In Spaaaace!

In Spaaaace!
Wing Leader

Allen Varney | 18 Jul 2006 08:00
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Filming in Hollywood with multi-million dollar budgets unprecedented in computer gaming, Roberts directed the FMV sequences, shooting live actors in front of a greenscreen and later inserting computer-generated backgrounds; a decade later, this technique would become common in Hollywood. (Wing IV also used 38 actual sets.) Roberts paid only passing attention to the games themselves, which were produced and directed by Origin staffers in Austin. He focused on learning filmmaking.

Spector recalls, "The very first day I met Chris" - in 1989, well before the first Wing Commander game - "he said, 'Someday I'll be making movies.'"

Moving Into Movies
Riding high on the success of Wing III and IV, Roberts left Origin in 1996. Together with his brother, Erin (Privateer), and Origin Producer Tony Zurovec (Crusader: No Remorse), he founded a new media company, Digital Anvil, in posh offices on high-rent South Congress in the heart of Austin. While Digital Anvil worked on several games in a publishing deal with Microsoft, Chris Roberts quickly undertook a Wing Commander feature film.

We often forget how recently electronic games were invented. In 1996, the commercial field was hardly 25 years old. Roberts was 28. Imagine a gifted young creator from the dawn of film who arrives in today's Hollywood ready to tell a story using the best techniques from 1915.

Stephen Beeman observes, "Sketches can be just as artistic as oil paintings. Everything about Wing Commander - the plot, dialogue, graphics, action, AI, sound - was a sketch of Star Wars. Like a good sketch, it captured just enough of just the right details to let your mind fill in the rest." (Think of the fans imagining Angel's romantic feelings where none were written.) "There's a gap between sketches and painted masterpieces where the art has too much detail - your mind 'flips' and starts focusing not on the art but on the ways it falls short of perfection."

Sketching and painting are different skills - like game design and filmmaking.

The 1999 Wing Commander movie starred Freddie Prinze, Jr. Filmed in Luxembourg at a cost of $30 million, it grossed $11.6 million domestically, drew poor audience reaction and suffered merciless reviews. (Rotten Tomatoes score: 7%, Metacritic 21%). His directorial career stillborn, Roberts returned to Austin and worked (slowly) on an ambitious open-ended space sim in the Privateer mold, Freelancer.

In 2002, two and a half years behind schedule, Roberts left Digital Anvil, citing creative differences with Microsoft. (Microsoft released Freelancer later that year to mildly favorable response.) Roberts co-founded a Beverly Hills production company, Ascendant Pictures. His partners' production credits included The Watcher, starring Keanu Reaves (Rotten Tomatoes score 12%); Half Past Dead, with Steven Seagal (3%); and the first Dungeons & Dragons movie.

Ascendant's website claims involvement in the production and/or financing of 16 feature films; nine of these have now been released. The eight released films with known budgets had a total cost of $202 million; the aggregate world box office gross for all nine films was about $189 million. Review scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic range between 25% and 73%; the average score, if that means anything, is 48.5%.

The Wing Commander game series predates these review sites, but you can make book: Every one of Roberts' Wing games would score over 73%.

Wing Commander Today
In the years after Roberts left game design, Electronic Arts discarded the Wing Commander property during its prolonged exsanguination of Origin. The last release was Prophecy Advance for the Game Boy Advance in 2003. Microsoft assimilated Digital Anvil in 2005.

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