Game Changers Part 1: Getting Started
Filmmakers Rob Imbs (director) and Benjamin Eckstein (cinematographer) are currently shooting a low-budget independent feature film, Game Changers, a drama/comedy about two video-gamers who are approaching their late twenties. With an initial target budget of $30,000, Game Changers might be better described as a shoestring budget feature, given that they began shooting with only half that amount raised. Though this is their first film together, Imbs has previously made a feature-length video, Eckstein has extensive shooting experience in corporate video and documentaries, and Imbs is an experienced editor who will be doing most of the editing.
Imbs, who is based in Buffalo NY, met Eckstein, who is based in Boston, via Twitter. Their first project together wasn’t a film, but a fund-raiser poker game called “All In Film” held at NAB in 2010.
Unlike many low-budget films which shoot on weekends and other off times, they intentionally decided to shoot the film in three separate sessions of about eight days each, held over the course of a couple of months.
In part 1 of this series, Imbs and Eckstein explain how they met, their backgrounds, and the writing process for the production. Part 2 goes into some depth into the fund-raising efforts and budgeting for the project, while Part 3 covers the gear being used to shoot the movie. This interview was conducted after they’d completed the first week of shooting.
Filmmaker: How did you get into filmmaking?
Eckstein: I’ve been doing video production for the past eleven years, mostly corporate video, documentaries, and some broadcast pieces. I loosely studied film in college at a liberal arts school. I designed a major in film, though it was a very different program than what you’d get at Emerson or NYU. I graduated and got a job with a production company in Concord and worked there for five years, and then went out on my own about six years ago.
Imbs: Like a lot of people I played with cameras when I was young, and I actually shot a whole movie on VHS. I always had a love for it, I think you have to. And also being a little crazy, because I think you have to be to make movies. I went to film school, which was really video school, and post-college I wanted to just do features. All my close friends in the industry do work-for-hire, but I stopped doing that so that I could focus on 100 minute feature films.
I did a lot of stuff in DV and HDV, but I’m very excited with Game Changers to be doing this with primes on the Sony PMW-F3 and finally have something [that looks like a film] … my older films don’t look like films…
Eckstein: Can I jump in and say that I’m ashamed of Rob that he feels he has to qualify his previous filmmaking experience because of the cameras he shot them on. You don’t have to make excuses for the fact that 10 years ago you were shooting films on VHS. You’ve still made feature films. That is a huge undertaking, and you could take what we’re shooting and replace it with X, Y or Z camera, and the process is largely the same.
Imbs: I guess it’s more a testament to how excited I am to be shooting something that can stand up to a Hollywood feature. The footage that we’re getting with the PMW-F3 is fantastic, and not just to complement him because he’s a friend, but Ben is more talented than I even thought he was. We’re getting stuff that I think can stand up to big budget feature films, and I have the best acting in any feature I’ve done. I’m excited to be where I am.
Filmmaker: How did you two meet?
Imbs: Through Twitter. Years ago, when the Canon 5D came out, that was when a whole group kind of rallied around the DSLR hash tag.
Eckstein: I’m going to interrupt because I think it totally has to do with poker. I think it has almost nothing to do with cameras that you and I started talking to each other.
Imbs: Yeah, that’s true. We went to NAB in 2010 — it was my first year, I think it was Ben’s first year at NAB — and we’d never meet before, we just got along well and I said, “Let’s plan a poker event with Philip Bloom” and we ran an event called “All In Film.” It was a charity event and this was when Tweet-ups were a really big thing and we said, “This will be our Vegas Tweet-up event” and it really took off.
Even though we did this big poker event and raised tens of thousands of dollars for Red Cross, this film is really the first time we’ve creatively worked together. It’s really kind of cool to bridge that gap with Ben, because I think he’d agree, we didn’t know how well we’d work together.
Eckstein: But I do think working on the other event helped. Running “All In Film” gave me insight into how Rob works and how Rob communicates, and so anything that could have been a surprise during filming, I already understood how our relationship was going to work. Filmmaking is such a logistical thing and so is planning an event; I think they were almost more similar than they were different.
Imbs: But we had no intention of working together on a film. When I asked him, “Would you be interested in shooting the film?” it literally started as a small seed that I planted at least a year before production. At that time Ben was working with the Panasonic AG-AF100 and then he got the Sony PMW-F3, so his gear has totally changed.
I like that it happened this way, because it just goes to show my philosophy of “You’re never going to know who you’re going to meet and what kind of things are going to happen.” The whole process of the film, from donations through Twitter and Indiegogo to the people that work in post that I met online, it’s just a testament to the new way that I think indie films can be made online through these connections.
Filmmaker: You said you have to be a bit crazy to do this. Can you elaborate on that?
Imbs: I say crazy in a good way. You have to think very outside the box and you have to be crazy, especially doing indie films, where you shoulder so much of the responsibility …you have to be crazy to think you can do it.
Eckstein: I think you mean it out of passion.
Imbs: Yeah. You have to just embrace the chaos. If something’s going to go wrong, a lot of things are going to go wrong. You just keep moving forward, plan as best you can, and know where you need to end up at the end of the day.
