'Technology Can Bring Us Together'- Orlando Jones Talks High School 51 And Fan Engagement

Last week, Bleeding Cool attended the Machinima event in New York City where a whole raft of new content for the video-specific network was announced, ranging from a Robocop drama, Robocops, to Minecraft-based fan video content, and even a Ray Bradbury curated a series of horror videos. It's fan engagement run wild by bringing the creators of content from the purely amateur level up to the sphere of show-runners online. But some of the shows at Machinma are already celebrity-based, and joining them this year will be Orlando Jones, both writing and acting in the series High School 51 with his "boss" on Sleepy Hollow, Roberto Orci. Jones won't be returning to Sleepy Hollow as he pursues this new project, but it's an all-new way to engage with fandom in a manner that he feels is much more realistically engaged with the multi-screen experience of modern life than the TV format.

Machinima describe Jones' new show, High School 51, thus:

Hidden away in the heart of Area 51, Dream Lake High School is filled with mind-blowing technology, top-secret government programs and a student body that is cool, quirky, attractive, and…well, alien.  No one from the outside has ever been allowed into the school and no human has ever attended…until now

For 16-year old Alex Valencia, the first and only human ever to attend Dream Lake, high school is going to be tough. Fitting in will be one thing but his biggest challenge just might be saving the human race!

When I had the opportunity to speak to Jones after the presentation, I found him wearing a "Dream Lakes High School" T-shirt with an alien-head logo and also very willing to explain his own views on the relationship between technology and storytelling that have influenced his work on High School 51.

Orlando+JonesHannah Means-Shannon: I don't want to ask you too much about Sleepy Hollow, since that's not the focus of the news today, but do you feel that you accomplished what you wanted to there with the character of Frank Irving?

Orlando Jones: I feel like he went through a lot of things. I'm a fan of the show and enjoyed doing it, but I'm very excited about this, High School 51, in terms of fan engagement and in terms of telling stories including espionage elements. I also get to partner up with my boss to work on it. So when I weighed it back and forth, as much as I love Sleepy Hollow, the opportunity to be a writer and creator and play this type of role was not something I could pass up.

HMS: So, you're writing the show as well?! I didn't realize. That's awesome.

Do you consider yourself a geek?

OJ: I would say so.

HMS: Well, you've certainly gravitated that way, toward genre storytelling. But in truth, you've done so many different kinds of things in your career so far that it can be a little overwhelming for fans to try to sum you up. You certainly can't be put in any particular kind of box.

OJ: (Laughter). I've never wanted to be in a box, but it's certainly safe to say I'm a geek. I was a reader of MAD Magazine and I got to be on MAD TV. That was mind-blowing to me. When I was a kid, I never thought that could ever be possible.

HMS: What are you looking for these days in a character you want to play, and how does this show, and this character, help fulfill that for you?

OJ: What's interesting to me about this project was a simple thing. We hear talk of Area 51, and that there were supposed to have been aliens there, but no one ever considers that maybe they would have possibly procreated. And maybe they would've given us secrets and access to technology and things before our time. Maybe some of them would have wanted to go home, and maybe some would say, "Let's just move these humans out of the way".

The fact that they might have offspring, and that might lead to complications is interesting. I often think of Washington as "high school with power" and Los Angeles as "high school with money". I think of Area 51, where the problem wouldn't be that people disagree, but where the problem would be that you are actually different species. And one might discover that your own species is the most nefarious beast of all. I just love the idea of being able to delve into that. It's something that felt so organic.

And I love the idea of fan engagement with that. One of the things that we are actually going to be doing is using a piece of technology, that we'll be announcing more on this week, that's called the "XX Array". This is where we'll be able to put fans literally in the show.

HMS: Visually? Not just trailing hashtags and things?

OJ: Photo-real. Visually. In the show. You in the show.

HMS: That's amazing.

OJ: Doing things like that and thinking of content not just as two-dimensional, but thinking of it in terms of the device we're using and the user we're talking to just seemed like an interesting way to go into social media with digital format and tell stories.

HMS: Do you expect that the majority of fans will watch this show on mobile devices?

OJ: I do. I think that mobile is the number one portal most of the time. That's the one you have with you. Then maybe your tablet. Your computer would be third. Fourth would be your television, really. So to say that I'm only interested in telling stories on the fourth most popular device in the world seems a little stupid. And particularly when your engagement and your time is more limited, there's the idea of giving you more ways to do it and to offer you more than was being offered 50 years ago, since it is, after all, 2015. It's not about the technology, it's about the ways in which technology can bring us together and help us tell stories.

That's always been something that's been exciting to me.

HMS: Well, I'm sitting here trying to figure out my new Apple watch, so you're talking to the right person. It's pinging at me, and I keep having to turn it off because it seems so loud.

OJ: Right? I haven't gotten one yet. I have the Android version. I'm the tech nerd, too. I'm always trying to figure things out.

HMS: And the idea of the watch is going to keep changing as the apps are developed.

OJ: And will keep changing as we start getting ourselves away from the idea of this "device" and get into a more fluid idea of what content is, and the circle of content that exists.

HMS: Very cool. Thank you.

For a full listing of announcements from the Machinima event and more about High School 51, you can find that here.

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.