I love Paeter Frandsen.
There. I said it.
First off, his name is endlessly fun to say. Beyond that, the guy is total geek--and, in my circles, that's a real compliment. It won't take long reading his blog to discover where his passions rest. There he talks games, comics, and sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies, but with an eye towards detecting the deeper truths found in such geek-worthy pursuits. On top of that, he is the mastermind behind Spirit Blade Productions--a fantastic venture that produces high-quality audio dramas!
I've been a big fan of radio dramas for a while now. Many in my generation might recall the Star Wars Radio Dramas based on the original trilogy. I still have my old cassettes of The Shadow radio plays, and I've already instructed my wife to purchase me a couple dramas from Dark Adventure Radio Theatre as produced by the amazing H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.
When I first heard of Paeter's Spirit Blade series--a high concept, far future, sword-clashing, demon-fighting, sprawling sci-fi/fantasy/and supernatural epic--I was immediately intrigued. I was made all the more so when I discovered that such a fanboy smorgasboard was also an exploration of theology! I listened to the first Spirit Blade story (it's a trilogy, yo), and had a great, great time. It was such an immersive experience and left me wanting more. Today, we're talking to the man himself about this adventure in sound.
Greg Mitchell: First off, let’s start with something easy. Who the heck are you?
Paeter Frandsen: Mmm. A deep and profound question we must all ask ourselves... But I'll give you the shallow answer. My name is Paeter Frandsen. First name rhymes with "later", last name rhymes with "Manson". I live in Mesa, Arizona. I've been acting and singing for most of my life and also served as a worship pastor for a short time.
In 2006 I launched "Spirit Blade Productions", a very small company dedicated to telling very big stories in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. I've always been a huge fan of comic books, role-playing games (both video games and "paper and pencil") and fantasy novels. Sharing the truths of the Bible has been another passion of mine for a long time. So "Spirit Blade Productions" is really the inevitable result of combining my passions and the various facets of who I am.
GM: What is this crazy thing called The Spirit Blade Trilogy?
PF: Well, first off, it's an audio drama, which is different from an audio book in that it is performed by a full cast of actors and is completely fleshed out with sound effects and a musical score. In fact, its very much like a movie, except without the picture. Ideal entertainment for when you're driving, exercising or doing mindless work.
The Spirit Blade Trilogy takes place in the distant future, when the government has decided that all spiritual belief systems that make absolute truth claims are illegal. The ensemble cast centers on Merikk, a "has been" musician looking for meaning in life. Merikk discovers that he has a very important role to play in The Underground Liberation, a group of men secretly trying to put the concept of absolute truth and the quest for answers about God back in mainstream circulation.
The stakes are very high and the journey is a wild one. Characters travel in and out of the spirit realm, battling demons, while also struggling in a conflict with humans in the physical world. Aliens, cyborgs, science-fiction and the supernatural all collide in an extremely genre-bending experience.
GM: You’ve achieved something really spectacular with Spirit Blade. Namely, the resurrection of a largely dead medium: the radio drama. When you were thinking of Spirit Blade, why in the world did you decide to go with the radio drama route, of all things?
PF: Well, I certainly wouldn't say I've resurrected the medium. There is a large community of artists working hard to bring attention to it. And the internet and mp3 players are now making the medium both accessible and attractive. But I do hope that I'm bringing something very unique to the table.
The reason I chose the medium of audio drama is because I believed it was a medium I could create material in that would meet or exceed the standards established by the secular mainstream. Trying to tell these epic, action-packed, effects-filled stories as movies would result in something that looks very cheap and laughable. Hollywood is not interested in producing stories with strong biblical themes and the Christian arts community has not yet been able to summon the resources and talent to compete with summer movie blockbusters. I'm just really tired of seeing cheap knock-offs or other crap with the label "Christian" on it. My work is far from perfect, but I'm doing everything I can to create material that meets or exceeds mainstream standards.
