The following has been reprinted with the kind permission of the Stinky Yak Cheese Awards Site.   The text and layout were created by them and they hold the copyright.   Our thanks go out to SYC for permission to reprint here, but  beyond that, we thank them for their kind words and constant support of VLC.


Welcome to a whole new SLAYGROUND!

Our first Stinky Yak Cheese Nominee is the Buffy virtual series VirtuaLunatics VS8. Beyond simply offering the scripts for these Buffy Season 8 episodes, VirtuaLunatics is like an awesome DVD version filled with extras and features that create an entirely NEW and BELIEVABLE world called Whispering Pines.

One of the best parts of VirtuaLunatics VS8 was its creativity. Firstly, as you wander around the site - you'll probably notice a usual BIG site NO-NO:

Rule #47 - Site design and appearance should be consistent and basically the same throughout.

Whilst I brought this up to the webmasters, I soon realized (and read) that this "inconsistency" was on PURPOSE and actually worked really well for what they wanted. The opening page already states:

Please note that to provide the most interesting and varied experience possible, there will be a distinct lack of consistent navigation throughout the site.

VirtuaLunatics is clearly creative! Every part of the site is specially designed for its feature. One of the extra sections Dawn's Diary ACTUALLY looks like a diary with photos and even a K-Mart receipt posted in as the entries go along. Whereas on other sites this may have been "bad design", VirtuaLunatics is loony (and I mean this is a GOOD way!) enough to push that creative envelop through its design and content AND make it work.

For those that are NEW to VirtuaLunatics, definitely check it out. Their introductory page is a great place to start is the Newcomer's Guide which makes the site very user friendly and will help you figure what and where to look at first in the site. Don't worry, you won't get lost.

The sections that we particularly liked were:

Dawn's Diary: Read it for the backstory of the series. And it offers an interesting Dawn perspective.

Buffy Season 8 Credits: Lovely clip of what COULD have been - will bring up nostalgic feelings.

Episode Posters: Beautiful arts will give you a taste of what the episodes are like.

Behind the Scenes: Mainly shows the process that they went through to create their amazing episode posters and graphics. Very interesting look at HOW they made it.

Ending the production of their episodes, VirtuaLunatics was created by a team of 10 members - you can find more about each of them on the CoW page. So who were the great minds and minions behind VirtuaLunatics VS8? and how did they do it? We decided to find out and asked some of the team of "Lunatics" a few questions. The "Lunatics" who answered included GilesFan (GF), Jessie (J), Wicked Fox (WF), Miss Witch (MW), Koala (K) and Tara (T):

**In the following interview, SYCA has edited and capitalized some parts (for emphasis) that was not in the original responses.

Stinky Yak Cheese came about after seeing other awards sites. I mean, little content (work), getting to see Buffy and Angel sites and the POWER to judge other sites. Mainly the POWER - muahahaha! But that's not how all sites and ideas come about. Sometimes they come our of sheer boredom or perhaps a brilliant moment of inspiration. Or drugs. So - what originally inspired you "Lunatics" to create VirtuaLunatics VS8 or were you just bored? Does your site today still match what you had originally intended or has it mutated onto a completely different tangent?

GF:  MW and I had discussed it on and off as Buffy was coming to a close.  We had no idea what we were getting into!  She organized a group with some of our favorite authors, most of whom did not really know each other beyond being fans of each others' work. The site is a thousand times better then what I ever expected simply because the Lunatics are such amazingly creative and talented people (and TIRELESS workers!).  We originally were going to do JUST stories and then J suggested the Diary as a feature and we went on from there.  Some people starting doing Wallpapers and we added the Boards, and then we adapted some of our own private background material into public material and it just grew from there. 

When we first started designing our new season, we broke into small workgroups to tackle issues like "where will they live" "who are the other characters" "what's the larger seasonal arc" "what's the summer backstory" and so on.  The workgroups reported their plans to the main group and we all used those original notes as a common background for the individual stories.

The site is a thousand times better then what I ever expected.

We knew before we "went live" that we'd have certain things, but other extra features were created during the season as someone said, "Hey, this would be neat, let's do this".  We also deliberately choose NOT to have a common navigational scheme (which goes against almost all my own training/preference in website design) to both allow anyone who wanted to create something to be able to do it per their personal taste rather than follow a template, and also to create a "look" that fit the specific feature.  (I don't think the Diary wouldn't be as effective it if wasn't designed to LOOK like a diary.)

