The amazing forces behind webserial.com, a rag-tag crew of innovative film makers armed with nothing but talents, the will to accomplish and a camera, have a history of entertaining us, one byte at a time.
With five highly-rated web serials chalked up, they blazed the trail into online entertainment since 2007, a territory thus unexplored by mainstream media. Only in the past year larger networks dared to rush in where angels fear to treat, and have been made fools for it.
Because, there be no money here.
The Black Dawn is their newest foray into byte-sized entertainment, but unlike the previous projects it was helmed by several newcomers who took the story into a new direction, both in concept as in story-telling.
Compared to the light-hearted serial Cataclysmo, Black Dawn strikes a more gritty, real-world note. It also separates itself from other web serials through its interactive content: the companion show The Adam & Ben Show, an online comic, various video blogs by several of the characters, as well as the short film ‘Catalyst’. In this sense one can explore the more epic scale of the story, and that gives an unusually satisfying approach to entertainment.
Outstanding is especially The Adam & Ben Show which was a set-up to the web series. It’s reception on YouTube was very positive, a few trolls notwithstanding. It is basically a video blog of two college kids and their adventures on an unspecified campus, meeting several of the players of the series before the actual events of the series. It is acted in an improvised fashion and thus delivers the feeling of a real blog. That was of course intentional and so fooled many YouTubers into believing it was a real blog — think of lonelygirl15 without the sappiness, but instead two cool dudes being… cool. In their own way. Especially Ben. ‘Nuff said. So when they reached episode 8 a lot of viewers were in for a shock. ‘Nuff said here too. The show may seem a bit silly and corny at first, but stick with it: it is well worth it. Also, it is this viewers opinion that The Adam & Ben Show should be viewed before the actual The Black Dawn for a more thorough enjoyment of the epic tale.
The short film ‘Catalyst’ that aired somewhere half-way through the show also helped set up events. Directed by web serials veteran (and possible grey eminence) Joshua Sikora with much the same Cataclysmo crew, it not just establish the major character Dr. Wilkins (played to perfection by probably the most experienced actor of the lot, Skip Pipo) it also gave us a different perspective on the events, since it was written and produced by an entirely different crew than Black Dawn. Josh has come a long way as a director and ‘Catalyst’ is his most mature work to date: there is no doubt we are dealing with a professional.
Two aspects stand out from the show Black Dawn itself: the directing and the acting.
William Hellmuth is a newcomer but with several short films to his IMDB credits, and he has an obvious eye for setting a scene, lighting and movement. There are elements of his directing style reminiscent of the styles pioneered by Firefly (and later Battlestar Galactica): a hand-held swaying motion brings us straight into the action, as if we had no other choice but to be there. Shooting most of his material on-the-fly and guerrilla style, Hellmuth still managed to create dramatic lighting effects and to take advantage of whatever was available. It seems by picking Jon Lavey for photography and Micheal Shipman for editing he picked well.
All actors involved know their trait and can hold their own in front of the camera.
Jordan Warren did a great job of the boy-next-door ‘Adam’ (from The Adam & Ben Show) tossed into an uncomfortable situation. His character never assumes to be the leader of this group of survivors, but eventually becomes responsible for some of them. Certainly they could have done even more with his character but, after all, this wasn’t the story of Adam. Jordan played his character without pretense, straight-forward and honest. His emotions seem believable and help sell this unusual situation. Although by no means the leading man of the show, he does a good job carrying most of the narrative attention.
Terror and fear are some of the hardest feelings to perform and can easily become farce unless handled well — you know that an actor is doing a lousy job when your first reaction upon seeing his character in peril is a giggle. This is not the case on this show. Misty Madden for example could have easily overplayed her character as a hysterical damsel-in-distress, but she didn’t. Her delivery is just right and on the level and any male viewer would feel compelled to rush in to comfort her at once, while at the same time we can see she has enough strength to not need comforting. This same honest delivery goes for all the other characters as well. Tristan Scott and especially David Siik did fantastic jobs in their deliveries and nobody on this show seems to have the “oh look, I’m acting!” stance so common on YouTube.