When I say you have to be crazy I guess I’m being… arrogant. I’m crazy enough to do it, you know, and “Are you crazy enough to do a movie?” If you are, I like you, you’re part of the club.
Eckstein: I think it’s similar to ultra-marathon athletes, because it takes a long time for the end to be in sight. You have to — especially if you’re directing — always know where it’s going. That’s why this is so different from most of what I work on where it’s fewer than five days of shooting. With something that’s a 22-23 day shoot, every day is its own little marathon and you’ve got to get through it. But at the end of the day it’s this nice rewarding feeling of “We got through it.” You end up being a little rejuvenated the next day, even though when you start you’re like, “Shit, all this again.”
Filmmaker: How much of the craziness do you think is due to the fact that you’re making a feature film, vs. you’re making a low-budget feature film?
Eckstein: Any film is a huge process. If you look at the high end where you’ve got millions of dollars to spend, I think it affords you a certain level of relief because you have a much bigger crew; everybody has a much smaller part. Obviously there’s a director, a producer’s got money on the line, they’re looking towards the budget, but you also have much less of a headache when it comes to scheduling and can we afford to buy someone out for this whole month when we need them?
Eckstein: You hire actors who don’t have day jobs. They are actors and you’re paying them thousands of dollars vs. saying, “I’m paying you, but I know you can’t quit your job to do this so we need to work around that.”
Making a movie is tough work, but I think when you get to the highest level it starts to become more of a cool job. You’ve got your challenges, but it’s so systematic at that point that you just go and do it instead of having to figure out how are we going to do all this stuff with the resources we have and make it work and schedule all these things?
I think the budget does play a large part in the craziness.
Filmmaker: What is the film about?
Imbs: It is a film about two professional gamers who are in their late twenties and they confront the fact that they’re not young, and they’re not world-class, high-notoriety Halo players, so it is about how people deal with change.
I’m in my early thirties now, and the two leads are in their late twenties, so growing up, facing your childish gaming life and then at all levels of life, how you deal with change. It’s not a heavy movie, though. I love dramatic films, I think they’re the most successful, but I think Ben and I are in agreement that there needs to be a sense of humor, you can’t just preach an idea or something dramatic to somebody.
I would say it’s a drama/comedy.
Filmmaker: Where did the idea come from?
Imbs: It came from me. This is the second feature that I’ve written, and will be the second feature that I have directed. I grew up playing a lot of video games. In college I founded a club and all we did is play a game called Super Smash Brothers.
I really think there’s something powerful about video games and the friendships surrounding it. My friends have moved all over the country, but I keep in contact mostly by playing games. A lot of the games you play online with headsets like World of Warcraft, you’re talking to your friends, so it’s not just about the games, it’s a way that you grow with friends too.
Without sounding too preachy, I really think there is something there, something that really resonated inside of me, so I wanted to follow that line. I also feel that I’m part of a generation, the Mario Bros generation, and we’re all getting older. We’re all in our thirties now, or even forties some of us, and so I felt like I had an audience, and worst case scenario, if I couldn’t make this film appeal to a larger audience, at least I knew that I had a built-in audience with my generation of gamers.
Filmmaker: What was the writing process?
Imbs: It was a long writing process. I didn’t know what it was going to be, so I would write down ideas in books and journals. It’s probably been a good two years in the making. I would write by hand certain scenes that I liked, and then about a year and a half ago I knew what the movie was going to be about and I started actually putting scenes together. I didn’t know what the exact arc of the story was, but I knew a main characters journey that I wanted, that I related to. I started putting that character in all kinds of scenes, and it wasn’t until about nine months ago that I started showing it to friends and getting their opinions.
I wrote a whole film, and then I started to think, “This isn’t the movie I want to tell,” so about six months ago I pretty much chopped the whole thing up and rewrote it. Over the course of three months I rewrote the whole film and added a whole new love interest. Throughout that process, one of my leads, Jacob Albarella, who’s a very talented local actor, writer and a big gamer, he came on and helped me with the realism. He also has a great sense of story, and he really helped me formulate this into arcs for characters.
Filmmaker: What did you write it in?
Imbs: I actually switched from Final Draft — which I had started it in — to Celtex, which is amazing. I recommend it to everybody, because you can have it with you on your iPad, you can write anywhere, you can write on your iPhone, and it dynamically updates through the Cloud.
I probably finished the script about a month before we started filming. Ben was concerned, and rightfully so, coming in to this having never worked with me on a feature before.
I don’t consider myself a writer first and foremost. If anything, I would say that I’m an editor, because I love to do that, and I have the most experience editing. This was a story that I wanted to tell, I wouldn’t say it was an autobiography, but there’s a lot of things from my life that I put into the characters dispositions and the situations in the film.
That said, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a scene which we’ll need to shoot next month that is not entirely done. But that’s okay because we actually rewrite on set. If something doesn’t work I trust my actors enough, and the people I’m working with, to say “That doesn’t work, lets change that,” which I love. I like to be very prepared with everything, but I don’t think everything is sacred. If something isn’t working, we switch it. If a line isn’t working, the actor tells me, “I think he would say this,” and if it makes sense, we change it. I don’t think writing is sacred.
All photos courtesy Rob Imbs.