Friday, August 19, 2005
SPECIAL ARTICLE: FLUTEMASTER--A Remarkable Achievement in Crap
Warning: This article contains drug references, suicide references, pervasive and progressively intense language, sexual content and some references to pedophilia. If you are sensitive to any of the above, I strongly suggest that you avoid reading this article. Immediately.
A teenage boy named Justin Harmon from Venice Beach, California is given a magic flute with the power to command fantastical creatures, and is encumbered with the monumental task of keeping an evil sorcerer from getting it. 26 episodes co-produced with CCTV based in Hong Kong, iK Entertainment based in Beijing and China’s State broadcasting agency, each show 30 minutes long with commercials, Flutemaster‘s concept looked good on paper. The execution however, both narratively and visually, was a disaster of astonishing proportions.
Flutemaster image © OMNI Culture/MarVista Entertainment
On the Flutemaster webpage found at obn-tv.com, I was amazed to see these words used in describing the content of Flutemaster: “. . .told with eye-popping visuals and a breezy sense of fun and cliffhanging thrills.” Those visuals were eye-poppingly reprehensible, I had no fun watching this garbage and the only thrill I got out of the entire atrocious, painful experience was that of trying to restrain myself from ending my life after each episode viewed.
The series was created by an American (as far as I know), Barry Glasser--responsible for Mighty Orbots for ABC, Galaxy High for CBS and Gold Diggers, a MOW (Movie of the Week) starring Christina Ricci for ABC's Wonderful World of Disney. Whamo Entertainment in conjunction with MarVista Entertainment, based in Los Angeles (as most of these type of outfits are) owns and is in control of all licensing rights to the series (Kid Screen magazine, 3/1/01).
Now, it is here that I must interject for a moment or two. Or five. Or ten. Whatever. Those first two paragraphs were written nearly two months ago, when I was in over my head and couldn’t figure out where to go with this article from here. Mired in deadlines and projects which I deemed more important than this one, I put this entire article on the back burner. Little did I know that Flutemaster would haunt me in my sleep, in the shower, while eating and watching a movie. So, last week I looked in my bathroom mirror and told my reflection, “Enoch, you have to finish the damn article.
“Anyway you can.”
So readers, I’m sorry if this article looks like something a high school freshman crapped out, bullshitting his way through entire paragraphs, hoping that the teacher won’t notice the overall lack of effort put into the research, the complete lack of passion for the subject matter and even some misspelled words--even words that are not difficult by any stretch of the imagination to spell. I am the uninterested freshman, and you readers are my teachers. And I am fully expecting you to give me a barely passing grade for the work. And you know what? I won’t care. I won’t care if this article gets a C- or even a D+ from you guys. Or maybe even a D-. The only thing I care about--as of this very typing--is getting this shitter in the can. Anyway I can.
Flutemaster image © OMNI Culture/MarVista Entertainment
Guys, look, I know this image is a little pixilated, but even a glaucoma-afflicted patient fighting Bright’s could clearly see the effort put into making images like these, which is apparently none at all. Look at the girl (the character could be a boy, for all I friggin’ know) with her arms outstretched, apparently making a run for it. I say “apparently” because the animation is so shitty she could be trying to mime a message to the audience. GET. AWAY. WHILE. YOU. CAN. And what the hell is up with that dragon, or whatever that creature is supposed to be? He doesn’t look remotely threatening. He looks like an otherworldly tourist taking a stroll through Denmark.
In January of 2001, Flutemaster was introduced at the National Association of Television Program Executives. There were some awfully repulsive programs being pitched to television executives shopping for potential airwave fillers for syndication, some competing with Flutemaster for the worst-ever-execution-of-a-terrible-concept prize. This is a starter list: Tracker, starring Adrian Paul as an alien bounty hunter who comes to Earth to track down escaped criminals in Chicago. Looks better on paper than on the screen. On paper is where the concept should have stayed (I think it did stay there, but that’s different material for a different article).
Colosseum (could there be a more generic title?), with Andrew Dice Clay (oh, man). Clay “plays”, word for word off of the STFV.org website, a “Brooklyn boxing promoter who goes back in time to the days of ancient Rome due to a magical amulet.” WTF? I don’t care. . .
