Opening Sequence (2005/5:34)

This American Life
“Reality Check”


PRODUCED AT BRAND NEW SCHOOL, 2005


From the press release:

For years, This American Life has entranced NPR listeners the way few radio shows can. Ira Glass’s one hour program has grown far beyond cult following, inspiring Americans from Maine to Marina Del Rey to set aside a piece of their hectic Saturday afternoons for storytelling in the old-fashioned sense. And now Showtime has taken the brave step of trying to transpose this radio show to television screens across the country, essentially transforming an audio adventure into the visual realm.

When Ira and his director Chris Wilcha had shot the pilot for this show, they knew that its introduction would have to be precise: it would have to give viewers an idea of the show they were about to watch; it would have to compel them to watch it; but most importantly, it had to emote to viewers they were about to witness something unlike anything they’d ever seen before ... yet something profoundly personal. To achieve this complexity in the brevity of a show intro, Ira and Chris went straight to Brand New School.

In every episode of the upcoming series, TAL will share the stories of three unrelated Americans. Each tale, however, will ride a singular theme that will interweave its way through the three disparate journeys. And in the introduction, not only do you have to project three short stories, but the viewer has to discern the theme that ties them all together. For the first episode, that theme was “Reality Check” — as in those momentous events that bring one face-to-face with themselves. These moments might be banal, terminally uninteresting to anyone outside the protagonist, but they will always change the course of this person’s life.

That’s a lot to squeeze into an introduction, a nebulous sentiment that could easily be lost in translation. BNS New York Creative Director Jens Gehlhaar recognized the challenge immediately: “When we discussed the open with Chris and Ira, it became clear quickly that we could not achieve anything approaching cinematic immersion with the budget at hand. So I proposed creating six minutes of visuals by shooting talent on green screen on digital stills using a motor drive — it's cheaper than film, and creates richer images than video. The fact that you would only get short bursts of action also solved the problem that re-enactments are typically really annoying, especially when done with non-actors. That technique makes the images more stylized, more abstract, more didactic, and less immersive.”

Although BNS’s technical prowess certainly allowed them to achieve what was thought financially impossible, it was not the most important contribution the team brought to the table. Proficiency and experience aside, it was their artistic fundamentals that proved indispensable to the project. “They showed an enormous sensitivity to what we wanted,” says Glass of his interaction with BNS. “It’s a documentary, so the power comes from the fact that it is real people. But it’s also a drama we were making, so certain moments had to play as such — taking moments for things to register, etc. They anticipated it, they understood, and they responded to the material the same way we
did — naturally. There was no energy wasted in translating for the graphics geeks.”

Simply watching the introduction shows how on-point BNS was in its transposition of verbal tale to visual representation. “We’ve all been great fans of the show, sincerely, so we were all very excited for the project,” adds Gehlhaar. “And we’re quite proud of the results.” Together with fellow BNS NY Director Sean Doherty, the team fulfilled TAL’s hopes beyond expectation. “We feel very lucky, they were ideal collaborators,” commends Glass in his assessment of BNS. “Not only did they have great taste as artists, and could deliver like artists, but they also knew every trick in the book.”

Ira Glass knows how to tell a story. In a short time, he has risen to become one of public radio’s favorite voices of Americana. So to hear his unwavering praise for Brand New School’s work is testament not only to their technical ability, but more importantly it is validation of their artistic virtuosity. Together, they created something wonderful and unique, and hopefully if the pilot works they’ll have many more future projects. And then, This American Life can have a long and inspiring life of its own.


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Client: This American Life, Chicago/New York

Design & Post Production: Brand New School, New York
Creative Director/Designer: Jens Gehlhaar
Art Director: Sean Dougherty
Designers: Sarah Ancalmo, Chace Hartmann
Animator: Blake Huber
Rotoscopers: Chris Smith, Jesse Casey
Producer: Mark Groeschner

Production Company: This American Life, New York
Creator/Host: Ira Glass
Director: Chris Wilcha
Director of Photography: Adam Beckman
Editor: Jenny Golden
Shot on stage in New York City