Tuesday, February 09, 2010

In Season

The Season is the most creative new outlet for outdoor-sports storytelling since...well, since the Dirtbag Diaries, the last new-media creation of Fitz Cahall. Co-produced by Cahall and Bryan Smith, The Season is a 22-episode "web television" production that follows five outdoor athletes as they pursue their passions in the Pacific Northwest. I've seen the first three episodes (No. 3 went live yesterday at Arc'teryx.com and will be released Friday at Outside.Away.com and iTunes), and I think I'm hooked.

Fundamentally, The Season promises to deliver compelling stories—the element that's missing in most action-sports films. After episode one's stage-setting introduction, each new episode will unfold the story of a single character; they'll generally alternate in sequence, following five separate narratives. Episodes two and three convinced me that these stories will be worth following; the people are likable, and I'm curious about what's coming next for them. Cahall has honed his skills as a narrator through nearly three dozen episodes of the Dirtbag Diaries, but here he holds back a bit,  allowing the individual athletes and the footage to carry the story.

That footage, all in HD, is spectacular. There's a crazy early shot in the second episode of sea kayaker Paul Kuthe playing—and rolling—in a whirlpool. And the overhead tracking shots are amazing. The Cable Cam system, developed by Bryan Smith and climber Matt Maddaloni (one of the athletes featured in The Season), mounts a remote-controllable camera to a pair of steel cables that they ran up to 750 feet over gorges and through dense forests. It's as if the shots were filmed from a miniature helicopter flying along a few feet from the action.

My one concern about The Season is the short clips and the schedule. I'm a long-format, New Yorker–story man; I like long movies (assuming they're good). These clips run 6 to 7 minutes, but over a minute of that time is eaten up by intro, sponsor plugs, and credits. That leaves 5 to 6 minutes of storytelling. I felt the clips were coming to an end just as I was really getting into them. Cahall told me, "I wish they were longer too, [but] that four- to six-minute mark is the magic number, just long enough to convey a story or plot but not too long that someone is going to get bored or feel guilty about watching it at work.

"It's also a reality of where the industry is at," Cahall added. "It's incredible what we can do, but we still bump into size constraints. Even with the massive advances in the tech specs, you can't overload someone's computer or connection speed."

I also wonder if this schedule (a two-week rotation of Monday, Friday, and Wednesday releases on the Arc'teryx site, followed a couple of days later by Outside and iTunes) is going to feel satisfying over the long haul. If I get hooked on one of the characters, I'll have to wait three weeks to catch the next episode featuring that person. That seems too long.

But we'll see. Right now, the content seems so good and the approach so fresh that this series seems likely to be a hit. Cahall said the early response has been "overwhelming...bigger than we had imagined." In a way, it makes me a bit sad: I've always been a words on paper guy, morphing into words on computer screens over the last few years. But it's still almost all words. New multimedia concepts like The Season, delivered right to your desktop, make me wonder if words alone are still sufficient. But so it goes. Times change. For everything there is a season.

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