Interview: James Rolfe & Kevin Finn on The AVGN Movie

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Beginning its internet-based life in 2006, the Angry Video Game Nerd retro review show exploded in popularity. Its star, James Rolfe, became a sensation. The AVGN has now become a feature-length movie of its very own, co-directed by longtime friends James Rolfe and Kevin Finn. Sitting down for a phone interview, DoBlu prodded the duo about the technical side of independent filmmaking, the process of creating a monster suit, and how hard it was to license the icon that is E.T. The Video Game for the Atari 2600.

I’d like to start talking about camera selection, specifically what you chose, why, and what benefit you gained from that specific model.

James Rolfe: We used a Panasonic AF100 because it’s basically a DSLR but more video camera. That’s what I wanted, something that was more user friendly but not too user friendly if you know what I mean. My big concern was file size. I didn’t want to be shooting on something like the Red One. Everything was 12 terabytes including the behind the scenes, so it was a lot of footage.

I know you’ve discussed shooting on film before and the problems with it. If you were ever to shoot another movie like this, would you consider film?

Kevin Finn: Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever shoot on film again unless I had some type of exorbitant budget. I did a lot of film shooting in college. I think the difference between shooting in HD and film is pretty marginal now, especially for the money and the risk involved.

James: Every year, digital gets closer to film thanks to these Red cameras which shoot in insane resolutions, but I would actually shoot on film at some point. It would be a niche project, a very specific thing where the film look would be really important. That would be something I would shoot on black and white reversal, which is what we used in college. I think that is the best for a real gritty, old horror film. But, it would be a small project, not a feature. Something where the risk is low and not something too effects heavy where if you lose the footage, oh, you lost it.

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Is color correction something you see on set, like you shoot a scene and think, “This scene needs more of a blueish tint to it.” Do you try to get any of that in camera anymore or is all post?

James: We try to get as much in production as we can on set but there are always times where we can get it looking how we want in post, like night scenes where we made it more blue and sunset scenes where we made it more orange. In general, you can always make it look better, so why not?

Every shot was color corrected. Some of them you wouldn’t notice as much unless you compared it to what it looked like before. That was a long process. I enjoy that though because it’s completely visual. I’m not focused on one thing because I can listen to music and zone out while I’m doing it. But, a lot of the time it was making the blacks more black, crunching them down a bit.

I would always add an additional track on top of that like a composite layer, where I would make the composite layer kind of blurry so it would soften the whites. You do notice with that camera a lot of times where the white are like video. The edges are a little too sharp. Then a lot of shots would be separate, like the sky wasn’t blue enough so I’d work on the sky separate from the rest of the image

Is that a tag team effort Kevin, or was it mostly James?

Kevin: As far as how we divide and conquer, James took on most of the post production. I was more the guy directing in the field. But there was a lot of collaboration as far as the end result, like supervising the visual effects.

Is modern filmmaking more difficult to do with two directors? There’s a lot more to consider. Back in the day, you pointed a camera and shot things. That was it. Now there’s so much post production, color correction, and all of those processes.

Kevin: I don’t think so. Maybe it’s slightly more time consuming because it’s always one more conversation that you’re having about each thing but James and I have been doing films together since we were 16 years old. So as far as the short hand goes, we know how we work.

James: Yeah, that’s true. The only thing that becomes difficult is when you’re two people, you’re two people. There’s nothing that can change that. There are times when you need to be together on the same day at the same time but it becomes an issue of scheduling. My weekend is free but your weekend isn’t and then next weekend it’s the other way around. You have to get those magic days when you both have time. That’s been the toughest thing since we both have such busy lives. With the Cinemassacre stuff, I’m always hopping back and forth between two things.

Of course the internet makes that a lot easier.

Kevin: A lot of what we did just wouldn’t have been possible without it, like outsourcing a lot of our visual effects to artists around the world. Without the internet and being able to upload large amounts of video, what we did on this would not have been possible.

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As a huge Godzilla fan, the finale of the movie made me smile with a giant demon (of sorts) smashing the West Coast. What were the miniatures made out of? They didn’t look like traditional balsa wood.

James: It was a lot of different things, but I didn’t build them myself so I don’t exactly what they were. We had a team of people doing all of that – really talented people. The smaller ones like the vehicles were Jon Giancola and the things the monster was destroying were a team from Robin Brockway, Scottie Schiefer, and Chris Hillman.

Do you know how the suit was constructed?

James: It’s interesting. If you look at it closely, you’ll notice some things were taken from Transformers costumes, and part of the mask is Iron Man, like the helmet part, but you wouldn’t really notice. It’s a collection of lots of different things put together. It was made by a special effects team, some of the same people who did the Alien actually. Josh Russell and his wife Sierra, Frank Balzer, and Davis Woodruff who is the son of Tom Woodruff Jr. who worked on the Alien and was the Gill Man in Monster Squad. So, the guy we got is the son of the modern day monster man.

I noticed things in backgrounds like a lot of 2600 carts, and at one point someone is carrying a box with a circuit board that looks like the board for a 2600. Did they come from your own collection, or were they things you bought online?

James: Yeah, a lot of it was from my collection and most were games that were donated to us. When were in LA, a lot of them were from a video game store, Luna Video Games.

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I wanted to discuss licensing, because the version of E.T. used in the film was not the actual E.T. cartridge. Were you worried about licensing or did you merely decide to do something else?

Kevin: Back in the day when Atari was making games like E.T., their game licensing would be owned by the production company, like Universal. We reached out to Universal at one point, and they came back with a funny reply that was like, “We don’t think Spielberg would be interested in this.” We had licensing for most of the things from Atari, but we couldn’t get E.T. so it became a thing like Eee Tee.

James: It wasn’t so much the spelling, it was the footage of the game and the cover art. We obviously weren’t going to show anything of the movie, but it was strange that we couldn’t get the game license because Atari didn’t own the rights to their own game. It was a really confusing ordeal, just the fact that Atari has changed ownership so many times over the years, and they actually changed ownership while we were in the middle of shooting! We had to go through the process all over again. But they were able to clear everything like the joysticks, their games, the Atari logo everywhere, but they just couldn’t clear E.T.

It’s a really unique situation where we have to review the game in the movie, and as far as our lawyers told us, the Nerd episodes are all Fair Use because it’s a critique, but when it goes into a movie, it gets sketchy because it’s a full narrative. Nobody has ever done a review of a game inside of a feature length movie before. There weren’t any previous cases on it, so just for benefit of the doubt we weren’t allowed to use it. It was a really strange situation. Now though, it seems like the whole thing is kind of a parody in an alternate universe. It’s a fictional fantasy world where things in the movie were not happening in real life. It plays to the tone of the movie.

So did you have to edit out images of gameplay? Sometimes it was obviously edited because of plot points, but how often was it actually running on hardware?

James: We represented it faithfully, but it was all recreated. I don’t think anyone has ever had to do that with that game, but just because of what we were told and the legal advice, we couldn’t sign away on it. We did something different.

I think it’s safe to say no one has ever recreated recreated the E.T. video game. Thanks James & Kevin!