Interview with Producer, Writer, and Director of the 1977 Educational Children’s TV Show “Space Station L-4,” Paul Lally, Oct. 3, 2013

Photo courtesy of Paul Lally.

Photo courtesy of Paul Lally.

Late last year on October 3, 2013, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Lally, the producer, writer, and director of an educational program from 1977 called “Space Station L-4.” Now, Paul is the Executive Producer of Caio Italia with Mary Ann Esposito.

Space Station L-4 was distributed by Children’s Television International and shown on PBS and in classrooms across the USA. It starred Cotter Smith (X-Men 2) and Venida Evans (The Adjustment Bureau). The show teaches junior high students about ecology and environmental topics from an observation point in outer space at L-4. It combines a science fictional frame (astronauts on a future space station positioned at a Lagrange point around the earth) with science fact about the ecology of Earth from an outside observer’s point of view.

In the interview, Paul tells me about the development and production of Space Station L-4, and we venture into other areas such as his experiences working on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and his ideas about engagement, learning, and pedagogy.

I paid CastingWords.com to transcribe our 1 hour 18 minute conversation. I have gone through the transcript and made corrections, but there remains the possibility of my missing something. All errors are mine.

If you have a copy of Space Station L-4 or know where a copy might exist, please let me know. I am seeking copies of the series’ shows (http://www.worldcat.org/title/space-station-l-4/oclc/23049264). The one Worldcat listing of the VHS tapes and teaching materials in a Wichita Public School Library (http://www.worldcat.org/title/space-station-l-4/oclc/22254805). If you have a copy or know where I can obtain a copy, please drop me an email at jason dot ellis at lmc dot gatech dot edu or leave a comment on this post. Paul and I would appreciate it!

Interview with Paul Lally by Jason W. Ellis

Transcribed by CastingWords.com.

Jason Ellis:  I was curious, maybe just to start things off, where did the idea for “Space Station L4” come from?

Paul Lally:  I worked for Children’s Television International, which was a company that produced in‑school programming for students. I recall that it was probably someone at the company sailed out the idea, offered out as a curriculum, as a course possibility in Earth Sciences.

This was something outside of my preview. I didn’t get near it until they landed the idea and got the funding, or whatever it was, for it. Then I came in on it. That’s kind of how it started.

They looked around for different ways to supply programming back then for in school programs, that’s how they were constantly doing that, and as a supplier to you know Great Plains or wherever these distributors were, and still are I guess in some respect but, yeah so they modified. I don’t know if that’s much of an answer, but somebody did yeah, somebody did.

Jason:  Right, it was an American produced show; it was something that came from CTI here in the United States?

Paul:  Yeah, Children’s Television International was a Virginia based company that I worked for. I worked for the company for like three years. I was a producer, director, writer there.

I would do different kinds, I did a short story series for them, I did one on newspapers, one on movie making, and storytelling series, a variety of in school programming series. Ray Gladfelder was the guy, he’s not in business anymore, he’s since passed away.

But itself has kind of vanished but, it’s not to be confused with Children’s Television Workshop which is Sesame Street. That’s another thing entirely so. Discrete from each other.

Jason:  You mentioned in your email, one of your earlier emails between us that after you did get attached to the project, and you were working on it that you guys built a 360 degree set.

Paul:  Yeah.

Jason:  Can you tell me more about what that set was like?

Paul:  Well, you just imagine a big, in a television studio, film studio, a sound stage. We build a very long cylindrical shaped environment, something like a submarine kind of thing. On entry, once we went in they closed it behind us so that we could shoot 360 degrees, and never be off set. We were enclosed in the set.

I wrote these very long scenes, like seven, eight minute‑long takes where there was no cuts. The premise was that they were working up there. About once a week, they would have a 15 minute broadcast to earth and that was the premise.

They would be talking to you but then they start interrupting. They’d have various oxygen, or some kind of problem so the class would be interrupted. The actors alternated between looking in the camera meaning, “Space Station. People.” Then saying, “Whoops, give me a second.” Then we go back.

I have wrote all these scripts so that I blended, for instance, they may have listed the shows somewhere in the study guide. If it was on earth for instance, or soil. Let’s say the one week’s topic was soil. He just talked to the students.

I had a curriculum or, what’d I have? The topic of what I had to write about then, as a writer I made it more of a conversational thing. That’s how I would do it. The point I’m getting at is I would intersperse the teaching points with another story line that was happening, like, they were waiting for the supply ship. It had been late and they were hungry. Scientist wants a sandwich.

There’s a little other side drama would be happening. Some weeks it was funny, some weeks it was other things to do. All very casual. That was the way to do it.

Jason:  It sounds fascinating to me, because I could imagine how engaging that could be to students. You’re learning something but then you have that drama or that comedy take place in parallel to it.

Paul:  Yeah, that’s what we do just to break it up. Also they came about, love if they still had the shows to certainly explain it better than me. It’s been 30 years, a thousand years since I’ve done it.

I pitched right into it and these actors memorized, we shot steady cam which nowadays is pretty common use. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the instrument. It’s a camera that’s attached. It’s free floating. It has some shoulder‑mounted thing. It’s very float‑y, and very ethereal kind of shots with steady cam.

But back then I had the second one even invented for God’s sake. I saw it and as a young producer I said to the director, I said, “That’s what I’m going to get.” We rented one so we could float around and get this sense of gliding.

There was no cuts so even though they had gravity there; you had the sense of kind of never cutting between scenes. You just kept going, these actor memorized. Plus, what the trick was; they would walk around with clipboards like they were consulting notes, but a lot of times they were just trying to get their lines for their endless scenes.

[laughter]

Paul:  They were very good at. Cotter more than, I forget the actress’s name but it was Cotter Smith, and a man and a woman. They were kind of up there. The point of L4 is a point in space where you’re equal just between the moon and the earth. It’s a kind of equilibrium L4 force.

There is L1, L2, L3, as I recall faintly, these spots and you may know about that. It’s a point in space where it’s balanced, and it’s sort of the metaphor was balance and they were sort of like ecological traffic cops up there monitoring the earth.