WF:  I think the idea came from the fact that too many things were left unanswered on the show and too many well loved characters were abused beyond what we could stand for. We decided that had to be AMENDED.  After a while plotting and planning our virtual season, I think we all came up with a GRANDER scale than simply sticking to the common Yahoo group based season. We also had a team of talented graphic artists that needed to stretch their graphic skills and the web site was a natural progression of the original idea.

What the hell have I gotten myself into?

MW:   What inspired me?  Boredom and the inability to think of the consequences of my actions.  I opened my mouth and made an idle suggestion that everyone thought was great.  I mostly thought "What the hell have I gotten myself into?".

Stinky Yak Cheese's first appearance was pretty hideous - I had 3 FRAMES on the site with scrolling space that only let you see 1CM of the content at a time *eyes glaze over* Dreadful? Yes. It was YELLOW and the layout was horribly blended together. VirtuaLunatics VS8 looks great right now - well designed and creative on all counts. But what humble beginnings did VirtuaLunatics come from? It wasn't just born into the site it is now was it? And did it develop into what it is now?

K:  Actually, I think that pretty much the 'now' is what it was 'then' with just more stuff.  The layout and design was always the same, only the content changed and/or expanded.

GF:  COMMUNICATION was the key to the site's growth, much less basic survival.  We established a private yahoo list, just for the writers, and we exchanged some 5000 onlist messages together over the source of the season.  We also had extensive offlist conversations between workgroups and individuals.  I personally had more than 15000 messages related to VLC. Everything had to fit together somehow--we tried to avoid the CONTINUITY ERRORS that plagued the real show, but when possible, we wanted the individual's STYLE to come through.  And the amazingly talented artists we had, WF, K, and Gabi would inspire us with their art, sometimes influencing our stories with their images.  EVERYTHING fed into everything else.

Poll, polls and more polls.

J:  Poll, polls and more polls.  We broke down into COMMITTEES to work on separate parts of the site.  Each committee then presented their recommendation and suggestions to the entire group.   After comments and suggestions from all the Lunatics, POLL AFTER POLL AFTER POLL AFTER POLL was created and each and every item was voted on by the group.  Everything from the background texture and fonts for the site to the color of the ink for Dawn's Diary was passed along to be discussed by the group.

WF:  It started as a yahoo group succumbing to a MADNESS of creativity and obsession that quickly blossomed into what you see today.

So am I right to say that there were A LOT of polls?

GF:  Oh yes, on everything from major plot points such as Ethan's fate to what job each character would hold down to the color and make of their cars.  Although the favorite, of course, was to make sure we all had the same delightful mental imagery of Giles in our mind so we could write the smut section...for consistency's sake of course!   

We've been open for over 1 and a half years so far and I think my fingers have developed repetitive stress disorder from being on the computer too much. Its been a long road for all sites through Buffy and Angel's birth to their deaths. How long has VirtuaLunatics been open and are there any major milestones that you remember of your site's journey? Any tips to webmasters who feel like they should give up on their site?

WF:  Oddly enough, the creation of the Whispering Pines Details was the most standout moment for me because it displayed what research and a team can do when they share a love for something and dedicate way too much time to it. Once we had the outline of the town, we knew this was going to be a BIGGER project than we had originally thought. Coding and design often feels like a burden and chore. When this happens, step back and rekindle your love for your hobby/fandom by enjoying others sites. Sometimes the best INSPIRATION can spark from what came from others and what is absent there.

GF:  VLC was in development for over 4 months before it was officially opened to the public.  It's been live for about a year and a half at the time Stinky Yak Cheese sent us these questions.  (We opened on Oct 1 2003.) For webmasters who want to give up?  If it's absolutely not providing any satisfaction at all, then it may be best to let it go.  But for us, even when things were the most STRESSFUL, the quality of what we were producing made us proud.  It felt like work often, more then fun, but we knew we were doing a good job and that was satisfying.  We didn't do it for the audience in the end, we did it for each other, we were committed to each other.

Sometimes the best inspiration can spark from what came from others and what is absent there.

K:  Launching the site to the public for the first time was a milestone event for me.  Also seeing the 'town' group's features for the first time.  I was BLOWN AWAY with the level of detail and professional look.  I totally bought into WP as a real place!

You seem very proud of your site - as all webmasters are and some like to gush "Oh, my little baby" then pat their computer on the head. Now that VirtuaLunatics has ended in a way - when you look back on the site now are there are any regrets or things that you think about?

