Spectacular tales of time travel, such as H.G. Wells’ classic novel THE TIME MACHINE, the long-running BBC series DOCTOR WHO, and the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy (just to name a few) have thrilled audiences for decades. The new, non-linear sci-fi series RELATIVITY is a special entry into that pantheon; a story where time, and the evil presence of a mysterious item, threatens to wreak fatal havoc on the young lives of three totally different people.
Created by Chris Cherry, and co-executive produced by Cherry, Andrew Williams and BRAINS star/creator Bri Castellini, the 11 episode series (now streaming on its official web site and Youtube pages, see additional links below) uses multiple character-centered playlists (also linked below) to frame the action and storylines, as opposed to a straightforward narrative. In fact, one such character’s playlist features a shocking alternate ending, further adding to RELATIVITY’s intriguing story (more on that later).
RELATIVITY’s storylines are brought to viewers through the perspectives of its three main characters, all of whom are affected in different ways by the dangerous new object that traps them inside a single apartment room. Those characters include Erin (Dana Shiree), a young woman who’s trying to plot her next moves after her college days have ended.
That goal is suddenly swept aside when Erin finds a mysterious item in her mailbox; one that soon wreaks havoc on Erin’s life. plus those of fellow grad/budding artist Perry (Jon Esquivel), and physics degree-seeking Candace (Michelle Agresti). Gathered inside a single apartment, Erin, Perry and Candace fight to survive the object’s deadly powers, including its ability to dramatically shift the boundaries of time.
Time itself played a major role in RELATIVITY’s creation. Cherry, who found himself struggling to come up with a concept for a new media production class, knew that time was running out for him to accomplish that task. “We needed a pilot (to film for the class) and the professor was really high on us creating something that could only exist on the internet,” he says. “So, I was thinking a lot about Youtube and what made it unique. It was the night before class and I had absolutely nothing and I was wracking my brain for ideas.”
Thanks to his producing partner and classmate, Cherry hit upon RELATIVITY’s idea, and its eventual execution, as the clock ticked away. “I actually remember texting Bri Castellini (who was in the class with me) about how screwed I was for class the next day,” he remembers. “Then, I thought about Youtube playlists and time travel (because I’m always thinking about time travel a little bit). Ten minutes, and one fevered Windows Excel session later, I texted Bri again telling her that I had plotted a whole season.”
It was during that session where Cherry meticulously planned how RELATIVITY’s key players and story elements would manifest themselves over its 11 episodes. “I had a basic idea of what I wanted the arcs for each of the characters to be, as well as certain plot points,” he explains. “Then, I put the ten episodes into a spreadsheet, so I could easily rearrange the orders and spend time developing each character’s arc and see how they interacted.”
Using the Excel software to organize each of the show’s storylines and characters by episode, Cherry was focused on maintaining a strong structure for both aspects of RELATIVITY. “Once I was writing the pages, I did a similar thing, trying to make sure I wrote every character’s early episodes first, so I had a solid idea of where they were coming from and how they were experiencing the events.”
While its protagonists are all linked by one setting and one creepy item, Cherry believes that the advantages of presenting contrasting points of view through its customized character playlists is critical to understanding its overall storyline. “In my experience of watching it with other people, the basic plot is still a little vague after the first go through, so you should probably watch it from multiple perspectives just to get the story. Beyond that, each character has their own arc that only really makes sense if you’re watching it from their perspective.”
Since each episode has a short running time (regardless of whose perspective you choose to watch), the relatively fast-paced flow of those episodes makes for a convenient viewing experience. “I wanted something that took advantage of the way that we watch series now. It’s no longer sitting down once a week and taking it in,” recalls Cherry. “It’s binge-watching playlists of videos. So, I wanted something that could take advantage of the ‘dumping a whole season at once’ method of release for storytelling purposes.”
Structurally, Cherry highly recommends viewers to begin with Candace’s story, followed by Perry’s, and then Erin’s, whose playlist contains a game-changing alternate conclusion. It’s an order that flows rather naturally. “One thing that we noticed while watching the series is that the Candace timeline feels a bit like the first act, keeping us in the dark the longest and playing up the mystery,” Cherry says. “Perry’s arc feels like the second act, deepening the story, whereas Erin’s feels like the third act, as she’s the one who’s most invested in actually saving them.”