They were keeping an eye on the earth and monitoring and reporting back. Hence, that was the root of the earth sciences sort of thing was that while they were doing their thing, looking at hurricanes here, or something over there, doing their work up there, they would also spend 15 minutes a week with, and I can’t honestly remember the age group.

Because I still write pretty sophisticated stuff, but I had two kids at the time so I didn’t have the answer. I just laid it on them, I think it was middle school, but I honestly don’t know. It could have been higher, junior high. I don’t know where you start earth sciences to be honest.

Jason:  Yeah, from my memory at least when I went through middle school. That would have been right around sixth, seventh, eighth grade middle school.

Paul:  Yea, that’s what I think too, yeah. I tell you what’s popular to me [laughs] . There was a big ITT called Big Blue Marble back then, just ancient. It was hugely popular, and L4 beat them out I think. I got a gold medal for that show.

It was the best whatever, but it won. It beat out Big Blue Marble. It’d be the equivalent of beating the New York Yankees, showing up and hitting a home run. I was very surprised and pleased to say the least.

Jason:  Right, no doubt.

Paul:  Yeah, it was fun.

Jason:  You mentioned Cotter Smith played one of the astronauts on the space station. You sent me the Wikipedia article. I remembered him then from X2. He played the President in that movie. But he has a very distinctive look, and I want to see what he would look like.

Paul:  He looked like that young. He’ll look like Cotter. I have known him my whole life. We’ve been friends since he lived in the Washington D.C. area which is where we were based, so we would audition actors in that area.

I think Vanessa or Vanetta, I forget her last name. Anyhow, I can’t remember the female, the actress who was in it. Let’s see what else is shaking here. The set was pretty exciting just to go in and get locked in. You just close the door and you couldn’t. I would stage these scenes where they would talk to the camera for maybe two minutes, and then we had some films too.

We had pre‑produced things. God knows where we got them. On soil, or something, I don’t know.

I used that technique on a newspaper series the next year. I went down to a newspaper down in Virginia, but three actors in there with all the other real people and they did the same thing. They had scenes and talking about how newspapers were, and then they’d have ongoing dramas, scandals. It was the idea of mixing, what do you call it?

Kind of a little bit of reality show. That’s not a fair way to say it, but I did it twice and the premise worked. The science thing, I want to be able to give you substantive answers for what we were actually working on or helpful answers, because I don’t want to be reminiscing here. As much as I don’t mind doing that, I want to be able to help you with what you’re trying to get going with yourself here, what’s happening.

Jason:  The project that I’m working on now is, I’m investigating television depictions of space stations. I’m real familiar with the science fictional aspects of it, but less so things that are either non‑fictional or maybe educational, and take a close look at “Deep Space Nine,” from “Star Trek” or “Babylon 5.” One of my friends is the one who tuned me into “L‑4”. He probably is maybe 10 years older than I am. He saw it on TV.

Paul:  He remembered it, OK.

Jason:  He immediately knew it. He started talking about it. He started having all these memories about it.

Paul:  [laughs] That’s great.

Jason:  It was from his younger memories so he doesn’t have a sharp recollection of who the actors were, those types of things, but he enjoyed it. I should convey that to you, that I think that was probably his most favorite TV show growing up.

Paul:  Well thank you, that makes me feel good. It was very different and innovative. We had a computer voice. The associate producer, Melody Rosen was her name, we did a little mechanical voice where she would read it and she would distort it. They had this ongoing relationship with a computer, back and forth.

It was like a sentient being, to speak, but it was just a voice. They’d say, “Such and such, put up.” She was the one that would activate these little film clips and things, it was just a device. I remember that little part of it, that little component.

The best part was the last 13 shows, and it was the best. We filmed the 13th one, they were getting ready to go back home, they were going to get replaced. Their replacements were coming up, and they were recapping what they did and what a good time it was, and how to take care of the Earth. It was a really ecologically driven show, and mindful of the earth, and that was way back when.

I still remember Cotter Smith said, “All throughout this, we’ve told you how important science can be, now it’s important for you to see how important imagination can be,” and he starts walking toward me. Then Vanessa starts walking next to me, and the camera backs up and keeps backing up.

By then we had taken the back end off the set, so we came out. Then you see the set, and I had people coming in, stage hands, booming, and lights and stuff, you go for your transition in one shot from the Space Station to a TV studio.

It was wonderful. I’m rolling credits over that too. It was the best, I loved it. To this day, I think about it. It blew people’s minds, to see the transition, I remember that part of it.

We had shots of the cameraman and the sound recordist, and the computer voice started saying who it was, “Sound recordist, John Fitzpatrick”, and on, and on, and on. It was a little credit package, maybe 40 seconds long.

Photo courtesy of Paul Lally.

Photo courtesy of Paul Lally.

I’ve done it ever since, I do it in different shows that I produce. A cooking series I do, “Ciao Italia” which I’ve been doing that for 23 years now. Every once in a while we’ll reveal the studio, take away the curtain from the “Wizard of Oz.” It’s enjoyable.

Generally speaking, I remember I worked with teachers, I worked with curriculum consultants, and they would tell me what the theme was. Say it’s about soil, they would give a list of what has to happen as a writer, and then I would concoct the story around it, and then get the teaching points in.

Then we would supplement it with pre‑done films, or pre‑recorded visuals and things. Just to give you a sense of the process.

As I recall, it was very much ecologically driven, of course at the time environment was just early coming in, it was the ’70s. My God it was people waking up to ecology and to the things that dominate our culture now, but it was unknown back then. I was sensitive to it so it was able to infuse the scripts, with that the answer.

Jason:  It sounds like your show was really innovative, it was coming right after “Silent Spring,” it would not have been on most people’s minds at that time. It was not nearly as big or as promoted as it is nowadays.

Paul:  Exactly, you’re quite right. You could sense the importance of it and sense that it was Earth, and at that time we had had enough distance. The iconic photograph of seeing the Earth from far away, “Big Blue Marble” was the name of the series. It would beat it out, because to see the earth from the moon shots. It was really transcendent for people to see the earth as an object in space.

