On May 20th, our Kickstarter campaign came to a close and while there was much relief and exhaustion there was also the intense feeling of a lot of work to do, like we were already way behind on the task at hand – but where to start?
The team started to work on “Box Art” in September 2015, then conceived as an exploratory look at the development art that Doug and Nichole bought as part of their game store in Vegas, Retro City Games. Then, “Box Art” was more of a mystery. Who created this art? Who was SETA, the game company? How did these specific designs make their journey to this contemporary retro game store? Then, the concept grew because it was clear that no one we talked to, for the most part, knew who was responsible for any video game art, but specifically cover art. Who illustrated the Box Art? I started researching, asking questions, and soon realized that this topic of interest and mystery was far bigger than my circle of friends. Most gamers love video game art, have a favorite piece of cover art, can point to some art that isn’t so fantastic but no one knows the story behind the art or the people who created it. We had to go bigger than the “SETA story.”
Two months later and I’m talking with a game collector, Dan, who has a pretty specific collection of game memorabilia: original artwork, primarily canvases that were used for the cover art of games. Yep, Dan’s an art collector who focuses on game art. Immediately, I asked Dan to join the team as a producer. He’s been planning a book for a while, is well known in the Nintendo Age circles, and brings so much information on this topic, we’d be silly if we ignored the value he can bring to this project. Part of that value, was more contacts. Dan’s bought a lot of art work straight from the artists – we had a direct connection to a lot of names. Our list grew from 25 to 200 people over night. We had artists on board that created more memorable pieces than I could imagine. Let me explain: when crafting a documentary, you hope for maybe 5 experts that can talk about the subject, maybe 10, depending on the subject. We had over 100 with secondary experts and personalities that all complement each other. It’s the equivalent of finding a treasure chest of gold out of nowhere.
It was around May 10th, 2016, that our Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign started to look like it was going to meet its goal and that meant that more than research had to happen; we had to plan our execution strategy and production cycle but looking at our list of 100 names and the scope of the intended project, a 90-minute documentary, something felt awry. How would we do the participants, their story, and this subject justice in a one-off documentary? We couldn’t. In the final hour of our campaign, we announced that we’re going to make “Box Art” a docu-series. Before this, the team had discussed the pros and cons of making a series versus a 90-minute film. The biggest con was the additional cost. Aiming for 30 minute episodes meant we needed almost twice as much money to go from 3 episodes (90 minutes) to 6 episodes and money doesn’t grow on trees. The pros, on the other hand, seemed too good to ignore. First, we could use more footage from all our participants. Second, we could structure episodes anyway we wanted focusing on themes, franchises, region or libraries instead of a linear overlook as originally planned. And third, a series meant we could, possibly, continue exploring this topic and indefinitely showcase the artistic talents of people in the industry. There was way more Pros than Cons. Fortunately, we were smart with our Kickstarter campaign and set a delivery date of December 2018 so we’d at least have time to sort out the financial gap that would surely await us.
We managed to raise just over $30,000 after fees and I was anxious to start shooting. As much as I love Box Art, in-game art, and art and illustration in general, I had no idea where this project might lead, but I had a list of participants who were experts, so I chose to be the window. The “window” is a term sometimes used to describe a character who parallels the audience; it’s the same perspective the audience has when watching something. I would be the “character” that experiences everything for the first time and learns everything straight from the source, just like the audience. Alternatively, I could’ve tried to orchestrate my position as the “expert,” which as you might guess would function as more of an all-knowing persona who has a stacked deck, and carefully brings the audience along. For “Box Art,” there really was no choice. I had to come into this as a rookie. Even the information that I knew, I decided to leave that behind and only bring the burning questions that fueled the formation of this project along for the ride.
As a full-time filmmaker, I have more than one project happening at any given time and a week after our crowdfunding campaign ended for “Box Art,” I was shooting for two weeks on another film. Right after that shoot was E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, an annual industry event that showcases what’s new in the world of gaming. We had been granted passes for E3 in March as part of this project, and that’s a hard opportunity to ignore so, that’s where we started to roll cameras.
