Making ‘Indie Game: The Movie,’ Part I
James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot took different paths to documentary filmmaking, something that gives them a solid set of skills for the work, and has led them to a film project, “Indie Game: The Movie” which is at the moment already meeting its funding goals on a second Kickstarter campaign – but more on that later.
The documentary, about independent video-game designers, has been a two-two year project that came out of corporate work the one-time business student and one-time news producer were doing. The filmmakers describe it this way:
The film tells the emotional story of a two-man team, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, as they craft and release their first major game for XBOX, “Super Meat Boy.” It follows Phil Fish, the creator of the highly- anticipated game, “Fez”, as he shows it for the first time in 4 years at the giant gaming expo, PAX EAST. And, the film tells behind-the-scenes story an independent designer, Jonathan Blow, who made one of highest-rated video games of all-time, “Braid.”
‘The film is the story of making a game, their inspiration, how they put it together, and the creative aspect of putting it out there,” Says Lisanne, a former producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. ” You’re taking a journey with four characters and the ups and downs of revealing yourself through your game, and then of revealing yourself to the world – a lot of it is by digital download. It’s about games, but it’s really about anybody making anything creative and then putting it online. It’s this idea of exposing yourself through technology and through expressing yourself.”
To some degree, the subject mirrors the filmmaker – digital technology has enabled such independent projects and made the path to doing the work less prescribed. James became a filmmaker despite once figuring he’d be doing something more practical.
I have basically been doing videos for the past ten years now. I went to university very much wanting to do film and video, but being in Manitoba, in the middle of nowhere, I didn’t know if it was a great thing to get into, or the career prospects weren’t really there, so I ended up taking commerce with a minor in film studies. Every chance I got, I was doing a project that was film-based. I kept pursuing this commerce career, but film kept pulling me back. I eventually got into doing corporate projects, and found I could actually make film and video work for me. I did corporate video for about five years, with short films on the side, and met Lisanne on the set of one of these short films.
Lisanne was at CBC.
James and I did take a different approach on film. We did a lot of different things to get here. There are a lot of people who work their way up the ranks – as, say, an AD on a film set waiting to do their own film. But that wasn’t our approach. I started at CBC when I was 19. I had been working on a journalism degree, and I first started as an assistant director on the news, and got into producing soon after. I got to produce a lot of content. At CBC, I could have a voice in the content, where if I’d gone the other route and tried to work at a big production company, I wouldn’t have been as close to the content. I’d be pulling focus or something. That was really useful for me. You produce a lot of stuff until you get to feel confident enough that you can make your own film.
The sudden arrival on the scene of HDSLRs “made it all possible to actually look like a real film,” she said. In 2009, on a coporte assignment, they went to the Game Developers’ Conference in Austin, Texas.
“We saw these indie game developers getting together, hundreds in a room, talking about their games and sharing their lives,” says Lisanne. “We immediately thought these people could make a great documentary subject, just because they’re so open.”
James had some background in video games.
I was a gamer, and grew up with Nintendo and Sega Genesis and all that, and absolutely loved it. After university, I was a games tester for Electronic Arts for a while. When we went down to GDC and heard all these guys’ awesome stories, at the same time we were looking around as audience members, looking around for documentaries about video game makers, to consume and watch, just because we were really into it. We were kind of shocked at how few there were. That ended up sealing the deal, that we wanted to tell these stories.
They shot the film on two Canon EOS 5D Mark IIs; the set of lenses included the 70-200, 24-105 and 24-70,, and they used a 50 1.4 as the main interview lens. They traveled with two Cool Lights. “But we really didn’t use the lights all that much,” James says. “We mostly used them for fill, because most of the places we shot had huge banks of windows.”
For audio, they used a Zoom H4N, with Sennheiser and Electrosonic mikes. Everything was shot with tripods for the interviews. When they went off tripods they generally used monopods.
“We had a lot of sliders in there, too,” James says. “At the time, sliders were the new thing, so I went slider crazy on the first half of shooting this thing. We used a Glidetrack, then got our hands on a Kessler dolly.”
The project consumed a lot of time, and what started as a broader look, with lots of work toward that, funneled down at the end to a more focused story. James says,
We shot a crazy amount of footage – something like 300 hours. The movie is a narrative story arc now, but it wasn’t always that way. The movie we started out wanting to make was that narrative, to see them release a game and go through some dramatic stuff. But we also knew that if we followed only a few people, we might not get what we need. Making video games is inherently visually quite boring. Even the steps of it are not cinematically friendly. We ended up getting some amazing stuff, but there was a lot of guys sitting in front of their computers just typing away.
With cheaper cameras, cheaper hard drives and other storage media, the voluminous shooting led to the payoff. James says,
So we thought we couldn’t just make a film based on that hope that something dramatic will happen. We were just a two-man crew, and we didn’t have much funding, so we couldn’t just jump on a plane and fly somewhere at the drop of a hat. So we thought we’d do something along the lines of a “Helvetica” or “Objectified” of video games. So we did all these interviews, collecting people’s stories and collecting their opinions. We originally thought the film would be about eight or nine or ten characters, small little profiles and opinion pieces we’d weave together. But we were always looking for something a little more dramatic. And when we were about 85 percent done, those dramatic arcs started coming together. We had three guys with two games – one was a two man project – releasing their games with a bunch of really dramatic stuff happening around it. So we started to explore that more. And because of that, we had to cut about 12 characters. We had this one day where we had to send out all these emails, saying “Thanks so much for doing the interview, but here’s the situation…”
In Part II, James and Lisanne discuss their two Kickstarter campaigns that have funded the film.