It was the first time. This was probably back in the late ’60s or something like that. It was just an unawareness of the fragility of the planet. Hence, I was sensitive to that as a writer, and as a producer and director, just to do my best to infuse the actors in the future.

It was a given that they were concerned about the Earth, that’s why they were up there. They were like cops, friendly cops, but they were up there enforcing the ecological balance of the earth, and that sort of thing. It sounds a little more dramatic that it was, it was pretty casual. That’s what I have to say about that.

[laughs]

Jason:  Thinking about the way you shot the program. You had this steady cam, everybody’s inside this 360-degree set, the astronauts, are they dressed in some sort of astronaut garb like either a spacesuit or jumpsuit?

Paul:  Yeah exactly, like a jumpsuit. A Star Trekkie kind of thing, not Star Trekkie too much, but it was kind of a unisex sort of outfit. I remember that. Considering it was an instructional television series, it was not too fancy, it looked simple.

It was blue with their name on it, something really simple, but not a uniform. It’s a good question; I don’t know how involved we got with that part of it.

Jason:  You had the two astronauts, a man and a woman, and you also had the computer voice character who introduced videos, for showing the astronauts and the audience who was watching the show.

Paul:  Yes, and back in the old days you had live things and you had cartoons. I’ll try and do one other thing; I can give you a better example if I can find, that place L‑4. They had a list of the programs. I can’t think of another. I keep saying soil, but there must be some other topic. They listed it in that one library that may have had the series still. They had the list of the programs as I recall.

Jason:  I didn’t look that carefully actually to see what the programs are.

Paul:  Yeah. They have actual programs. It’s Space after this. I’m not find it. It’s Space Station L‑4. Wait a minute. Now it’s a TV company. It’s very strange for PBS Special from ’77. What the hell?

Look at this, this weird thing. I’ll send you a like a little, it’s just a paragraph. A PBS Special from 1977. This is all like half right, and half wrong. It spanned 16 episodes. A fascinating look back at where cutting edge science was in the late ’70’s. What they were expecting and how it’s played out in reality.

This show discusses plan for a fully functional space station, which would sustain life somewhere other than Earth. I have no idea what the hell this is? I don’t even know if it’s my series. Who cares? That’s not important for you. It’s way too specific for what you’re doing, but I just saw it.

This is like trying to discover some relative who lives in Cuba, or something. “Wow! Where are they? What are they doing?”

Jason:  Right, exactly.

Paul:  I think we lost the trail on them.

Jason:  Trying to uncover the archaeology of these visual artifacts. I had conversations with my students about the ephemerality of their digital online communications, and the things that they watch and do online. The same is true for more traditional media as well. These things are easy to disappear, and then you trying to track them down later can be a real challenge.

Paul:  Absolutely. A good example was I worked for 10 years. My big career break came when I went with Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I worked for 10 years there as a Director and a Writer, and that was after I did this L‑4 stuff.

I see much of Fred’s work is just kind of vaporized. It’s out there, but it’s sort of all faded away. Since I’ve been with Mary Ann Esposito, I produced her cooking show, and she’s had like 23 years.

I decided long ago, saying, “I’m going to archive this stuff.” Literally, her body of work is online free. You can go to our website, ciaoitalia.com. All of her videos are there, like 1,200 videos. As long as the Internet is alive, her body of work will be there. It makes me feel good.

The very thing you’re working in your business and mine is very ephemeral. Like our conversation, it’s just here today and gone tomorrow, and to have some kind of record. It upset me that Fred’s work is down the tubes. It was so essential for young children. You probably grew up with Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Jason:  Yeah. I was going to ask you before we entered the conversation today about you; your work on that show, which is unrelated to what my profession. That’s just being a fan, you growing up with that.

Paul:  Of course, yeah. It was a huge thrill for me. It was a huge break. I started working with Fred when he had just become like a world figure. They called it his “Carey Grant” phase of his life it was so great. Everybody knew. We went to Moscow, we filmed. It was just great.

It was great to work with him. A very small setup. He did all the puppet’s voices. He was just a one‑man‑band really. We reached a huge effect on children. He’s coming back now. The company is doing an animated series, which it’s a pale imitation.

The guy is a genius. It was wonderful. It was a thrill to work with. He was as regular as you or me. You would have loved being with him. He’s just a great guy, and interested in you.

You’d want to talk to him, and he’d have you blabbing about yourself in about 60 seconds. You’d just be “Blah, blah, blah.” because he was just genuinely interested in the human condition, except he talked too slow.

You’d say, “God, Mr. Roger’s talking. You sound like Mr. Roger’s, but we’re having a normal conversation,” rather than simplistic stuff. It was normal. That’s sort of my spiel I give folks, who knew about Fred. I was there. My kids grew‑up working on the set, painting dots on “Neighborhood of Make Believe,” that kind of stuff.

We had Thanksgiving with Fred every Thanksgiving. He was a vegetarian, and my daughter didn’t like turkey. The two of them would have their own little special thing on Thanksgiving. We’d have massive turkey with Fred, and Gabriel would have like little lobster bisques, or some damn thing. It was just the human touches that make the world go around them.

Jason:  Right. One thing that I guess bridges these two works in my mind, you working on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and then with Space Station L‑4. It’s a pre‑digital age. Everything is physical. The puppets are real. You can see them. There’s like a texture to them. The way they’re made, and the sets and everything.

Then what you’re saying about Space Station L‑4. You built this amazing set that everything takes place in, You even tell how that’s made at the end of the show.

Paul:  Yes. To show the hand inside the puppet as it worked, at the end. I thought it was great for kids to know. In science some of my closest friends are these sort of button‑down, wired‑up, binary kind of people. They’re scientific. They think that way, but they’re creative too.

