The relationship between video games and movies is checkered with hits and (mostly) misses—an entire generation of moviegoers who rushed into theaters to see Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo portray the Super Mario Bros., Jean-Claude Van Damme kick butt in Street Fighter and Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider can vouch for that. But recently a change has occurred. As the line between video game and reality gets thinner and thinner, video games are not just being made into blockbuster movies, they are becoming more cinematic themselves, integrating live-action movie sequences into games to form a seamless merging of video game and cinema. The result? The ability to simultaneously step inside the fictionalized world of a video game via live footage taken with movie cameras, tiptoeing between what is real and what is not.
Unconventional Media, a cross-over film and new media company, is pioneering this strange new ground, producing cinematic portions for the Electronic Arts (EA) game “Need for Speed: Undercover” and bringing the moviemaking process to gamers everywhere. MM got the chance to speak to Eric Mofford, the company’s founder, to discuss what it takes to make the cinematic portions of video games, the reason behind the video game-movie hybrid and what it means for moviemakers in the future.
Douglas Polisin (MM): Video games were once an escape from reality. What do you think the significance is of more and more games attempting to simulate real life? What’s the purpose of making a video game more cinematic?
Eric Mofford (EM): Well, I don’t know if video games were just an escape from reality. I think the purpose of video games is the same as film and television, to entertain. Games have always tried to add cinematic qualities, but the technology wasn’t there. The live action would take you out of the fantasy of the gameplay. This is the 12th “Need for Speed” video game title, I think EA wanted a fresh approach to the material. They had arrived at a level of animation gameplay that was very realistic, especially with the cars and streets. EA wanted us to shoot it just like a feature film with name actors like Maggie Q (Live Free or Die Hard, Mission: Impossible III) to bring the game up a level.
This is a real exciting time to be a filmmaker because with video games getting more cinematic, it just becomes another way of telling a story, especially an interactive one. We’re excited about exploring this creative melding of gaming and the Hollywood experience. It might redefine the way game creators and filmmakers collaborate. No one knows yet how far cinema in gaming can go!
MM: You didn’t want a glaring difference between what you filmed and the game itself, so how did you get the video game look?
EM: The hard part was creating the film footage to match the game. We had a few meetings on color and tone. For the game, the most realistic art was lit for “magic hour”—sunset. So we had to shoot it for that time of day. That meant shooting interior sets and outside at night. The lighting package was huge, like for a one- to-two-month feature. Jeffrey Seckendorf, the director of photography requested every piece of equipment you’d find on a feature: Dolly, crane, big lights and enough people to run it all. I think the most important job for any producer is to assemble the best team possible for the production, especially with a first time cross-media endeavor like this.
MM: You shot with the RED ONE camera; what was the biggest reason for choosing this option? What did it do differently than other cameras to help achieve the look and feel you were going for in shooting? What are the benefits of the RED ONE for projects like yours? Drawbacks?
EM: This was the first time for most of us to work with the RED but we knew EA needed a digital delivery and they wanted high definition. I also knew that part of the reason director Joseph Hodges and I had been hired for the job was because of our work on the television show “24.” EA was looking for that same sort of visual style and immersive narrative that exists on the show. Most digital cameras have a huge depth of field and we needed the look you get with film lenses. We needed the ability to pull things in and out of focus to keep up the mystery of the story. I knew we could use all the ARRI accessories and lenses which would allow us to play with the depth of field a lot more then most HD cameras. The other important thing for Jeff Seckendorf was that it shoots RAW, which is like shooting negative film—the camera only records one color setting, one gamma setting, one contrast setting. The RED shoots an image that must be color corrected in post, exactly like negative film. We were able to deliver 4K DPX files along with color-corrected masters, allowing EA to work at a much higher resolution level than in its previous games.
The live-action sequences were done by a film production company, not a game production company. We always approached it with the sensibility of a 35mm feature film project, regardless of whether the footage was spread through the game in 50-plus scenes or was all strung together and screened as a movie.
One thing I did discover about the RED in post, and it should be noted (for the sanity of your editor), is that each time you turn the camera on and off it creates another storage file. “Bumping” the slate before or after a take doesn’t work because there is no direct data reference, so the slate marking the scene is not directly before or after a scene. That is just one more reason I can’t recommend enough having an imaging technician on set to do data management and monitor output when using the RED cameras.
MM: As video games tend to be very detailed, what was the set design process like?
EM: I really credit director-production designer Joseph Hodges with the set design and getting the most out of it for the budget. EA wanted the gamers to feel like they were in different places, even different cities, and just like his work on “24,” they wanted to move out of the foreground and around different areas of each location. The sets had to feel real. Joseph’s biggest creative challenge was to develop something that was seamless with the game’s look, and keep it fresh. He decided to make a Translite backing of the city where the game is set. It is most prominent in the hotel-room set, but Joseph wanted us to use it on almost every other set, too—sometimes just as a reflection in a car window or mirror. It was a brilliant idea, because that became the unifying element to the entire game.
There were a lot of locations in the script and I knew as a producer it was unrealistic in our shooting time frame to be able to move from location to location. I knew about this group of warehouses in downtown Los Angeles that have a bunch of different looks all at one place. Joseph conceived some great set designs that we had built in the warehouse space and then used the raw warehouse space as is, and suddenly we had over a dozen different locations all without loading and unloading trucks.
The original script was not cinematic. Lots of scenes had the characters talk directly to the gamer—looking straight at the camera. Joseph changed it so the characters are talking to you but also talking to other people. That brings you more into the scene, more like a film. Between the set design and Joseph’s blocking of the scenes, it really gave the project a much bigger feature film feel.
MM: What’s in store for Unconventional Media next? What are you working on now?
EM: Well, the whole concept of Unconventional Media is to approach film and video in a new and different way. We’ve opened an office in Nashville to do a series of music projects that are about building audiences on the internet and with viral videos—since these new bands can’t seem to get airplay anymore on the radio. They just play the same 12 songs over and over. Our plan is to shake up the music business like we’ve done with video games. I’m also partnered with a paranormal museum that is opening up in New Orleans in January. The PARAPLEX Annex is already open in the French Quarter. There are a wealth of true supernatural and ghost stories in that city that we’ve begun documenting for DVD and web releases.
I’m also trying to get a feature film into production entitled Press>Play, which is about the manipulation of media and trying to distinguish between reality and erotic fantasy in this virtual age. It fits right in with what we are doing at Unconventional Media.