William Shatner's Full Moon Frightfest. Well, compared to the turkeys I just posted on this page, reading the concept for this schlock anthology series was strangely reassuring. This turn out to be a one-time event--12 Full Moon horror/sci-fi movies, hosted by Shatner. That didn’t sound too bad. This should have been a recurring series, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.
this KidScreen article, from which much of the material in this paragraph originated, I came across this sentence: “Aside from the characters, the skateboard and the flute are two things that stand out as being very merchandisable. . .Justin [the hero] flies on a skateboard that's kind of magical, and he has skills preteens can relate to.”
And now, finally, Flutemaster. Which was pitched with the intent to launch a merch line, only the foundation for launching the merch line was not even conceived. Fernando Szew, Whamo's VP of sales and marketing, disclosed plans to find a global partner to share the cost of manufacturing and distributing merchandise for use in promoting the series. While I was reading
And Szew doesn’t elaborate on what, exactly, those skills are. But the aforementioned attributes were used as a major part of the theme of the little advertising campaign Whamo launched stateside in a valiant (heh) effort to sell the preteen demographic. It’s like attempting to seduce Rebecca Romijn-Stamos by dancing like M.C. Hammer and rapping out your sexual prowess, Twista-style. In public. In short, Whamo’s marketing of Flutemaster was entertainingly pathetic and even educated the viewer on how little enthusiasm was evident by the parties involved. It was as if everyone connected to it had just said, “God, please see this. Will ya?”
A Short Paragraph About Sam Harris
He was born in Seattle, WA. A teacher noticed that he had talent for giving dramatic readings of well-known fairy tales, so she set to work on contacting his folks to let them know what a remarkable talent he was developing into. Some days afterward, he demonstrated his ability to enunciate words clearly and concisely. This wowed his parents--it actually got them thinking, “Boy, this kid gets an agent (or some kind of talent rep), he could be some sort of phenom! You know, like that Hilary Duff gal!” Okay, so that last sentence I threw in just for fun, but there was nothing funny about his parents’ reaction to his talent. They made sure that Sam had all the support he needed to pursue this goal, which had by now become a minor obsession for him. Soon, he had attracted enough publicity to be selected to participate in the Stories In My Pocket audiobook project, which after it was released won a number of awards including the Parents Choice Award. He was selected again by the same people behind Stories In My Pocket to read for the How & Why Stories audio endeavor and this in turn led to an on-camera but non-speaking appearance in the Ridley Scott epic, Gladiator.
Again, I must direct your attention to the fact that Sam Harris’s profile is nowhere to be seen on imdb.com. I don’t know why, it just can’t be found there. It should be there, however, because actors less talented and more public than he is are prominent on the website. It should also be noted that Flutemaster itself cannot be found on the site. It cannot be found on Wikipedia. In fact, as I have persistently stated throughout this article, there are very few places where it can be found. Which is why most of the material here is just filler, included in an attempt to be classified as a “Special Article”.
Back to Sam Harris. Before Flutemaster, Sam had the aforementioned live-action experience (in addition to being in Gladiator, he was in Green Lights, this independent film shot on digital video in Upstate New York). He attracted the attention of Barry Glasser, who was instrumental in getting him to read for the part of the lead. He nailed it, and the rest is history.
About Whamo and the formation of MarVista
(Much of the following is excerpted from an interview conducted by Ernesto Lechner.)
Image © MarVista EntertainmentThe Man himself (if this picture is to be believed), Joseph Szew, co-creator and full owner of Whamo. CEO/President of MarVista.
Whamo Entertainment was started in 1997 (year of establishment may be incorrect--if it is just e-mail me using my e-mail address at the bottom of this article) by this Hispanic gentleman Joseph Szew. Their first show was based on the children‘s classic The Little Prince. Today, Whamo’s library consists of in his own words, “A lot of animation, some live action series, feature films, and documentaries.” Joseph Szew was educated in Argentina (Buenos Aires, to be exact) and has a Bachelor’s in business administration. After getting into television programming and sales he decided that the next important change in his life would be relocation. He moved with his wife to the United States at 39, knowing very little English and was depressed for six months over his inability to property communicate with other people. What calmed him down were walks on Santa Monica shorelines, sometimes with his wife. If you live in the Southland, you should visit the beach in Santa Monica. I have, and it’s very relaxing.
