Friday, September 30, 2011

Super ‘70s and ‘80s: “The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show”—Steve Whiting, producer/director

Introduction to series “Super ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Introduction to subseries “The Plastic Man Comedy Adventure Show” (including list of interviewees).

How did you get the job of packaging Plastic Man for syndication? Don’t the big companies like Ruby-Spears typically do that themselves?

Arlington Television was a divisional offshoot of Golden West Television which at the time was owned by Jeff Simmons. I had produced and directed many TV shows for Jeff in the five years prior to Plastic Man. When Arlington made the deal with Ruby-Spears to repackage Plastic Man, Jeff Simmons told them he had just the guy to create the shows.

I got a call from Simmons in which he said, cryptically, “Son, Plastic Man looms large in your future” and I said “Who?” I had about three days before my interview with Ruby-Spears to create a show using wraparounds to introduce the library of cartoons. I figured who better to introduce the cartoons than Plastic Man himself. I’d been a fan of Captain Satellite, a character who hosted cartoon shows on a local San Francisco Bay Area station when I was a kid. I think I finalized the idea for the pitch on the plane to LA and I’m sure I heard some of the ideas for the first time as they came out of my mouth during the meeting.

[At the offices of] Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, I pitched them my idea of a live Plastic Man hosting the show from the Plasti-Jet and talking directly to the young viewers as friends. They bought the creative concept on the spot. I got the gig with full control to produce it in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What does packaging for syndication typically entail? Shortening the running time?

Re-packaging for syndication usually entails changing the format and structure of the show. They wanted to go from once a week to five days a week. That meant they need 130 half-hour shows, which is five days a week for six months, and then it starts again. A re-packaged show is actually a new entity separate from the original, but containing some of the same content. We edited some of the cartoons and segments to fit time frames.

Did you ever have to ask for new animated material?

Not really. We just edited animated material that already existed into our show format. That’s how our live Plastic Man has conversations with the animated Chief. We used inter-cuts and editing of phrases the Chief spoke to Plastic Man in the cartoons to have her speak to our live-action Plastic Man.

What was the process like to get approval from DC Comics?

I have no clue. Ruby-Spears handled all of that. I was never asked by DC Comics to change anything.

How did the budget work—did Ruby-Spears pay for the live action segments? If so, how did you convince them to take that risk? If they did not pay for the segments, who did and how did you convince them?

Arlington Television paid for the production of the live action segments as part of their partnership/licensing deal with Ruby-Spears. As such, the newly packaged and assembled shows (with live host) became new product which belonged to Arlington (Simmons), as long as they remained intact. Some years later, Simmons assigned the rights to me.

Did you hand-pick Mark Taylor or did you have an audition process? If auditions, how many showed up? Any funny stories?

I didn’t have time to set up a full casting call to find my “Plas” on short notice, so I hired [a] company to help with the talent search. Soon thereafter, [someone from the company] saw Taylor Marks [his stage name] doing stand-up comedy in San Francisco one night and called me the next day to say, “I’ve got the guy. He’s perfect. He’s even looks like Plastic Man.” I auditioned Mark and said, “Look no further. That’s him.”

Mark Taylor and Steve Whiting

This newspaper article was too big for one scan.

How much of the segments were scripted versus ad-libbed?

Simmons gave me two writers, [both of] whom I’d worked with on previous shows. One was Steve Arwood, who wrote for Riders in the Sky out of Nashville, and the other was Rick Sanchec. Jeff gave Rick just enough of an advance check to come to California, but no money to get home until the shows were all written. He lived in the music room at my house and wrote day and night. We had the synopses of all the cartoons in written form, but we’d not seen all of the cartoons themselves. They also weren’t available for us to view. No home VCRs in those days.

Anyway, we wrote specific introductions and gags to most of the cartoons and then generic intros and gags that could be used as filler. For 130 half-hour shows, it was a lot material.

Then on the set, when we were taping the intros, outros, segues, and random bits, Mark and I would first look at each script and if it felt like it worked, we’d go with it. If it didn’t we’d use it as a springboard to ad-lib. A lot of the ad-lib stuff is among some of the best. We taped intros, wraparounds, and closes for about 3-4 weeks.

Meaning that you produced all the segments in 3-4 weeks? After that, no more Plastic Man shooting for the show?

It could have been up to six weeks of shooting. After that we went into post-production to integrate all of our live stuff. Each show had to time out to precisely 28:30, with the black holes for commercials built into the masters. That took several months.

How long (in pages) was a script?

For the live segments, the script was only about two pages per show.

Who made the costume?

Oh, wow, a stage costume designer based in San Francisco.

Were there ever characters besides PM in the segments? If not, did you want guest stars at any point?

There was no time to develop those kinds of elements. [However], Plastic Man did refer and bring out his relatives, including Plastic Wrap, Plastic Foil, Plastic Container, and others.

Any funny stories about shoots that went wrong? Accidents? Embarrassments?

Many. We had a great comedian playing a superhero in a leotard [among] grizzled old pro tech guys on a closed set. Funny stories aplenty. I’d have to run back the memory tapes with Mark and some of the crew that are still with me to decide the best that are also mentionable ones.

Were all the segments filmed on one set? Did you ever travel to film a segment?

All were done on a single sound stage.

How long did it take to shoot a typical segment?

There were no typical segments. The straight forward introductions and segue throwaways went quite quickly, and we could do two or three of those in an hour. When we were shooting shots that we knew we were going to manipulate in post-production using what was at the time very advanced DVE (Digital Video Effects), it took a lot longer. Stuff we did on green screen at that time was very precise and difficult to make work at all convincingly. Some introductions with effects and rigging by our gaffers and effects guys would take two or three hours to set up. When, on camera, our Plastic Man transforms from a tire to himself and moves right into an introduction, for example, it took about two hours to set up. It still stands up today…so to speak. Some great stage and video edit technicians put their heads together to make that work impressively for its time.

How did you get PM to join “security” for the Democratic National Convention?

At the time, I was not an unknown producer/director in the market and I used my access to get Plastic Man the credentials he needed.

You said at one point that the segments had generated $4 million. Do you mean in ad revenue?

Our PMCAS was sold into syndication as a first-run off-network series. What I was quoted as saying in terms of revenues referred to the ADI market sales figures. What the ad revenue figures actually were could only come from the stations themselves. It’s my understanding that the local stations [did] quite well with the series from their spot-ad revenues.

Have you done any other superhero projects since?

No, except for working with superstar athletes, musicians, and politician.

Have you ever been interviewed about PM for a comics-related publication?

I’ve done several interviews and been quoted with varying degrees of accuracy.

Do you still have any memorabilia related to the segments—scripts, promotional material, merchandise?

Yes, suppose I do. A portion of my personal tape archive vault is devoted to good old Plas. In a warehouse, I have some of the hand-painted set backdrops, props, T-shirts, fan photos, and who knows what all else.

What do you think about a live-action PM movie? Or should it be entirely CGI?

I feel the wife in The Incredibles was a total rip-off of Plastic Man. I think Plastic Man could be a tremendous live character concept outside of animation. I know exactly how it could and should be done…but I’m not telling.

Mark Taylor (Plastic Man—live action).

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