Thinking Outside the Box

picture of chris roberts
photograph by Kenny Braun

Back in 1988, while serving tenure at Austin's fabled Origin Systems, expat-Brit Chris Roberts created one of that company's flagship computer games, the wildly popular Wing Commander series, which posited a fierce interstellar battle between the Earth-based Confederation and a scheming race of feral aliens called the Kilrathi. The game caught on like wildfire and spawned four sequels, but whether you played it for the intense, interconnected storylines or for the fact that the action was loosely based on semi-specific historical events that took place in the pacific theatre during WWII, it was unlike any game before or since.

Associates of Roberts have said that the designer always had bigger things in mind for the series than simple PC gaming -- that those were his stepping stones to a much larger film career -- and Roberts himself doesn't deny it. So it wasn't surprising when the auteur left Origin three years back and created (alongside the already-established Austin wunderkind Robert Rodriguez) Digital Anvil, a clear and distinct entity founded on the idea of new directions in gaming, film, and multimedia. Set unobtrusively behind a brown Congress Avenue awning, Digital Anvil and its cadre of designers and digital effects techs that Roberts has assembled have wrapped the pre- and post-production on Roberts' first full foray into live-action feature filmmaking.

Wing Commander, the film, tells the space-opera-via-WWII tale of Christopher "Maverick" Blair (Freddie Prinze Jr.), a hotshot Confederation pilot who, along with buddies "Maniac" Marshall (Matthew Lillard) and Jeanette "Angel" Deveraux (Saffron Burrows), fight to save the universe from the Kilrathi and assorted duplicitous backstabbers (David Warner takes over for Malcolm McDowell as General Tolwyn -- clearly, this isn't Time After Time). With blazing cinematography from Thierry Arbogast (The Fifth Element, Leon) and many effects-heavy scenes, distributor 20th Century Fox and Roberts are betting they can open before George Lucas' Holy Grail -- The Phantom Menace, popularly known as the new Star Wars -- and satiate a growing public craving for intelligent sci-fi before Mace Windu arrives on the scene and kicks everyone off the playing field.

Roberts, in Los Angeles at a gaming convention, spoke with me recently while tearassing around on one of Los Angeles' nameless jogging trails. In between his panting breath and fractious cell-phone reception, we talked about the origin (no pun intended) of the Wing Commander series, making the leap to the big screen, and the small, Austin-based film that might end up being his next project.

Austin Chronicle:How did Wing Commander the film come about? What led you down the path from the computer monitor to the big screen, which you've got to admit is a pretty big step?

Chris Roberts: I started the first game back in the end of '88, and it was published in September of 1990. I had always been a huge fan of movies and in all my games I had been trying to tell stories, cinematic stories, and so what I was trying to do with Wing Commander was to take a lot of the conventions of cinema -- character, narrative -- and then combine them with the first-person action of a game. The idea was that the story would give the action a complex meaning so that instead of the player just having a high score, the game would actually mean something to them and they'd be part of an ongoing odyssey of sorts. In the case of Wing Commander, you're sort of a young, hotshot fighter pilot straight out of the academy, locked in this war with an alien race called the Kilrathi.

picture of chris roberts
Wing Commander

AC:The games have always had the feel of WWII in outer space to me ...

CR: That would be because it's all loosely inspired by the war in the pacific theatre, with the Kilrathi filling in for the Japanese and the Confederation being the U.S. Navy.

After the success of the first game, things took off. Up to that point my games had been about things like sports and not so much about stories, and so it was a bit of a gamble. I think one of the things that people really responded to was the fact that there was a coherent storyline and characters that they could identify with. Based on the first one, we then began using things like cinematic cut scenes and presenting things in a more cinematic fashion. Knowing how well that worked, we could then push it to the next level, and so Wing Commander II sort of concentrated more on story and character development. That, of course, was a huge success, which led to Wing Commander III -- that was in '94. CD-ROMs were just coming up, and at that point, it seemed like a good chance to take that technology and use that to help in the storytelling. So Wing Commander III ended up being one of the first CD-ROM games, especially to use live action and actors to move the storytelling component along.

AC:Wasn't Wing Commander IV almost all live action? That was the one with Malcolm McDowell, right?

CR: Right. We actually shot the story component on film and did it out in Hollywood. During that time, I was kind of thinking this would all make a great film someday, so why not try and develop one? That was the point at which we began looking for writers -- eventually I commissioned Kevin Droney on the strength of some of his previous scripts. The script was finished in October of '95, and then after the release of Wing Commander IV (at the same time my four-year contract was up with Origin's parent company Electronic Arts), I decided it would kind of be nice to strike out by myself and have a smaller creative organization that I work with, and that, essentially, was the birth of Digital Anvil.

AC: So you were at Digital Anvil while setting up the film version?