Anyway, the Szews settled in Los Angeles and began making contacts. Initially, his job was maintaining sales and accounting for his brother-in-law’s company, which produced video dubs of Argentinean soap operas. When his brother-in-law moved to Miami, taking the operation with him he offered Joseph the option of staying with the business--in short, requiring Joseph to follow the business to Florida. Joseph declined. “. . .there was no way I was going to move my family again. So I started to make connections with American producers who owned programming I could sell in Latin America. And I started dealing with animation shows for kids, as well as a few series.”
Szew started a business which eventually bore the title “Whamo”, with a partner. “We decided to stop working for other people and start looking for shows that we could sell ourselves. In the beginning, we worked out of our houses until we rented a small office. . .At first, we would go to all the major film markets just to see what was going on. . .[we] were always hungry to find new product to represent. Then, we were lucky to have Anchor Bay entrust us their animation library for worldwide distribution. And we started having our own stand in the festivals. . .we met people and amassed a library of programming.”
Szew makes a point of emphasizing the fact that Whamo is largely family-owned, and that the people who operate it were gone over with a fine-tooth comb and filtered like water in a Brita pitcher before employment. “My son Fernando [now VP of sales and marketing] is about [as of this article] to start working with me, taking care of the growing multimedia segment of the business. . .happy to have him because he is a marketing wizard. . .I think we're definitely developing this company in a different way.”
Scrutinizing the above comments, every bit of the cynic in me asks, “How different? How is producing crap animation and no merchandise to speak of any different from what many of today’s self-professed ‘media companies’ are doing?” I digress, though. . .
What does Szew have to say to today’s budding entrepreneurs? “I would tell him to invest all the passion he can muster into the business. . .be completely honest with all his associates and employees. . .have an open door policy. . .always look your employees in the eyes. . .have the three qualities that I find essential for any family business: passion, perseverance, and patience.” End of article. Coincidentally, that attitude also describes the state of mind that Barry Glasser was in, all the time that he was working to get Flutemaster made. . .
In 2003, MarVista was formed by Joseph & Fernando Szew, Mar Gaya and associates Michael Jacobs (former PorchLight Productions SVP of worldwide sales) and George Port (founder and former CEO of Anchor Bay Entertainment), out of a nagging desire to find a way to actively manage and catalog all of the thousands of hours of programs, good and bad, that Whamo had accumulated for worldwide distribution. MarVista also emphasizes production over acquisition of original programming. Originally owned and licensed by Whamo, the bulk of distribution for Flutemaster is now being handled by MarVista.
Additionally, in late March 2005, MarVista production and distribution chief Michael Jacobs also said the company has entered into a joint venture with Vancouver-based Waterfront Pictures to produce six new animated direct-to-video features with a total budget of $6 million for the worldwide marketplace (source: Hollywood Reporter). Horrifying, when you think about it for more than five seconds.
Flutemaster: the Animated Series premiered in syndication in October 2003. I had read the downloadable MIPCOM pdf documents, and inside was the Flutemaster one sheet. My reaction was one of bewilderment. What could be so interesting about a boy and his flute? I said to myself, “It is likely that I will never see a show like this stateside,” and promptly put it out of my mind.
Well, lo and behold, in my room in Ojai, CA I was channel-surfing early one Saturday morning when I came across an ad for Flutemaster. And I said to myself, “That’s the toon advertised in that MIPCOM thingy!” My tape in the VCR, I had begun recording when it premiered later that same morning.
Flutemaster image © OMNI Culture/MarVista EntertainmentLook at that princess gettin’ down with her bad toon self. Notice her father (gee, he must have conceived her when he was, like, 100) trynna pull off a Merlin act. Byyyyatch, don’t you know you just a Poser magician compared to Merlin?
The nightmare begun. First, it was the wack framerate. Then, it was the idiotic music. The titles were barely visible superimposed against all those loud, just barely broadcast-safe colors. When the theme had mercifully ended, I had told myself, “Well, okay, maybe the theme sequence left much to be desired, but let’s see how the show plays.” Boy was I in for it.
