Interactivity is games – how hard is that to figure? Everybody said “You’re going to have to have interactive movies.” You don’t have to have interactive movies. There’s games and there’s movies. Movies are storytelling; you tell somebody a story. A game is interactive; you participate in some kind of an event with a lot of other people or yourself, or with a machine. Those are two different things, and they’ve been around forever.
George Lucas. WIRED 5.02 February 1997
When Australian editor and director Adrian Carr first flew into Salt Lake City in early 1995, the only interest he had in computer games was to hitch a ride on the still hot trend of turning hit games into movies. Films like Super Mario Brothers and Mortal Kombat, while hardly the success of their game cartridge namesakes, had a formula that Hollywood was interested in mining further.
In his briefcase Carr had a script based on the Utah company, Access Software’s Under a Killing Moon, at the time considered an innovative twist on the standard adventure game format. The latest in the series of games from Access, it again featured Tex Murphy, a classic hard drinking gumshoe. The CD-ROM based game had a great storyline and a clever user interface but was uniformly panned for the acting in its live action sequences. When Carr sat down to talk to Chris Jones, the managing director of Access (who has played the part of and is the guiding voice of Tex Murphy, in all the games), he must have impressed.
Three days later he found he was directing the movie sequences for the new Tex Murphy adventure, The Pandora Directive, juggling an interactive movie script with multiple plot lines, a cast of middle weight and cult B movie actors, on a small bluescreen studio in the airport flightpath and with a virtual set that only existed in a computer. That he did it well you only need to look at the game, and read the pages of awards that the game has received from the PC games magazines, as tough an audience as they come. In its first three months of release it has sold 250.000 copies in the US alone and has been nominated for two Codie Awards, the multi-media games equivalent of The Oscars.
The Pandora Directive works as a challenging adventure game, with puzzles to solve as the player’s persona of Tex Murphy starts searching for a missing person and becomes involved in the investigation of the rumoured UFO crash at Roswell military base. It also has cleverly staged movie scenes that work on the level of entertainment, adding to character development in a way that computer generated characters, no matter how well animated, cannot do yet.
Adrian Carr came to his craft, as many good film directors do, from being a successful film editor. I worked with him briefly at Fred Schepisi’s The Film House in Melbourne and he worked as an editor on a string of Australian features such as the original ‘Man from Snowy River’, moved on to second unit directing and finally into low budget features. Originally from Melbourne, he now lives in Los Angeles with his wife Rosemary, and pines sometimes for their house set in acres of rain forest at Kiranda in Queensland.
The move from editing to directing Adrian doesn’t see as one way. As I talked with him last, he was completing a promo which he designed and edited for Cinergi’s upcoming movie An Alan Smithee Film starring Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, Jackie Chan, Eric Idle, Ryan O’Neal et al. In two weeks time he was heading back to Utah to direct the next Tex Murphy game for Access.
Along with the talent there’s some lovely serendipity in much of Carr’s career. That his skills as an editor have helped him through times when other directors might have floundered is obvious. We started the following interview which took place by phone, fax and e-mail on just such a point. The details have been filled in from Adrian’s CV and the supporting reviews that piled feet deep up under my fax machine.
Before we talk about Pandora, I noticed that you’d worked as a director on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Now that’s a true case of something being so bad it’s good, it’s become a pop classic. For the record, how did that happen?
“My agent represented a writer who happened to be one of the writers on the show and knew they were looking for directors. He put my name forward and after numerous meetings and telephone calls to check up on my credentials, Saban finally hired me.
As you know, the show was originally purchased from Japan by Saban. As half of each show had the Rangers in full costume it was impossible to see their faces and it was this footage that Saban retained. They replaced the balance of the show with American live action shot here and wrote new stories in order to marry the two halves together – a nightmare.
There are many directors on the show and each director is given four episodes to shoot in eleven days. Consequently you could find yourself shooting scenes from different episodes on the same day, a scheduling nightmare for the production manager and a logistic nightmare for the director. The young actors were keen but green so I also found myself helping out coaching on the side. When I started on the show it had not yet been picked up by the network, but Saban was apparently so impressed by my episodes that he chose one to sell the series on. Fox picked it up and the rest is history.
Having set the tone of the show with my pilot episode I also found I had set the pace of shooting which would often include up to sixty-five set-ups a day. A gruelling pace for any crew but one which my group coped with admirably.
I only shot one cluster for Saban as I was called away to scout a location in Chile for a film entitled The Cold Jungle which I have been asked to direct by producer Robert Watts (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Alive. )”
You’ve said that you weren’t a computer game player. I don’t have time to play computer games but I’m fascinated by a phenomena that pushes along some of the best of multimedia. Dutifully as research, I’ve wasted days playing Pandora, I wanted to see how the interface worked and how the live action was integrated. Compared to the awkwardness of the live action in Under a Killing Moon it seemed a big leap forward.
