I had very few offers for work in 1994. My phone had just stopped ringing.
After a decade of steady freelance work, now months went by between jobs. I wondered what I was doing wrong.
While I was home waiting for the phone to ring, I got an offer for a five-week job as the first assistant director on a 16mm shoot for a new computer game called, The Last Express, being produced by Smoking Car Productions in San Francisco.
I was wholly unfamiliar with computer games. I had never played one. Although the job paid less than half my usual rate, aspects of this project intrigued me. After years spent making thirty-second TV commercials, this was a very different assignment.
The Last Express was the brainchild on a fellow named Jordan Mechner. He’d made his name in computer games by filming his brother and rotoscoping the images to produce The Prince of Persia game (1989). This product was so successful, it launched a franchise that made Mechner wealthy.
Rotoscoping describes the process of manually altering film footage one frame at a time. Live action scenes are filmed, then projected onto glass, so the animator can trace the action in every frame, thus capturing the natural, realistic movement of the actors. This technique was invented by animator Max Fleischer in 1915 and was used in his groundbreaking Out of the Inkwell animated series (1918–1927).
For The Last Express, this rotoscoping technique was transformed into a digital process that ostensibly turned live action into highly stylized and realistic cartoons.
Mechner spent years in preparation for The Last Express, digitally documenting and recreating every detail of the original turn-of-the-century Orient Express railroad car interiors, in which The Last Express game took place. Instead of the linear story form common to every feature film and novel, this was a computer game, so the script contained many different variations and eventualities, at many different places in the story, necessitating exponentially more filming.
From a production standpoint, the non-linear plot was complex, entailing thousands of camera set-ups, making my job incredibly stimulating and challenging. It really taxed my capacity for memorization and recall.
The pitch for the game read as follows:
“Paris, 1914. The world is on the brink of war and this train could push it over the edge. You are Robert Cath, a young American urgently summoned by your old friend Tyler Whitney to join him aboard the Paris-Constantinople express, departing from the Gare de l’Est on July 24th. Arriving late, you discover something has gone terribly wrong. Now you must untangle a complex web of political intrigue, suspense, romance, and betrayal. Every move you make could bring you closer to the truth or your own demise. Bon voyage!”
* * *
We shot at Stage A, at 991 Tennessee Street in San Francisco, and the shooting schedule was, by necessity very ambitious. Although Mechner was an inexperienced film director, he was a soft-spoken, articulate, and well-organized leader, who had done his homework, and who did a great job sharing his vision with his production team. So, we all could get on board to help make his dream a reality. He was good with his actors and knew exactly what he wanted from them.
The actors wore specially designed, extremely elaborate costumes, wigs, and make up, which, like panchromatic make-up, looked very grotesque and terribly wrong to the naked eye. I had literally never seen anything like it before.
However, when the selected frames were harvested from the 16 mm film negative, rotoscoped and converted into stylized computer graphics, the bizarre looking costumes, wigs, and frightening make-up all made sense and looked perfect. The result was a highly stylized animated cast of characters whose movement felt familiarly realistic, and not at all cartoon-like.
This technique imbued the graphics in the game with a haunting sense of reality, never before seen in the medium. The Last Express was considered at the time, to be the Gone with The Wind of computer games. Nothing quite like it had ever been done before. At one point, Smoking Car Productions had sixty employees.
We were all working on an historic project. The shoot went on for weeks. There were thousands of camera set-ups. It was, in fact, a monumental undertaking. We completed principal photography on schedule and on budget – no small feat for such an ambitious undertaking.
Those of us who worked on the crew never forgot the experience. We’d all learned to embrace a new paradigm working in the brave new world of non-linear plot filmmaking. It was a realm unto itself with its own techniques and aesthetics.
One wondered if they might ever have the opportunity to utilize these unique and newly acquired skills again?
* * *
In the mid-1990s, computer game technology was changing very quickly.
The long post-production process for The Last Express was so extensive and complicated, it took even longer than Mechner and his team ever imagined.
During the many months of post-production, computer game technology rapidly changed and eveolved. Ironically, by the time The Last Express was finally packaged and shipped as a CD-ROM, in 1997, it was already old-fashioned and out of date. No one ever actually purchased a copy of The Last Express.
As one online reviewer put it, “…videogames age faster than dogs. I think only the fashion industry devours itself on a more regular basis.”
Having taken several years to get the product to market, they’d completely missed the boat – or the train, as it were. The product was a flop – dead on arrival. By the time Broderbund’s The Last Express CD-ROM was finally available in stores and available for digital download off the Internet, it was as out of date and antiquated as Pong.
Although it was clearly a commercial failure, The Last Express received some critical acclaim. Some have called it the greatest adventure game of all time.
One online reviewer calls The Last Express, “A genuine classic, much overlooked.” Others report that the game, “is hard. Very hard” to play.