There’s a bridge between me, a creative artist and an astrophysicist. They are creativity bridges instantly both ways. It was fun for me to have the bully pulpit if you will. This was a small company. I was in my late 20’s, or I don’t know. I could just do whatever the hell I want. I knew I had to do everything. I wrote it, and directed it, and produced it, and I edited it. It was kind of a one‑man‑band thing.

That series was a reflection of my world view if you will. It’s a rare opportunity to do that, and clearly for school students. I reached out to an audience that was very important, an informative audience.

You’re right, not having any kind of CGI though. Nothing, nothing! We embedded shit, but it was just nothing. We shot at 60 mm film, colored negative. We edited it on a Steenbeck, which is a flatbed editor. I don’t think they make them anymore. I think they still do a little bit.

You cut film, you had film bins. You had a work print. They kept the negative. You would get a work print of the negative. You would cut the work print. Then you’d have these negative conformities, scientifically antiseptic world, where you have to cut the negative without getting any dust on it. You just can’t believe it.

You would match your work print. None of this is going to make any sense to you. The amount of labor required in make believe was just astonishing.

My main point, overactive point, is that we engaged people’s imagination, rather than showing them everything. At one time I got something like an asteroid; some kind of thing hits the ship or something. I don’t know what. It was very subtle.

I think, “Oh, I can take care of this.” There’s no alarm going off. They try to stay cool, but they’re still talking about Space Science. It’s all imagining though, because I’m not showing you stuff outside, or anything.

In fact, the first three shows we shot the set looked kind of empty. I thought it looked pretty good, but we had this wide angle lens. It looked sort of naked. I had the set guy build a central column or something, like a four brand object that we could keep swinging around.

I’ll give you a personal note too. It was my first thing I really directed like a big studio deal. I can remember going in the first day of it, and I saw the clad bird sticks and stuff. I thought to myself, “Jesus Christ!” I saw the set and I went inside, and I said, “Oh, my God!”

At a certain point I said, “You know what? I have to begin. I have to start. I have to say, ‘OK, everybody.'” I’m the guy. I didn’t even know I was the guy. It was coming down on my head, and then I learned.

Just the idea that it was me. I had to do it. I was no longer waiting for somebody else to say, “OK, everybody.” I was the guy. I remember that vividly. I have not looked back since. It’s just going forward into my producing career. It was pretty thrilling and nerve racking, and everything else. I didn’t know if I could do it.

Roll sound, the sound is rolling, or the action, action and cut. All that kind of stuff you do. I could do it. It was quite informative for me on that series, because I think it was the first thing I really did. Now I’m doing all reminiscing, that’s not helping you. It was just my experience with it.

Jason:  I appreciate hearing those things. From my own experience, it’s completely different. It’s only by you hearing these kinds of stories, do I get any kind of sense of what it must have been like taking on those different kinds of roles on a TV show like this.

Paul:  It was. It was a teamwork thing, where you build teams. I had worked for people who were awful to work for. Basically, they were just terrified when they were in over their head, or whatever. I didn’t want to do that.

It told me that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the guy. I wanted to be the guy with the hat. I wanted to be that guy in varying different ways over my whole career.

I’ve done that, because this imaginary world that the media is so powerful. For me it’s not the medium as much, as just the chance to get my imagination going, that is all, in that environment. I have just known nothing but it my whole career.

I’m in my 60’s now, and I’ve done this for 40 years, just all sorts of damn things. L‑4 was the real kicker. That got me going. I still remember that. I’m trying to think of something else. Go ahead.

Jason:  When you shot the program, was there ever an external shot of the Space Station, or was that all left up to the audience’s imagination?

Paul:  That’s a good point. I think not. I think we didn’t. We probably stole some shot from NASA. Oh, yeah. I remember this. With NASA, back then, there was a storage facility down there. They had high resolution colored prints of satellite shots of the Earth.

The resolution was so high, that no matter how close you zoomed in with a camera, you could still see that the grain was so fine on these prints. They were maybe 12 by 12 inch prints.

You could walk in to this huge storage facility and check out what you want and bring it back. The casualness of it all was astonishing. We begged, borrowed, and steal some clips of stuff. We may have had some visual thing of that. What will happen if, God help me, if you ever see the beginning of it?

The show, it kind of explains it, I don’t know how the opening actually went. I know that the voice was talking and the way the show opened all the time. There may have been some pretend shot or some damn thing. Maybe, before the Space Station, there was Skylab. I may have done some fudging around with that. Skylab that’s the tubular shape feel. This was considerably bigger.

Of course, the explanation about gravity, these people are just walking around, just moved right forward. Forget it. None of this big, shit swirling around and pretending. We’re just going to right into, “How you doing?” No pretending that they had any gravity issues.

My point was that the study cam, it was very innovative. It was almost kind of woozy. This guy was a very good operator, but you never seen that kind of camera movement before really. He was a master at it.

Where you continually move, it’s like a human elbow if you’ve ever seen a camera attached on it. It has that same function. It has that double swing off the harness of the body.

You can’t beat it for continuity, for continuous shooting. I made it with continuous scenes. He would talk for a while, then he’d cross over, do something else, she would interrupt him, he’d get back to the point, come down stage, do this, then go over here, and then do an introduction to a film. Then that would be the end of the scene, like four minutes or something, and then we’d stop and then we’d set up and do the next scene.

In post‑production is when we’d slug in the little film segments explaining or expounding, on whatever scientific point we were trying to get across.

The final, I didn’t even think about this, was really, the premise was and I’m sitting in my classroom. I’m used to watching fairytales here. I’m used to watching TV with the other students.

Once a week, at 12:15 PM, the Space Station broadcasts a show from space. It’s enormous because I’m in school, that’s where I’m going to watch it. It began as though it were a broadcast, “Commencing in five, four, three…” There was that sense of a broadcast happening.

You turn on the TV. You’d have color bars and the countdown. That was the conceit that it was a broadcast. It wasn’t some stand‑alone story. It was literally like live TV. It was on film. Does that make sense to you? It’s coming back to me as a premise. Is that making sense to you?