“They got slammed for that by most of the reviewers of the game. They liked the game play but not the acting. I don’t know how Chris Jones did it. I was run ragged, so how he did it working as a director and lead actor and running a company of 120 plus games developers as executive vice president of Access Software, I don’t know. Obviously he was sensitive to the criticism and when the time came to do The Pandora Directive and the budget was up to $4 million dollars, he called in some help.”
Chris Jones sounds fascinating.Directing, producing, writing and developing plot lines and puzzles and you said he was a real film buff?
“When I met him Chris said that on weekends he’d get into the studio with friends and rehearse and shoot scenes on video. They’d make their own versions of film noir classics. The Tex character emerged from all that, these were the stories they all loved. In the next one we’ll go even further into that film noir area.”
The suburb address of Access has a wonderful name, Bountiful. And of course Salt Lake City is the home of the Mormon Church. Are the people at Access Software Mormons?
“About 96% of them. So it made it very interesting when Tex had to drink coffee, toss down bourbon and smoke. Chris is a Mormon and he would say, “We don’t have to light the cigarette, we’ll digitally put the smoke in” and I had to say “Look, you can’t animate smoke! If you do make it work, your elders will see it and think you’re smoking anyway! So why don’t you, for the purposes of the game, as Tex Murphy, smoke a cigarette.” By the end of it Chris would say that after a few puffs in the morning he could stand it and see how people got used to it. I hope we haven’t created a closet smoker! We were very conscious of it all the time. Similarly we payed a lot of attention to our material and our general audience rating system.”
(In Australia the game is rated Mature by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, for 15 years and over with Medium level violence and adult themes)
Playing The Game
In many ways The Pandora Directive is a modern day morality play. Set in the near future of 2043, it’s just futuristic enough for videophones and post apocalyptic enough for them not to work. The strange unreality given to the staging comes from all the sets in The Pandora Directive being computer generated, some more realistically then others. By using just the mouse the player can move around quickly in a totally fluid 3D environment. The live action sequences with actors matted into these sets, take over for short dramatic moments that you can precipitate but not control until they finish. The rest of the time in adventure gaming fashion, you choose from a menu of responses as to how you interact with the onscreen character.
There are three main paths to the story that lead to one of seven different endings. The paths are described as ‘Mission Street’ were if you are thoughtful and kind and choose the high road you’ll get the girl and solve the mystery. Adrian describes this as the ‘do-gooder path’.
Then there’s ‘Lombard Street’ where you stay neutral and perhaps a little naive. This Adrian says, was named after the twist and turns of the famous street in San Francisco. This path offers moral and ethical tests such as when the broke Tex finds an envelope with money in it, should he keep it or return it. What he does will change the outcome later in the game.
The final path is the ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ -where if you choose to be antagonistic and selfish, you suffer the consequences just as in real life. People die and the game becomes much darker in mood. To examine it all could take an accomplished game player 70 hours to explore, most of us much longer. It’s also a big game, packed into 6 CD-ROMs which means that there’s lots of swapping them during the game.
Let’s talk about interactivity and how it affects storytelling.
When you sit down to write a feature film screenplay you make a choice about how you’ll take a character. You may try different ones but you have to decide on a linear path down which you direct the audience. In an interactive game you can have all the paths, take the character down a dark side or try it as a lighter approach in the same story. If you’ve ever written drama, you know that half way through you can decide ‘I’ll kill this character off’. Someone else reading often says ‘Why did you do that, I liked them!’ Now if you had the freedom to make a movie that was a comedy, remake it with a dark side and do a version that was a mix of both, then you’d have something like what Access have come up with.
How did you keep track of the interactive branching sequences? Was it hard for the actors as well?
I think it was my editor’s skills that helped me get through, it’s not for every director. You need a mix of being a technical director and an actor’s director, it gets very, very complicated. Sometimes when you are going down a path with high emotions you sometimes have to shoot those scenes out, let the actor unwind then go back and shoot the alternatives. Otherwise your actors would be up and down like yoyos.
As a director did you think about the difference between the one to one experience, me with my computer monitor is different to the family and the TV, or as an audience in the cinema.
We tried always to engage you as a one to one player. We worked hard to involve you with the actor’s performance. There will be something in the next game, that I can’t talk about that will touch on just what you asked. We were going to do it with this game but we decided to wait until DVD came out.
Ok, let’s talk about the technology. You were shooting on video?
