There are no titles at Alaska Robotics. There are no CEOs or CFOs, but maybe a few UFOs.
“There are specialties,” Lou Logan clarifies.
The Alaska Robotics crew — Logan, Sarah Asper-Smith (Alaska Robotics Emeriti), Aaron Suring and Pat Race — recently joined me at the newly renovated Rookery for an interview. I never did get around to asking what those “specialties” are -- but I can guess. I’m guessing Logan, whose quick eyes screen a crash derby of madly original ideas, is the energy. Suring, serene like a Scottish ninja, is probably wisdom. Asper-Smith, the recipient of such touching deference from her Alaska Robotics brothers, must be the compass. And Race? Race is William Shatner.
Yes, William Shatner. From “Star Trek” to “T.J. Hooker,” from covering Elton John to jazzy stage readings of “Going Rogue: An American Life,” Shatner is very self aware. An artist who does whatever the hell he wants and trusts his nuttiness will find an audience. A trust that’s made him a household name and millionaire. That’s Shatner, and it so happens, Pat Race, minus the millions (for now).
Alaska Robotics Volume 2: highlights and challenges
In late 2006 or early 2007 (there was some debate) the Alaska Robotics crew released a first DVD collection of 15 short films. The plan was to release a DVD of shorts every year.
Five years later, the second DVD is ready. The new DVD has 47 tracks which is, Race says, enough for three DVDs. The new DVD does not include films from the first collection; most of the Volume 2 shorts have been made in the last five years. The new DVD is $10 and available for purchase at the upcoming show, online at www.akrobotics.com, or at Alaska Robotics’ store-front (also known as Lucid Reverie, or the Ruby Room) in the Emporium Mall.
Are there favorites?
Logan went with the time-lapse shots of Juneau scenery such as “Time Lapse, Southeast Alaska – August 2007.” This short is a gorgeous look at the areas in and around Juneau as the tides recede and clouds race overhead. It’s the kind of short you share on Facebook for your family in Atlanta.
Suring chose “Nipple Fire.” This short has f-bombs, shirtless men and a cringe-causing close-up of, well, you can probably guess. It is catnip for the ladies.
Race figures his favorite is “Frank Murkowksi – A Tribute.” The Murkowski short is one of Alaska Robotics’ forays into political satire. Alaska Robotics deftly, and with great wit, summarize the recent tumult in Alaska politics from the end of former Gov. Murkowski’s administration to now with their series of “We’re Alaskans!” shorts.
My favorite is “Sarah Palin (relatively) Awesome.” Alaska Robotics made the film soon after she was chosen by Senator McCain and was at the height of her Alaskan popularity. Their point, that her popularity was only relative to an unpopular previous governor and an indicted house, proves prescient. A popularity that relies on the unpopularity of everyone else can’t be sustainable. And wasn’t.
Race also likes “Die Rebel Scum,” a poem written from the point of view of a bedraggled soldier for the Empire in Star Wars. It’s clever, funny, well acted, and is a good look into a second type of film Alaska Robotics has on their DVD, sketch comedy.
Mini-documentaries are the third type. In this vein, the Alaska Robotics crew explores some Juneau history with the amazing “Chuck Keen,” one of their most polished and informative works. The documentaries also include their beard based adventures around the world.
As for the most challenging short, Suring and Race both agreed on “Fruitcake of Joy,” one long take where a camera follows a precious fruitcake as it is walked through the twisty innards of a local business. One long shot is tough. The filmmakers have to practice the shot, figure out where everyone is supposed to be, and ensure everyone gets their lines right the first time.
Logan offered “Alaska Whaler,” a short that documents Alaska Robotics’ first foray into the high pressured world of beard competitions. Foremost, Logan had to hump a bunch of equipment to Anchorage. Food and birds nested in Suring’s beard. And they lost critical footage. “Critical” means the actual moment when Suring wins a top three spot in the “Alaskan Whaler” category. So, like the way Spielberg had to re-envision “Jaws” as a psychological thriller when Bruce the mechanical shark kept malfunctioning, Alaska Robotics had to re-envision “Alaska Whaler.” Losing the footage lent a poignancy to the short. After the funny bearded men and their fans, and all the build up, the moment of triumph faded to black. We had to imagine Suring standing proud with his red beard, curvy pipe, Asper-Smith designed outfit and whaling spear. And we did.
There are also “multiple unfinished products that are kind of neat,” Race said. These bits — which include animation scraps, behind-the-scenes footage, and alternate film versions — allow for insight into the Alaska Robotic creative process. (For oddballs, like me, who think the “mistakes” are just as interesting as the final product.) There are “Easter eggs” too; bits of fun hidden in the shorts to reward obsessive viewing.
The Alaska Robotics crew is long on talent, but short on ego. For their upcoming screening, they’re uncomfortable with the idea of showing just their works to an audience.
