My brain works in completely nonsensical ways. I’m not sure if other people find this to be true of themselves, though I suspect they do, but I can say with certainty that my brain is sometimes completely indecipherable.

 

I mention this because the introduction to this topic that first came to my mind doesn’t actually make a lot of sense unless you take that fact into account.

 

This story starts about a week ago, when I had been catching up on games one of my favorite Let’s Players had posted since the last time I checked his channel. Clearly it had been too long, since he had the time to finish almost two whole games. As I finished catching up on one, I turned to the other, Silent Hill 3, to fill some of my free time at night.

 

Why would they even BUILD an amusement park in Silent Hill, anyway? The population is like 90% shambling, inhuman monstrosities!

The happiest place on Earth this ain't.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Silent Hill series, allow me to summarize it briefly…it’s messed up. Having watched this same commentator’s videos for the previous two installments in the franchise I had some idea of what I should expect: characters with mental instability, a nightmarish glimpse into a parallel world full of grotesque mutants and some deeply traumatizing plot twists. Believe it or not, Silent Hill’s not exactly a comedy.

 

I don’t have anything against the horror genre, per se, but it’s never really been one of my favorites. I actually don’t believe that I scare very easily (though I do sometimes respond to “jump scares”, which I loathe for their dramatic laziness if nothing else) and often find myself fairly detached while watching horror movies. That said, when a scary movie does get to me, my neurochemical response is, somewhat curiously, to become incredibly stressed out. This sometimes leads to the same sort of irrational fear response that I know other people have after watching scary movies, but is just as likely to just sort of irritate me.

 

Whether I end up scared or irate, I definitely wouldn’t put the horror genre at the top of my favorites list. However, since I am generally detached watching things of the horror genre, I had no problem watching Silent Hill 1 or 2, and I had interest in watching the third installment, because I like this guy’s work.

 

Here’s where things stop making sense.

 

Maybe two weeks ago, I saw some random segment on a daytime news show (Today, maybe?) about how technology has messed with our natural sleep cycles by introducing all of this extra ambient lighting that makes it harder for our brains to shut off when we try to go to sleep. I don’t usually put a lot of stock in daytime news, because a lot of the discoveries they discuss are fads or sheer nonsense, but this made enough logical sense to me that I stored the information for later.

 

Now back to when I was preparing to watch Silent Hill; I stopped myself before loading up the videos and had an idea.

 

“I know, Kyle,” I said, addressing myself by first name, and verbally for some slightly deranged reason, “You can use this opportunity to kill two birds with one experimental stone.”

 

“Go on, my own subconscious,” I responded, “though one of us should make a note that ‘experimental stone’ would make an interesting subtitle for a young adult adventure novel”.

 

“Well, you already had some interest in trying out this shutting off the lights before bed thing, and now you’re about to watch the You Tube equivalent of a scary movie. Why not shut off all the lights in your room and put on some headphones to feel as fully immersed as possible into that fictional world of nightmares so you will be as uncomfortable as possible watching it?”

 

“Literally no part of that idea makes sense…it MUST be brilliant, let’s do it!”

 

As if a mere mortal could kill anyone from Lidsville!

"I sure hope nothing scares me so badly I can never sleep again. Better watch a woman murder a horde of hideous, bloody monsters in a world of living nightmares...that isn't Lidsville."

So each night, at least an hour before bed I watch Let’s Play Silent Hill 3 alone, in the dark, with some headphones on and it is definitely creepier than it would otherwise be. Every unsettlingly silent corridor, every moaning zombie mutant every rusted, creaky door has its dramatic effect amplified under those conditions. It really does feel like it’s the way the game was meant to be experienced.

 

For reference though, even though my apartment feels really creepy right before I go to bed, I have been sleeping much better this past week. Go figure!

 

So why am I telling you this weird, unnecessarily thorough story about my recent, peculiar sleeping habits? Well for one, I thought it would be a fun and quirky story for my blog. Secondly there’s a TV that premiered recently that deals with both sleeping and setting a great, atmospheric stage in unconventional ways. In case you haven’t seen the ads for it, I’m talking about the new NBC drama Awake.

 

Awake tells the story of Michel Britten, a detective whose wife and son are killed an a car also knocks him unconscious. The strange thing, though, is that his wife (Hannah) and son (Rex) aren’t dead at the same time. You see Michael is living in two worlds. One day he lives in a world where Hannah survived the car crash, and works cases at his job as usual. When he goes to bed, though, he immediately wakes up in a world where Rex survived the crash, but his wife didn’t, and spends his time solving a completely different set of detective cases.

 

In a lot of ways, the trickiest thing about this show is that our hero doesn’t know which world is real. This has a lot of implications, though chiefly psychological (which they’ve handled in some ways I find interesting so far) and visual.

