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filming with the deity

by Donald Prothero, Jul 17 2013
The "soundstage" of Mr. Deity: cameras and lights crammed into the kitchen, shooting into the living room

The “soundstage” of Mr. Deity: cameras and lights crammed into the kitchen, shooting into the living room

Almost two months ago, I had the opportunity to be part of the latest episode of the hit YouTube series, “Mr. Deity”. For those who have not seen this hilarious series of 3-minute episodes before, you can go to MrDeity.com, and most of the previous 5 seasons are freely available on line. The entire production is the brainchild of one man, Brian Keith Dalton. Brian writes the scripts, plays the main role as “Mr. Deity” (of which religion he does not specify), films all the episodes by himself with minimal help, then edits all the digital files to produce a tight, funny, fast-paced mockery of the sillier aspects of religion. As Brian has explained, the use of humor and gentle satire can be much more effective tool to get people to examine the absurdities of their religious dogmas than angry confrontational approaches. The “Mr. Deity” character is no awesome Jehovah, but instead a sloppy, feckless, distracted deity who doesn’t worry about details, and gets mad when humans misinterpret him. He constantly finds himself entangled in the complex web of confusion and contradiction that is the essence of religious dogma. After watching a few episodes, you will find that Brian’s scripts are uniformly laugh-out-loud funny as he and the other characters wrestle with this messed-up world of religion. The cast often includes Amy Rohren as “Lucy”, or Lucifer the Devil; Sean Douglas as  “Jesse” or Jesus; several other minions of Heaven, such as filmmaker Jimbo Marshall as “Larry”, the manager, who do the dirty work that Mr. Deity has no time for; and noted skeptic Jarrett Lennon Kaufman as Timmy the Tech Advisor. There is often a guest skeptic who plays a straight man for Mr. Deity’s sendup of the inanity of each religious idea. Some of these past guests have included Michael Shermer of the Skeptic Society, P.Z. Myers of the Pharyngula blog, skeptic and magician Jamy Ian Swiss, Carrie Poppy of the “OhNo, It’s Ross and Carrie” podcast, and a number of other skeptics and non-believers.

I got to know Brian during a Skeptic Society field trip in January 2012, and he said that he wanted me to be part of a future episode. After some illnesses, and trying to get our busy schedules coordinated, we finally managed to film in May 2013. He sent me the script, and I tried memorizing the lines and learning how to act them. Though I’ve memorized scripts before, I haven’t performed in a play since I was 12 years old. I’ve always been a good memorizer, yet I found it surprisingly hard to master my lines, despite days of rehearsal. Most of my past appearances on camera were to give academic lectures or appear on prehistoric animal documentaries, where I ad lib the lines rather than memorize them.

Brian’s microbudget production process is a model of efficiency. Brian has long been a free-lance videographer and documentary producer, so he has a complete set of professional-grade equipment. Instead of a studio, he sets up his two digital videocameras on tripods in the kitchen. They shoot at a white background in the adjacent living room, lit by a number of movie lights. There is a boom mike just above the frame of the shot, and each actor has a small Lavalliere mike on the belt or in a pocket, picking up the sound.

The "soundstage" for Mr. Deity: a white background crammed into the small living room with lights and equipment. There is barely room for the actors to stand.

The “soundstage” for Mr. Deity: a white background crammed into the small living room with lights and equipment. There is barely room for the actors to stand.

I arrived dressed in my “costume,” my actual field gear that I wear when I do research (although you can barely see the rock hammer, pouches, and canteen on my belt). Brian and I did a few rehearsals until we had the rhythm of the lines pretty well down, and Brian gave me some direction about how he wanted the lines delivered (simple and minimalistic, with no overacting). For the entire morning, and again in the afternoon, Brian had me rocking side to side as if on board a ship—which had me very tired by the end of the day’s recording. After rehearsals, we spent the rest of morning recording my lines, with the cameras shooting over Brian’s shoulder to give his POV (point of view). Except for his stepson Lukas, who turned the cameras on and off with each take, and gave us lines when we forgot them, Brian did all the lighting, camera, and sound setup.

After lunch, Brian only needed to change the lights and camera a tiny bit, then I stood with my back to the camera reciting my lines, while we filmed Brian’s segments. At the end of a single day, we had dozens of takes of each part of the script, half shot from my POV and half shot from his POV. There were small glitches (like forgetting to turn one of the lights back on after a stoppage, or not spotting the boom mike in some of the shots), but the biggest challenge was frequent interruptions due to background noises. You quickly realize why filmmakers prefer to work in a soundproof studio. Even in his quiet neighborhood with nearly everyone away at work, there were constant interruptions and ruined takes from the noises outside. Low-flying aircraft, lawn mowers and leaf blowers, motorcycles and cars with no mufflers—it’s amazing how much noise there is in a “quiet” neighborhood. After a few more weeks of editing the best takes of each scene so that the pace and timing was as fast as a screwball comedy, Brian had the new episode up on YouTube. The episode really rocks—literally. In addition to our own rocking side-to-side during the recording, Brian modified the final cut with a software routine that makes the entire frame appear to rock back and forth like a ship.

Apparently, it’s a big hit in the YouTube world, because it has over 16,000 views and over 1000 comments in just 4 weeks after its release. Almost all the comments were positive, mostly praising Brian for his funny script, loaded with word play and gags about water and geology. About the only negative comments pointed out that I’m not a great actor, but that’s not news to me. After all, I’m supposed to be a straight man to Brian’s top banana, feeding him the lines and reactions to make his script even funnier. I have no plans to drop all my professional research and writing and become a full-time actor, anyway.

What I found even more amazing is that the Mr. Deity series has a huge number of permanent subscribers who willingly donate to Brian’s budget, even though most of the videos are free on YouTube. Because the production of these shows is not free (despite his small budgets), he ends every episode with a “begging segment”, which are often just as clever and witty as the original scripts. Without the funds of these volunteer donors who treasure his work, he would not be able to continue doing it. In the spectrum of worthy causes deserving support, Mr. Deity is high on my list!

Hope you like it!

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2 Responses to “filming with the deity”

  1. Daniel Bastian says:

    I had never heard of the Mr. Deity series before reading this. They’re really well done and you did a great job in your piece, and looked like you had a lot of fun doing it.

    Thanks for getting the word it. I’ll definitely consider contributing.

    – Daniel

  2. oldebabe says:

    Speaking of viewer free-bees (thank you Dr. Deity), don’t forget to donate to Wikipedia, i.e. they are non-advertising and non-profit, and used continually by so many.