In my original discussion of the videos I help make for Dragon*ConTV, I mentioned that I’d discuss bumpers at a later date. Now’s the time!
Bumpers are the ten-to-fifteen-second transitions between a show and a commercial. Originally they said things like “You’re watching Generic Talk Show on NBC” or “When we return, Host will interview a new guest!” In the US, TV shows for the most part stopped using them. A big exception is children’s programs, where “We’ll be back right after these messages” is meant to help kids tell the difference between the show and the commercials.
Enter Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. They created distinctive bumpers that were white text on a black background. The Adult Swim bumpers change on a near-daily basis, and Cartoon Network uses the bumpers to communicate directly with fans. They answer fans’ questions, say playful things, and occasionally chide the viewers. They’ve even used them to say how wrong reviews of their TV shows are, which is stupid, but never mind that for now.
stoleborrowed the concept for Dragon*Con. Bumpers are easier to create than videos, allow us to communicate directly with the audience, and are a fan favorite. I’ve been officially in charge of the bumpers for two years now, and I’ve learned a lot about the process.
Bring Balance to the Bumpers
Although the bumpers have a consistent look, their content varies widely. It’s to our benefit to have different kinds of bumper content in order to keep our audience interested. While our bumpers don’t always slot neatly into one category, there are a handful of basic types that we mix-and-match as appropriate.
First, there are the jokes on SF and fantasy works. Because Dragon*Con is slanted towards visual media like TV shows and movies, that’s mostly what we riff on. Examples include Old Shows, Rainbow Connection, and Anita v Buffy.
Then there are references to shared con experiences. These tend to be less funny to those who haven’t been to a convention before. Examples include Static Electricity and the ever-popular Food Pyramid.
Next we have jokes riffing on fandom itself or on memes within fandom or geek culture. An example is “Still the prettiest” from the Very Secret Diaries of the Lord of the Rings characters. For examples, see Wikipedia and Fandom Feast.
Audience participation is always fun. Since the bumpers sometimes play in front of ballrooms of hundreds and hundreds of people, why not have them sing along? Robot Chicken and Fan Identification are two such audience-participation bumpers.
Meta-jokes play on the audience’s awareness of the bumper’s structure and how they’re put together. Everyone’s going to know that we’re borrowing the concept from Adult Swim, so why not take advantage of that knowledge? Take a look at Please Don’t Sue, Generic Bumper, and Computers Make Things Easy for examples.
Finally, there are the random topics that are unconnected to anything else. We’ve done everything from mangling a William Blake poem to comparing the convention to a car ride.
Creative Commons Music Is Your Friend
Writing bumper text is one thing; coming up with music to set it to is another. We need a wide variety of instrumental music, from airy floating melodies to hard-driving beats. We’ve got people working with DCTV who create songs for us, but they can’t turn out enough for all of the new bumpers we do each year.
Thank goodness for music with a Creative Commons license. ccMixter and Jamendo have music that can be resampled, remixed, and used for free in derivative creations, as long as we give proper attribution.
Use the Music
Bumper text has to work hand-in-hand with the music. The music’s tone needs to fit the tone of the bumper text. When I collect music for bumpers, I sort them by mood — dark, ethereal, up-tempo, and the like. When I start to compose a bumper, I pick a mood or moods and then listen through my collection of music until I find a song that I think fits.
But there’s more to it than that. At the very least, I make the text change in time with the music, preferably on measure changes. To see the difference doing so makes, compare Geek Cred to Southern Hospitality. I also use musical cues when I can, such as having jokes occur when the music grows louder.
Pacing and Reading Speeds
When I’m composing bumpers, it helps me to read them aloud. For one, it helps me keep from showing the text too quickly, as my reading speed is high. For another, it makes the text’s rhythm obvious. I know where the laugh lines are, and can make sure that I’m not rushing past them, and that I’m giving the audience enough time to savor them.