We planned to leave Vegas, where I live, Sunday night, and set to return Friday morning. E3 runs Tuesday through Thursday, but on the Monday before the event, we had an opportunity to meet with the founder of Electronic Arts, Trip Hawkins. Trip worked at Apple, founded EA, was responsible for the 3D0 and so much more – and I had no idea what we might discover or hear during our session with him. Was he an artist? No. So why was he important to this topic? He was the founder of one of the biggest gaming companies of all time! He had to have had SOME input on package art, game art, and promo art – and he didn’t disappoint. In an afternoon that saw the power fail at his house and cut our time with him short, we filmed a 25-minute interview that discussed the packaging for 5¼ disk PC games through to the 3D0 “long” boxes, a sort of pre-cursor to DVD cases. You see, the art is one aspect of it, the content, but the other side of that is the form, the “canvas” that holds the art and Trip walked us through how that “canvas” changed multiple times over a 10-year history, with each change and iteration changing the kind of art needed. Anything we captured at E3 would only be icing on the cake at this point. We essentially had an episode in the can, and after looking at the footage, it’s hard to say that an entire episode won’t be dedicated to Mr. Hawkins interview and his legacy.
Having been to San Diego Comic Con, I could speculate what E3 might be, given they’re both the main event of the year for their respective industry, even though there’s a bit of overlap between the subject matter. That said, they’re nothing like one another other than them being a showcase and celebration of specific “content.” E3 was way more calm, and enjoyable. There weren’t crazed fans running claiming territory like a MMO. It was very industry-like in that folks wanted to talk and discuss their games, they wanted to help you better understand their goals, and they want to network to continue any discussions after the event. Sure, there are long lines to play the games at E3, but E3 is much more than playing the new games before everyone else; like our docu-series, E3 is about the people and we filmed with a lot of class acts like the folks behind, “Into the Pixel.”
Arriving at E3, I knew there would be game devs, probably some artists, and PR folks around, that in a worst case scenario, would help us set up meetings and interviews later, so we could talk about box art and game art today. Essentially, I was planning for episode six, of our six episode “first” season. If episode one looks at the Fairchild Channel F, and the Atari art, then episode six has to talk about contemporary offerings. With that goal in mind, I quickly learned of an annual art exhibit that’s part of E3 called, “Into the Pixel” and met the lovely Debby Chen, who’s the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. “Into the Pixel” celebrates game art every year, and creates a museum-like gala displaying pieces under glass and hung on walls for all to enjoy and appreciate. No big deal, right? We only found gold again! Ms. Chen was immediately receptive to the goals of our documentary and invited us back that evening where they hosted a cocktail party featuring many of the artists that they were celebrating. First, we chatted with Derek Brand, who works with Double Fine Productions, the company responsible for Broken Age among other outstanding titles. Then we chatted with Daniel Dociu who’s the studio art director for ArenaNet aka Guild Wars 2. Both artists shared their thoughts on their process, the evolution of the industry since they entered, and the role of art for video games. Can it get any better?
To clarify, the “Into the Pixel” art exhibit wasn’t in any of the halls requiring a badge to enter, so before we even entered E3 proper, we had an amazing segment already shot. Through the secret doors of E3, we discovered something else that was pretty cool: college students showcasing their games on the same floor as AAA developer and publishers. I knew the next segment I had to capture and I wasn’t disappointed by the eloquent and passionate gamer designers entering the industry. Add segments with Natsume, Maximum Games, Game Forge, a slew of indie gamers and a fun “man on the street” segment with “Box Art” producer, Patrick Scott Patterson and E3 was more than worth attending. Given how I want to format each episode, I think we could have shot enough content for three episodes at E3– half a season!
Now, before you get excited with that last idea, or concerned depending how you read it, that’s not the plan. Like most films or series, not everything you shoot makes the final cut. The good news is we have a lot of content and the flavor of the series is becoming pretty clear, fun, and fascinating in ways I never imagined but we can only choose to finish and polish the best of the best episodes. Remember, we’ve already decided to complete almost twice as much material for the amount we raised via Kickstarter. If we can raise more money, we’ll certainly create additional episodes. For now, the goal is to shoot as much as possible and make the most out of every trip, so we can lower the production cost of each episode. We’re penny pinching so much, that despite being exhausted after shooting at E3 all week, we drove home Thursday night to save hotel costs instead of staying an extra day, which would’ve granted us a bit more rest. Not a huge sacrifice perhaps, but it’s something we’re conscious of and trying to always consider. So what’s next?
With the summer tied up in a few other productions, and a chance for us to examine what we shot at E3, we’re likely looking to late-summer or the Fall for another week-long shooting excursion, most likely to the North West, a hot bed of talented folks from all eras of games. I wish I could tell you what I expect to capture next, but half the fun of making films, and this series in particular, is not knowing, having no expectations, and willing to be surprised with every person. It’s a fun adventure and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.
For more information on Rob and his films, check out his top secret, appropriately titled web-site, RobMcCallumFilms.com.