Pre-Production/Pilot

Note: Unlike “Final Fantasy vs Kaiju Big Battel,” this is being written at the start of what we anticipate will be a regular production cycle. As such, these thoughts reflect the origins of the project and it’s title, and may be updated slightly by the middle of the first season to prevent spoilers from the early part of the story.

Anyone who knows me knows that my life has a bizarre way of tending to occur in a circular fashion. It proves to be the stuff of frustration, hilarity, and at times, great satisfaction. With the start of “Doujinopolis” and how it’s morphed into what it is, this is most certainly a case of the latter two.

Interestingly, this story doesn’t start with when I was approached to do a weekly show for a local anime retailer. In this case, it starts back in 2006, during the period immediately following the initial promo run for “Final Fantasy vs Kaiju Big Battel”…

During that time, I’d been tinkering around with new ideas for another great crossover work. At first, in late 2005 immediately following “FFvsKBB’s” completion, I’d attempted to do a Resident Evil-oriented fan film (NOT one based off my favorite test subject for new tech, Resident Evil: Bunny), but when that fell apart in pre-production and I began the extended stint of unemployment that sidelined alot of my projects until recently, I was still grasping at thin air for ideas.

One day, when I was playing around with a newly finished Zaku Warrior model kit from “Gundam Seed Destiny”, I was hit with an idea…a grand crossover that would take place over two separate timeframes and tell a new original story while tying into all the successful anime con skits my team and I had based off most of the popular anime at the time. It was going to be centered around a city that would serve as a hub for the world of anime, a city that would have an omnipotent being not only being the arbiter of this world’s happenings, but who would be the key focus of the story. Unsurprisingly, as I developed the concept further, Haruhi Suzumiya (with Kyon as her trusty right hand man) was to be this figure.

After a long consideration process, I settled upon a name for this city which would be the name of the overarching project: “Doujinopolis”.

Conceptually speaking, it was exactly as it sounded: a city (“polis”) built upon a fan-made story (“doujin”). Admittedly, I also picked the name ’cause I thought it’d look cool on a poster, but as you can tell, my oddball thinking allowed me to make this work in a very offbeat manner.

In late 2007, when I had just started my current job, I thought I was at a point where I could tell this grand story with most of the resources I’d need…even going so far as to begin drafting a script and organizing my production team. Never mind the fact that I was also working part-time as a martial arts instructor on top of that for part of that early period, which was also a huge time-drain for my schedule. However, life had other plans for me, so after taking into account all the new expenses I was going to start paying at that point, remembering that I’d have to get a whole new rig to be able to work with my new footage, AND taking my convention going to a semi-professional level (thanks to my stint with Anime News Network and all the cosplay endeavors I’ve been on thru American Cosplay Paradise), I had to once again shelve a project.

But like I already said, life had other plans for me.

Fast forward to early August of 2009. On a whim, I decided to go grab dinner one Friday night with my friend (and future co-star) Jenni Hashimoto. Let’s just say I picked a hell of a day to go grab some food with a friend, because that was when I was first told that New York City-based anime retailer and industry friend Image Anime wanted to do a web show. Initially, I was asked to direct/edit/film the thing. When told about the original format they wanted and who else they were considering to get involved, I decided to do the Mario thing and make a few offers of my own that would give me a bit more enthusiasm for the project, while possibly making it into a more fun endeavor.

After weeks of planning and setting up the show’s format (and me once again getting plagued along the way by equipment acquisition issues ala the Canon XL-2 fiasco from FFvsKBB), we retooled the show from a simple review program with hosts in cosplay to a weekly narrative that would highlight product in a very unorthodox manner…all made possible with a little help from modern internet technology (read: Youtube’s annotations feature).

The first shoot for our Pilot episode was a simple one, oddly thrown in between my frantic preparation for the 2009 New York Anime Festival (wherein I had my first guest stint hosting and headlining the Friday Night Variety Show). Documented by John from Otakuden.com, it was just me, Jenni, a camera, and random adult merchandise.