On subsequent job interviews, I always mentioned my involvement as a key player in the historical The Last Express project. Every time, I was met with blank stares. You could hear crickets. No one had ever heard of The Last Express.
To this day, I’ve never met anyone who ever played The Last Express computer game. It is now so obscure, it’s not even available on Amazon.com. You’ll find an ample supply of used copies for sale on eBay.com.
So, not unlike the international Coca-Cola commercial I produced for Michael Ovitz’s Creative Artists Agency, the previous year, The Last Express didn’t lead to any other work for me. In fact, the months I had spent working on the project, which had left me unavailable for my regular freelance clients, cost me dearly. For each of my clients, when I told them I was unavailable, had instead hired one of my former assistants – all of whom were younger, smarter, and better trained than me – so much so that those employers never needed my services again.
It was a grim time for me, dialing for dollars, calling everybody in town to no avail. I sat at home, waiting for someone to return my phone call.
In Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, one character asks, “How did you go bankrupt?”.
“Two ways,” his friend replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
As a producer, I pursued working relationships with several different commercial directors, but never found a good fit with any of them. Soon, it was apparent, even to me, that I could no longer make a living as a producer in the San Francisco Bay Area motion picture industry.
When you lose, try not to lose the lesson.
* * *
A script supervisor whom I had frequently hired on TV commercials, had been thoughtful enough to give my name to a headhunter who was working for a large software company in the Silicon Valley. At that time in history, computer memory had evolved to the point where you could watch the most rudimentary moving pictures on your monitor. Tiny faces on computer screens were just starting to talk.
The Intuit Corporation in Mountain View, California, makers of the then popular Quicken and Quickbooks packaged accounting software, were looking to hire a creative director with a motion picture background. Apparently, I was a candidate. They believed they needed a “film” guy on their team. Rapidly running out of funds and with no film job offers to speak of, I ultimately accepted their offer.
However, I knew it was a bad job before I took it.
Years of working as a freelancer had given me empathic powers – almost a sixth sense about the true nature of prospective employers. Like a skilled detective, I could discern a great deal from just a few small clues.
The department head from the Intuit corporation was a wacky woman who never returned my calls during business hours. She was forever over-scheduled, managing her time so poorly that she always returned my calls after ten o’clock at night, which, in the motion picture industry, was only permissible under emergency circumstances.
For me, this was an enormous red flag – she clearly had no boundaries of any kind. Fearful about the prospects of bankruptcy and against my better judgement, I accepted the job as the Creative Director of the Intuit Corporation.
I soon found myself working in a cubicle in a windowless corporate building with a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears college graduates who had no actual work experience making or marketing anything. This was a heartbreaker for me, as I suddenly found myself without peers.
I managed to hold that lonesome and flavorless job for almost two years before management informed me that my services were no longer required.
* * *
It had been years since anyone had offered me freelance employment on a film crew. I tried my best to move on.
One day, out of the blue, I got a call from a producer who worked for a commercial director named Kevin Smith. Smith had come to San Francisco to shoot a commercial a decade before and I had had the pleasure of working for his as his production coordinator. Remarkably, he was coming back to shoot another job in San Francisco and had asked to have me on the job as his first assistant director. I was gob smacked, but in a good way. The location was at Candlestick Park and starred the American sportscaster and former football player Ahmad Rashad.
It looked like the professional second chance, which I had long awaited, was finally occurring.
I hadn’t worked on a film crew in years. It was a sunny day, and we were shooting outdoors in this gigantic empty stadium. I found myself reunited with a bunch of bay area freelance crew members who were old friends and comrades. It was a very rich experience.
At the end of the first shoot day, the producer had me fill out the usual employment forms for the payroll company. I was not yet a member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), As I had been doing on union jobs, such as this one for more than a decade, I wrote “production consultant” instead of the words “first assistant director,” on my timecard. This was standard procedure to avoid any trouble with the DGA.
I hadn’t realized how much I missed the men and women on the film crew. It was so great to see my old friends, and to be working with them again. I drove home, with a smile on my face.
After dinner that evening, the phone rang. It was Kevin Smith’s producer. He told me that I didn’t need to come back the following day and that he was hiring a local DGA first assistant director named Annie Spiegelman, to replace me on the set. I was crestfallen.
In the years I had been out of the film industry, things had gone digital. Now, the online DGA membership database was connected to the database used by the payroll company. When the producer submitted my employment documents, the computer instantly flagged me as a non-union first assistant director, and I was off the job. This had never happened before.
The jig was up. Although, the production company paid me for my one day on the set, it was my very last day working in the film industry.
* * *
The Canadian singer and songwriter Garnet Rogers tells a story about his friend and occasional performing partner, the legendary eighty-one-year-old Scottish singer Archie Fisher:
“I was on stage with Archie Fisher a few years ago, and he said, ‘You play a club twice in your career, usually. Once on the way up, and once on the way down.’
“Archie paused and smiled at the audience and said, ‘Nice to see you again.’”