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Interview: Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky on “Indie Game the Movie”

Interview: Lisanne Pajot & James Swirsky on “Indie Game the Movie” (photo)

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For all the talk of how much money the modern video game business makes or how creative the games themselves are, there’s still not a lot of visibility for the folks who actually craft the experiences. Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky of BlinkWorks Media want to change that with “Indie Game the Movie.” They’ve been rolling out digital shorts spun out from the work-in-progress on the film’s website and are currently looking for distribution partners. Swirsky and Pajot took took some time between shoots to answer a few questions about the production.

The official website says that your attendance at GDC 2009 inspired the project? What brought BlinkWorks to GDC and what did you know previously about video game creation and development?

JAMES: We were at GDC09, covering the event for an industry association (New Media Manitoba) that we do a lot of work with back home. We were mainly gathering interviews and cover talks for the association’s use, but we kept on being drawn to the Indie Game Summit.

LISANNE: Prior to this, we had a cursory knowledge of indie games – we knew they existed, but very little beyond that. What really surprised us about the experience was not only the astounding success indie games were having, but also how personal the games were, in terms of expression, and in terms of the journey made towards their creation. In these talks, it became quite clear, quite quickly that many of these people weren’t just talking about their games – they were talking about their lives.

JAMES: But going into GDC09, I grew up with games, and was a gamer for a good portion of my life. I had even worked at Electronic Arts as a lowly games tester for two years (a job that looks great on paper, but is soul-crushing in practice). I was also involved in setting up a video game government/industry initiative out of Winnipeg. So the industry is not completely foreign to us.

You’ve been previewing a lot of the footage on the web before the theatrical release. What’s the thinking behind that?

JAMES: We have been putting out a lot of material, however we should definitely point out that none of the footage that we’ve put out so far is part of the film. It is all complimentary, promotional material that is not going into the final film at all. I think what is surprising people, and why many think these are sneak peaks of the film, is the amount of production we’re putting into the teasers.

Our primary thinking behind this is promotional in nature. Most (non-star driven) documentaries seem to succeed through strong word of mouth and long-tail mechanics. Our basic thinking with the clips and relatively open film-making process we’ve adopted is ‘Why not start our word of mouth campaign earlier? Why wait until the film is released?’.

As of this writing, we have released 88 minutes of fully produced supplementary content. To put that in perspective, the target length for the film is 80 minutes, so in a way, we’ve already put out one movie in promotion of another. We figure that by the time the film is ready for release, we will have a fan base that has already spent hours watching our content. And presuming they are liking what they’re seeing, they’ll certainly be joining us for the theatrical and/or DVD release.

LISANNE: But this method is also hugely beneficial in other ways. Putting out high quality pieces as we go has gone a long way towards communicating the tone, quality and treatment of the film’s subject to not only potential audience members, but also (possibly) skeptical interview subjects and promotional partners. In general, video games have gotten pretty lousy treatment from film & television. Most projects that attempt to seriously discuss games are either well-intentioned ventures with poor production values, or they are high-gloss projects that don’t go deeper than ‘back-of-the-box’ gameplay features. So, to tell people you want give legitimate treatment to developer stories and the craft of game design, people can be somewhat hesitant. The preview pieces definitely help in that regard.

A third reason is that producing these pieces while filming (most work is done from hotel rooms), keeps us engaged creatively with the project. In many ways its like work-shopping various treatments and ideas. Not only do we get to put our ideas into practice, but our fan base provides a great feedback loop that ensures that the final film will indeed be something they’re interested in.

Filming people playing video games doesn’t capture really capture the medium. Ultimately, the best way to experience what a game designer’s creativity is to play their games. How did you get around this conceptual, experiential hurdle?

1232010_IGTMJamesLisannecAtFirstSight.jpgJAMES: There is certainly a fundamental experience disconnect between playing a game and watching someone play that same game. In this film what we (think?) we’re going to do is take one step back in the process, and concentrate not so much on the gameplay experience (although we will definitely discuss that), but rather on the decisions and journey that led to the game. So, while we can’t honestly expect to replicate the gameplay experience, we can definitely look to augment it or convey the feeling/goal that the designer was going for. We think that once people see this film, they will be looking to either go out and get the games featured or revisit them if they already have them on the shelf.

What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions the public has about big-budget video games and about indie video games?

LISANNE: I think the biggest misconception people have about indie games is that they think its a hobby for most, or that the designers aren’t serious about the industry/craft – that its an industry of flaky basement dwellers that one day will get a real job. While I’m sure that’s the case for some people, the real success stories in the industry are deadly serious about their games and their artistic career.