GM: I’ve gotta say that the production of Spirit Blade is a masterpiece of sound, and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been a fan and have listened to my share of radio dramas in the past, but you have really set a high bar for quality. A lot of times, even in the most professional of productions, there seems to be “the sound effect track” and then the actors and dialogue—as sort of these two separate things—, but Spirit Blade really puts the actors in the midst of the action. When things blow up, I feel it—almost see it. When I was listening to it, I had that same idea--that this was a big budget special effects bonanza, without the picture. Not only that, but there are so many layers to the sounds. I really want the audience to understand that this isn’t just talking with some sound effects, you’ve created an audio work of art with nuance and complexity. How long did it take you to create this—not from conception, but just the grunt work of recording and mixing this production?
PF: Thanks so much. The recording and production of the original mix of "Spirit Blade" took about two years, working on it at night while on staff at my church during the day. Now that I do this mostly full-time, the "Special Edition" took about six months. The work is helped greatly by the sound effects libraries I've purchased from various Hollywood effects studios, and the fantastic scoring I'm able to purchase as well, but "grunt work" is an appropriate description. A lot of it is a ton of fun, but there is plenty more that's just plain boring, technical work. Adjusting levels and EQs. And timing is a big issue, for both effects and dialogue. Each actor comes and records individually. It isn't until I'm mixing that I line them all up so they sound like they're in a room together sharing a conversation. I basically have to do almost everything except act for the actors. And since I'm controlling the pacing of their line delivery, I even do a little bit of acting for them too.
GM: I’ve fawned enough over your technical prowess! Let’s go back a bit, to the very genesis of Spirit Blade. How did this story come about for you? How long have you been working on it?
PF: It's been a long journey, especially for the first part of the trilogy. I wrote the story as an unpublished novella from about 1999 to 2002, just as something fun to do in my spare time. I converted it to an audio script in 2003 and it was performed live at my church in 2004.
GM: Now that sounds awesome!
PF: Most of the cast of the live show returned to record the project a few months later and I released the original mix of "Spirit Blade" in 2006. After releasing two more projects, it became obvious to me that my technical ability had taken a leap forward right after mixing Spirit Blade. So this year I did a complete remix of the project from the ground up. Entirely remixed songs, a new score, tons of new sound effects and a greatly improved overall sound. We just released the "Spirit Blade: Special Edition" audio drama in October. So it's really been a long journey for that project. And for "behind the scenes" junkies, we've got a ton of free downloads to check out at www.spiritblade.net, as well as our archive discs, that chronicle most of it.
GM: I think, tonally, Spirit Blade has a very “Saturday morning cartoon” feel to it, and I mean that in the best possible way. While listening, I envisioned a sort of cross between Luc Besson’s underrated The Fifth Element, mixed with Batman Beyond (a favorite of mine). Also, at its heart, it captures this “gee whiz” approach to sci-fi that’s really reminiscent of the original Star Wars and the new The Clone Wars animated series. Plus, what I was not prepared for: Spirit Blade is actually kind of a musical! Was there a specific tone you were trying to achieve, or did this come naturally out of the demands of the story and the nature of radio drama—which has to be a bit “melodramatic” for the simple reason that the audience can’t see the actors?
PF: "Spirit Blade" doesn't have quite the focus of tone that our following two projects have, and I think that's the result of me learning the ropes as a director in this medium. It's especially noticeable in the original mix, and still noticeable some in the performances of the "Special Edition".
Some of what you're interpreting as melodrama results from the inflection used by the actors in an effort to convey audibly what is normally displayed visibly. This is one of the huge challenges of audio drama. Everything has to be just slightly overdone. For example, you'll notice in "Spirit Blade" that, despite some of its lighter tone at times, there is also quite a bit of "gore". Demons exploding in a mess of entrails, quite a bit of juicy, bloody effects when characters are sliced by a sword, and other moments of "audio yuckiness" that I won't spoil.
