Web video, especially comedy, works best when it's fast, cheap, and out of control: You get some friends together, bash out a few sketches on digital video, and pray for the gods of YouTube to anoint you with viral fame. Or does it? The filmmakers behind the new western comedy serial "Trails of Tarnation" prefer things slow, expensive, and painstakingly designed — from their handpainted sets (courtesy of Eisner Award winning cartoonist Nicholas Gurewitch) to the 16mm celluloid every episode is filmed on. Are they $*#%ing crazy? Maybe — but you can't fault their impeccable craftsmanship. Here's the first episode:
"Tarnation" frames its affectionate send-up of olde-tyme westerns (and unnervingly surreal humor) in a visual language of gorgeously grainy images, unpredictable practical effects (no poor-man's CGI here), and handcrafted set design. "There's something wonderful to be said about doing things the hard way," says Gurewitch, who went to film school before launching his cult-favorite comic strip, The Perry Bible Fellowship, and co-created "Trails of Tarnation" with collaborators Derek Walborn and Jeff Stanin. "Because we're shooting a project that takes place in the past, we wanted to use the technology that made it look that way."
They're not kidding: Every episode is shot on Kodak film stock with 16mm Bolex and Arriflex cameras on a tiny set in an office building in Rochester, NY. Not only can the filmmakers not see what they're doing until after they've processed the footage — "we've had entire rolls come back not properly exposed," admits Gurewitch — they can't even record sound on their ancient cameras. "We dub in all the dialogue later, just like the spaghetti westerns did back in the day," he says, with perverse pride.
But Gurewitch and his team aren't hipster masochists, forcing themselves to use antiquated gear out of a twee sense of nostalgia — it's all part of creating an immersively unique visual design that only analog tools can provide. "Just look at the images — they look sandy and gritty, like they came out of a saloon," says Stanin. "Even the mistakes are really fun. In one episode, the film goes off its registration at a climactic point and creates this amazing visual effect that's on par with a million dollars worth of digital postproduction. That 'mistake' is so beautiful, we want to create more opportunities to show stuff like that."
And unlike many ambitious web-video creators, the "Tarnation" crew doesn't have plans to "monetize" through sponsorship, or use the series as an industry calling card. "We figure we should just let it be born before we decide what it should be when it grows up," says Gurewitch. If they keep doing things the hard way and pulling it off with such aesthetic aplomb, they should have no trouble in that department.