Austin Chronicle - March 6, 1998 - Digital Anvil Chorus

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Digital Anvil Chorus

Wing Commandeer Takes Flight to the Big Screen
By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 6, 1998
photograph by Bruce Dye


Let's face it, the track record for video/computer games adapted to the screen has been pretty abysmal so far. Super Mario Brothers was an utter misfire, Street Fighter managed to leave a brief pall over the otherwise stellar career of Raul Julia, and Mortal Combat and its sequel - Mortal Combat: Annihilation - were both moneymakers that left anyone over the age of 13 fighting down tears of annoyance. The very idea of taking a successful game and parlaying it into a film franchise has always struck me as gross merchandising run amok, but the gang at Austin's Digital Anvil swears they're going to change all that. I believe them, and it's not just because Bill Gates has pumped a whole lotta lovin' into startup in the form of an estimated $85 million (that's ballpark - both Digital Anvil and Microsoft remain mum on exact figures). Formed just over a year ago in the wake of chairman and Wing Commander mastermind Chris Roberts' hasty exit from Origin Systems and their parent company Electronic Arts, Digital Anvil has set up shop square in the heart of downtown, just a few blocks south of Austin's other big startup of '97, Rick Linklater's Austin Film Center. Here, inside a chrome-and-black-leather warren of programmer cubicles, editing suites, and more smoking Dell PCs than I've ever seen in one place before, is where the future of the gaming industry is being forged. Alongside longtime pal and Hollywood-by-Austin maverick filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (one of several Anvil co-founders), Roberts and president Marten Davies are melding film with video game - something Roberts has been involved in since the release of Wing Commander III, which featured live-action film of Malcolm McDowell tear-assing around the galaxy and being generally Male Pattern Evil - and taking gaming to its next level.


For Rodriguez, getting in on the ground floor was something he'd long sought: "Chris knew I was interested in getting into the game world somehow, but rather than starting my own company, I was looking at getting in with somebody else, and so he kept me in mind when he was putting Digital Anvil together. He approached me while I was editing Dusk Till Dawn, brought me the business plan, and it just kind of made sense.


"What I was really attracted to about the game world was that the rules weren't really set yet. People were inventing new games all the time and new ways to tell stories using the game medium, whereas film has kind of become what it is, two hours long, three acts - you kind of have to deliver certain standards if you're making a movie, whereas with games it was just open territory."


For Digital Anvil, the next level is the movies themselves. As this goes to press, Roberts is in Luxembourg directing the first of a planned series of films based on his award-winning game platform. Starring Jurgen Prochnow, Freddie Prinze, Jr., Matthew Lillard, and Saffron Burrows (among others including, natch, McDowell), Wing Commander the film is a $27 million space opera that not only employs the talents of 27 core DA animators, but also stands to benefit from the likes of cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (The Fifth Element) and production designer Peter Lamont (Oscar-nominee for Titanic). By all accounts, it's the kind of wild card, shoot-'em-up Verhoeven's Starship Troopers sought to be, only (they assure me) much better. That, of course, remains to be seen, but regardless of Wing Commander's popcorn status a year down the road, Digital Anvil is poised on the cusp, a single, artist-driven corporate entity combining gaming, film, and endless permutations thereof into one mammoth entertainment machine. How?


President Marten Davies, who with Roberts toiled in the Origin/EA environment for the past seven and a half years, explains it this way: "When we started the company, our game plan was three-fold. First, we had to find a well-heeled distributor and almost immediately we were fortunate enough to pick up Microsoft. Their mentality is very much one of they don't like being third in anything; they always want to be number one. They tend to do things in the right way and they're certainly allowing us to do the job we need to do to facilitate the contract we have with them, which is a minority investment of the company.


"The second part of the plan was, locate someone who was involved in the technology side of the business. Now, whether that be a chip manufacturer or a computer manufacturer - if you're going to be on the cutting edge in a very, very competitive market, you've got to be ahead of it, and the only way to do that is to team up with a manufacturer of the hardware. So we've managed to form a relationship with AMD, which is a great marketing and contractural relationship, and again, they're a minority investor in the company.