 

Psychologically, Michael resists dealing with the loss of either of his loved ones, since his circumstances have made it so he doesn’t have to deal with it. Not only does this keep him distanced from Hannah and Rex, as they each struggle to deal with the loss of the other, but it’s a potentially dangerous coping mechanism in a number of ways. For one, as one of his two job-appointed psychiatrists mentions in the first episode, if his brain is creating a world without enough detail to seems real while it should be at rest, it could eventually have serious medical ramifications. On top of that, if this whole situation is really just some sort of complex delirium, then playing into it will certainly generate psychological stress down the road.

 

Not only does the cast feel a little weighted towards the Blue, Rex world, but so does the action. I wonder what that means...

This picture very cleverly presents the cast of the show, divided into their respective "worlds" with our protagonist in the middle.

Further muddling the detective’s perception of which world is real, small details continue to seep through from one world to the other, especially regarding his police work. For example, when a physical detail like hair color of the perpetrator comes across from some testimony in one world, it often corresponds to the case and perpetrator of his case in the other world. Sometimes these details are a little less direct, and tougher to connect between the worlds, but there’s been enough bleed through to  really confuse the issue.

 

Probably my favorite aspect of the show are the psychiatrists. In order to resume work at his job in each world, Michael was assigned a psychiatrist to make sure he’s mentally fit for duty. One takes on a generally positive view of Michael’s perception of the two worlds, and his continued insistence that his cases can be solved by information from the other world, while the second psychiatrist finds both of these ideas very bleak and concerning, and constantly tries to convince him to make a change. Not only does this device allow us to see two different psychiatric views of the situation, but it also allows the two to debate through Michael which world is real. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, it’s fresh and interesting.

 

Luckily for Michael Britten, though, his wife and son don't shout at him through static, demanding colored pages in the creepiest way possible.

It actually reminds me a little of Myst, and how each brother was trapped in a colored dimensional prison and could only be save with pages of the appropriate color.

Visually this concept runs a serious risk: confusing the two worlds. Typically when a story addresses a character visiting multiple worlds it’s either another planet or like a magical world, a different culture, or at the very least a “real” world and some “other” world. In these cases, one world has some clear, usually visual distinctions setting it apart from the other. On Awake, though, one of the key points of interest is that as far as we know, these two worlds are equally valid, and both represent an extension of his life after the car crash in equally “real” worlds.

 

So what did they do to keep them straight? Well for one, there’s an almost completely different cast of characters between the two worlds: different partners, different families, different psychiatrists, etc. Of course more characters can generate more confusion, especially if you can’t remember which world that character belongs to. But to handle that, the crew of Awake devised and ingeniously simple way to visually distinguish the worlds without compromising either’s potential as “real”: color-coded lighting.

 

If you’re not familiar with lighting for film and television, which I suspect you’re not, you may not realize that most lighting has some inherent color to it. Two of the most common types are blue lighting (a quality which daylight naturally has) where as tungsten lighting (that is, ordinary light bulbs and such) has a reddish-orange color to it. These colors, and more, are often used by lighting designers both within the industry and outside of it, to generate mood, represent a location, etc. Here, the red lighting is simply a tinge to everything in the world where Michael’s wife is alive and the blue lighting denotes scenes in the world where his son is alive.

 

As I said before, to anyone in the industry, this seems like a pretty simple trick, but that’s the beauty to it. There are so many overly complicated ways to try and get the same point across, but with this you can simply glance at a scene and know which world and which characters you can expect to deal with. An idea this high concept could have fallen apart at the seams if you couldn’t tell one world from the other, let alone dream from reality, so I’m glad they’ve made such simple work of creating two whole worlds for this series.

 

I’ve talked about tone in the past, and how it represents the personality of your show from a writer’s perspective. Usually I find myself unable to see things from any other perspective, but sometimes something transcends basic set/lighting design to really catch my attention. We shouldn’t take visual design for granted, though, because it can provide a show with just as much of an identity as its characters and dialogue. Heck, without it, those characters wouldn’t have a compelling world within our suspension of disbelief to recite that dialogue.

 

So many little details go into every episode of every TV show we watch, and we usually don't pay them any mind.

Even if you're only vaguely familiar with the specifics of the various Star Treks, you take one look at this and you can probably tell what we're looking at.

Think about how different a feel Star Trek the Next Generation has from Star Trek the Original Series, even though they’re set in the same world and have similar premises, there are all sorts of facets that signify one or the other, and very clearly set them apart from other shows. These are extreme examples too, but I hope that together with the much more subtle Awake, you can see my point.

 

Next time you’re watching your favorite show, take a moment to soak in the little details about lighting, sets or even costumes, and appreciate things that set that show apart, which you and many others take for granted every week. Maybe it will even deepen your appreciation for the show.

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