As he penned all of RELATIVITY’s episodes, Cherry’s commitment to connecting the actions and behaviors of his characters was evident. “In the writing, I always made myself very aware where each character was coming from or going into that episode,” says Cherry, describing how he structured each of RELATIVITY’s scripts. “Once I had a first draft, I did passes on all the episodes in each character’s timeline to make sure that each character’s arc felt consistent across the episodes.”
With RELATIVITY’s non-linear story foundation firmly in place, maintaining that structure during its production was a tall task for cast and crew alike. “While filming, I had a list of the different episode orders on me at all times,” adds Cherry. “We had to start and finish each episode with each actor in the place they needed to be for their characters’ respective previous or next episodes. Erin takes off her jacket at one point, and so we always had to be keeping track of whether or not she was supposed to be wearing it in the particular episode we were shooting.”
“…Because all the episodes are one takes, we couldn’t cut between performances, so there was a lot more pressure on the actors to make every take perfect from start to finish, which isn’t usually the case,” responds Castellini. “So, between episodes and set ups, the actors would go off on their own and rehearse, just to get the lines and timing down together.”
When cameras rolled, RELATIVITY’s ensemble cast discovered how Cherry’s approach to each episode would be employed. “Once we cast the characters, we only ever gave them the script with the episodes arranged in their respective orders,” Cherry remarks. “Then, we shot the series in a random order so that none of the actors would have any advantage or disadvantage in understanding what was going on. If they were confused about what was going on, it sort of worked for the characters, who were confused for similar reasons.”
Over time, Shiree, Esquivel and Agresti managed to get the hang of playing their parts in a highly uncommon setting. “Film actors are used to shooting things in the wrong order, but they’re still used to there being a right order, whereas this one had three orders,” Cherry says of the filming arrangement. “They all had their own methods of keeping track, from just keeping the script with them as much as possible, to having index cards to keep it straight.”
Keeping the look of RELATIVITY’s episodes interchangeable was an equally important job for those on both sides of the camera. “After all, we were shooting a sequence that was supposed to be happening in something like real time, but completely out of order,” replies Cherry. “Every little continuity thing mattered so much more. And since the set was covered in trash, there was a lot that could be out of place. It was also extra important to not bump the camera because, once we had the shot, we wanted to keep it.”
Castellini also describes how maintaining episodic consistency on the set took a toll on RELATIVITY’s small production team. “We filmed all 11 episodes in two days with only 3 crew members – Chris (the director), me (Castellini, assistant director), and Andrew Williams (director of photography),” she says. “We had to block out all the light from the windows so the lighting wouldn’t change as the day wore on, which was depressing, so it often felt like the six of us (three cast and three crew) were trapped just like the characters in the show.”
Describing RELATIVITY as “RASHOMON meets MEMENTO”, Cherry encourages those who watch to not just enjoy his series, but to also understand how an extraordinary moment in time can impact all who are affected by it. “I think probably the biggest theme of RELATIVITY as a viewing experience is empathy, and recognizing how much a person’s subjective experience of an event shapes their reaction to it,” says Cherry. “Watching the episodes in Candace’s timeline, for example, forces you to empathize with Candace in a given episode.”
Overall, how viewers feel about each character in RELATIVITY depends solely on whose point of view they experience. “Then, you’ll watch that same episode again in Erin’s timeline and empathize with her, even though absolutely nothing has changed,” Cherry adds. “I think empathy is the most important skill we have to cultivate as people, especially in this current climate. So, I hope that’s something that people take away from it.”
(NOTE: Regarding closed-captioning/subtitling of RELATIVITY, Cherry says: “As for subtitles, we don’t have specific plans yet (to add those to each episode), but it (subtitles) is something that would be good to have.”)
ON THE WEB: https://relativitywebseries.wordpress.com/:
Overall series Youtube page: