Actors Tara Platt and Yuri Lowenthal know how to make things happen fast. Last spring, Platt had an idea for a story about action figures living on a shelf in the bedroom of a 10-year-old boy. By summer, they were working on the first season of Shelf Life. Season two of the web series, produced by their firm Monkey Kingdom, debuted on Tuesday. Last weekend, they filmed the entire third season.
This couple, well known for their voice acting work (both were in Naruto, Lowenthal is also the voice of Ben Tennyson in Ben 10: Alien Force and Ultimate Alien), knows that when you have a good idea, you have to run with it. And Shelf Life is a good idea. This isn't a loving tale about children's toys. It's about cynical figures subjected to the destructive hands of their young owner.
“As a kid, you do terrible things to your toys,” says Platt. “You pull their heads off and you put them in compromising positions.”
“Set them on fire,” Lowenthal adds.
Platt continues, “You do all these things to action figures because they are just your toys and, as kids, we're learning who we are through our toys.”
When the Kid leaves the room, the action figures let the sex cracks, political jokes and f-bombs fly. They're bawdy, sometimes a little bitter, and very human.
The web series centers around four characters: Hero Man (Travis Willingham), a studly, boneheaded superhero; Hero Lass (Platt), his sharp-witted half-sister; Bug Boy (Lowenthal), the hip, sarcastic guy; and Samurai Snake (Bryan Enk, with Dee Bradley Baker providing the creature's voice), whom Lowenthal refers to as “our Chewbacca.”
“I think we've been able to weave in both blue humor and the physical humor,” says Platt, “as well as really intellectual and human stories.”
Lowenthal adds, “You can go as deep as you want as a viewer.”
As the lone girl on the shelf, Hero Lass often faces the brunt of the Kid's experiments. Her three companions aren't as brutal, but she's still always “the girl.” Lowenthal adds that she's also “the power figure on the shelf.” Her role can be seen as metaphoric.
“When you look at the world that is considered geek or pop culture or comic-related or entertainment-based, there are a lot of women in the so-called male world,” says Platt, a veteran of the fan-convention scene by nature of her work. On some levels, Platt believes that “it's the voice of the women in that world” that carries through Hero Lass.
Lowenthal does much of the writing for the series. He co-wrote season one with director Paul Jenkins, took on season two solo and worked with a handful of guest writers for season three. Since this means he's also writing his own parts, the job presents a certain challenge.
“Writing for yourself is at once easy, because you know your voice, and difficult, because you try to put it into the voice of the person who you want to be, or a character that's not who you are,” he explains.
But there's one big advantage to writing for his own character.
“You know how you always think of the comebacks five minutes later after the appropriate time to have used it?” he asks. “This is an opportunity for me to write those comebacks and say them.”
Shelf Life's episodes are short, usually about two and a half minutes apiece. The length of an episode, though, really depends on the time needed to flesh out the joke.
“It's kind of the Robot Chicken model,” says Lowenthal, citing the influential Adult Swim show, which focuses on sketches that are often only a few seconds in length.
Each season stems from a script that runs about 30 pages long. They'll film an entire season in one weekend. With each season, the Shelf Life team members have been challenging themselves both on a technical level and in terms of writing and acting. Both Lowenthal and Platt indicated that seasons two and three will offer a deeper glimpse into the action figures' world, with a few more dramatic moments.
With Shelf Life rolling steadily, Lowenthal and Platt have a few other projects in the works. One of them is Con Artists, a “mocku-docu” about voice actors at fan conventions, which is in post-production right now.
Check out Shelf Life on YouTube.