Flutemaster image © OMNI Culture/MarVista Entertainment
I remember seeing this image in an episode. I think it was, something like, the fourth one. By that time, I was exasperated with life in general--watching episodes of Flutemaster has that effect on you. A show so terrible, it could send the viewer spiraling into depression.
The voice acting was horrendous. By horrendous, I am not merely conveying that the actors mispronounced some of their lines, or missed some cues. No. It was far worse. The entire voice soundtrack was terrifying from start to finish, featuring complete sentences that were spoken when the character’s lips were clearly, obviously not moving; ridiculously out of place “yells” in scenes which simply did not require them (i.e. walking, closing a door--since when does closing a door cause someone to shout?); many, many “hmmm” sounds coming from the characters, as if they were choir backup singers; and the granddaddy of them all, gratingly audible histrionics, the kind done by bad actors in B-movies. You’d expect these kind of performances in Roger Corman films, and even in Corman films the actors make some attempt to make the character’s emotions tangible to the intended audience. Not so with this Flutemaster pilot. No attempt was made at rendering any authentic human emotions--voice performances were either very pronounced (“OH NO! AHHHH! THE FLUTE!) or too muted (“He got away.”)
The voice actor for the villain gave the worst performance I have ever heard, and I have heard many. The actor voicing the evil sorcerer at times seemed to intentionally slur his words, as if the part required him to be somewhat inebriated, high or both. Perhaps the actor had downed some Courvoisier mixed with Hennessey and powdered Ecstasy, then did some straight crushed up solid crystal meth, oxycontin combined with a liberal helping of PCP and barbiturates--then came in to do the part. Sound editors, not that enthused with the project to begin with, decide to lock it in the final edit and forget it. That no one bothered to clean this pathetic soundtrack up just a little bit only lends some degree of credibility to my observations.
And folks, I observed all of this in the first damn episode. The second ep is even more messed up.
For instance, the princess in Episode 2 kept looking at her father like she wanted to suck him off. Every time they shared a scene together, I felt uncomfortable looking at these two. I kept saying to myself, “If I had to be a virgin as long as she was, I would just, like, use my magical powers to impale myself on the roof of the Castle.” She even sounded like she wanted a piece of him in her. Her father, the Emperor, looked as if he was sharing these same thoughts. Of course, none of the writers thought to write that in, or any of my aforementioned demented musings--I lay this on the animators, for failing and not caring enough to craft the appropriate facial expressions onto the characters. I hereby remind myself never to seek out the Chinese animation house responsible for bringing Flutemaster to life like this, for I do not want my character behaving in ways which can be implied or interpreted as incestuous.
By the second episode of a series, things are supposed to improve. Television is even more brutal than motion picture--the competition is ferocious. If ratings for your program drop below an average, your program says hi to the ghost wearing the “Cancellation” wifebeater. And the TV public gets amnesia fast. No one can seem to remember Millennium, that show created by Chris Carter (X-Files) starring Lance Henriksen, and it ran for three years with reruns being broadcast on the Sci-Fi Network. Or Platinum, the hip-hop music industry melodrama which aired on UPN amidst much fanfare but was met with near-total apathy when it premiered, and after it was pitted against CSI it died, hard. I see a second episode of a struggling series as a second chance to prove itself worth the viewer’s attention. And I don’t understand why the “second episode” concept never dawned on the creators of Flutemaster. Comparing animated backgrounds to the remarkably rancid pilot, I discovered a precipitous freefall in the quality of the artistry. It’s like, the BG painters told themselves, “Heh--there’s some mistakes in this, but not to worry. The CG department’ll clean this up.” Not so.
Flutemaster image © OMNI Culture/MarVista EntertainmentOnce again, we see monsters with a smile on their face as they are apparently trying to kill a person, even if the person in this instance happens to be a villain. I have seen more convincing animation pulled off in Flash.
