Northern Five Entertainment and Airsoft GI recently released their joint Left 4 Dead short film to the world.
Sporting Hollywood-level production values but produced on a shoestring, the video quickly surpassed half a million views on YouTube, and the teaser trailer alone garnered over 400,000 views.
GamesBeat sat down with Northern Five director and co-founder Adrian Picardi for an exclusive interview to discuss the film’s budget, concept, reception, and why Hollywood is so damn bad at making video game movies.
We also have a gallery of 173 (count ’em!) exclusive behind-the-scenes images and a Making Of video on the second page of this interview.
GamesBeat: Can you detail Northern Five’s relationship with Airsoft GI? Did they put up the funds for the production?
Adrian Picardi: A childhood friend, Tim Seargeant, who is now the online face for Airsoft GI, had wanted to make a fun video with us for awhile. It wasn’t until when he convinced his boss to allow us to shoot at their property and store front that we were able to conceptualize the idea. This really wouldn’t have happened if both N5 and A.GI weren’t passionate on the idea. It’s like the Avengers only with our favorite videogame characters.
GB: What is the intent of the film? What are you or Airsoft GI hoping to accomplish with it?
AP: For N5, absolutely nothing but hope that it could bring a smile to the gaming community.
GB: Can you talk about the budget for the film, and break down how it was distributed?
AP: We had just enough of a budget to feed the entire crew, ship out the costumes from across the country, and pay for a couple of the props and some of the crew’s gas. Everything else was donated. The entire crew came out for two nights unpaid. I couldn’t believe how passionate everyone was. It was a really fun experience.
GB: I understand you had a crane? Is that a hard thing to acquire?
AP: Yes! Very hard. Luckily we worked with an amazing gentleman on a couple older projects and were able to build a great relationship with him and his company. When we told him it was fan film he was instantly on board and came out for a couple hours with the crane on the second day of shooting.
GB: How did you conceptualize the idea?
AP: At first we were going to do a full on Battlefield 3 video but so many had been already created. The same went for many of Valve’s other properties, so we felt it was time to try something different with one of our other favorite games. There are so many zombie fan films out there and since we wanted to make this for the gaming community we took it into a different and unique direction.
GB: What sort of script was in place?
AP: The script was worked on in a collaborative fashion. From there we had to accommodate what we could and couldn’t achieve in two nights and with the prep time of only two weeks. We actually had the entire Left 4 Dead cast in the film but couldn’t find an actor in the character’s age range who was willing to stay up for two nights in a row for no pay. So we ended up tweaking the script. We actually tore out 4 pages of the script on the first night of shooting because initially we were suppose to shoot for three nights but it was due to rain on the third day.
GB: How do you go about wrangling in all the necessary talent and crew?
AP: We posted a casting call online. From there we had to sift through the talent to see who looked like the video game characters the most. Since we had a very tight pre-production schedule we hired them without having the proper casting session but I feel we were very fortunate that we had found a great team of people who actually looked the part.
GB: What was it like working with cosplayers and models who don’t typically “act” as is needed in a film like this?
AP: I was actually extremely worried that they wouldn’t understand the filming process and just become fed up with all the madness. But everyone who came out for this shoot was amazing and was a blast to work with. Meagan Marie, whom I was a fan of after seeing her GOW Cosplay article, came out and was completely thrown off guard since she had never acted before. But after a few takes she picked up on everything very quickly and did a kick-ass job. They all were really fun to work with.
GB: I heard it was pretty cold during the shoot. Is weather something you planned for, and how did you deal with it?
AP: We were hoping for three dry nights but it rained the last day so we changed the script. Since everyone came out for free we couldn’t reschedule either. So we ended up not shooting the entire thing that was originally planned but it still worked out for the most part in the edit.
GB: I think my favorite thing about fan films is that none of them are directed by Paul Anderson. Hollywood has become notorious for taking popular video games and making nightmarishly-bad adaptations. Why do you think that is?
AP: Because I believe most of them never played the actual video game until they acquired the script! So far I can’t say I’ve seen a hands down amazing Hollywood “game to movie” yet.
GB: What is it about Hollywood filmmakers that makes them want to adapt something by stripping out pretty much everything that made the video game version popular in the first place?
AP: Money? Making a movie for only the gaming demographic means less money made. At the end of the day it’s still a business and risk-taking moves can be frowned upon at times, such as making a true-to-heart video game adaption. But I have no doubt in my mind after the comic book pool and 80’s-90’s remakes run dry the film industry will start diving into the video game arena even more so then now. I’m betting with the huge success of Call of Duty they are already planning on turning it into a movie… I mean they already made a Jeep based off the game why not a movie? I just hope they put the source material in the right hands.
