The Making of BITS

BITS is a short documentary I finished last month. This is a brief overview of the process behind it’s creation. 

 

I’ll start about a year ago, because I’ve been wanting to make a documentary like BITS for that long. It started when I really got hooked on shooting, about 6 months into owning a 600D and a few months before getting a 5D and some decent lenses. I was shooting a very serious documentary in a news style, as part of a journalism masters degree, and wanted to work on something more fun, and less news-y. (It’s a word).

The idea for a retro gaming documentary came from my own love of classic games. I was a bit of a collector, definitely a hoarder, and had built up a big collection while studying sociology, before the filmmaking began. It was nostalgia for me, happy memories of gaming as a kid helping me ignore some family stuff, like my parents splitting up. I guess they were my escape then, and I still had that association.

That seemed like the beginnings of a story, and I decided to seek out the experiences of people who collect in a more serious way. It took months before I had the time, and by then I’d sold almost all my games to fund a 5D and proper audio gear.

I started pre-production by going to the Boards.ie arcade and retro forum, a great community, and sought volunteers. I got 3. Then I asked a couple of shops to take part, one said yes – the owner is a collector himself, but that didn’t make the final cut, for reasons I’ll get to.

Magic Lantern raw shot

Magic Lantern raw shot

Next step was to think about style. From the outset I wanted a stylised look, something that reflected the content, video games, but not in a really obvious way. I didn’t want to try pixellating the interviewees, for example. I decided on an oversaturated look, which pushed strong colours.

With that look a heavy grade would be needed to give that specific look, so I decided to shoot in the cinestyle picture profile to give plenty of latitude in post for tweaking colour.

Visually I wanted a slick, stylish look. No handheld. This, for me, reflects the collector’s attention to detail and consideration for their hobby. It’s not immediate, not action-packed, it’s slow and considered, collecting takes time, and the shots should have an element of that. Visual references were stuff like Philip Bloom’s shorts – Portrait of a Projectionist comes to mind.

Movement was still important, simply because constant static shots of shelves full of games would bore anyone, even the most dedicated collector. Slow pans and tilts retained that sense of consideration, with smooth shots, but added some dynamic motion to add interest to shots.

Shots of the interviewees playing their games were really important, it established a relationship between them and the objects being discussed, added a human element to b-roll and allows the viewer to see how playing games affects them, how engrossed they become in them.

Likes his games

Likes his games

Finally the interview itself was to be different from previous work in a few important aspects. First, I wanted to get three different shots, wide (very wide), medium and close, instead of just head and shoulders. This allows the viewer to start off distant from the interviewee, and slowly be drawn closer, into a more intimate perspective.

The wide shot also allowed the interviewee to start off almost engulfed by their hobby, with games almost collapsing in on Ben (Jack Burton), shot on a 14mm lens. The intention here being to show the scope of the collection, and its importance in the person’s life, as well as the way they are a part of it as much as it is a part of them.

Super wide

Super wide

Another key decision was to have interviewees speak to the camera, not to me. This adds a level of intimacy, allowing the viewer to directly engage with the interviewee’s passion, removing the layer of ‘expertise’ that an off-camera shot creates. They aren’t experts, even on their hobby, just people talking about something they love. Why put a barrier between the audience and that story?

With those decisions made, I went to the interviewees and shot them at home with their games. They were all tremendously accommodating, even when I had to re-arrange. Going to people at home was a new experience, but a great one. It really helps to interview people in a comfortable location, and nothing is more comfortable than your front room, except maybe your bed. No one was interviewed in bed. I once had a job interview in bed, but I digress.

This also allowed me to actually sit down for a chat. Not a ‘ruthlessly get to know them to get a better interview chat’, just a chat, and a cup of tea. It’s a nice luxury of documentary making that you can meet new people and share stories.

The interview questions were written to go from wide questions, matching an opening wide shot, about their collection, then getting closer when the interview shifted to be about them, and finally the close up when they addressed personal criticism and difficulties created by collecting.