A special shout-out should go to Eamon Glennon and his portrayal of the antagonist Lee. Although not ‘the Bad Guy’ per se, his good-boy-gone-bad character is trivial to the development of the plot and Eamon is fantastic fun to watch. His performance is reminiscent of a young Willem Dafoe, complete with the attention-grabbing pitch, the rugged good looks and intimidating stare. Leave it then to Hellmuth to spice things up with some good mood lighting and the ultimate bad-boy-you-love-to-hate is born. Although his final laugh seemed a bit forced he was one of the reasons I kept on watching.
In this humble critique’s opinion the weakest points where in some of the plot elements. Don’t get me wrong: the story is great. Written by Abraham Sherman for the most part, with some help from Brian Walton and especially William Hellmuth, The Black Dawn is a big-budget concept pitched on a small scale. But naturally this limits the narration to only a few characters and circumstances, and the writers did an excellent job in picking one particular aspect — the above group of survivors. The dialog is believable and natural and seemingly polished by Brian Walton who also did a great job on his previous project ‘Trunk.’
The story fits into the over-used disaster film genre but thanks to its unusual approach in story telling (see above) it stands out. At times it seems a few too many breather episodes filled up the time-slot, with little to no plot development to chew on, but at least it is well written. Abraham, Brian and William are no amateurs when it comes to story telling.
The aspect of a global catastrophe is only touched upon a few times and brings out the limited resources of the film makers. The fact that possibly 10 million people lie dead all around them is only suggested upon and left un-approached, beyond a few stiffs in the streets and the burning of a handful of bodies. What about disease? What about rats? Did animals die as well? What about fires? What about electricity blackouts? A city’s infrastructure breaks down after only a few hours left unattended, but we see nothing of the sort here. Although further expanded and dealt with in the online comic, it’s still somewhat left unexplained.
It is also a little hard to understand why the characters refuse to venture beyond the campus, and are seemingly left living on chips and dips (yes, I know that’s standard dorm chow, but c’mon!). It is said they are ‘waiting for help’, but it would have been logical to raid the next Trader Joe’s at the very least. And although we are told they’ve been on the campus for weeks, it feels more like a one-night sleepover.
Through the series, ‘Catalyst’ and the especially the comic we learn that an extremist group takes the blame for this mass genocide. Their reasons are explained but still seem a little contrived because, although it is true that a single splinter group could theoretically bring down the world, it does seem unlikely they could acquire a mega-toxic virus AND a high-yield nuclear weapon. This said, the existence of the bomb in the end is a somewhat convenient McGuffin, one last plot point to push us towards the climax.
The ending is at the same time expected and yet not. The writers decided to shock us and that works well on a modern level. I say modern because I have observed a (disturbing?) tendency in contemporary writers to surprise the audience one last time by foregoing the conventional happy-ending for something shocking… like killing off the entire cast or at least the favorite character (yeah, that’s right Joss Whedon, I’m a-talkin’ to you!). Although this is not the case in Black Dawn, the ending does leave us stumped, if satisfied.
The survivors quite literally drive off into the sunrise and a new future. Some questions remain open, but then again, there is no story with a perfect ending. At least the Black Dawn does tie things up where it can, clear the clouds and set a more hopeful tone for the survivors.
Rewatching the show is definitely worth it, if alone for the excellent score by Curtis Schweitzer and newcomer (at least to webserials.com) Jeffrey Swingle. Here we have two musicians who quite possibly could give the Germans leading the score-show these days in Hollywood a run for their money (you know, Hans Zimmer and entourage) — and I’m not just being so nice because I happen to have Curtis in my Twitter feed. Their score is one of the highlights of the show.
Summing up, Black Dawn has a lot going for itself. The actors, the directing and the score are wonderfully delivered, the story exciting enough to keep us riveted. Indeed, with stories such as these this byte-sizes-entertainment diet webserials.com has been serving up may just not be filling enough. These guys got the stuff to deliver a full-sized motion picture banquet…
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