INTERVIEW – LOST Producer/Writer Gregg Nations

lostuniversityAs part of the LOST production crew, aside from writing the occasional episode, Gregg Nations is the script coordinator in charge of continuity. That’s right, I said continuity when talking about a show that takes place in the past, present, and future – all at once.

Amongst other things, it is Nations that catalogs the minutiae that fans sift through religiously looking for clues to the shows meaning (check out LOSTpedia, the temple constructed to reflect those efforts), along with the various bits of background information on each of the many characters on the canvas, historical figure name dropping, and – as fractured as it may be – the overarching time-line (and for all we know, parallel timeline to boot).

When Disney came to the LOST crew and offered them the opportunity to create a BD Live feature for the Blu Ray release of LOST season 5, Nations seized the opportunity to suggest an interactive experience on an unprecedented scale: LOST University. LOST University is an interactive ‘classroom’ for LOST fans that want to learn more about the themes of Science, Philosophy, History, and so on, at play in LOST.

LOST University is no glorified trivia game, though – you have class material prepared and taught by real life professors and various other professionals in the respective fields, exams, and – gulp – grade point averages. Luckily, your tuition is paid in full with the price of the Blu Ray. As far as bribing ‘Dean’ Nations to adjust your grades, forget it. I tried.

I had the chance to talk with Gregg briefly about how the LOST University project got started, and where it may be going with season six of LOST on the horizon.

When did the idea for LOST University come about?

In February of this year. We work with two producers from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, John Bernstein and David Daniels, and they revealed to Samantha Thomas, Noreen O’Toole and me that Disney home video wanted to include a BD-Live feature on the 5th season Blu-ray set. Not every Blu-ray released by Disney included BD-Live technology, so being able to finally do something with BD-Live for LOST was exciting. (Well, for me at least because I’m a tech geek.)

I have a PS3, so as each Blu-ray was released with BD-Live features, I’d check them out. No feature had really grabbed my attention yet — and as a technology I think many of the companies were still figuring out what can and can’t be done, plus trying to figure out what people wanted from it.

So I was excited about the show getting to try something with BD-Live. I started thinking about the audience of LOST and wondering what would they like to see with BD-Live. I read a lot of the LOST blogs and fan sites, and one of things that always struck me about LOST fans is how much they pursue the mythology of the show and really dig deep into the various elements Damon and Carlton include. Our fans are really smart and go that extra mile. Then I realized — that corresponds nicely with tech early adopters. So I thought that many people with Blu-ray players capable of BD-Live features are probably going to be LOST fans.

And that was the beginning of the LOST University idea. I thought BD-Live technology would be a great way to offer fans more ways to explore the ideas and themes we incorporate into the episodes. So you get the courses on physics and time travel, hieroglyphics, psychology, foreign languages, jungle survival, etc. LOST fans had already proven a community could be created out of discussing their favorite aspects of the show, so what is a better community experience than a university?

It’s a big idea, and I was worried that maybe it wouldn’t work. But as I pitched the idea to Damon and Carlton, then the DVD team pitched it to their bosses and it began to make its way through the various departments, it really started to coalesce into something special.

How much time and manpower was involved in creating the LOST University feature?

A lot. I don’t know the exact amount, but this was a big feature to conceptualize and execute. Everyone involved worked longer on this one feature than any other DVD/Blu-ray feature they ever have.

There was a technical hurdle dealing with just how to make it happen. Our DVD producers sat through many, many meetings working out all the legal and technical details. Because this is an international feature, there’s something about which servers the info rests on and the types of laws the servers have to operate under. There’s also the technical issues of making it work in Java, how it appears on-screen, how the user interacts with the site, etc. The DVD team worked very closely with Sony to make sure they got the programming and technological issues ironed out as best they could.

Then there’s the actual content to produce. Everyone who worked on it got to contribute something creative to the mix. The company that actually films and edits the material is called Herzog Company, and our producer we work with there is Corey Reeser. His team actually came up with the polar bear logo — which is so awesome! They worked with the Disney DVD team and us to finalize the course selection, how long a class is, when the next semester starts, etc. Then they contacted the professors and other experts involved to ask if they’d be interested in participating.

Everyone worked from February to even last week on making this feature as good as it could be. They put in much more time working on this than they ever have working on a regular DVD feature. I’m so happy with the outcome. They did a great job with it.

Describe LOST University for the newbie fan who is saying ‘Damn, now I have to go to college to understand this show?’

You hit a concern right on the head. When I initially pitched the idea, people were concerned fans would think that. I’m a geek, and I love learning about new things. (No, I never sat in the front row because I knew the stigma attached to it, but I did sit near the front. So there.) But I understand there are people out there who don’t want to participate in a university-style course just to watch and understand the show. The DVD team worked hard to make it fun and approachable for (they hope) all fans.

What I would say to that newbie is the courses are fun and enjoyable experiences that help enrich the ideas and themes explored in the show. You don’t have to go through LOST University to understand the show, but it’s going to give you a broader canvas to appreciate the show. Plus, LOST University has such a great community of fans and new friends from all over the world, why wouldn’t you want to check it out?

You have attracted a lot of dyed-in-the-wool academic types to the project. What was the general reaction to asking them to create or participate in course material inspired by a television show?

Everyone responded very positively! Either we’re lucky or people are really into this idea. I think the show has a reputation for being smart and well done, so hopefully they thought associating themselves with this would create a wider appeal and appreciation for their subjects. The show gives fans the fictional version of these ideas, and LOST University gives the reality of the ideas. It’s kind of a nice marriage of the two.

Why is LOST University only on the Blu Ray set and not on the DVD?

This just couldn’t be possible with DVD technology. LOST University began its life as and was designed specifically for a Blu-ray/BD-Live feature. We weren’t thinking of a way to make it work on DVD — we are trying to push the technology of Blu-ray/BD-Live to see what it can do.

This may fail. We don’t know if it’s going to be embraced or ignored. I’m sure Disney home video has some metrics of how to judge whether this is a success for failure. I don’t know what those are. But they have the data that show how many homes have Blu-ray players, how many of those are connected to the internet, and how many connected actually participate in BD-Live features that have been released. Obviously right now, those numbers are smaller than people with DVD players — but Blu-ray adoption is growing. And a LOST University-type of feature shows what can be done with this technology.

Right now we’re in a transition from standard-def to high-def. Personally for me, the difference between them is huge and equivalent to the difference between VHS and DVD quality. DVDs gave us additional features that never existed on VHS and were inspired by the features available on laser discs, and Blu-ray is the next step in this evolution.

I also have a different take on the whole Blu-ray vs. DVD question. I’m looking at this debate as a positive because it shows just how much people are interested in this feature. Trust me — if people didn’t think it was cool, this debate wouldn’t be taking place at all.

Are there plans for a season 6 class schedule to cover anything that comes up in the final season?

Maybe. You want your graduate degree, don’t you?

Any last words for the fans playing along?

Thanks to all the fans who have followed the show, bought the DVD/Blu-rays and stuck with us. We really are doing this for you. So gives us your feedback — we’d love to hear from you. If you think there can be improvements to LOST University, let us know in the forums.

Cross your fingers and let’s hope LOST University does well. You never know what cool things may result from it down the line…

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