…That totally didn’t come out right, but who cares… ^_^;

In that hour and a half span of time, we essentially went from being simply Mario and Jenni in Kyon and Haruhi costumes praying they knew what they were doing into Kyon and Haruhi bantering about product. With the footage in the can, we were ready to go for editing, which I would be frantically trying to do with two weeks before the con AND a heavy workload of other rehearsals and my day job. The con came and went (unsurprisingly, the Pilot continued my tradition of convention video causing problems and making me arrive late on a Friday), the Pilot Episode was a hit at the Variety  Show, and we were pretty much ready for business.

But then a new problem arose…what the hell were we gonna call this thing?

The day I got the e-mail asking about the show’s upload progress, I sat down and pondered it. I think it was the fact that I had been wanting to use the name for as long as I had that it presented itself so quickly as a good option. After weighing it out, I shot an e-mail to Jenni, got her approval, and christened it “Doujinopolis.” It would seem odd to name this kind of program with a name such as this, but when I thought about the plot and where we plan to take it…I’ll avoid spoiling it until the midseason of season one, but suffice it to say…it has earned it’s name. ^_~

This time around, it’s not a literal city built around fan-produced stories: It’s a story produced by a fan-circle (“doujin”) taking place in the big city (“polis”)…amusingly enough, at a conduit of Japanese popular culture that is recognized worldwide.

Circles, ladies and gentlemen…circles.

While I still hope to one day realize the original vision of “Doujinopolis” (much to Jenni’s terror, amusingly), I’m honestly much happier and much more excited to be working on this new version of the concept since it provides a very avante garde approach to serialized storytelling for the internet generation. Looking back on how my last project was developed with the traditional film industry as it’s model, and how much I’m experimenting with a new format on this project (with better tools and more knowledge at my disposal), it’ll be fun to see where we guide this project…doubly so since I had wanted to follow up “FFvsKBB” with internet-based serials and never did.

And the great thing is, as you’ll see by the middle and end of the first season…I can always revisit the old without affecting the new. ^_~

Until then, here’s to this city of dreams and the fans who will help create it while further breaking down barriers and establishing new relationships between industry and the consumers who fuel it.

Here’s to a bold new step…one fitting for the thing which purports to be the future of the digital world.

-Mario E. Bueno

Season 1

I started this post on March 29th of 2010, and only finished it now on January 17th of 2011, and let me tell ya, it’s been a roller coaster for me personally since that time; in part due to the aftermath of this show, and in part due to everything that this show taught me. So, after many starts and stops, here’s the story of Season One following the conception and pilot as best as I can present with so much time having passed and with so much still to do.

It all began at the start of October of 2009…

Initially, we’d planned the first episode or two of the series to be a normal review show with random introductions of the SOS Brigade, with a Capcom-cameo laden Halloween episode thrown in there for laughs. Given that I realized we’d barely be able to make a deadline for that, we opted to make the Halloween special the first episode, and cut all the Capcom characters/references from the episode (save for the Devil May Cry Bluray plug as it was technically under FUNimation territory). In a way, while in the long run the episode wasn’t received with quite the same joy as latter episodes, it served a purpose in the plotline of the season, especially as the format morphed over time and had the “big reveal” (i.e. the characters learning that they were cartoons brought into the real world) come much earlier in the season.

That particular day of shooting, we shot the fourth episode (some of the footage of which got rolled into the tenth episode) first to kill some time and get some footage done while we waited for our extras to come by and film episode one. It was an interesting day of experimenting and getting used to format while also getting very comfortable with the characters and our relation to each other as them. It was also on this day we were introduced to the guy who’d be our cameraman for the first half of the season (and eventually our Gin in episode eight), Orin Sarabia. We ended up bonding over stories of fanfilm glory days past, and found out we were well versed in two generations of the same digital video camera. When our army of undead arrived later, featuring mostly an assortment of friends both old and relatively new, we shot the first episode of the show proper. The impending Halloween mood helped alot in getting ready as we were able to channel it with ease and make a seasonally appropriate first episode.