Pandora was shot on Betacam SP. To shoot Pandora as a feature film would have cost probably $30 million. There’s not one live set in any of the game, other for a few action props all the staging is computer generated. The biggest limitation to quality I found was the reduced colour palette. The next game will be in thousands of colours, not in 256! Access have a customised compression engine that allows almost full motion video of a standard CD-ROM. This has kept them ahead with full screen images and they’ve improved it even further for the next game. If they do the game in DVD there will probably have to be a dual release as a standard CD-ROM.
The successful Wing Commander series are probably Access’ biggest competitor. They use a system that runs at a higher frame rate by dropping frame lines, like interlacing. The image is poorer but the action is good. We stayed at 10 frames a second and it’s not really evident other than on the high speed action scenes. The next game we are hoping for a real time frame rate for dialogue . and still be full frame.
There are features being shot on high end digital video.
Your stage apparently left a bit to be desired?
I was surprised at first by the position of Access because it was near the airport. The studio wasn’t sound proofed but it really was only a problem between 10am and 2pm when the wind carried the noise our way. They’ve just completed a new runway and it’s no more than a quarter of a mile away and in a direct path over the studio, so that will be interesting next time.
The blue screen stage is only about 20 x 20 foot by the same high and when you look at the game and the expansive feel of it, even I’m amazed how it came off. Next time I’m going to be able to use a moving camera and I’ll have much more precision.
Did you have a video split that showed the composite image of actors and set?
We started out working with the computer backgrounds and keying the actors over the top. After about two hours I said “Forget this guys, I’ll shoot it and you can match the sets to the action”. Once I understood how the 3D set worked I didn’t have to work with restricted angles. I had complete flexibility just like on a real set. Once we gave them our lens width and heights they could match it. We measured out the floor so that we had an idea of the right space so if the actors had to walk around a desk they wouldn’t walk through it.
Once we got going, the amount of setups and pages we shot a day was amazing.
One of the interesting phenomena for me was having the set in a computer, it was better when I started to understand how the grid worked. They told me I had complete freedom where I put the camera, even 15 feet up in the air. They positioned a little icon on screen and bingo, there was the set from that angle. That was still hard because you couldn’t see it while shooting. Matching the lighting was difficult as well. I brought some props in, like the blinds and physical lighting things that you see in the promotional shots. They then matched computer generated lights to them later.
Not knowing how I worked as a film maker made it hard at first because on a real set I’d be able to use a flyaway wall to film from a position that you normally couldn’t. They said ‘You can’t do that in a computer, if the lens is positioned inside a wall, that’s all you see’. I asked if we could get around that just for the movie scenes by deleting a wall from the model, just while we filmed the scene, and then they could restored the computer model. It worked out just like a real set.
Did you do a conventional edit of the takes?
I sat home with a time coded VHS tape and logged it all on a computer, faxed it through to Utah and they did a compile based on my code numbers. They sent me a rough edit that I revised and after those changes I sat down again with the editor. We found that was pretty efficient for not being able to be there all the time.
We did a compile for each of the paths, dropping in some common shots, but little things that were different happened in each one that gave those scene a whole new meaning to each path. It’s fun enough playing the one path but those people who go through the game and then choose another, discover new meanings.
What other changes can we expect on the next one?
We’ve been working on it for around eight months . It takes about a year to turn a game like this around. The next game is will be a revolution on what we did in Pandora.
They play a lot of golf at Access, and the company’s big money maker is a golf game. They were just ready to release a new Links game and all the Silicon Graphics computing power was used up on that, but next time we’ll be able to do a lot more high end 3D rendering.
Next time we’ll also be able to do more things like out of focus backgrounds, and be able to marry camera focal lengths to the background images better, blurring the point where you can tell if it’s real or if it has come from a computer.
It must be a good feeling to be working on a cutting edge?
I fell into the cream company. When I came to Access I had to do basic training to understand even what a CD-ROM could do. It was really only a day’s preparation before starting.
People have asked me would I do interactive movies for other people, and I have to say I don’t know. It would depend on the people and on the script. But I really enjoyed working with these guys. We only had a crew of 8 to 10 people on any major day so it became very family oriented. They know my habits and I know theirs and respect them and there’s no ego between us. Chris is the originator of the game and he handed the reins over to a total stranger.”
Along with the new Tex Murphy adventure, Adrian has another DVD interactive movie game to direct, scheduled for shooting in October with a ‘ very big name cast’ and he is working on a number of feature film projects. If you’d like to talk further with him about his work or interactive movie making, e-mail him at Tallorders@AOL.com Access Software have a web site with full details of their games at http://www.accesssoftware.com
Brief Multimedia Filmography of Adrian Carr
THE PANDORA DIRECTIVE – Access Software
Director, Editor, Dir. of Photography
THE MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS – Saban Entertainment
Director of Pilot and First 3 Episodes