About a year ago, I told Steve Conard, my primary partner in all things Chaldea, “We need to make a short film that blends live action and comic art. And I want to make it now, and I want to show it to the public by Gen Con 2015.”
“Why?” Steve asked. “We’re not going to be ready to go into full production for a couple more years. Are you sure it’s wise to get something out so early? Fans won’t like to wait.”
“I have to know if we’re on the right track,” I replied. “If we’re not, I’d like to know sooner rather than later.”
War Room is more than just a pilot episode; it’s a proof of concept. And in this case, a proof of concept that is particularly appropriate because we’ve never done this before. I won’t be so bold as to say no one has ever done this, but we haven’t found anything exactly like it. Also, this project requires us to be competent not just at filmmaking but at making comics as well.
I love trying new things. Someone once told me, “Peter, your problem is you have no aversion to risk.” I don’t think that’s a problem—I think it’s an advantage. I had no trouble jumping into this Chaldea project with both feet and didn’t hesitate for an instant to drop some serious cash into making this film.
But tackling Chaldea will be like a long and epic voyage across a mighty sea. I agree I have a low aversion to risk, but it’s just plain stupid to launch a new ship into the ocean without sailing it up and down the coast a few times first.
So Steve and I brainstormed some parameters for this pilot script. I wanted the film to start in the comic mode and live there long enough to really get into it. And then I wanted the film to transition into live action so we could see what that transition would be like, and then it needed live there for a few minutes. And before the end, it needed to transition back to comic format, so we would see the transitions worked in both directions. As someone who always thinks about story structure, Steve wanted this story to announce Kordaava’s death. And we both loved the idea of doing something with miniatures and Duke Seifried. From that discussion, Steve pulled his writing team together and cranked out War Room.
And, wow, it was a helluva script. Let it be known that I was very pleased!
But I already knew we could write a good script. Not to trivialize an incredibly important step in the process (perhaps the most important step), but screenwriting is definitely a strong suit of our little crew. Steve is creative, brilliant, and has amazing help in the form of Steve Schwartstein and Michele Takahashi.
The real issue was this idea of mixing film and graphic novel media. Would people like it? I’m not sure how much I admitted this to Steve, but in my heart of hearts I wasn’t sure if I would like this approach. I was worried the transition from film to comic, or back again, would be too jarring. And I was worried that the film portion would be so much more interesting that I would feel let down when I transitioned back to the comic format.
And since I was worried about my own reaction, I was worried about the reactions of anyone else who might see it—meaning you!
I determined to complete War Room by July 2015 so that we could show it at Historicon and Gen Con, both of which took place that month. I chose Gen Con because it’s the biggest and best congregation of geeks on the planet (okay, maybe I’m not entirely partial on this topic) and Historicon because of Duke Seifried’s role in the film and the use of his historical miniatures and scenic. My goal was to show the film at these shows to a significant audience and watch for reactions.
I didn’t hire a market research company; while I have a high respect for market research and I use it on many occasions, for this situation I knew the best way to gauge audience reaction would be to simply sit in the front of the theater and, instead of looking at the screen, look at the audience.
So, last month, all this came together. The first test was to see if I would like it. The editing process isn’t one where you suddenly see a finished project; you watch the film grow from raw footage to better and better edits of the final piece. And no matter how well it’s shot, it always looks horrible at first. But as our amazing editor, Joanne Ardinger, dived into the process, the cuts on the live-action sequence quickly started to look solid.
But the real test would be the addition of the comic artwork to the live action. This was a big question for us, as the amazing Studio Voltz—who created all the comic-style art—couldn’t really get started until the film was finished. But boy, they came through in a big way. As the art started coming in, we all dared to start believing this might really turn out excellent.
And then the composite art (we’d never filmed with a green screen before—but we did for those big windows in the live-action sequence). And then the musical scoring, and then the sound effects. By about halfway through the process, I was pretty sure I was going to be happy with the end result. And then it just kept getting better and better. I think when I saw the comic and the film together with the beautiful musical score by Eric Speier, that’s when I started to get comfortable that our vessel might, indeed, be seaworthy.
Test #1: Will I like it? YES!
But the next test was showing it to a live audience. Historicon is a tough crowd. It’s comprised of old-school historical wargamers—guys who’ve been around even longer than me. They play wargames with miniatures; we’re not talking space marines or elves, but historical soldiers, like Roman legionnaires, German Panzers, or ancient Babylonians. These are the guys who inspired the term “grognard.” But when I saw fifty of these gentlemen sit spellbound watching War Room, my confidence soared.
Test #2: Will historical wargamers like it? YES!
The next test: Gen Con. My biggest concern going into Gen Con wasn’t whether gamers would like it. I certainly needed to get that validation, but I was pretty sure they would. My bigger concern for Gen Con was whether or not I could fill a room. Getting attendees to see a film at Gen Con is a tough sell. Oh, gamers love films, that’s for sure, but when they’re at Gen Con, it’s hard to pry them away from game tables. But we had a kick-ass marketing and social media blitz thanks to my old friend, Jenny Bendel, and some promotional oomph from my favorite starlet, Jen Page, along with Duke Seifried, Sarah Moore, and Jennifer Kleinhenz. Also, Jonathan Tweet designed a walk-up-and-roleplay event for our booth called The Chaldea Experience. This proved to be an excellent way for visitors to actually interact with our actors and meet Chaldea characters.
All the marketing worked; we had a full house at the showing.
Instead of watching the film, I sat in the front on the side and watched the audience.
It worked! The audience enjoyed the film immensely. No market researchers or consultants required—it was obviously well received.
Test #3: Will Gen Con attendees like it? YES!
Okay, then. I guess that means we better get to work and make more episodes!