Not long after that, we had our first shoot for the next three episodes. It was here that I got to first work with our SOS Brigade, comprised of veteran Carrie Wink-Troy from “Final Fantasy vs Kaiju Big Battel”, and newer friends/collaborators Scootkadoot, who had been in a bunch of my skits over the previous year, and Karl “Uncle Yo” Custer whom I’d just became good friends with earlier that year, but had encountered sporadically from the first New York Anime Festival onward.

Now, point of fact…Karl was a Godsend given that I was going to task Itsuki with being one of the movers of plot, and given his penchant for comic dialogue and exposition, he was able to convey an admittedly convoluted and odd plot with skill that I would only expect of very few people. It also helped that he was able to put in a few extra touches on set when we were divvying up dialogue and spending literally hours trying to get parts of this done in one take before giving up and deciding to have to do takes. Initially, we were going to establish that the entire show was being filmed by Kyon and Haruhi with exceptions happening after we introduced a cameraman character. As this never happened, we just kind of winged it and hoped for the best. As we later realized that nobody would notice since it was a web show, it allowed us to shoot the complex episode five first, and then shoot the increasingly simpler episodes two and three right after.

With these first five episodes done, I began the editing and release process, trying to get each episode done within a five to seven day span. Each week was nerve wracking as I wasn’t sure how people would react. Initially, feelings were mixed on the first episode due to it’s odd nature, but as each episode progressed (and with a little help from people spamming the show thanks to links on the notorious US internet forum 4chan), word spread about the show and the feedback kept getting exponentially more positive.

By the time we hit our first midseason break to begin work on what would be the last episodes before the push for the season finale, we had started discussing what to do with the “Code Geass” characters we were to bring in, as well as acquiring props for that and an episode which, tragically, was cut (an episode done entirely with Figmas). The initial concern Jenni and I had going into this block was that, contrary to my usual style, we were going to only stick to playing Haruhi and Kyon, but suddenly we had to become two new characters to carry the next arc. Thankfully, helmets and visors saved our asses there and we were able to pull off the switch, which allowed for an interesting dynamic change for these episodes from a director’s perspective: whereas Jenni had been the “dominant” personality as Haruhi and I was the “subservient” one, this shifted just by proxy of the character choices/relationships during these episodes. We also added some new members to the cast, the most notable being Nicole Berardi who played CC for the rest of the program. Aside from our real life chemistry as a couple allowing us to read each other like pros, which made our improvised interactions far more natural considering her lack of formal acting training, she also made for a wonderful foil for Jenni when the two were forced to bicker as the two are great friends in real life and flipped their friendship on their head for the roles of Kallen and CC.

We were also blessed with returning cosplay collaborator Raymond Bryant, who had a cameo in “FFvsKBB” and did also did double duty for the show as Kayne West (originally intended as a one-off gag poking fun at the 2009 MTV VMA incident with Taylor Swift) and Tousen, as well as Kenneth Cardez, a longtime cosplay performance collaborator (Kogarashi), and Billy Quick (Sebastian), who at the time was an up and coming face in the cosplay community and soon started becoming a regular in my casts because of how awesome he was to work with on his episode. I was even lucky enough to wrangle in longtime friend Morgan Kelly, who missed making a cameo in “FFvsKBB” but was on set many times, to save my ass in an 11th hour shoot for half of Episode 9.

And speaking of blessings, the “Black Christmas” episode was a reminder of how fortunate I am to have the family I do as that episode necessitated me having to drag relatives in to help: I credit my mother for helping out with the post-credit “Saddest Kyon” bump (a gag originally intended to stretch until the season finale) as I needed someone to zoom back while I sat looking miserable and cold on Christmas Eve to get the last shot for the episode. Given that this project was one of the most high profile ones I’ve worked on in years, it was wonderful to know that I was able to not only include some of my closest friends on this project, but family as well. And be able to show it to my Spanish-speaking grandparents, since this project had many moments that transcended language and relied on visual storytelling to convey the humor, was a wonderful thing.