I’m pretty sure that I can tell whether an animated show’s been digitally touched up--which is not a bad thing, so long as the image artifact(s) don’t take me out of the story. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I think anyone who watches animation on a semi-regular basis could pick a pixel out of a line-up of traditionally-painted effects. However, I saw no digital manipulation in Flutemaster whatsoever. Not in Ep. 1, not in Ep. 2. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t gonna see it in Ep. 3, either. Anyway, this tells me one of two things: That OMNI Culture, in association with OBN-TV, the Chinese government and Whamo/MarVista couldn’t scrounge up, between the four or five of them, the couple of pennies needed to purchase the basic off-the-shelf hardware and software needed to fix at least some of the show’s most retch-worthy visual dilemmas. Or two: Perhaps any digital tinkering would have made the show look worse than it turned out to be (my mind has resisted any attempt to imagine how much worse Flutemaster could look), so Whamo decided to just roll with it and stamp Approved on the broadcast tapes. Here’s an extra possibility--maybe they were just lazy-ass bastard sons of bitches!
Flutemaster image © OMNI Culture/MarVista Entertainment
Y’know, I’m not so sure I would put this image on any promotional material. It’s drawn too suggestively, like---uhhhhhh, it just looks PERVERTED!
While writing this opus, something weird worth mentioning here entered the stream of my consciousness. If advertisers saw Flutemaster beforehand, why did they still sign up? Were they that desperate to shill their shit? The more I think about these facts, the more fucked up it seems to be that Whamo actually made money syndicating Flutemaster. True, the bulk of the advertisements were about the U.S. Military, and paid for by the Military; some others were the obligatory Boys & Girls Club stuff, the “Don’t Do Drugs/Take a Bite Out of Crime” Scruff McGruff shit and the paper towel guys. But why even them? Hold up. Maybe that last question is more than a little lacking in logic?
Ah well. Ad space is ad space, right? Even when your ad appears in the middle of, arguably, the worst animated program ever to see the light of Saturday (this is even taking into account Rocket Red Hood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, Jabberjaw, Big Guy & Rusty the Boy Robot, C-Bear and Jamal, Hammerman, Waynehead, The Amazing Chan & The Chan Clan, Captain Caveman & The Teen Angels, Catdog, the 1979 Filmation version of Flash Gordon, The Funky Phantom, Goober & The Ghost Chasers--yet another in a string of Scooby-Doo [which wasn’t a great cartoon to begin with] knockoffs, as if Hanna-Barbara ran out of ideas after the first episode of Doo was in the can, Marine Boy, and the obstreperously grating The Partridge Family: 2200 AD--I would have preferred to sit though an entire season’s worth of any of these shows over having to subject myself to the eyesore that is [or was, for all intents and purposes] Flutemaster) hey, at least people will know the product’s on the shelves. I’m sorry--kids will know that the products are on the shelves (working adults usually use their weekends to take a jog in their dreams) and will beg their parents to buy it for them, even though there’s not a chance in hell that they will ever need them.
Of course, I was hoping that even kids would be sophisticated enough to avoid Flutemaster like an AIDS crocodile with a tail coated with SARS. Most kids today are. But for the other dumb little motherfuckers who provided Whamo/MarVista with an excuse to keep this pathetic tripe going on the airwaves, their parents should have been caring enough to switch the offending channel to Nickelodeon. Eventually, Flutemaster made its way to Sunday mornings. Why? Why the hell did Flutemaster get aired on Sunday mornings? All these struggling independent animators, who are skilled storytellers, can’t get a DTV (direct-to-video) deal, and yet Flutemaster gets a full-season order, syndication to hundreds of markets, and a two-year run. That is beyond fucked up.
It makes no sense to talk about subsequent episodes. The storyline remains the same (boy summons creatures every time the big bad evil Weird-Al-Yankovic-lookalike sorcerer comes to try to take it away from him), with little variance, until the end of the season (I got the rest of the episode outlines online, since I had to stop watching Flutemaster at episode seven)--the animation gets worse, the sound effects more pitiful, the voice performances (can’t quite bring myself to type “acting” again) more over-the-top. I realized that I had the power to terminate this experience, that I didn’t have any obligation to anyone to have to endure more of this and that perhaps, on a purely subconscious level, I was being masochistic to myself--testing myself--to find my limits as a human being, what I can or cannot take. In the end, I could not stay with Flutemaster until the last new episode aired, because I could not take more of Flutemaster.
Flutemaster sucks dick!
Major thanks to the following sources for Flutemaster--A Remarkable Achievement in Crap:
My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also e-mail me at email@example.com.