Directors David and Scott Hillenbrand, best known for the National Lampoon Dorm Daze movies (a third one is on the way), have spent the past three years working on an original videogame movie, Gamebox 1.0, which Lionsgate Home Entertainment releases on DVD April 10. Inspired by the movie TRON and wanting to explore the way videogames are impacting culture, the directors embarked on a videogame binge between 2002 and 2004 with screenwriters Patrick Casey and Worm Miller, who they worked with on the Dorm Daze films.
"We immersed ourselves in every game and we talked about where games were at and where they were going," said David. "We threw out the concepts and ideas of what hadn't been explored in movies and how we could make it current and trend-setting at the same time. We became gamers through this process. As we were making the movie and all through finishing the movie we've been staying current to the games that have been coming out."
Working with a budget under $1 million, the Hillenbrands, who raise funding for all of their film projects, shot Gamebox 1.0 in just 12 days back in 2004. Since then, they've been working with small special effects technicians to create the look and feel of the in-game world that the movie explores.
"We wanted the look in the game to be somewhat pixelized," said Scott. "We've seen plenty of movies that were based on videogames and when you look at it it's a movie with some hint of a videogame. We wanted to create an experience that made the viewer feel like they're living in the world of a videogame. Games are trying to imitate the look and feel of movies, and yet they don't quite get there."
Although they haven't played Electronic Arts' Need for Speed Carbon, anyone who's seen that game's cinematics will get an idea of what the in-game world of Gamebox 1.0 looks like. The film stars Nate Richert (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) as a videogame tester who watched his girlfriend, Kate (Danielle Fishel of Dorm Daze 1 and 2), killed by a dirty cop, Robert Hobbes (played by veteran TV actor Patrick Kilpatrick). When he's sent a new videogame system, which is so advanced it doesn't even require a monitor or visor, Nate literally enters a 3D game world and must rescue Kate, who's now a character called Princess, from Ao Shun (also played by Kilpatrick).
"We spent a lot of time with the look trying to create something that gamers could relate to, where it wasn't a perfect movie, but it was more the experience of playing a game," said David. "We wanted to play on the concepts like repeat mode and checkpoints and when you die to come back a few minutes beforehand in the situation. We hadn't really seen that before."
The Hillenbrands worked with riggings that are often used in music videos, strapping them to the back of an actor to give a locked, over-the-shoulder perspective similar to those found in action games like Gears of War.
"It's challenging to do this when you combine it with the environments and you do it on a green screen to have that type of locked movement," said David. "We feel it really thrusts you in between, like a hybrid, where you feel like you're watching a movie but you're getting a videogame experience."
Because players can go anywhere in videogames today, the directors wanted the audience to experience multiple game genres from the perspective of Charlie in the film. They opened up the world, allowing Charlie, who's such a good gamer, the ability to figure out his main goals along the way.
"We wanted to jumble games like Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, Halo, and Warcraft all together," said David. "We decided to have the three basic games, Crime Spree, Zombie Land and Alien Planet and then let things get chaotic."
"We did a big study of videogames before writing this," said Scott. "With Crime Spree we wanted it to be clear; we wanted the audience to say it's just like the world of Grand Theft Auto and the urban shoot-em-up games."
With the film being shot back in 2004, the directors were just before the next generation of consoles launched. So although gamers will watch the DVD and see "old" systems like Xbox instead of Xbox 360 and Game Boy Advance SP instead of Nintendo DS, the Hillenbrands said it does add something to the character of Charlie. Since he's lost his girlfriend, he's basically been lost to the world. He's stopped living, and his apartment reflects those older game systems.
"At the time there was that PC game where you could take a picture of your boss and kill him in the game," said David. "The concept of Gamebox 1.0 was 'What would it be like to live in the world of one of these games?' and then 'How would I use my knowledge of playing games to survive?'"
The Gamebox 1.0 system allows Charlie to take pictures of his friends, who are then inserted into the game world as characters. This allowed the directors to work with a relatively small cast that assumed two roles, one in the real world and one in the virtual—a la TRON.
It seems like the hard work the directors have put into this film has paid off. They're currently talking to several studios about reinventing the film with a bigger budget for a theatrical release.