A Tribute to Duck Dodgers, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Circumvent the Edges of Copyright Law

What happens when a worldwide pandemic cancels your favorite sci-fi convention and threatens to derail a decades-long tradition? Welcome to the world of ‘Duck Dodgers: A Dragon Con Tribute’, a video that exists because of travel restrictions, automated enforcement of copyright law, and the dedication of my friends in fandom.

This is not the greatest duck in the world. This is a tribute.

My Daffy History

Since 1998, I have volunteered for Dragon Con, a multi-genre fan convention in Atlanta. I kinda-sorta-accidentally co-founded DragonConTV in 2003 and was the convention’s Videography Director from 2005-2017. Aside from the numerous responsibilities associated by those positions, I also became the keeper of a long-standing tradition.

I was responsible for making sure that Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century played every year during the convention’s main event, a costume contest known as The Masquerade. It is a tradition. An unbroken line, which I have almost broken twice (once due to the wrong VHS tape being handed to me by the AV crew, and once when the DVD was ejected mid-playback during a live show in front of 2,000 annoyed fans) and augmented once when I rickrolled the crowd via subtle editing.

Years after I handed off the director role to the talented crew who made Dragon Con Goes Virtual a reality, I still volunteer as a panel moderator and show host for the con. It’s still an important event for me, and I still stand near the sound board every year to yell lines from the cartoon back at the screen. Once management made the decision in July 2020 to run an entire convention via Discord and video streaming, we realized the tradition was at risk.

Of course you realize, this means war

Copyright law is complex, weird, and mostly the result of an immortal cartoon mouse. In the modern era, it is mostly enforced by uncaring software algorithms that shut down live video streaming events even when the content was provided by the copyright holder. This happened during the San Diego Comic Con@Home panel for Star Trek: Discovery, which was produced and endorsed by the company that approved the copyright enforcement bot (I will be disappointed if this isn’t a plot point in Season 3).

DragonConTV produces a lot of parodies, and the TechOps crew deals with a lot of requests for music at con, so we’re always discussing how weird copyright glitches can kill the fan experience. Licensing the cartoon wasn’t a viable option due to cost, and the CBS incident shows it wouldn’t prevent an automated mishap.

Modern Problems Require (Moderately) Modern Solutions

As usual, fans are ahead of the curve. The concept of ‘sweding’, re-making a film from scratch with whatever you have on hand, has existed for decades. The most popular examples are the 2008 film Be Kind, Rewind and Quibi’s ‘home movie’ version of The Princess Bride.

One can argue the OG vampire film, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, is a sweded version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To be fair, Mr. Stoker’s lawyers would argue it was a way to skirt copyright law when the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights. Either way, sweding movies is a tradition in sci-fi & fantasy fandom… one we decided to continue in 2020 by making our own version of Duck Dodgers.

Step One: Make a Spreadsheet

Early on, I decided we would use the same framework as Quibi’s home movie project – pick a scene, farm it out to someone, take the results, stitch’em together. This required me to build a scene list, which is always when I discover the complicated nature of my latest “fun little project.”

Behind every good video project, there is a spreadsheet.This one breaks down individual scenes, identifies the props and characters in each scene, and lines them up with dialog (pulled from a closed-caption file). After that, we distill this down to larger blocks of scenes that get assigned to our performers.

Crispy stepped up to co-produce the video and helped me find performers. Some are DragonConTV regulars, some are Dragon Con guests, and some are friends from con-adjacent spaces like Dad’s Garage. My triumphant arrival on a hyperspace garden tractor was the “reference” for our cheap and cheerful project. Beyond that, every performance team could execute to their own vision.

Project “Eager Young Space Cadet”

And then… well, then we waited. 

We put out a call for fans to send video of themselves reciting Daffy’s interstellar catch phrases, but we didn’t give any other public hints. Several weeks went by as we waited for footage to come in from our friends.

Dear reader, our friends delivered. Puppetry. Time lapse cardboard animation. Robots dressed as Martians. More puppets. Grown men in weird hats emoting into their iPhones.

And then… then we made y’all wait.

There’s no substitute for a live audience reacting to a new video. This year, we had to settle for a stream of on-line comments (thank you Discord, YouTube, and Reddit). It was fun watching fans go from OH NO WHERE IS DUCK to OMG Y’ALL MADE NEW DUCK.

Thanks to everyone who helped bring this weird project to life. I’m glad we could keep Dragon Con and Duck Dodgers alive this year, even if we had to improvise a bit in the process.

And yes, that’s a Hugo Award. Story for another time 😉

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