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Earth, Wind & Fire


Originally, my intent to write about the issue of All My Children's use of CGI for last week's tornado sequences was to address them within the context of specific episodes as I had done in previous entries about The Great Pine Valley Tornado of 2008. After reading a few comments and other blogs, it occurred to me that there are a number of considerations to think about in regard to special effects in daytime drama, including the use of CGI, as all soaps redefine their production models for the future.

It has been said by many critics and fans something along the lines that if the acting and writing were good, producers could hang a black curtain behind a table and a couple of chairs and fans would watch. This is a noble sentiment, to be sure, but televised soaps never really had such a set up.

The spartan sets of soaps in the 50's reflected those of the entire television landscape from game shows to playhouse dramas at a time when viewers were just getting used to television itself. As the medium matured during the 60's and 70's, so did the production values of all shows regardless of daypart. The 80's — the era most cited here and elsewhere as the genre's most indelible and influential — reflected and refracted that decade's zeitgeist with lavish production values for soaps, including grand and sometimes outrageous sets, expensive wardrobes and international location sequences.

Production matters against this historical backdrop. If production did not matter, soap fans would not recount among their favorite memories Wyndham's department store (General Hospital), St. Croix (Another World), fictional Mendorra (One Life To Live), Hong Kong (Search for Tomorrow), Switzerland (The Edge of Night), Spain (As the World Turns), New Orleans (Days of Our Lives) or any number of other locations that served as as inextricable elements of the viewing experience as the storylines themselves. If production isn't important, The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful would not have been widely praised literally for decades for their lush sets and lighting; likewise OLTL for its current dazzling visual flair. If production does not matter, fans would not have revolted specifically against AMC's recent experiment with hand held cameras or the early months of Guiding Light's entire production model, the latter of which is still widely criticized despite enormous improvements across the board.

On the contrary, all of the soaps calibrate, recalibrate and sometimes overhaul their production elements primarily as a matter of budgetary issues, but often to enhance the visual experience for the viewer.  With that in mind as the CBS soaps experiment with more location work because of costs savings and attempt to inject 'realism", while ABC's GH and AMC are expanding the use of CGI.

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It is for this reason that the CGI work done by Stargate Digital and future special effects companies for AMC and the other soaps must be critically evaluated and not dismissed out of hand. To be fair (and this cannot be overstated), savvy soap fans do not expect feature film or prime time quality special effects for soaps; that would be the equivalent of having Perrier-Jouet champagne tastes on a Bud Lite budget. I maintain however, given Brian Frons is keen on expanding the use of CGI for ABC soaps, that it is altogether right and proper to seriously evaluate its usage and effectiveness on its own merits.

The stereotype of masses of bored housewives sitting at home on the couch in the middle of the day watching Love of Life, Ryan's Hope or Somerset is as shattered and dead as those beloved but long gone soaps. We do not live in a black backdrop against a table and two chairs world with so many other venues for entertainment, including but not limited to mp3 players, DVD and Blu-Ray, highly interactive websites and video games, competing for the time and eyeballs of any willing consumer, soaps fans included. Fans are carving up their soaps on YouTube in easily digestible scene by scene chunks. Fans are spending time on Facebook and Twitter. They are busy with work or the demands of motherhood or fatherhood. They just as likely to be in aqua aerobics class as they are playing Nintendo's Wii. The vast majority of daytime drama fans do not live in a self-imposed soap bubble 24/7/365. More...

Given that we no longer are in the age of the kinescope, critical soap fans must expect and demand that "our" shows be as good as they can be on all levels if they are going to be competitive as entertainment ventures and survive.

Stargate Digital received mixed marks for its work on GH last year (Diego's kidnapping of Elizabeth; the Black & White Ball), but the firm's special effects work for the action packed rooftop and helicopter sequences for Jesse and Angie's showdown with Rob Gardner was, in my opinion, spectacular. In fact, I would go as far as to say those helicopter sequences really were as good as many prime time series I've seen. In addition, Stargate Digital's work on GH: Night Shift has been superb. Not only can the firm do better work than it did on its computer generated tornadoes, it has done a better job. These reasons are why I feel it was important in previous critiques to take a hard look at the special effects used for this event, as the storm itself was the thematic catalyst for the stories that followed in its wake.

This is also why I think we sometimes do the shows and ourselves as fans a disservice by downplaying or even dismissing these elements. Regular soap fans are not watching any daytime drama because of the number of gallons of water used to create a fake flood or pixels rendered to create a capsizing ocean liner. Compelling drama is and should be king.

Nonetheless, executives hope that by using these special effects stunts and devices that they will be able lure back lapsed fans, entice the competition's viewers and maybe capture a few new eyeballs in the process. Most of the time, these stunts have netted small viewership gains, sometimes they help certain shows win awards and every once in a while they do their job. For every ten head scratchers, like ATWT's fall snow storm a couple of years ago, every once in a while we get a Days' demonic possession complete with levitating beds and comet storms.

Sets, music choices, location remotes, stunt work or special effects are no substitute for good writing, strongly defined characters and terrific acting. The role of production elements should always enhance story, not be the story nor overwhelm it. Marlena's possession on Days was rooted in a strong story with clearly defined characters, but the whole enterprise would have been less effective had they not produced the best effects available to them at that time. In my opinion, we should at least pay attention to these elements and praise them when they are done well and be honest in our criticism when they are not as good as they can be or as they have been advertised.

At the end of the day, our soaps always should be judged about the stories with which we are engaged and the characters about which we care, but it only helps if they look and sound the best they possibly can in the process.