Jason:  Totally. Whenever I found out about these things, I try to bring my research into the classroom. I find that there’s a lot of things that my students who most of them are born in the mid‑1990s, to late 90s now. I think they might have been babies when 9/11 happened.

It’s hard to imagine what they don’t know. Just the same way, I don’t know. There’s so many thing that I haven’t had experience of.

Paul:  Exactly. Where’s relevance versus irrelevance? That’s what makes this thing fit the tenor of the times. L‑4 met, felt rather often the existing media expectations of the time. Broadcasts in school, even though you had your major networks, that was it.

We wedged in this little cockamamie thing like it was War of the Worlds, but nice. It seemed real. At every step, the actors, my writing, it was dead serious. Not dead serious, that it wasn’t pretend, because it was.

The nice thing was that they talked to the students like you and I are talking. I’ve always believed in that. At the end of my vocabulary my word choices were sophisticated. I didn’t just talk. I’m making my biggest confession. You know who my chief research was for this?

Jason:  No. What’s that?

Paul:  Compton’s Encyclopedia, like 1942 or something. I remember finding this thing and I said, “Fuck, volcanoes have been around forever. What the shit? What’s the basic thing?”

I’m not kidding you, I didn’t tell anybody anything. All the teachers, all the sports directors, and all this stuff. Part of me was just being cussed saying, “You know what? I’ll bet you I can pretty much this Earth Science?”

I’m being fair to modern discoveries and stuff, but my roots were in my little house. Compton’s Encyclopedia, that I grew up with as a kid, sitting in the bathroom reading Volume 7. [laughs] I went back and used it.

This is to say the least, pre‑Google, and pre‑everything else. It’s just where’s my research. I’m more skilled, I have more intuitive skills in say other academic or discipline, so I leaped into it. I got the thread of it.

I saved a few scraps of scripts over the years. I may still have one, as an example of how we presented these teaching points. How I did it. I was pretty straight forward. I may have a partial script or two or three pages just as a memento of what is was to do that series. It really was innovative, I thought.

Jason:  The thing is that it’s completely even laudable to use a source like that, for something that’s foundational.

Paul:  Yeah. Thank you. That’s exactly right.

Jason:  When I talk to my students about how they should be approaching their studies, there’s nothing wrong necessarily with beginning with encyclopedias or even Wikipedia. That should be the beginning of your search for new knowledge. You get those foundations and you build on it. Then you go out and seek out more things.

Paul:  Yes. Good. I’m with you on that. I did one on newspapers too for Kinnet & Co. You’re constantly unsettled. You never knew when the scene was going to change from being didactic, meaning you will talk about a teaching point to the drama, toward whatever was going on.

That was fun for me to institute. Like if you have the metaphor, if you have a camera frame, nowadays, shaky cam, nobody cares. It’s kind of loose, the unsettled frame. It puts the oneness on you the viewer.

If the camera is being hand‑held and kind of shaky, you have to settle it in your head. Makes you work. The metaphor for me in my script writing would be that I had an unsettled script that you didn’t know what was going to happen.

[laughs]

Paul:  You’d pay attention and just when I’d sense, “OK, they’ve had enough of this shit for a while, enough volcanoes.” Then I would advance the other story. It was like a tennis match back and forth.

Jason:  That’s really smart on your part to develop it like that. I think where some of these educational programs go straight for attracting their audience and keeping them engaged, they just stick to the talking points. They don’t let people have a break to let their brains catch up. Let them think about what they are buying or what’s going on.

Paul:  I’m sure you have that challenge, you’re an educator. The challenge of holding those people, it’s hard work. [laughs]

Jason:  In my own classroom, I do different things but I always try to break it up. Every 10 to 15 minutes, I want to be doing something else. Just because I know that dealing with college freshmen, even though they’re 18, 19 years old, they have grown up in a much more, for lack of a better term, a more ADD environment.

I know that in order to keep them engaged, I need to keep their attention shifting. I can always bring it back to what the overall topic of the class is. For me to hear that you were doing this back in 1977, on your own educational program.

Paul:  I’m sure they appreciate it too because indirectly or subtly or in a subconscious way, you are honoring their cultural biases. The Italians say [foreign language] , we talk the same language. It’s a sense of; we’re all in this together.

When I would write these scripts, even though I was writing for an adult talking to a student, I always had the feeling, the diction, the dialogue, everything was very much equal. Like you and me. Just, “Here we are, here’s how these volcanoes work, there’s something else, blah, blah, blah.”

Except, you’re kind of casual. Just like of course. Nothing could be more simple or fascinating. The other thing I remember, I did a political science fair. It wasn’t as good, it was a political science fair for high school based on a guy who taught. It was a classroom.

The same deal, it was a steady cam. He had these eight or nine students, and then you at home. It was called “Politics, Politics”, I think. He wasn’t as good as an actor.

All of us have had a dynamic or captivating teacher in our lives. We’ve had a few. I’m sure you had one stick in your mine. That’s what I wanted, that premise of someone who was just so excited about politics, he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t help talking about it.

I wrote the scripts like that. It was awful, because he wasn’t that good. It was all right but it was a real heartbreaker because, Jesus, why can’t I go do this. I couldn’t do it. I had to direct the guy. It broke my heart because really it was like writing it for a teacher.

I did that with the other ones too. The people who talked, the lead characters, whether it was the newspaper series or the science series, they always were completely invested, engaged in the act of communication.

I go on the principle that while you and I am talking, we aren’t really figuring out how we are going to talk. We aren’t figuring out our objects and direct objects. It’s just happening.

I would write my scripts that way, the scene that way. I would write them and I would say it out loud, and I would start to get rid of words and clean it up. It’s pretty amazing how, and I’ve done a lot of study about this, how when you write for spoken words, a full third of what you think you’re putting in, you don’t use.

All you got to do is to say it out loud and you can clean up your scripts that way. Your ear is far better than your mouth, if that makes sense? I would take the L‑4 script and cut out.

The first go through, I would remove maybe a third of the dialogue. You didn’t have to put all that stuff in. I didn’t do it till after I said it. The work is in my brain as a writer.

