5 Things You Should Know About the Making of ‘Indie Game: The Movie’

Nate von Zumwalt

There is an inclination to briskly dismiss films that loiter along the periphery of our interests. After all, many of today’s entertainment services cater to our highly-specific preferences—Oh, you like “Quirky, opposites-attract rom-coms with Noir aesthetics”? Netflix has 50 films queued up for you. It’s a supply and demand formula that favors linearity—a disservice to both audiences and filmmakers.

The premise of Indie Game: The Movie is inherently obscure. Directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot set out to document the world of independent game developers by tracking the evolution of three video games. Along the way, the first-time directing duo guide us into a fascinating world of artists as they toil relentlessly for the sake of their art.

Indie Game shines a spotlight on a creative niche that thrives with just as much passion, devotion, and genius as any form of artistry. And what for a brief moment appears to be a film with a precise target audience more than suffices as a universal story of the human need for expression. Swirsky and Pajot recently took a moment to contribute to our newly minted “Five Things” series.

Indie Game: The Movie premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The film is now available for rent, stream, or download on platforms including Amazon, Hulu, SundanceNOW, YouTube, and Xbox.

Who, what, when, where, and why on the genesis of the concept for Indie Game: The Movie.

LISANNE: Prior to making the film, James and I were commercial producers in Canada, making documentaries, TV, and videos. In 2009, we were commissioned to do a series of docs on people in the new media industry in the province of Manitoba.

One of the people that we profiled for the series was indie game developer Alec Holowka. He (along with a partner) had made the hit-game Aquaria and had won the “Sundance” of video games at the Independent Games Festival in 2008.

What struck us from Alec’s story was how personal the game was. Aquaria was a game about an underwater mermaid that through development morphed into an emotional experience about loneliness and finding yourself. The notion that video games could be so personal surprised us and intrigued us.

JAMES: In early 2010, we went down to the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco and talked to more indie developers. There were many more small teams making very personal games and reaching lots of people with their work online. These developers were touching thousands, and some of them millions of people through digital distribution. They talked about their games as if they were talking about themselves. The games and the process was so personal. We identified with those feelings and ambitions. We thought there was a compelling story there, and maybe a documentary.

LISANNE: So in May 2010, we launched a Kickstarter campaign with another short piece we shot with Edmund McMillen, co-developer of Super Meat Boy (who ended up being one of the main subjects in the film). Kickstarter was new website, and crowd-funding was a new concept at the time. We asked for a modest goal of $15,000 to literally “kickstart” the project.

We owned all the equipment and had all the skills to make it (shooting, editing, directing, producing) – we just needed some fund to travel around North America in our car to collect more stories. We thought we could maybe reach our goal in 30 days, so we gave 60 days just to be sure. Then, surprisingly, we made our goal in less than two days, and the project received even more funds (ending at over $23,000).

JAMES: That Kickstarter campaign changed our lives. We wrapped up our commercial project, and took a year–which ended up being two years—to make and release this film.

What is the biggest misconception regarding indie game developers?

LISANNE: I think, when we started this project we saw that, from a mainstream perspective, people weren’t looking at all at the stories of game developers, let alone indie game developers.

JAMES: If you looked at the majority of television or film dealing with the games industry a few years ago, you’d find tales of obsessed game players who had lost their lives to games or you’d find amped-up, over-the-top coverage about the newest, coolest games with the newest, coolest graphics.

Nowhere in there discussion was there a look at the skill, thought, and emotion that is poured into these games. Video games are one of—if not the most—dominant mediums in the world today, and no one was talking about game designers. At least not in film and television, at the time. We wanted to make a film that took these developers seriously.

LISANNE: Since starting the film, we have witnessed a lot more conversation about game design and the development process. There are more blogs, more videos, more documentaries and TV shows now coming out. Not necessarily because of our film, but we think we were part of a wave of people seeing the same thing and looking more carefully at game developers and indie game developers—looking at them as creators.

What was the team’s toughest creative challenge followed by satisfying breakthrough?

JAMES: Watching someone make a game can be boring. The process is inherently uncinematic. It’s literally people sitting at a computer for months on end, typing in lines of hyper-esoteric code. So, visually, you’re limited in terms of the activities naturally available to you as a filmmaker.

We looked for beauty in everything. We constantly kept the camera in motion, shot from a multitude of angles, and really concentrated on the characters’ surroundings and how they related to the story being told. We also used mixed media whenever possible. Our subjects live through their computers—it’s a huge part of their lives. It felt really natural to visually incorporate their games, game assets, and the internet into the story. In many ways, the Internet is its own character in this film.

What’s your all-time favorite video game?

JAMES: Anything with “quest” after it. King’s Quest, Space Quest. Those point-and-click adventure games were a big part of my childhood. So I’m now particularly excited about new adventure game that’s in development by Doublefine/Tim Schafer.

LISANNE: I wasn’t a big gamer before the film. I had played Nintendo and Game Boy when I was young. But it wasn’t a big part of my life. So I really rediscovered games through the project. I’m fond of the indie game World of Goo—it’s a beautiful, interesting, darkly funny game that makes you feel creative and smart. It’s one of the games I recommend to anyone who wants to get into gaming, but hasn’t had a long personal history gaming.

What was your most overly consumed food during filming?

LISANNE: The past two years have been essentially been fueled by Via Instant Coffee. James and I tackled a lot with the project. It grew slowly, and we ended up doing lots of different aspects of the production and release ourselves. A big part of it was accomplished through super caffeinated instant coffee moments. And I’m still drinking it right now.

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