CR: Right. I went back to E.A. and told them I needed to get the rights so that I could go ahead and make the film, which they agreed to, and then at that point it was all a matter of talking to studios, and eventually signing with 20th Century Fox.

AC:Were you aware, at that point, of the arrival of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in summer '99? It seems kind of ballsy to try and open another sci-fi film anywhere near that ...

CR: Yeah, we knew about that, and we tried to fast-track Wing Commander into a slot before that opened, which is what we've done.

AC: What part did Digital Anvil play in the film effects? Was most of that done in-house or farmed out elsewhere?

CR: The majority of the effects we did in-house at Digital Anvil. We staffed about 30-odd persons to do the visual effects on the film, a combination of digital effects artists I'd worked with before, people who came in from the game business, and people who had come in from the film business. Half of them were from Austin and half of them we brought in from Los Angeles. We did pretty much all the 3-D shots in the film in-house. Some of the 2-D work -- the compositing of two shots together -- we did out in Los Angeles at a place called Digiscope because that was also the house that we were doing our film recording and scanning at. A good amount of the pre-production was done in Austin, the effects were done in Austin, and then most of the editing phase and post-production phase was also done in Austin. In terms of the development of the film, [Digital Anvil] owns the Wing Commander rights, and we actually own the negative as well. Fox has the distribution deal in the States and a few other territories.

AC:Is Digital Anvil going to become a haven for other filmmakers, specifically Austin ones, who may have a need for complex digital effects, or are you going to stick exclusively with your own projects for the time being?

picture of chris roberts
photograph by Kenny Braun

CR: Primarily we want to do stuff that we're working on because the effects business is a pretty tough business unless you have some kind of ownership in what you're doing. It's not necessarily the best thing. But we're also very committed to trying to do effects work for local Austin films, and we may be doing some larger productions out Hollywood-way, like Robert Rodriguez's next film. I think there's a good chance we'll be doing work on that. And if [Rick] Linklater ever has a film that requires a lot of digital effects, I have a feeling we'd probably be very interested in that [laughing]. The same goes for Guillermo del Toro, also.

AC:Getting back to Wing Commander, fill me in a little on the shoot in Luxembourg. This was your first time as a full-fledged director on a major studio film. How'd that go, the transition from games to film?

CR: I'm glad I directed live action on [Wing Commander] III and IV because that was certainly a good preparation for doing the film. I'd like to say that it was a blast and you slide into it pretty easy -- a lot of the technical things I wasn't intimidated by at all -- but there's a little extra scale to the film; actually, it's science fiction, there's lots of effects, and stuff like that. There's a lot going on, there's a lot of pressure, and there's always a lot of people sitting around. If you decide to take 10 minutes to think about something, then there's 200 people twiddling their thumbs. I'd say that the pressure and the stress level certainly increased, and then later on there's always new obstacles. With the game you really have the time and ability to go back and fix things that you don't like -- it's the equivalent of being Stanley Kubrick and going back and reshooting again and again and again if you don't like something. Whereas with most filmmakers, unless they're Kubrick, what you shoot is what you get. You have to be far more prepared going into it, and you've got to make sure that you've covered yourself in case something happens. Things that you think are going to work out great tend to not work out at all and some things that you think are going to be awful can come out quite well. You just kind of have to be tremendously prepared because you don't have that option to go back and fix things later.

AC:Did you use a mostly local crew or did you fly in people from Austin or Hollywood? I have no idea what the gaffer scene is in Denmark ...

CR: It was kind of a combination. The art department was mostly English -- Peter Lamont was production designer and came out of Pinewood Studios -- and then we crewed up in the lower areas with a Luxembourg crew, [cinematographer] Thierry Arbogast brought his people over from France, and the grips were all Belgian. All in all, it was a pretty mixed crew.

AC: It's been over a decade since the first Wing Commander came out, and now there's a movie and merchandising coming out. What's your ultimate goal with all this, Chris? Global domination or just good, clean fun?

CR: [laughing] Well, you know, I'm actually not really involved in the games anymore. When E.A. bought Origin I had to sell the rights to Wing Commander the game to E.A. We just have the film rights now. If the film is semi-successful to successful then there's a good chance of me doing another Wing Commander film, which would be great by me because I think there's a lot of stories in that world and universe. But for now, we're just taking it one step at at time. There's actually a game I've been working on called Freelancer that's set to come out in the middle of 2000, so that's what I'm focusing on now. After that I'm looking at a bigger, effects kind of picture to shoot next year or there's this small kind of Austin film that I co-wrote called The Package. It's sort of a one-night-in-Austin thing in the After Hours vein. If I can do that I'd love to, but it's that kind of thing where your agent says, "No, you want to go do the bigger effects-movie pieces!" So you never really know.

Chris Roberts' Wing Commander opens nationwide March 12.

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Chris Roberts, Wing Commander, Gaming, Sxsw Interactive, Sxsw Film, Digital Anvil

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