Jason:  I appreciate you telling me that, because when I go into class tomorrow, I’m going to remind my students that I ask them to do that whenever they’re revising their different types of writing assignments. There’s something else that goes on there whenever we’re internally talking to ourselves, like reading back something we wrote.

Paul:  Absolutely. Read it out loud and always listen to your ear and not your mouth. That’s my rule. Your ear will always tell you. The instant you do it, don’t even question it. Just scratch it out.

If I just wrote down everything, the last 30 seconds of what I’ve been saying, if you transcribe that, it’s almost unintelligible. It’s bursts of information. It’s fascinating. Once you learn the trick, it’s the easiest thing in the world as a writer.

I’ve taught screenwriting courses so that sort of explains it.

Jason:  You’ve taught screenwriting classes before?

Paul:  Yeah. I did a couple at University of New Hampshire. I did at The Institute of Art here in Denver. Yeah. Screenwriting and did television production and I did some teaching.

I have a Masters, and I’m proud to say that it took me 15 years to get it, but I got it, in journalism. I thought that I would teach. That’s why I got on the master’s degree track, but then kept doing other things. The course has helped me to preach what I’ve been practicing for years.

It’s fun. I still write. I produce a cooking series, executive producer. I write fiction. I write novels. I’m still trying to get published. I published one and then it died in editorial. At least I had the thrill of having drinks with my agent in New York and signing the contract, but that was it.

[laughter]

Paul:  I wrote it and they kept saying, “Oh do this. Do that.” I’ve had that experience in my life, which is pretty damn exciting. All spinning out of this early desire to communicate. I did children’s television series. On camera stuff I’ve done on YouTube. If you could go to Vimeo, if you type in Gather Round or TeleTales, you’ll see me. I’ll send you a link.

I did this story telling series with an artist. I do all the voices and I do the on camera hosting and it’s really fun. A lot of kids love the hell out of that. They grew up on them. She draws, it’s fabulous. Drawing live and I’m narrating, doing all the voices. I’ll send you a link when I get there. I know I’m just sort of rambling. I want to help you how I can.

Jason:  You’ve given me a lot of stuff to go over and think about with the show. Also, just your experiences. One of the things that I think some of my colleagues and some folks maybe lose sight of is you going for graduate degrees.

They don’t necessarily think about what it is you’re accomplishing. I think that the things that you’ve accomplished over these last 40 years, are enough and more for someone who has this desire to communicate. I think that’s a wonderful phrase.

Paul:  Thank you. You are very eloquent in telling me that. It’s true, but it’s also nice when someone tells me it’s true versus the guy who I shave every morning in the mirror. That’s part of this job, and I’m sure you’re very unsung. You are back behind the scenes. You have to draw faith in yourself because mostly that’s what sustains you, and it believes in what you are doing.

Photo courtesy of Paul Lally.

Photo courtesy of Paul Lally.

I’ve always felt that way with these very sun sundry, challenges to communicate with. I’ll give you a good example on our cooking series that we do, Ciao Italia. It’s the longest running cooking show in America, on PBS, like 25 years now.

If you watch cooking shows, well that show ties it. When I took over, it was a regional show before it went to the network. I was researching it and trying to figure out, what is the deal on this show. I’ve realized that something as simple as the close‑up camera, the up camera, meaning camera looking high.

I thought only God looks at food straight down. You know like a cam of brownies, that was my joke, but I said, “What is this straight down shit, how unappealing is that? What is this staring over an autopsy or something? Fuck that.”

[laughter]

Paul:  I’m being a wise guy. I have the regular camera that looks at Marian, and then I have a close‑up camera on the floor, the floor camera. This kind of really extreme close‑up, what I call the love camera, these really close, beautiful, succulent shots and then the high camera.

All I did was I stood next to my wife at the time, who has since passed away, but I stood next to her and I watched her cook. I normally don’t cook, but she cooked. I measured my angle of my eyes. If you stood next to me while you were cooking, it is 60 degrees. It’s weird, but it’s true. I make sure that my jib camera never goes higher than 60 degrees looking down.

If you stood next to me, that is how you would look at the food. Isn’t that interesting? It’s true. The food looks kind of appealing. It doesn’t look laid out. It works. I didn’t tell anybody. I am telling you because it’s behind the scenes stuff.

Who cares as long as it works but I thought, “son of a bitch, look at that.” I would get in there and I would drill into components of my craft. To try to figure out how can I gain some sort of mastery over it, because I had never done a cooking show before.

That is a long tirade but next time you look at a cooking show and you see, if you do, and see a straight looking down shot. Just remember, only God looks at everyone that way.

[laughter]

Jason:  I will.

Paul:  It’s silly, but it’s true.

Jason:  To me, it’s fascinating to hear you talk about these things because this is really all about, I believe the technologies and humanities, are always working together.

Paul:  Good.

Jason:  You are a writer; you’re a director, an editor. At the same time, you’re thinking about optics and about perspective. The relationship between people, and the way they look at things.

Paul:  Right. Exactly.

Jason:  That requires a different way of thinking. To bring into what is otherwise a more humanities show about cooking. It’s neat to see how the gears are turning in your head, how you are able to accomplish something that gives a new perspective that we all know, and enjoy just from our daily lives, but we take for granted. You put that in the TV show.

Paul:  Yes, you’re right and the little things like if you’re trying to learn, if I’m showing you how to flip an omelet and you’re trying to learn how to do it. Even though you’re standing in one place, your eyeballs, you’re mentally zooming in.

You’re zooming in, even though you’re standing, you’re not physically leaning over you’re zooming in. I’ll use that focus or that intensity.

One of our close‑up guys, all of my shooters are sports shooters. They worked the Red Socks games that were based in New Hampshire. They worked in Boston doing the Red Socks and Patriots. They’re very experienced shooters and this guy can go in. He can work close‑ups like you wouldn’t believe. I’ll direct the show, I’ll just say, the rhythm is there.

Paul:  They’ll just think this is endless but, when I did “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” if you watch the show, he always comes in the door and moves left to right. All the time, because you read left to right.