"The third part of the equation was essentially looking for a relationship that reflected the celluloid side of the business. That would ultimately tie up all three aspects of what the business is about. Having said that, a lot of things have happened in the last year: We've proved we can do full-motion video, we've proved we can put 35 millimeter film in successfully, and we've proved we can sell the product. What we haven't proved from a professional standpoint is that we are experts at making movies. So we look at this as an opportunistic way of creating a calling card, if you like. Wing Commander is a great Origin franchise, Chris created it, he understands it, we just came out with Wing Commander Prophecy, which is, I think, the fifth installment. So what we ended up doing was going back to Origin and picking up the option on the TV and film rights to put it on the big screen. And that's where we are right now."


Davies, who entered the gaming industry 17 years back in his native Great Britain, knows whereof he speaks. He cut his teeth on the Atari 2600 before moving on to Activision and British Telecom (he founded that company's Firebird label) before bringing the notorious game Elite stateside and hooking up with Richard Garriot's Origin Systems in 1989. One of many Brits in the industry [see sidebar], Davies is explicit in his deconstruction of the gaming industry.


"While Chris and I were at Origin, there seemed to be a great need by EA to exploit franchises that were fairly solid. The mentality that Chris had was that when you produce a new Wing Commander or a new product within a franchise, it should have a new engine or a new style, a fresh storyline. Because I worked in the Origin/EA environment for seven and a half years, I'm very aware of this: When you've got a hot franchise, they like to milk it very quickly. Twelve to 14 months to produce a new product is not really the way to go. Wing Commander IV was really a push for a 15-month, 16-month production which included 35mm film, and that was anathema to Chris. His mentality has always been that if you trapped him in a corner and said `Why did you do it?' he would say he always wanted to do something to prove to other people that he could do it better than they could. Games are now competing for mind-share and timeshare against TV and movies. If you open up the production values in a game, you've got to do it independently."


With Digital Anvil, then, Roberts and his crew (a number of whom are expatriate Origin staffers though Davies is quick to point out that relations between the two companies are still convivial) are aiming to work on many more united fronts, with producers kicking out full-born games which can then be adapted into the film medium, which in turn can be entirely created (well, almost entirely) in-house, from the story to the designing of CGI sets to the post-production effects work, editing, and even the music and sound. After that, he says, there's room for television, soundtrack CDs, and any and all merchandising deals that would saturate the market in the wake of your average studio blockbuster. It's essentially a very large entertainment conglomerate in a very small area.


"Once we're a proven entity," says Davies, "we can sit down and write conceptual and linear scripts at the same time. We can go out and shoot the product and build the product at one and the same time. And that's basically our aim. The most expensive part of an interactive movie (or an interactive game, if you want to call it that) is the full motion video or the 35mm film. It costs an arm and a leg. By shooting in a linear environment and an interactive environment at the same time you're cutting the cost of crew, sets, lights, effects, location, and so on and so forth and you're spreading that across both vehicles.


"One of the problems with computer games is that they're passé as soon as they ship. Because the technology moves so rapidly that you're dead immediately. You can re-launch a few years later as a compilation or something, but it's pretty much a one-shot deal. Movies aren't like that. They're multi-shot deals with re-runs, comebacks, re-releases, and so on. So it would be nice to be in both vehicles."


Still, for all the money spent and the talent utilized, a video game is still a video game, and film based on a game is still likely to be pretty flat. You're not likely to see Sophie's Choice: The Quandry (starring Malcolm McDowell, no less) anytime soon. It's a genre generated by the whims of the market and the market, in this case, is made up of post-pubescent male gamedogs.


"I guess," says Davies, "the goal that we are trying to reach very hard is this: When you go to a movie, you have that ability to laugh, that ability to cry, to be angry, you want to be inside the movie because you want to kill the antagonist, or whatever. I think computer games have gotten to the point where they create shock situations that make a person really react. We can create anger and involvement, if you like, with the product. And we're getting closer - as time goes on and with the convergence of the two mediums - to hopefully making somebody cry in front of a TV screen. When we achieve that we've got where we need to be."