JAMES: Making a game is a hard, long process, and the argument for being a full-time indie developer isn’t a very convincing one (limited audience, zero guarantee of sales, long dev times, etc.). So, to be a serious indie developer you must be passionate and driven.

HEADCRABBED from IndieGame: The Movie on Vimeo.

Did you get a sense of the supposed tension between people who work on big-budget AAA video games and on indie video games?

JAMES: I think a tension does exist between indie developers and AAA corporations (not AAA people, but corporations) to a point. But, in most cases, indie developers are big fans of many AAA titles. Which I suppose isn’t that surprising (though it kind of was), all of these people grew up on AAA games. A large part of their inspiration and formative experiences came from 90’s consoles.

LISANNE: I think most indie developers are independent because they are independent. Full stop. They don’t work well in traditional structured organization – I think mostly because they’re insanely intelligent people, intelligent to a point that isn’t compatible with most bureaucratic situations. Combined that with a pronounced drive to express, or articulate a certain creative vision, and you’ll likely have an independent game designer. Because they couldn’t have it any other way.

You’re profiling five indie developers for the film. Why did you pick these particular ones?

JAMES: We’re actually talking to a lot more people than that (like 20 or so), but there will likely be 2-4 main profiles/story arcs that the film will follow. The decision process behind who we chose, basically went through a filter of: The personal/story – how captivating is it? The developer’s game – how noteworthy and how relevant is it? And timing – does their development process line up with our production window?

Indie Game: The Movie – Growing Up Edmund from IndieGame: The Movie on Vimeo.

Did any of the developers surprise you with their process or with emotional revelations?

LISANNE: Yes. Very much so. I think people will be legitimately surprised when they see how deep, personal and emotional a discussion about making a videogame can get. I do think people will view games in a slightly different, slightly warmer perspective after seeing this movie.

Were there any common threads between either the games or the creators?

JAMES: Everybody we’ve talked to that has experienced significant success, and has done so at a price. Developing games is a long, arduous process that consumes you. Everyone talks about not being able to have conversations without thinking about the game, not being able to close their eyes at night without seeing level design structures projected on their eyelids. More often than not, this all consuming process occurs at great costs – to personal relationships, physical health, mental well-being – making games is not pretty, not easy and definitely not fun. But these developers have a compulsion to create. It’s something that they have to do.

What were your game-playing habits before the project? Has working on the movie changed them at all?

JAMES: Long before this film, I was a hard core gamer. I have since turned into a casual player with a strong appreciation for the field. In preparation for the film, we’ve been playing a ton of games. But since starting production, its grinded down to short little bursts of gameplay in cars & airplanes… except for the iPhone title “Game Dev Story” that friggin’ game had my number for about 6 days straight!

LISANNE: I was not a gamer before the film. I played games when I was young (spent evenings fighting over the Game Boy with my brother). But, when I got older, I sort of lost games in my life, but through this project, I found them again. I think, the first games that I’ve ever played to completion have been indie games.

What have been your favorite indie games this year?

JAMES: Aside from evil time-suck that is “Game Dev Story”, I loved “Super Meat Boy,” but I may be a little biased because of all the time we’ve spent with those guys (though with a Metacritic of 90+, I don’t think I’m clouded by bias). But, I’ve really been intrigued by “Minecraft” and “Monaco.” I’ve dipped my toe into those games, but I haven’t been able to play them as long as I would like to.

LISANNE: Since we’ve been on the road, I’ve enjoyed iPhone games – “Osmos,” “Canabalt,” “Eliss,” and “Spider – The Secret of Bryce Manor.” I’m also intrigued by “SpyParty” from Chris Hecker. Secrets missions, espionage, cocktail parties, lying!

Which indie games do you feel that everyone should play to get a sense of the work happening in this field?

JAMES: Oh, this is a tough one that is bound to get us into trouble. But here goes:

“Braid” is a great example of taking the language and conventions of a well-worn genre (2D platformer) and giving you something you’ve never experienced – despite 30 years worth of platformer history.

“Passage” is a beautiful exercise in simplicity and emotion.

“World of Goo” has a lot of layers beneath its gorgeous style and physics gameplay. And its an independent title that you can hand to anyone, and they would never suspect that it came from two guys working from coffeeshops.

And anything by Cactus and/or Messof …anything.

…This list is woefully incomplete, but it’s a start.

If you guys were to make a game, what would it be about?

JAMES: A movie adaptation that doesn’t suck – “Indie Game: The Movie: The Game”…but with space marines.

LISANNE: And tap-dancing.

JAMES: Tap-dancing space marines.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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