“It’s weird,” Race said, “we just contributed to collective screenings.” That would be the Juneau Underground Motion Picture (JUMP) Society screenings that Alaska Robotics hosts twice a year to showcase locally made film shorts. But Friday night’s screening will be just their stuff.
“We’re going to dig out things we haven’t screened in a while. There will be stuff people haven’t seen,” Race said.
Classics from their first DVD will also be screened, including “Downtown vs. The Valley” and “Buy Back Alaska”.
The screening will occur at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Juneau Douglas High School auditorium. Tickets to the screening are $10, or $25 for a combo deal including the screening and a DVD. Also offered is a $50 super pack which includes a ticket, a limited edition print, a super strong robot magnet and both Alaska Robotic DVDs.
With help from the good folks at KXLL, an after party will be held immediately following the screening down the street at Mandy’s at the Breakwater. Present your screening ticket at the door to be eligible for a prize or discount. Adding to the general merriment, George Kuhar and Bridgett Cross will play as “Playboy Spaceman.”
The business of films
Working film-makers in Alaska encounter a number of unique obstacles. The weather can be an issue of course. (Though in the summer, the extra light can be good for filming). The lack of a real film industry in the state also poses unexpected challenges.
“You start making films as a young adult and soon find yourself being the ‘experts’,” Race said. And he is the first to admit, they’re not experts.
“There is a lack of experience to draw from. You’re forced to make it up as they go along… it would be nice if there was more structure, to be able to go to a class on the weekends.”
And, finally, there is finding an audience. Alaska Robotics relies on the same people to support them, again and again. To find a new audience outside the state isn’t practical; it “costs 5 billion dollars” to go anywhere.
Why Juneau, then?
“This is where we live,” Suring said.
Obviously, Alaskans are their audience today. There are the political junkies who dig their satire. The Anchorage Daily News has posted a few of their political shorts. There’s another audience for the sketch comedy, and another for the documentaries.
So have they chosen location over career?
Again, common sense reigns.
“I don’t want to live in L.A.,” Logan said.
To find new audiences, they’ve gone Outside. In the past few years they’ve travelled to Seattle’s Comic Convention and Comic Con in San Diego. Although they’ve had success in selling their art, t-shirts and comics, DVD sales are generally low.
“People are less likely to buy (the DVDs) because people don’t have any concept what’s on it,” Suring said.
Films are not their sole source of income, however. Race considers the group “invested enthusiasts” when it comes to film.
“We’re semi-pro,” Suring said.
Under the title of Lucid Reverie, the crew of Alaska Robotics provides commercial services for Juneau such as video production and website work. Some of this work is posted at the Alaska history website (www.akhistorycourse.org/) and the Taylor White documentary project (www.taylorwhite.org/projects/documentary).
The future of Alaska Robotics
“This (The DVD release) is kind of a punctuation for us,” Race said. “We’re kind of at a place … where we determine where to go. We know we want to continue making movies. Maybe someday we’ll build up an audience and fined the right niche.”
However, finding a niche can also be a source of worry — that servicing the niche, the “cultural meme” as Pat puts it, becomes priority over potential changes in their own interests.
“I don’t want to just do Stars Wars parodies,” Race said, referencing “Die Rebel Scum.” “It’s like singing Christmas music every day.”
Thus they plan to release Volume 3 “in 2017” Lou joked. Suring figures they’ll do volume 4 before volume 3. Race intends to try combine his comic work and film work more. (In fact, his comic characters are on the Volume 2 DVD menu pages).
In other ventures, Asper-Smith’s book “A Smack of Jellyfish” came out last year (see more at smackofjellyfish.com/), and she’s got another book in the works, a collaboration with her husband. Logan makes wine out of huckleberries, and last year made some beer out of local hops, evidence of his dedication to the idea of turning local produce into something tasty. Race and Suring are quick to point out Logan’s natural resource background; he’s always telling them on hikes what they can and cannot eat.
In the immediate future, Alaska Robotics will be at Public Market. They’re tending their store-front; trying to sell graphic novels, art, and other stuff that fits in with their interests. Travel to Anchorage is booked. They’re working on Fairbanks. They’re looking to visit other states. They may hit the ferries and enjoy “those weird looking caribou with the human eyes” as Logan says. They’re trying to find an audience.
There’s a line of thought, due to cave paintings and what not, that creating art is as innate a drive as sex and sleep. What about buying art? The crew is an example of how most artists make a living today. They seek to eke out an entrepreneurial existence, picking up the detritus a flailing economy might toss their way. They trust us to prioritize art.
If it’s going to work anywhere, it’ll be Juneau. Against long odds, Alaska Robotics seems to be making a go of creating and selling on their own terms. How bold. How William Shatner.