Along with good friend Don Tam, Editor-in-chief of GameNorth, I recently chatted with Kevin Ping Chang, production executive at Misher Films, currently developing a Shadow of the Colossus movie for Sony Pictures Entertainment. We spoke to Kevin last week at the Interactive Exchange 2010 conference in Toronto, shortly after he was part of a panel called ‘Concept to Screen‘ which dealt with exploiting digital game IPs across multiple media forms. Here Kevin discusses the challenges of attending to fan expectations when adapting a beloved game as a movie, Misher Films’ relationship with Team Ico and its creative leader Fumito Ueda, and whether or not Ico or The Last Guardian could get the same filmic treatment as Colossus.
It should be noted that the HD re-release of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus for Sony’s PlayStation 3, hinted at in the interview, was confirmed in Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu just a day after we spoke with Kevin.
GameNorth: You are making a Shadow of the Colossus movie, is it safe to assume you are a big fan of the game?
Kevin Chang: Absolutely. I’ve played through it multiple times.
Play Till Doomsday: Any reservations about turning Colossus into a film, since it was more of cult title and not necessarily a blockbuster success? Do we know how successful it was?
KC: The game has had a PS2 greatest hits release, so it’s probably moved between 1 and 1.5 million copies. There have been a lot of rumours circulating about an HD re-release for both Ico and Colossus and that will hopefully boost sales if it happens. Critically, however, Team Ico’s games are very well-regarded – we don’t have any reservations about using their vision as something to build a film out of.
GN: Can you talk about some of the challenges of turning a beloved cult game into a film?
KC: The topic of Scott Pilgrim came up in the panel I just spoke on. Scott Pilgrim is very much a beloved graphic novel series and having friends who work at Oni Press, and through friends of friends knowing [Pilgrim writer] Bryan Lee O’Malley, I realize what you need to know to be as loyal to the material as possible, but also adapt it for another medium.
We have to remember that the film versions of properties that have fervent fan bases, like the Lord of the Rings, are never completely thorough adaptations of the material. In the LOTR movies, certain scenes were added or changed to create a movie quality that didn’t exist in the books, but we don’t question them because Peter Jackson put them in so seamlessly. To capture that same essence is what we are aiming to do with the properties we’re working on as well.
For Colossus, beyond the cinematic quality of having Wander battling these sixteen colossi, we have to effectively translate that into a narrative that people are going to want to watch for two hours. Without getting into the specifics of the script, that’s a big challenge, especially for something so stark. I don’t want to say it’s abstract, but players have their own interpretations for what is going on. I have to sometimes dissociate myself from the game as a player, because experiences that might make sense as a player might not translate to a narrative film standpoint. Nailing down the story is going to be the biggest challenge, but so far we are at a point where I feel very good about it.
GN: Part of the worry for fans always comes from wondering how filmmakers will get a game’s worth of material into a two or three hour movie. You just mentioned there are sixteen colossi in the game. Even at ten minutes per battle, that would be nearly three hours right there…
KC: One of the struggles of the game is that it is very episodic in nature, similar to the seven exes from Scott Pilgrim. Not that I don’t respect the Scott Pilgrim source material, but watching the movie, I felt it sort of dragged along. Those are some of the pitfalls that we have to be careful to avoid. So these colossi battles need to be very significant, they can’t just be one after the other, there has to be something learned from them. We need to be cognisant of that and say “we’re not going to do a montage sequence.” Each of these battles need to feel extremely powerful from a dramatic and cinematic standpoint.
PTD: What involvement does Sony Japan or Team Ico have in this project, if any?
KC: As far as how Team Ico is involved… You know, Misher Films is also developing a Dune movie. With that movie, my senior exec and my boss Kevin Misher are involved in a transparent process with Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, as well as Kevin Anderson. They work very closely together – we obviously run decisions by the property holders, but they have to trust that we’ll be making the best cinematic decisions.
We are trying to repeat that transparent process with Sony and Team Ico. Sony Japan is very involved right now, we sit down with them whenever they are in town for things like E3. Sony America, we keep in contact with them once a month. As for Team Ico, we like to keep Ueda-san as best up to date as necessary. When we feel like we’re comfortable with the product, we’ll approach him and ask “is this something that speaks to your vision and your inspiration?” The very first meeting, probably my most nervous meeting, between him and our team, we had to explain to him what we saw for this movie. I didn’t say a thing in that meeting, it was all my boss and the writer!
I think a lot of that nervousness came from the fact that the games business doesn’t know the movie business, and the movie business doesn’t know much about the games business. We have to do some hand-holding to make them feel comfortable about why certain decisions are made, but it’s worth it to keep the process open. Back in the day, as Jordan Mechner mentioned in his [Interactive Exchange 2010] keynote, having the property creator be involved in the adaption was something filmmakers didn’t necessarily want. I think people realize the value of having the creator’s involvement more nowadays. They obviously know the material the best. We want Ueda’s feedback as much as possible, especially in terms of knowing certain character’s motivations for what they’re doing, where the character is born, etc. With that information we can begin to build the movie.
GN: The game featured very washed out colours, almost like we were seeing it through a filter or a lens. Will the film take on a similar look for its artistic style?