We then had an unexpected break in the second half of the season for two reasons: Ken’s son was born around New Year’s, which was when we initially expected to shoot the “Kuro vs Kamen” episode, and I then moved from my childhood home days later, which was all sorts of wacky since it was a very crazy time.

(Ironically, the first half of the Season Finale saw my apartment used twice as a set for Itsuki’s apartment and the Celestial Being safe house, then again in pickups for the UN Waiting room in Episode Nine. Due to the other web video promos I’ve gotten involved in since the end of the first season, it was a foreshadowing of what was to come.)

With me barely settled back into my new place, we shot the remaining episodes, now with new cameraman Richard Baldovin (who subsequently became a collaborator on video projects from there on). Along the way, we brought in many familiar faces (longtime collaborator Christopher Troy, our Squall from “FFvsKBB”, among them) and equally as much new blood for the finale, and thru the help of the internet, rallied a small group of extras to give our finale some teeth in it’s first half. Equally interesting to note is that had there been more time, certain sequences leading up to the finale would have been more elaborate and possibly including extra Anime sources to make it work (Hetalia for the UN sequence that was effectively cut comes to mind…in retrospect, I’m kinda glad it happened). We were also supposed to have our Shinigami captains return in the Finale, but due to no-shows and costume issues, we had to rewrite the entire sequence on site and cut them…despite bringing back Kanye for a gag revolving around them.

Along the way, I compiled footage originally intended for Episode 4 and the Finale and segments that were going to be part of a series of one-offs we were going to put at the end of each episode but never did due to not getting Image Anime store personnel to shoot it, and instead used it as a prelude to the climax of the first season due to the juxtaposition of store life before and after the Black Knights take over from the SOS Brigade.

I won’t lie: the filming of these last episodes was brutal the crew and I (at least a paragraph could be devoted to the near mutinies alone, heheh), but in the end, as I expected, everything came together when I finally finished and uploaded the last episode by the first PAX East convention. For me, the bittersweetness happened twice: once on set when I saw how, ironically, with each character exiting the scene, we had the crew dwindle down to just Jenni and myself (with an assist from Wing on the camera for the angles/world trembling in the final sequence), thus bringing it back to how it started, and again when the episode was done/reviewed/uploaded because I felt the sense of closure hit me like a ton of bricks the minute it was online and set free into the world. It was also awe-inspiring to see the outpour of support from the fans when the first season ended, and even now, almost a year to when we shot the finale I still find myself getting comments on episodes, and hearing stories from Jenni and the team at Image about fans who still thank us for contributing this show to their lives.

There’s been many different answers as to the state of what the second season will be, and I will say this: we CAN do a second season, as it’s all part of what I envisioned once we started work on this series as it was designed to run for 2-3 seasons with the original movie concept (retooled to match what we ended up with in this inaugural season, of course) to cap it all off. The WILL is a different story, but I hope that the day will come soon when we can return to this world to finish the story we started telling. Even if we never do, this story is still a great standalone, and much like “FFvsKBB” serves a snapshot of the Anime fandom at a particular period of time; a snapshot capturing what was current and still managing to remain a timeless story of characters becoming real and dealing with the real world as well as a battle of good and evil under these circumstances.

I want to return to this story, and thankfully, I may be able to follow thru on that if only because of the love for the show that the crew had. Here’s to a successful first season that still lives on almost a year after it’s completion. May it forever serve as a unifying moment for all those who were involved, and those who came to enjoy it. It was a fun ride, and I hope we’ll get to do it all again.

‘Til next time, I’ll see you all at the clubhouse. In case you forgot, it’s at 242 West 30th Street.

-Mario E. Bueno