Our bumpers are structured differently than the Adult Swim ones: instead of showing a single line at a time centered on the screen, we show multiple lines. That gives slower readers time to catch up, and gives me more ways to tweak the pacing. Moving from a screen filled with white text to one with just a single line at the top provides a natural point of emphasis.
Let’s take a look at Anita v Buffy, since I used a number of pacing tricks in it. The first big laugh line comes after a screen break, to take advantage of the built-in emphasis. That bumper also illustrates using negative space. The blank slide preceding “Never mind that” gives the impression that I’ve thought about what I just said and am now blinking in surprise at it. Finally, the screen that includes the “Never mind that” line has a one-two joke at the bottom. Both jokes use short sentences so as not to oversell the jokes. I then move on quickly to further the impression that I realize that my argument going poorly.
Mix Up the Sound
After they’ve seen a couple of our bumpers, people develop a set of expectations about them. Text appears and disappears while music plays in the background. By changing that formula, I can surprise people and hopefully get a laugh out of them.
Sound effects are always good. The “ding!” in Please Don’t Sue helps sell the joke, and always got a big laugh. Ditto the slap in Making Friends #1. The sound effect I use far more than I should is the record needle scratch, as heard in Grumpy Old Man and many other bumpers. It’s a good audio cue to herald a change in direction. I also change some bumpers’ music partway through — the joke in Guitar Hero is helped immensely by the musical shift.
If you’d like to see an overload of these techniques, coupled with visual changes, take a look at Neuralizer. It’s an experience you won’t soon remember.
Let Your Fans Do The Hard Work
Coming up with subjects for bumpers is hard work. Thankfully, our fans are willing to pitch in! Taking yet another cue from Adult Swim, every year I solicit questions from the LiveJournal Dragon*Con communities. We then cherry-pick the ones that we have funny answers for. (Well, “funny” may be overstating it: Only One Aussie is more weird than funny.) Plus answering questions provides egoboo for our fans. Several people whose questions we used got to see them at the convention, which is great.
Use Different Tones
Have you noticed how much of my advice boils down to “do things differently”? Here’s another one: we have bumpers that have different tones of voice, even though I’m the one editing and rendering all of them. Some are funny, some are goofy, others are more sarcastic, and some are downright mean. (Gamers, I’m looking at you.) In part that’s because we have people other than me writing the bumpers. What’s fun is when people try to guess who wrote which bumper. For instance, I did not write Text Adventure; that was Shannon Brown.
Stereotypes and Public Personae Are Fair Game
Normally I’m a nice guy, honest. But some of our bumpers are really mean. And that’s okay, as long as the meanness is directed at stereotypes or public personae. I don’t want to attack individuals, but riffing on Wil Wheaton’s on-screen kisses or an exchange program for goths and computer nerds is fair game.
It’s not obvious how mean is too mean. We had some back-and-forth discussion about No One Cares, which is full-on wall-to-wall mean for about a minute. We decided to air it, and it got a lot of laughs.
Make Fun of Ourselves
In part I’m okay with making jokes about goths or gamers because we’re members of the groups we’re making fun of. The Geek Cred bumper makes that explicit, but we’ve poked fun at ourselves before. After the Jossless Fan bumper ran, I had people coming up to me at the convention and saying, “It’ll all be okay.” They were always very serious about it.
Obey the Title Safe Area
Here’s a secret about broadcast TV: you can’t use the entire screen. For one thing, the edges are often covered by the TV’s bezel, so if you put things at the edge of the screen, some people won’t see it. For another thing, tube-based TVs have distortion at the edges, which is most obvious with text. That’s not so much of a problem with newer TVs, but not everyone has good TVs. This is doubly true at the convention. The area of the screen that’s okay to have text is known as the title safe area. My 2005 bumpers spilled out of the title safe area, and man, is it obvious on my TV. I fixed it for 2006, but I still feel really stupid for making the mistake in the first place.