J:  I think we attempted TOO many special features.  We didn't realize in the beginning how TIME CONSUMING producing each episode was going to be.

GF:  I think one will always have regrets.  I know I wish we had had more time for more Extras or an extra day or week sometimes to rework an ep....As for things that I think about now, well, VLC had a huge impact on my life and will always be part of me in the friendships I have and new knowledge and skills--I learned constantly from the experience.  All in all, I'm very glad for the experience and for the pleasure and honor of working with such amazing people.  These people are just extraordinarily talented and giving.  They gave so much for the group personally and "professionally." 

MW:  Mostly I think "Wow, all that from a flippant comment."

WF:  I regret not using certain established subsections more. For instance, the Council Correspondence and Whispering Pines Gazette. Some of the other sections became QUICK HITS with fans (Dawn's Diary) and I think other sections suffered from our running out of free time to expand on the episodes. All the Extras add a fun depth to the overall season.

Your Extras section stood out so originally and creatively in its presentation and content! Must have taken lost of work and the site looks exhaustive. At Stinky Yak Cheese - there's times where I was on the verge of panic because the awards weren't up or because it coincided with school exams by some horrible twist of fate! Were there times when you got SO frustrated with coding, graphics, updating and your RL that you almost wanted to explode too?

GF:  Every day! But it wasn't maintaining the site that was exhaustive--it was maintaining the QUALITY of the content.  For example, it wasn't that big a deal, after we developed a ROUTINE, of getting the episodes out to the audience.  I posted most to the public list while WF prepped and posted most to the site itself.  We developed templates and a routine.  However, the 2 or 3 months of work to create that episode, the 300 beta runs through the group, the compiling of different scenes or acts from different writers, whatever it was, that's what was exhausting. The graphics look amazing and they should--some of them went through 50 edits or versions before they were posted!  I consider the actual posting a piece of cake....

J:  Since I wasn't involved in the technical part of the site for me the frustration was dealing with RL issues while keeping to the deadlines we'd set for each ep.  Lots and lots of work was done at 1 or 2 a.m.  Luckily, since we were scattered geographically, when an SOS went out at 2 in the morning it meant that somewhere another Lunatic was on line to help.

WF:  *wicked grin* I refuse to respond on the basis that it might incriminate me. I think it's fair to say that we all had that moment where we were one step away from breaking out.  But our devotion for the project and respect we had for our fellow Lunatics pushed us through to the end.

K:  I think having different people work on different sections was the key to it not being overly frustrating.  At least for me, since I worked mainly on the Diary and CoW files.  WF did MOST of the coding for everything else, so she likely has had her head explode numerous times!

See? All you need to build a great site like VirtuaLunatics is sleep deprivation, exploding heads and 300 beta runs! The words "A LOT OF WORK" come to mind as a summary. Any words of wisdom to webmasters or virtual season writers out there?

T:  Kiss your loved ones and life as you knew it goodbye. You might also want to have a funeral service for your ego, and you should make it a  nice one. Flowers are always good.

GF:  Organize, organize, organize.  Keep records, use databases, structure out the best you can.  Establish as much background as you can, even if you never use it, because it helps make it real to you and therefore more real in your writing.  Don't be afraid to change course midseason if you need to, but just stay organized.   And communicate, talk through everything, make sure everyone's AWARE of what's going on and what needs to be done and what they can and cannot help with at any given moment.  And as every Lunatic has said more then once, check your EGO at the door--this is a group project and we're in it together.

...check your ego at the door--this is a group project and we're in it together.

Oh, and possibly most important, keep your sense of HUMOR--laughing is so much better then crying....

J:  Plan ahead and have a good producer.  Even what seem like simple things can trip you up.  You needed someone to keep track of each storyline and the time line. Some truly wonderful ideas have to be scrapped because of conflicts with later developments and/or time problems.

WF:  Webmasters: Break molds and make your own mark. Virtual season writers: Don't allow yourself to be bound by the mainstream conventions of your fandom's canon. Be ADVENTUROUS and seek out fresh and sometimes controversial approaches to storylines and characters.

K:  Get help! (take that as you will)

MW:  Plan ahead, know where you want the season to go, and make sure you get an UNRELENTING taskmaster *cough*GF*cough* to keep everyone on track.

How did you come up with the site name?

WF: We are all lunatics inhabiting in a virtual world. Brainstorming and polls. Lots of polls.

