Geek vs. Veg

January 20, 2009

If you’ve never read (one of my favorite authors) Neal Stephenson’s treatise on the concept of geeking out versus vegging out, you need to.

If you’re lazy, here’s a summary, transposed from Stephenson’s original Star Wars editorial to an equally explosion-ridden piece of celluloid:

If you watched Transformers and the whole time were saying,

“Though Michael Bay’s visual image of Optimus Prime is drastically different than the Generation One blue and red Autobot leader, allowing the venerable Peter Cullen to voice the character lends it a distinct air of the traditional 1980s cartoon portrayal of Optimus as the utilitarian, grizzled yet caring battle commander.”

then you were geeking out.

On the other hand, if you watched Transformers and the whole time you were saying,

“Woah, dude!  Giant fighting robots and explosions!  Sweeeeeeeeeet!”

then you were vegging out.

Now most likely, a significant portion of the people watching Transformers (or at least the ones near my age), did some sort of combination of the two.

This is an extreme example of the concept.  Obviously, it’s typically much more subtle than that.  It’s also much more diverse: one could geek out over the CG renderings, or because of a favorite actor, the musicianship of the score, whatever.

In a planetarium, the opportunity for both veg and geek is high.  Too far on the geek side, and you end up with a dry astronomy lecture with high bore potential.  Too far on the veg side, and you end up with something that’s pure entertainment with little to no educational content.

This isn’t to say that people won’t like something that is radically geek or ridiculously veg.  There are folks who might appreciate a straight-up astronomy lecture—they’re called astronomers.  Likewise, pure entertainment has its place—Laser Floyd anyone?

I truly believe that good entertainment needs to be a combination of the two houses, bi-partisan if you will, and educational entertainment especially needs to be a very cultivated blend of geek and veg.

For example, you could show the audience a still diagram of a solar system orrery to demonstrate the orbits of the planets, and that might get your point across just fine.  An image like that has high geek potential, because people that have the order of the planets memorized will be happy to see something that they’re familiar with.

Now, up the veg factor by animating that same image so that the planets revolve around the sun, tracing their orbital path.  Typically you’ll need a video or laser projector to carry something out like this, and if done right, it can look really spiffy.

Take another step: animate the image in three dimensions*, so you’re able to change the audience’s perspective.  Spin the orrery so that you can see it from the top, the bottom, the sides, etc.

Go further into veg-land by doing away with the proscenium that is the TV frame: blow up the orrery so that it covers the entire dome, with the sun at the apex and Pluto (yes, I include Pluto) with its tilty orbit at the edge of the dome.  This kind of image is really cool; the audience has to look around the theater to take in the entire picture.

Finally, you can take an orrery to its logical extent by breaking the laws of physics and actually flying the audience through the solar system as if they’re on a spacecraft, buzzing the planets as you go, maybe showing actual Hubble images of each, along with all the fixin’s like rings and moons and asteroids.

At this point, you’ve got major “Oooh!” and “Aaah!” generation going on—so much in fact that the audience may be vegging out so far that they’re too caught up in the scene, totally ignoring the announcer or not even listening to the narration, missing the entire point you’re trying to get across with the orrery demonstration to begin with.  Crossing that line can be easy with so many cool toys to play with.

When producing a show, I try to present a mix of geek and veg, like an oscillation between info and wiz-bang.  I also try to build up towards the first big presentation of a veg-worthy scene, so that you don’t “give it away on the first date,” so to speak—by the time I do a big nausea-inducing spin of the stars or a relativity-ignoring planetary flyby, the audience feels like they’ve earned it.

I also puncturate very important educational points or themes by going dark.  That is to say, if there’s something in the narration that the audience absolutely, positively must know when they leave my theater, I’ll kill all images and stop all movement, so that there are no distractions—they’re forced to listen without their minds wandering.

The next time you find yourself sincerely enjoying a movie or TV show, think about the balance between geek and veg, and how it can really make a difference in audience attention and reaction.


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