sci-fi influences definitely come from TV and film. I love just about everything that Whedon or Abrams have done and Lucas & Spielberg remain untouchable. I even like the Star Wars prequels.
What advice or guidance would you give an aspiring sci fi/fantasy author?
First, just keep your imagination active and keep dreaming. There’s nothing worse than cliched sci-fi/fantasy tropes that get done to death. I’m guilty of it myself, but it happens too often, because it’s easy to draw from the other worlds we’ve fallen in love with. The real challenge is dreaming and imagining something new and different and unique. That’s part of why I love collaborating with other writers, because they often catch me when I’m being too cliched and they often can dream up something new and better to take its place.
The other advice I’d have is to remember that just because you’re writing genre fiction like sci-fi or fantasy, doesn’t mean that the usual elements of a good story aren’t just as important as ever. Whether it’s a space opera in a galaxy far, far away or the story of just a down-to-earth contemporary drama, the priorities are still the same: focus on the heart of this story, find what makes the characters compelling, and make sure that your audience can connect to something good or true or beautiful within whatever you’re writing.
What is your next project?
We have a lot of projects in development here, but our next series for WebSerials.com is coming out in a few months. It’s called “Best Laid Plans” and it’s a very funny, very unique improvised sitcom. It’s not sci-fi, but it does star some of our favorite actors from our previous serials, including Jesse GrothOlson, who was a fan favorite in Cataclysmo as Dr. Crankshaft.
The series will be a loose collection of humorous vignettes in the lives of our main characters — just a group of friends, out of work, looking for a way to make it big in today’s challenging world. Everything is improvised by our very talented cast, which makes it both funnier than most comedies out right now and a lot more authentic than you may be used too. It’s a little hard to describe, but it’s a very exciting project that we can’t wait to release. I guarantee that you’ll get a kick out of it — even though it isn’t sci-fi!
Copyright © 2009 by Joshua Sikora
and Bewildering Stories