K:  I think this was one of GF's many name suggestions.  We kicked around a lot, but in the end decided that we *had* to be lunatics to take on this project, so it just seemed appropriate.  [GF NOTE:  Actually, I thought it was K who suggested it!]

J: All together now.... There was a poll! (We each submitted ideas and then voted.)

MW: We knew we were all certifiable lunatics for taking this on. And hence, the name was born.

Part of the thrill for many webmasters is seeing that little number of your counter increase. And perhaps one day move from 1 digit to 2! Oooo! But hits aren't everything - a community of regular visitors are usually hard to get and keep but VirtuaLunatics has built quite a community of followers on their boards. How did you grow such a great number of regular visitors and keep them? Mind control?

WF:  Word of mouth and dedicated promotion by our editor and chief as well as our wonderful fans.

GF:  I think people responded to the quality and also, hopefully, appreciated the fact that we were regular in our site updates.  We NEVER missed an episode date--we took breaks, but they were announced and we returned the day we said we would.  There were two or three times when I thought we'd miss one, but we never did.

To give you an idea of how amazingly talented and responsive everyone is, let me tell you about one exchange at the end of the season.  T, WF and I got on the boards to provide teasers about the finale.  There was a running joke (in public and in private!) about Tara shipping Giles/Riley and WF shipping Ethan/Dawn.  We were goofing on the boards about this and posted a 'spoiler poster' which had hints about the real finale.  I then suggested privately to WF that she should do a Giles/Riley poster to imply that Tara was going to have her way.....perhaps 15 minutes later, there it was, ready to go!  And that led, 30 minutes later, to a Dawn/Ethan poster for balance.  These things were just WHIPPED up on demand--she's amazing!  Anyway, anyone who was a regular on the board often got TREATED to neat things like that. 

T: Torture works well on readers. Drop a HINT or two about their least favorite 'ship, and they'll be all over you like white on rice.

Torture? Well that's close to mind control...

We all have our little works that we just adore and call Squishy. That's part of the satisfaction of being a webmaster. On Stinky Yak Cheese my favourite section would have to be the Judge's Comments - its always delightful (and stressful) to send out personal comments to the webmasters about their site besides just blind praise. How about the Lunatics? What's your favourite section of VirtuaLunatics and why?

J: The Diary. I'm not exactly a big Dawn fan.  When we were voting on what to do with Dawn for the season my suggestion was to turn her back into green energy and keep her in a MASON JAR on a shelf in the kitchen. But when we realized we needed a way to present the backstory, Dawn and a dairy seemed a great way to provide information from a single viewpoint.  Writing the diary gave me a new appreciation for Dawn and, I hope, made her less whiny and more mature. But she still has hair that's way TOO SHINY.  There was nothing I could do about that. suggestion was to turn her [Dawn] back into green energy and keep her in a mason jar on a shelf in the kitchen.

GF:  Hard to say. I think the Diary is one of the most amazing ones because it took a character that almost all of us really HATED, and who most of our audience hated and turned it all around.  And the artwork is stunning too--I still MARVEL at K's K-Mart receipt for example.  I like the spam section of Giles' CC, and I think the Behind the Scenes helps everyone understand how gifted our artists are and just how much work goes into make something look easy.  I still laugh when I reread Anya's Will, and I think the boards and the episodes are beautiful in their presentation--I love the gold/green.  I love the episode posters and other art and the flash door before the smut is great (and the smut's good too!), and well hell, I'm just proud of the whole thing.  

WF:  Behind the Scenes because it shows the work behind the fun and the lunacy that comes from it.

K:  Hmm, tough question.  I suppose my very favorite section was the episode archive, just seeing the season progress and grow made me hugely proud of my fellow Loonies.  They actually did it!

MW: Dawn's Diary.  It was an interesting and fun extra that enabled us to info out while having fun at the same time.

T:  The Boards. See above re: why.

Most webmasters work solo. Some allow others to help out. But VirtuaLunatics is a GROUP effort - which means team work. Team. Work. As in with OTHER ppl. So what is is like to create a site with other ppl? Did your group meet on or offline? How do you build a site with other ppl - communication, keeping up with each other's schedules and work etc.?