It’s always in the door, feed the fish, characters, people moving always flowing left to right, in this culture. We’re not Japanese. I think Hebrew it’s reverse, but American’s left to right. [laughs] This is so silly.

These guys know the rules when we direct. Marianne’s spooning sauce on lasagna, and I have the 60 degree shot you see the whole lasagna it’s getting the sauce.

Then I’ll go to the love shot, which is way close. You’re watching that red sauce go down and see how it’s coating, but he’ll always move, he’ll be close and he’ll always start panning left to right. It’s always this sort of flow, and as he’s going he’ll zoom in, it’s fun.

It’s all choreographed, but what you get is this seamless exposition of technique. You see Marianne, she’s talking, you see this. You see I walk you into it and we’ve been doing it so long it’s automatic, it’s beautiful.

That gives me pleasure as a director, because they make me look great and I’m telling them that on the headset saying “Oh, this is the best” and I’ll have them saying, “Make love to this, make love to it.”

I use all these carnality things like the money shots and all this. It’s a very blunt world we live in, in television. It is fun and in the studio and as a director, that’s a whole other component where you’re wearing headsets and talking to maybe six people.

You build that little community, that is sort of our little space station to return to the metaphor. We’re in that little world.

Then Mary Anne’s there cooking and other people are there, but the people who are actually doing it, the camera boy people, the engineers, you’ve probably been in a television environment, to know that’s a very specific little coterie of people.

It’s fun for you, as an educator, to spill some of the beans of what I’m doing, and how I’m trying to invest that particular message. I told Mary Anne she can hook rugs, it’s immaterial to me. [laughter] I don’t care. I just want the passion of doing it displayed by somebody on camera and that’s all I need.

Then I know how to make that work especially by giving them that freedom to be who they are looking into a lens. It helps me to verbalize it, because I’m really expounding on my methodology of coming at anything. It’s just how I come at it, from different angles. What’s the word? Suss it out, SUSS. I don’t know where that word comes from?

That’s what I do and I’m doing it today and when you called I was editing. We were in Italy, two weeks ago, filming in this place up in the mountains up in the north. A cheese place, it’s a bit of a long story, in the Piedmont. There I am just cutting a away and I have a home office because technology is so simple.

I’m cutting here and I’m making choices it’s just instant one after another. There’s no debating. I’m just doing it, because I’m at a point in my career where it’s been so long that, there’s just certain things that you just know how to do, you just do it, and you think, “God, couldn’t find somebody to do what I’m doing. These decisions are happening so fast.” [laughs] It’s fun just to be aware of it.

Jason:  This is amazing to hear these insights your having. I think one thing that gets lost on a lot of folks now days is not reflecting on their practices and how these practices develop over time. It sounds like you are very mindful and in cognition of those things?

Paul:  I am and thank you for noticing, I am. That’s part of my job, part of my profession, I view this. In a way, I always tell people television can be very glamorous, or film making, I say “It really is a craft, don’t kid yourself.” That part of it, that component is really a craft and you could study it forever.

There is, with your producer and you’re handling the whole thing it is something more than a craft, it’s a profession because you do, your professing something, you’re a professor, I can’t put it out any more clearer than that, that you are professing something.

In my case yeah, I’ve been, I’m always mindful of it because you can get caught in little side eddies so quickly, because it’s such a collaborative process whether it’s film making or television series. Once everybody’s pulling together, like a tri‑re and everybody is rowing but somebody has got to beat the drum, and they’ve got to like they guy so in this case they love me.

It’s not like an asshole, I’m not beating the drum. I’m a nice guy. I hop down and I row some, because I’ve done everything so there’s nothing I haven’t done so it’s a constant awareness for me of what I’m doing. I’m surprised a lot of people aren’t mindful that way, they’re doing their thing.

Mary Anne especially, my cook, she loves to cook. I can get about one tenth into a conversation like this and forget it, her eyes glaze over. It’s not in her head.

But, you’re right, it’s fun and it’s been enjoyable for me to talk about this with you, because you’re in there with the brains of tomorrow, for God’s sake. What do you teach, and I don’t want to blab about this forever, but value tests. What courses are you teaching there, or what are you up to?

Jason:  Right now, I’m primarily teaching the English One and Two composition classes and Technical Communication. Over the summer the highlight of my academic career so far was to teach a science fiction class.

Paul:  Oh great. What fun.

Jason:  That’s what my specialty is in 20th century American literature and science fiction.

Paul:  I saw your blog or something.

Jason:  Right.

Paul:  Good for you.

Jason:  I try to bring in my love of science fiction, but also the sciences. Originally I got my bachelor’s degree from Georgia Tech where I’m teaching now. I started out as a physics major. It didn’t take me very long to figure out I was better writing about science than doing science. I still have a love of science and an appreciation for it that I bring into my classes.

Paul:  Good for you. That’s what Fred said. Fred Rogers loved what he did. He used everything puppetry, musician, on camera, producer. He used everything he had in him. It’s nice to draw upon all these different skills and that there’s a place for it.

Jason:  You have to bring a kind of passion to it. I hear that passion in your voice when you’re talking about these things–not only Space Station L‑4, the newer things you’ve been working on since then.

Paul:  Always. Yeah. In my case, I’m both the monkey and the organ grinder. I can do both. I can jump up and down. Some people need to see externally how happy they are inside. They can’t articulate it. I become a mirror for their excitement.

Sometimes I’m just excited, it’s also my way of cutting, A, cutting through the crap. B, making up for a lack of knowledge on many things. [laughs] I can come to, your act of omission. If I could get away with it, I get away with it at all times. That was my theory.

If I knew the truth of it, it was enough. If I didn’t have all the supporting documents but intuitively it was right, I would bullshit the rest up. In my case I didn’t need to hide behind something. I would let that excitement get out front. I don’t care what it is, whatever the project would be. Sometimes I have to do it for Marianne, for the cooking show.

