INTERVIEW: Scotty Iseri, creator of kids’ web/app series ‘The Digits’

Creator and Executive Producer, Scotty Iseri

Biography:

Scotty Iseri is a theatre and new media artist based out of Portland, Oregon. His work includes the popular all-ages web series “Scotty Got An Office Job”, the live touring act “The Big Rock Show” and the Paper Hat Game. He was the writer and director behind “Merry Holidays, Please Hold”, a branded series billed “The Worldʼs First Internet Christmas Special”.

Scotty has won numerous awards for his writing, musical composition, and sound design, was an inaugural mentee for the Center For Asian American Mediaʼs Fellowship and was a finalist for the Public Radio Maker’s Quest 2.0 grant. He has years of experience in children’s theatre, has produced for Chicago Public Radio and was a teacher in Chicago’s After School matters.

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Her Film:  You wear three big hats on this series: director, writer, producer.  What has your experience been like balancing these three roles, especially in light of the fact the series is interactive and you’re dealing with various technologies for distribution and exhibition?

Scotty Iseri:  I do feel very lucky to be working with an amazing group of artists that really bring the world to life. But I must admit, it’s been a great deal of work. Luckily I love it.

The addition of interactivity requires a new approach to the production.  For “The Digits,” it’s more than shooting a film and adding prompts.  We wanted the story to holistically change and level as the viewer watches.

Juggling these technologies in storytelling is a whole new world.  The traditional roles don’t 100% apply.  Our actors created Facebook profiles for their characters which interact with our fans, so they’re also creating a universe, too.  Our developer, Battery Powered Games, is also a key member of the creative team.

“Pavi” (Sara Castilleja) and Scotty discuss direction and technique

The hardest part is finding the balance. The writer will write something crazy like, “The Digits crash land on an alien planet made of acid-spitting bacon”.  The director will say “how do i realize acid-spitting bacon?” and the producer will say “where do you think we’re going to find budget money for acid-spitting bacon?”  Since I am all three, striking a balance with only myself is a challenge indeed. Normally you’d have this creative back and forth between those three roles, which i definitely miss.

Her Film:  Can you describe the challenges you encountered when trying to raise funds for this series? 

Scotty Iseri:  We function like a startup [and] I think the startup community (especially on the finance side) is more open to ideas that break the mold.  Silicon Valley thrives on innovation, while the entertainment industry thrives on tradition. The latter usually waits until something is popular enough to enjoy a mass audience before sticking its toe in the water.  The two don’t necessarily always mix.

I took The Digits idea around to the traditional entertainment industry.  I was told “we can give you money for a television pilot that may just sit on a shelf and never be seen, but we’re not sure what to do with this interactive business. ”  I think the traditional entertainment industry is in something of a free fall in terms of its business model and so going the startup route was the best way to create something really cool.

There are some fantastic examples of others in this new storytelling field.  Fourth Wall Studios, and the Lizzie Bennett Diaries are two examples of people taking the entrepreneurial spirit into the entertainment industry and making cool things happen.

Her Film:  Entertainment professionals who create series or films, necessarily, have to act like entrepreneurs when doing so, but the word “entrepreneur” seems to be largely absent from discussions about entertainment, although it’s prevalent when talking about tech companies and start-ups.  Can you address this issue and how your work may be influenced by actively embracing the idea of entrepreneurship?

Scotty Iseri:  It’s an exciting time to make things.  No one necessarily has the “right’ answer when it comes to a next-generation filmmaking model, but you must, must must, be entrepreneurial about it.

If you think about it economically, it’s all about scarcity.  10 years ago, the scarcity was in distribution and money.  It was expensive to rent cameras and film, and more expensive to jockey for time on the limited bandwidth of broadcast.  Today the scarcity is attention–getting audiences to notice what you’re putting out.

Scotty Iseri with his favorite puppet “Andrew”

Her Film:  What is your relationship with the Center for Asian American Media and how does it relate to “The Digits”?

Scotty Iseri:  “The Digits” wouldn’t exist without CAAM.  I’m of Japanese descent and was very lucky to be invited into their new voices fellowship.  I think it was very forward-thinking on CAAM’s part to include a new media fellow among a group of fantastic screenwriters, directors and producers.

The time with CAAM allowed me to have some structure and support in building not just the technological idea, but also the story universe.

Her Film:  The main character of the show is “Pavi,” the lead singer (and a female).  With the bias, and stereotype, that girls and women are not capable in mathematics, this is very refreshing to see.  How did you decide which character, and which gender, should take the lead?  

Scotty Iseri:  Every day I see girls and women that defy this stereotype, but I also know how important it can be to have a good role model.  There’s a lot of research and conversation happening about ways to interest girls in science and technology careers and I think one of the ways to do that is to give them a role model.

Sally Ride, may she rest in peace,  inspired many women to aim for the stars, but so did Nichelle Nichols (Lt Uhura on Star Trek).  Fictional characters can be incredibly inspiring.  It allows you to “see yourself” in a fantastic situation.  Even master storyteller LeVar Burton was inspired by a strong female lead. He said in a keynote speech this year that “By the virtue of Nichelle Nichols sitting on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, I knew that there was going to be a place for me in that imagined future (of science fiction) and I felt incredibly excited by that possibility.”

Children are great imitators, so the goal was to give them someone fun to imitate.

But, for all the high minded ideals behind the creation of the character, she’s a blast to write and Sara (Castilleja) really brings her to life.  I wanted her to be capable, and strong, but also funny and flawed…In other words, a person and not a “female character.”  Does that make sense?

Although, to be fair, our first appisode does not pass the Bechdel Test (though we correct this in the web series).

“The Digits” characters

Her Film:  “The Digits” seems to be a great example of “edutainment.”  Can you talk a bit about the process of working to create a show that both entertains and educates?

Scotty Iseri:  The project was really inspired by watching my nieces and nephews play with interactive technology.  They are naturals.  They take to it immediately and begin experimenting:  Can I click this?  What happens if I do this?  This is science in its rawest form; Hypothesize, experiment, examine results, change.

I think edutainment gets a bad rap.  For people of my generation, the only reason they know their state capitals is from the Animaniacs song.

I also think kids love to learn.  They love the empowerment of knowing something they didn’t know before, and they love to show it off.  “Guess what?” is my favorite question because I know it’s going to lead somewhere new and exciting.

Her Film:  Were kids involved in the creation process or have you tested the show with kids?  I ask because I read the description of the show to my 11 year old nephew and he thought it sounded cool (his words).

Scotty Iseri:  Your nephew is right.  I think it’s a universal truth that Rock and Roll is cool.  Robots are cool.  Spaceships are cool.  Our focus really wasn’t on creating a world “for kids”, but to harness good storytelling for a new medium.  We’ve been testing the “appisode” with kids of all ages and it’s going really well.  As i said, kids are natives to this technology.  They expect their stories to play with them.

“Pavi” with beloved band-mate “Ray Ray” at her side

I do think people “create-down” for kids.  In truth, kids are the savviest and best audience in the world.  They are willing to go with you on your storytelling journey, but the minute you break your own rules, they’re the first to call foul.  They’re exacting and they’ll ask you more questions about the story you’re telling than you probably ever could think of.

Tell your nephew if he’d like to ask the Digits a question they’ll answer it in a future episode! Audience participation is key to “The Digits”!

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To learn more about this filmmaker and his work, please check out these links:

Facebook:  /WeAreTheDigits
YouTube: /FUNDAWatch
Website: watchthedigits.com
Twitter:  @wearethedigits
All-ages webseries: scottygotanofficejob.com

(Photos courtesy of S. Iseri)

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