GF:  It was very satisfying to work in a group when things came together.  One episode was written over a weekend, just three-four days before it was to air.  Sudden real issues prevented the lead writer from finishing it and I got news of that Friday night.  On Saturday, I had three other writers each taking responsibility for different subplots and writing out the stories for those specific subplots.  I worked with them by email and phone--passing out ASSIGNMENTS, coordinating the material.  As it would come in, I would break them into scenes and intermix.  None of them knew in detail what the others were doing, they were just given guidelines as to what we needed from them on that specific storyline.  And they did it.  It was amazing.  Sometimes I'd write to one and say "quick, I need at least a half page more on X..." and BOOM, back it would come.  We pulled together a full episode, one of our best in many ways, in 24 hours, and had it out to everyone to beta by Sunday afternoon.  The back and forth, the brainstorming, the creative energy was a huge high.  Getting the job done and getting it done RIGHT was incredibly satisfying.

The back and forth, the brainstorming, the creative energy was a huge high.

Another example is when we first went live--we were all working for hours prior to our Oct 1st deadline, checking links, checking text, checking everything--people all around the world on line at that moment, sending in information to me or to the list, "this link's off" "I found a typo" "looks great on these browsers and settings" "how's this for the public announcement?" "ready to go with this here," and then sending out the command:  "Go!  Take us live!" and that happening--us bringing the site up (by setting the new proper index page from the placeholder we had before) and through announcing on the many Buffy lists we all belonged to and then sitting back and within minutes, watching hits on the site, watching people sign up for the public list...the TEAM ENERGY was great.  It never have been half as satisfying to do that solo.  We FED off each others' energy. As for the Technical Aspect, to keep in contact, again, it was communication and using every tool available--a private list with tons of back and forth messages. Countless messages between individuals "what do you think of this?" "can you help here?".  Online chats that were carefully scheduled so every time zone could participate--which meant some folks stayed up til 2am and others got up at 6am.  (That's the level of commitment people put into the project.)  Long distance telephone calls.  Databases that were constantly updated and circulated.  Polls that people could check for reference..."just what did we decide about...".

J: We had a tireless producer who acted as the sheep dog nipping at our heels and keeping us going in the right direction and arranging times for group meetings when we needed them.

WF:  Working with others is incredibly rewarding, educational, and utterly exhausting. We met online and offline, email, phone, chat, Lunatics and yahoo group. The chats were difficult to try and get everyone to work their schedules around it but we managed it somehow.

MW:  It was an amazing learning experience.  Everyone contributed and worked together, bouncing ideas off each other.  I made some great friends, growing closer to people I'd never thought I'd ever get to "meet" in the Buffy fic world. We had a private list where a lot of brainstorming and writing went on, plus there were numerous chat sessions where plot points were hashed out.  There's was lots of juggling of schedules making sure everything got done on time.  (thank God for GF, because I could've never have managed all the details.) Mostly for me this was a worthwhile experience because of the people I got to work with.

It's very fun, very draining and very EGO-KILLING.

T:   It's very fun, very draining and very EGO-KILLING. I joined the  Lunatics midway through their season, so everything, including the overall story arc, was pretty much set in stone (in the sense that too much had gone on before in building toward the season finale to be able to turn course). Some of the decisions they'd made before I joined were ones I would have argued VEHEMENTLY against (though really, GF heard pretty much all of my reasons why albeit in private e-mails). Because I was working with an existing storyline that wasn't going to change just because I said so, working on VLC gave me an opportunity to stretch my writing muscles and support an arc I didn't entirely agree with. It also gave me a chance to work with a diverse group of women with an equally diverse group of writing styles. I had fun (and a few bouts of frustration) learning to write in the style they'd chosen for presentation, and no matter what my private reservations were, I wouldn't have missed participating for the world.

Now that you've answered all our questions - and written and done so much for VirtuaLunatics - I'll give you a break by giving you a nice simple SHORT answer. Come one - its practically like multiple choice! How would you describe the webmastering and creation of VirtuaLunatics in 3 words?

GF: Absolutely Sheer Lunacy.

J:  Fun. Insane.  Satisfying.

WF:  Themed chaos contained.

K:  Crazy, crazy, crazy!

MW:  Insanity.  Work.  Satisfying.

Many thanks to the Lunatics who offered help in making this feature article about their site VirtuaLunatics and offered their insight into the work (and blood and sweat) that came with making such an excellent site full of content and creativity. So that's it folks, here endeth the feature with the Lunatics about webmastering, their site, working in a team and how it all came together into the insane site it is now! And yes, VirtuaLunatics were created by a team of anatomically correct humans just like you and me - so YOU can do it too.

Go to the Stinky Yak Cheese Top Page Here to see the rest of their features, articles, art, and awards, and follow their links to other great Buffy/Angel sites.

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