GB: Did you look at any other fan films before making yours? Did you learn any interesting dos or don’ts that you’d care to share?
AP: We did. We realized we wanted to make something different, something they haven’t seen before, and rather something for the entire rapidly growing gaming community at large. One thing I learned — and I’m actually slapping myself in the face for not thinking of this — but we should have called it something different other than Left 4 Dead since the twist came out of nowhere for most people.
GB: What are some of your primary film influences?
AP: I absolutely love David Fincher. Huge Fincher fan, I wish there were more filmmakers like him who have a strong visual sense along with the ability to tell stories in a fresh way. The one director in specific who actually inspired me to pursue a career in the film industry is Tony Scott. That guy still inspires me till this day. Other influences are other directors such as Zack Snyder, Michael Mann, Paul Verhoeven, and too many others to list.
GB: Are you familiar with Sony’s recent “Michael” commercial? Did you look at that all when making your film?
AP: We actually got this idea from being inspired by the movie / comic book The Avengers and wanted to do the video game equivalent, only with the antagonist being zombies. We later then heard about the commercial “Michael” and thought that was genius as well. In the end the PS3 fans have that and I guess the Xbox 360 fans, me being one of them, have this. There will always be feuds between consoles fans and PC fans. I used to be a huge PC gamer but as I grow older I find myself having less time to sacrifice and opted to go the quicker route being the console. It allows one to skip the whole install times and other headaches one may encounter when playing on the PC.
GB: The film seems to be doing very well, but there’s a pretty love it-or-hate it response happening across the Web. Was that to be expected?
AP: We actually took that into consideration before creating the film but in the end we decided to just go with the crazy idea because I strongly believe when creating something you feel passionate about you should never allow the fear of other people’s opinions and criticism stop you. We felt the zombie genre is so over done by now that we wanted to try and do something different. I can’t agree more with both sides though and I love hearing what others have to say on both sides of the table. The first half actually turned out way better than we had expected! We too now wish that someone would make a real Left 4 Dead film for theaters. It would be awesome… But in all seriousness, I am really happy that we kept all the crazy characters in because where else would you get to see a witch being destroyed by a plasma grenade or a Smoker being chainsawed by a lancer.
GB: Did you consider just playing the second half of the film straight, with no cameos? It has a sort of From Dusk Till Dawn feel, where the first half is very realistic and then it abruptly goes batshit crazy.
AP: We did. But this was something we always wanted to do. It’s the “what if’s” that sparks your imagination. And this was one of them that we went with. That’s what I love about film, music, video games, or anything else in the creative realm. You can literally create anything that your imagination conjures up. Art is a subjective medium. No one can tell you you’re right or wrong but people will have their own strong and completely valid opinions. It’s up to the artist to follow his/her instincts and for this I felt like doing something ridiculous with the hope to make people laugh at the insanity of it all. Before ripping out 4 pages of the script we also had Sub-Zero, Gordon Freeman, and Sam Fisher in the mix as well but we couldn’t acquire their costumes in the short amount of time we had. I still can’t believe the team was able to pull this entire thing off in a couple of weeks. We worked with an amazing group of talented individuals.
GB: Can you talk about the special effects (planning, software, etc.), and how long post took?
AP: Well since there wasn’t a real budget I was stuck doing all of the VFX and Compositing myself and Daniel Scruggs who took care of all the CGI elements. In total it took about a week or so because we both have day jobs and this was a side thing. With the small amount of days we gave to Daniel I couldn’t believe how well done the shots turned out. He blew me away with the Tank shots. He’s a very talented guy. I sent him the raw plates and described what needed to happened and after going back and forth a few times he nailed it. And the craziest thing of all was we never sat in the same room since we both were so busy. We would just send things back and forth through the internet and give notes over Face Time and such.
GB: If you could have any one of the cameo characters with you in a zombie apocalypse, which would it be?
AP: Hands down the Gears of War crew. They have chainsaws on their guns… End of story. I saw a comment that made me laugh so hard which was the request to add Dovahkiin from Skyrim in the video. I couldn’t help but to think of him riding in on a horse with the Dovahkiin theme song playing while the rest of the characters freeze with a confused look on their faces. I think that’s what really inspired me to do this. I’ve been stuck in a room for a year developing a couple feature films, going to meetings, and tackling the more serious side to film making that I just wanted to do something fun and outrageous for a change.
GB: What’s next for Northern Five?
AP: We are currently developing three projects right now, all of which I’m super excited about. We have the opportunity to be mentored by an amazing manager who is really helping and guiding us young filmmakers toward our goals. In between that look out for more commercials, music videos, and who knows, maybe another fan film that takes a more serious tone? Who knows.