I’d have to show her in my enthusiasm and excitement, her life’s work and all that stuff. It’s important, because she’s a little more narrow. She focuses on cooking. She’s not simplistic. She doesn’t see the larger view, the worldview. You’re in mass communications. You just sense that there’s a larger view. Some people get it, some people don’t.

That doesn’t make it less or more, but, for me at least, it heightens my responsibility to be bold and not be shy about it. It’s easy to be shy and say, “Oh. Fuck. You can listen to those voices and it slows you down.” All I can say is “Don’t. Dive into it because that’s where the joy is.” That’s the final thing that I’ve always kept in mind.

Julia Child said something about, “It’s tragic, if you can’t do something that makes you feel absolute bliss.” Many people have to do things that they are not blissful about. It’s their life.

It’s very important for anybody. In my case, I’ve been with Mister Rogers for 10 years, Marianne for 20 years. All my actors and anybody who I’ve dealt with, I wanted to show them as being complete and full in their lives as possible. Being who they are, doing what they love to do. Whether it’s an actor acting like it, or somebody really is.

Its modeling saying, “look, I’m a human being at a sub‑textual level. If I can do it, so the fuck can you. I’m no different.” I’m no different especially in normal people Marianne or Fred, not movie stars, not Tom Cruise. Forget that. I don’t comment on stars. I can’t get there. It’s too complicated for me. Human beings, human people. That’s is the secret mission.

Not Guy Fieri on the food network with purple hair and being crazy. Regular people loving what they’re doing. I really enjoyed presenting them in a mass media as though they’re somebody special. I’m always wondering about celebrity and all those kinds of things. I’m always happy to add a theory to something that may not even need it. That’s my rule.

That’s my current theory on that one. People and their lives and also my exhortation for you to be passionate about what you do and why. If I can do it, so can you. I’m a guy. It’s fun to be able to do that for my kids. And to be a fool. That’s great stuff. That’s what I do.

With your science thing, do you write science, or where do you see yourself going with this?

Jason:  Currently, the type of writing I do is academic. I’m writing research papers either uncovering maybe lost artifacts or writing about the cultural relevance of the science fiction story. What does it have to say about something going on in the present world?

One of the things I’m working on now is there’s a three volume set called “Political Future Fictions” that just came out. I was asked to write a review of this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to buy the books 500 bucks.

It’s a beautiful set of books. The novels inside the collection haven’t been printed in about 100 years for the most part. I’m reading these things they are from the late 1800s, early 1900s. They are so relevant. The circumstances of those stories back then, you could almost mirror with things that have happened unfortunately tragically like Sandy Hook or government shutdown.

All these things are happening again. As times change, many things still remain the same, but we forget that. I want to remind people that these stories are just being retold in different ways, in real life and addiction.

Paul:  That’s great to know that. They’ve just fallen out of print, right? Because they weren’t around, whoever resurrected these works, right?

Jason:  Right, exactly. They did get some attraction when they were first released. After maybe a decade or two, they just would fall off people’s radar. There wouldn’t be enough copies to go around in libraries, etc., and other issues of how like libraries are getting contracting, getting smaller. The access to these books anyway is getting more difficult.

Paul:  Of course, yeah. That’s so great. They released for $500 bucks, no wonder. Is it some kind of vanity publication or something that makes them so expensive?

Jason:  They’re like cloth‑covered academic press. With this review that I’m writing, I’m basically arguing these are important books. Libraries that read the journal that I’ll be publishing the review in, I’m going to encourage them, “You need to buy this set of books. It’s something that people would be interested in if you promote it. Let them know that you’re getting this.”

Obviously, most of us can’t afford to get those books. If I can convince the people that can buy them to make them available for other people, and hoping I can at least make a little bit of a push in the right direction.

Paul:  Of course, yeah. This is kind of in a fate way, kind of H.G. Wells sort of thing, that sort of sense. OK, I got you on that. He was not alone in being a futurist.

Jason:  Right. There were lots of people around that time writing very similar stories. It’s just that for a number of circumstances, Wells and Verne, or people we remember from that time. There were other people talking about the same types of issues.

Paul:  Yeah. It was a product, not a genre, but a stable of people thinking. That’s terrific. Teaching at Georgia Tech, that’s good. Good for you, man! Are you on the 10‑year track? I don’t know where you are in your career. Are you liking where you are?

Jason:  To be honest, I would give my eye teeth to have a tenure track job right now. It’s very difficult to land those kinds of positions nowadays. What I have is a postdoctoral fellowship.

Basically, I get to teach here for three years. This is my second year that I’m on right now. I’ve got another year. I’m safe for the time being. I’m continuing to look for work and apply for jobs.

My wife, she is finishing her dissertation on Postcolonial Literature. Once she gets finished, then we’ll both be able to work. We’re very mobile about where we move to. Really the sky is the limit at this point. We’re hopeful. We’re going to keep looking. It’s interesting figuring out where we’re going to end up.

Paul:  Exactly. Good for you. I think it’s fabulous. It’s exciting. It sounds very encouraging too, because you’re not going to have any problems. You may not know it at the moment, and it’s going to be baffling.

It’s going to unfold for you, because you’re awake. That’s what matters, and I sense that in our conversation with what you’re trying to do. It feels to me like you’re not afraid to be passionate about what you’re doing, and that’s good. That will carry you far. You’ll do a great service. I know you will.

This doesn’t have to be a one‑time only. If you want to come back, you feel free to contact me. I enjoy talking with you, and it just develops. If I can be of help, let me know.

Jason:  I appreciate that.

Photo courtesy of Paul Lally.

Photo courtesy of Paul Lally.

Paul:  I don’t mean that in a casual way. I do mean it specifically. Now that I know kind of where you’re going and what you’re doing, I’ll try to see if I know who I know in this world that you might be interested in talking to.

Although, I can’t at the top of my head think of anything. It’s been so long since I did science related stuff or space stations, and that whole kind of concept. I think I have a sense of what you’re doing. Find out on that. See if they have those shows and all that. That would be terrific.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Georgia Tech, Pedagogy, Science Fiction, Television
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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