GM: Yeah, those parts were pretty awesome :p
PF: If this were all presented with visuals to match what you hear, you would be looking at a hardcore R-rated movie. But as an audio drama, it's much more of a "PG-13" experience.
As for the "musical" aspect of the trilogy, I just wanted to experiment. I figured, if I'm limited to audio, why not try taking further advantage of the audio medium and use songs to tell some of this story? I'm not doing the same thing in our other projects, but Merikk is a musician and sees the world through the interpretive lens of his art. So that provides a bit of a bridge for the involvement of the songs. It's definitely a bit experimental, but my hope is that my audience is open and imaginative enough to give it a shot. Plus, it's not a "musical" in the sense of "kick lines" and "jazz hands". Most of these songs are hard, industrial electronic, which blends well with the sci-fi and supernatural elements. And in two and a half hours, there are only seven of them.
The vast majority of reactions I've gotten to the presence of the songs is positive, though it's not everyone's cup of tea. So all I can suggest is that folks give it a shot and see what they think. ;-)
GM: Where do you find the incredibly talented actors that populate your cast? Are you looking for help in future Spirit Blade Productions?
PF: Thanks for the praise! I've been very grateful for every cast member I've ever had. Especially since they all do it for free!
We're a very small company. Basically, it's me doing everything related to production while my wife crunches the numbers. I pay a friend to do all the graphic design elements (when he lets me pay him) and have another guy that I pay once or twice a year for website related services. But day in and day out, it's a one man operation. I also do everything I can to keep our product prices low when compared to mainstream audio drama prices. So financially we're still a long way from being able to pay our talented cast members, despite how much it pains me. But I've been hugely blessed by the number of gifted individuals who are also excited about what we're doing or just plain think its fun enough to do without pay.
The cast of "Spirit Blade" is made up almost entirely of people who were going to my church at the time we produced the live show. Our church had a strong outreach theater ministry at the time, and so we had some great options right at our doorstep. With each successive production I've reached more and more outside of that circle. Our third project, "Pilgrim's Progress: Similitude Of A Dream", was the first for which I posted casting calls in the secular acting community in the Phoenix area, and worked with a couple of actors I'd never met before. I've used a few actors I've found online in smaller roles, but the right "online actors" are few and far between, since they need to be not only solid actors, but able to create and send me a recording of their performance that meets the technical standards of the rest of the recorded dialogue.
However, microphone quality and acting experience aren't near as vital for those who join the fun of our online volunteer production community, The Spirit Blade Underground Alliance. We're always looking for enthusiastic folks to get involved as writers, actors, mixers or visual artists as we pool our efforts to produce audio fiction that we then make available for free. It's a ton of fun and you can get more info at www.spiritblade.net/alliance.
GM: What’s next for Spirit Blade, the story? It’s a trilogy, right? Is the second part already out? What can fans hope to see...er...hear? :p
PF: The second part of the trilogy was released in 2008 and titled "Spirit Blade: Dark Ritual". As you can imagine, it has a darker tone and story to match the title. If "Spirit Blade" is a story about all of these characters on a rough day, "Dark Ritual" is a story about these characters on a day straight from hell. A promotional tag-line for this story was "no one is safe". Couldn't be more true.
I'm currently outlining and preparing to write the script for the third and final part of this trilogy, which will answer some lingering questions and bring the story to a close on an insanely epic scale. We're going out with a seriously big bang.
GM: The only way to do it!
PF: For info and trailers for all of our projects, you can visit www.spiritblade.net. And I keep a running blog with updates on my current projects at spiritblade.net/blog, so that's probably the quickest way to keep up to date on what's coming next.
GM: Alright, all this talk of sci-fi has been great, but I think we’d do the story a disservice not to talk about what lies at the core of it—and that’s its Christian foundation. This is a story about finding meaning in life and, ultimately, looking to God to discover it. Why tell this kind of story in a Star Wars-y setting? What are the unique challenges in developing a Bible-based story in a lasers-and-hovercar kind of world?