KC: It is certainly written into the script right now, but film is a director’s medium. Whoever the visionary of the film ends up being will be the one translating that. Given how revered this game is and how honoured Ueda-san is, we want to keep to his aesthetic as much as possible. The look of the game would make a fantastic look for a movie – there’s no question about that. It is very unique and very fresh. We’d love to retain that, but that will be the decision of the filmmaker, and hopefully we can find the right filmmaker.
PTD: That leads into my next question – do we know anything else about the look of the film? Is it going to be CG-based? The colossi obviously are going to be SFX, hopefully not puppets…
KC: In terms of vision, I can’t say right now. We don’t know – that is the decision of the director in the end.
PTD: As for studio involvement for distribution, is it safe to assume one of Sony’s movie properties will get that role, like Columbia Pictures?
KC: It’s Sony Pictures Entertainment, which owns Columbia. Sony is starting to realize they have a lot of value in their own material and the film side is trying to work more closely with the game side in that respect. I know they are planning an Uncharted film and a few other projects underway. For our project, they are very much behind it, which is exciting.
PTD: Has there been any complexity in dealing with a Japanese company, who’ve made a game that feels very culturally Japanese, and trying to translate that into a film made in the USA which I assume is aimed at Western audiences?
KC: Absolutely. In our dealings with our Japanese partners there has been a cultural gap, but in a good way. There is a certain art form that comes from the East, different than what we find in the West – how do you mix those together and still capture the game’s vision? At the same time, when we were referencing filmmakers and films in our discussions with Ueda-san, he was very well versed in Western cinema. Something like WALL-E breaks down the barriers between cultures. When you reference a film like that, he gets it, he sees the type of movie you are thinking about. He understands what we are after if we say we aim to capture the magic from the first hour of WALL-E. It hasn’t been as difficult as it might have been in the past, but it is an interesting process to deal with culturally. There is a lot of etiquette involved, but a lot of that comes from the fear of them not knowing the filmmaking process and we have to walk them through it. Traditionally, Hollywood has done its own thing in a vacuum outside of the games business, but people are much more open to direct collaboration nowadays. Of course, a lot of film people now are part of a generation that grew up with video games, so there is mutual respect for game creators.
PTD: If the Shadow of the Colossus movie does well, will we see adaptations of Ico or The Last Guardian?
KC: Ueda-san’s vision is amazing and despite those games not being literally a part of the same series, there is a spiritual connection between them. It is certainly something we’ve fought for as a production company, making the case to both SCE and Sony Pictures and saying “If Colossus works, this is a vision we can continue translating for at least two more episodes.” We would love to do that.
GN: Talking about how early collaboration between the film guys and game guys helps, I’m sure it would be nice to get involved with The Last Guardian now – there is a lot of good buzz for that game.
KC: Of course…
PTD: I just want to see the giant feathered dog creature in a movie.
GN: Poor thing is going to die…
KC: [Laughs] Somebody had asked me about Guardian earlier, but we don’t know much about it, I wish we knew more. We’d like to know about the game’s universe: culturally, what are Ueda-san’s characters thinking, what are the religious or philosophical motivations for these people. If we knew more about Guardian, we’d be able to tie it into what we’re doing. We obviously know what Ico is about because we played it. We’re thinking about how we take elements from it and seed them into what we have now so that it pays off later if we are lucky enough to make a second film.
PTD: I’m sure there are subtle ways to do that as a filmmaker, even just casting a shadow in a certain way would recall Ico.
KC: Exactly, but you’ll have to wait and see what ends up happening.
To finish off, we asked Kevin what games he was currently playing and what he recommends that people try out. He told us was stuck on Gears of War 2, seeking one last elusive achievement. Otherwise, he recommends Uncharted 2 and Dead Space for their cinematic qualities, and is looking forward to Dead Space 2, Gears 3 and of course, Team Ico’s The Last Guardian.
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It’s an interesting and well-written-up interview, but – though I appreciate it would have been pretty hard to do anything else and remain tactful – disappointingly softball. His writer’s responsible for one of the most critically reviled bombs of recent years (Legend of Chun Li). The game has a very clear, unambiguous story – and it’d adapt perfectly well to a great movie… just not one a large mainstream audience with plenty of disposable income would want to watch.
I do appreciate some of his statements – I didn’t like Wall-E, but it’s good to see a studio suit acknowledging silence can sell a film, and while I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim I totally agree that in many respects it’s horribly flawed, and not something to aspire to. But I’m still not really carrying anything away from this beyond ‘Yeah, well, it’s a great game, but who ever made a film this way?’ Dead crazy Russian guys who only snobs and hipsters like, I suppose, but who wants to be like that any more?
Sigh. It just would have been nice to have someone push this guy. Aren’t you concerned that by loading the story up with pointless background details you’ll basically detract from the point? Aren’t you concerned that introducing any story thread beyond what’s in the game would be a waste? Who’s going to go see the film in that case, beyond easy multiplex audiences? And while the Scott Pilgrim reference is a good one, why’s it that important? Did someone give you the impression fans would vilify you if you didn’t include all sixteen colossi?
I desperately want to be proven wrong, and I appreciate your effort in giving me a good few minutes’ reading. Hasn’t really reassured me, though.
what i am hoping for is that if this movie is completed, that it maintains the same music from the game, and i wouldn’t worry about trying to blend it with the cultures. it just wont feel like shadow of the colossus if it doesn’t have the same strong, mystical, depressing feel that the game on ps2 held.
I like this post, really nice.