Fans OCCUPY Conan With Self-Produced Parodies
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In normal times, the late night show Conan is a barrel of laughs. With the episode "OCCUPY Conan", Conan O'Brien let the inmates -- uh, the fans -- take over the asylum with a raft of fan-produced parodies of an original show, strung together to form an entire episode. The result, which aired on January 13, 2013, is now up for an Emmy for Outstanding Multicam Editing for a Comedy Series.
Concept producer Doug Karo had the idea to do a segment-by-segment parody of the show, inspired by the phenomenon of fan-created Star Wars videos found on the Internet, that range from talking heads to nerds re-enacting fight scenes. "It doesn't look anything like the movie," says lead editor Dan Dome. "You've got everything from nerdy kids in their living room re-enacting fight scenes to two guys talking on a couch to Claymation. Doug's idea was to take that model and apply it to Conan, building a show from Conan episodes and using 'best-of-fan parody clips' to make an original fan-sourced show."
This and all images (including title graphic) © 2013 TEAM COCO
The first thing the producers did was to build a 'best of' episode of the show, put it on the Internet, and invite fans to contribute. "We built the template for the Occupy show with our show with our Head Writer, Associate Director and Segment Producers," says editor Chris Heller. "It was put online by our Web Team so the fans could pick scenes that they wanted to recreate," adds Dome. Fans were told they could use any medium at their disposal, from live action to hand-drawn animation and CG. Sponsor Volkswagen also offered an enticement to submit clips: a new VW Bug to the fan with the best recreation.
The response was dramatic, with over 2,000 clips submitted to the show's website. "We got hundreds of submissions -- mostly 15 to 30 second clips," says Heller. "Some clips of the original show drew only 10 submissions and others drew hundreds." The most popular clip the fans parodied was when Will Ferrell came out unannounced, dressed as Ron Burgundy to announce the new Anchorman 2 movie.
The Conan Web Team created a system that, during the upload process to the site, converted the clips to H.264 movies. "The uniform codec for the fans' material really helped us," says Heller. Adds Dome: "We had all the clips in the same codec flavor; it was hard to know if people were going to shoot it with their phones or a Canon DSLR or even cameras off a laptop."
"That was a huge, huge help," agrees Heller. "Some clips were 4x3 when they should be 16x9 but when I got it, pretty much everything was ready to drop in and edit. Obviously there was a lot of audio mixing and color correction but besides that, it was very helpful how the Web Team created the submission system."
Puppets re-enacting a fight scene. © 2013 TEAM COCO
As soon as the Conan Edit and Web Teams received a list of the "selects" for edit, they immediately converted it, via Compressor, to the DVCPRO HD codec, 1080i at 29.97 fps. The Web Team created another important feature. "They had a naming convention that allowed us to track the creator of each submission," says Dome. "Chris had to provide that information for the clips used in the show, and it was easy to do via sharing the editing project which had the file names in the timeline."
Picking the clips to form the parody show was a big job; Karo, writer Scott Gairdner and a few other writers went through the mass of clips, picking the ones they really loved. "If there were 50 clips for Ron Burgundy, he'd pick the five best," says Heller. "I wasn't editing with every single submission for that section -- just the five most wanted. Doug gave me a list, and the Web Team would download them, convert them and place them in a project, so we'd get it roughed out very quickly."
Act I, which included Conan's monologue, was the longest, most complicated act. "We would look at all the ten best clips for one 30 second section," says Heller. "Originally, I put the sequence together with a different clip every 10 seconds, but the pacing was overwhelming and it was too confusing. We decided not to switch clips less than every 25 seconds. Getting it to feel right was really about the timing."
Part of the decision centered on the wildly divergent quality of the clips. "Some fans had used their laptop to record with their webcam and the audio and video were pretty bad," says Heller. "Then we'd switch to a clip that was much more professionally done. It got so haphazard looking we decided that we needed to let people live with the clips for a longer period of time to make the overall piece more watchable."
Dome stresses that it's "not a knock to the fans whose clips didn't get chosen. "We had to make the show something that is fun and watchable and keeps the integrity of what the story is." At 38 minutes, the finished episode includes an intro and outro with Conan; the show starts with him sitting at his desk, jokingly introducing "OCCUPY Conan" as an episode that will change the way TV is viewed in the future...and perhaps destroy it.
© 2013 TEAM COCO
The end of the episode featured a credit roll with all the YouTube names of the fan videos that made it into the show. "We called them the Occupiers," says Heller, who says the names were pulled from an organization of the episode in Google Docs.
"OCCUPY Conan" was the result of a high level of collaboration among Conan himself, the executive producer, head writer, writers and many others in addition to the Conan Edit and Web Teams, says Dome. "We looked at it to make sure it was a great show and represents us and the fans in a great way," he adds. "The day of delivery, we were still crunching pretty hard as if it were a regular show. To make sure we got it to the feed on time, the associate director and I kept track of the timing." Then it was back to business as usual. "As soon as the show was done, we were on to the next day's show," says Heller. "As a daily show, whatever is next is high priority."
"OCCUPY Conan" is a clever homage to UGC -- User-Generated Content -- an often-derided by-product of the Internet, where anyone can be a director, writer, animator or actor. The Conan mash-up may not change TV history (or, as he joked, destroy it), but it's a prescient nod to an increasingly multi-platform, interactive, inclusive form of entertainment. And, oh, it's pretty funny, so make sure to watch it if you haven't already.