PF: Science fiction and fantasy have always been wonderful playgrounds for philosophy. Good and evil can be represented in dramatic ways not possible in realistic stories and important ideas can be explored in fantastic environments that take the pressure off of the audience.
If you look at films like Star Wars, Tron, The Matrix, Superman, and many others, you'll see imaginative fiction dealing with extremely relevant spiritual issues. Now and then we'll see a stronger Christian influence in movies like The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, but most times Buddhism, a form of Hinduism or "pop-spirituality" are the main schools of thought presented.
More than half of the time, science fiction is a platform for atheistic assumptions. Theological issues, like those in Tron and The Matrix, are more symbolic than actually a supernatural element in the story. I wanted to challenge this paradigm by creating science fiction that is driven specifically by biblical thought and that also breaks the mold of the genre some by incorporating the supernatural as well.
The challenge isn't so much in the development of this kind of story as it is in the marketing of it. First off, it's a futuristic Christian story that has nothing to do with the "end times". Secondly, as I mentioned before, it's very violent. Our slogan is "Christian sci-fi and fantasy, unsterilized, unsafe...unleashed!" Most Christians are stuck pretty firmly in "family friendly" mode, so what we're doing definitely isn't for everyone.
GM: One of the things I recall upon first discovering your site is this sort of “beacon” message you’ve got—calling out to all the “Misfit Christians” who like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Ha, ha, I know the feeling! I’ve been a proud Misfit Christian from the very beginning. Do you find much resistance from the Church toward what you’re doing, or maybe for your interests in “the weird”?
PF: At this point we aren't high profile enough to have gained much attention from anyone but those who become fans. But it's not uncommon for me to get an e-mail from a new listener who says they are concerned about some of the content in our productions. Oddly, it isn't usually the violence, but the "language". In Spirit Blade, I have a list of invented "swear words" that my characters use. Despite a little crossover, none of them have a consistent parallel in modern slang, and their actual meanings are left very vague. But despite this, and the fact that the Bible never gives us a list of taboo words in the English language, some listeners are uncomfortable with even these completely fictional "swear words".
But responses like this are more and more uncommon. I'd say I feel more resistance to my love of horror, sci-fi and fantasy in my personal relationships than in my work. I've been a bit "weird" like that for a long time, and I know I'm not alone. Ultimately, Spirit Blade Productions is about reaching out to this lost segment of the population that the church at best doesn't know what to do with and at worst actually condemns. The Spirit Blade Underground Podcast (www.spiritblade.net/podcast) is a weekly show I produce for Christian geeks to hear and talk about their favorite geeky subjects while learning to discern the difference between the good and bad philosophies presented in genre fiction. My heart and passion is for the misunderstood geek to better understand and get excited about the incredible truths of the Bible and to have great relationships and community with other believers.
GM: I really appreciate you taking the time to hang out and talk all things geek. You are a man who knows your stuff and that’s commendable. Any parting words to our audience? Where can they find you on the net? Pitch your product, man!
PF: Well first, thanks for having me here, Greg. Great questions and a lot of fun!
We've got a ton of things going on. The audio dramas, tons of free downloads, a podcast, forums and a creative community to participate in. The best way to check it out is to visit www.spiritblade.net and just start exploring. You can also hear trailers and free previews of our projects on the site.
We're running a cool promotional offer right now for "Spirit Blade: Special Edition" and will be starting another one for the Christmas season. And for those buying physical product from us, shipping is always free!
Lastly, I'd love to hear from you. What I'm doing is really about the people I'm doing it for. I love interacting with listeners and would love to get reactions from anybody who visits the site. And tell you what, from now to the end of November, shoot me an e-mail (you can find it on the site) and say that "Greg sent me" and I'll send you a free download of the "Spirit Blade Song Bundle". I hope to hear from you soon!
There you have it, folks! What more could you possibly need before you bought this thing?! Head over to Spirit Blade Productions today! Tell 'em Greg sent you.