Retr0gamer reads Retro Gamer

Retr0gamer reads Retro Gamer

The questions were asked this way to allow the interviewees to relax, before asking potentially difficult questions such as ‘Have you been criticised for your hobby?’ It can be tough to ask questions like that, so it helps to phrase them well, allowing the interviewee to consider their answer and not become defensive. The questions were written well in advance to make sure they flowed well and touched all important points.

While interviewing, I stopped twice to reframe/change lens – so I could get the shots I wanted. This was a bit unnatural, but my interviewees were great, and rolled with it, they didn’t get too bothered by my insistence on their talking directly into a camera lens either, which was great, because that can go very wrong.

The only thing I didn’t get, which may have made the film stronger, was a tour of a collection. It would have been interesting to have an interviewee go through their games, point out favourites or games that have a lot of meaning to them, but it would have been handheld, and jarring in the overall style of the doc.

The interview that wasn’t used was shot in a dimly-lit shop/stall in an indoor market. The shop was tiny, there was no room for my own lights. It looked… a bit rubbish, so it was cut. Sorry Crazy Douglas.

There was a major mistake, there’s a light reflected in the mirror in Stephen’s (Retr0gamer) house. It’s in the medium shot, and it drives me a bit mad to look at it. Didn’t notice until I was changing to the close up.

Light in the red circle

Light in the red circle

The edit started with the same story structure the questions followed, so it was fairly straightforward, just cutting out what I wanted from each interviewee’s responses.

Sound was an issue on one interview, which clipped a lot at the start. I cleaned it up as best I could in Audition, and cut anything unusable. The memory card also filled up mid-answer, so a really good soundbite was lost, but ultimately my attitude is, only I’ll ever miss it, the audience doesn’t know!

Audio was recorded directly to the camera through a Juicedlink RA222, from either a Rode NTG-3 (Boomed by Laura Emily Downes, who was a general production assistant) or a Sennheiser wireless mic.

Fixing the problems, then creating chapters made the doc about 15 minutes long. Too long. I cut down to the 8 minutes it remained at, and moved some content to the start to create a tease for the intro, that explains little and hopefully piques the viewer’s curiosity.

Intro Splitscreen

Intro Splitscreen

I had intended to use game footage twinned with interviewees talking about a favourite game as the intro, but it was dull for non-gamers (thanks Rhona Tarrant) and there are legal issues with using footage from games – though youtube is bursting with gaming commentaries and the like, so I’m not sure there was any risk.

The intro that was used is stronger, regardless.

The edit has few pauses, intentionally, so the narrative moves quickly (although it flags somewhat after the midpoint. The fast paced cuts between interviewees allowed the shots to (mostly) be slow and considered without losing pace, though some static shots needed more time on screen – one in particular shows two monitors on a desk. The detail is a tin of baby milk powder and a family photo, but it zips by before you’ll see that, and the shot is there for the detail. A silly mistake.

Detail in red circles

Detail in red circles

Colour grading was done in magic bullet, and the intended oversaturated style was a poor fit for the final content, it was too cartoonish. I pulled it back, letting Stephen’s (Retr0gamer) interview be the most stylised, as I felt it matched him as a character, but still rooted in the traditional teal/orange colouration of movies.

To give each interviewee a distinct feel, different colouration was used in each house. More red and purple tones were pushed into Rob’s (Dr Bob) and blues and yellows were pushed in Ben’s – matching their collection’s colouration – Rob’s consoles and games often had red trim, while Ben’s Mega Drive collection was uniformly yellow and blue.

Those Mega Drive games are deep in the background

Those Mega Drive games are deep in the background

The grade used two instances of colorista, some vignetting on Stephen, as well as some spot exposure correction, curves and a telecine look, to soften everything and add to the ‘retro’ feel. A much stronger version of the telecine was originally in place, but it made the footage a bit too soft.

The shots of the group playing N64 were done in my own house, with friends who helped out at the last minute. I felt I needed to show the social side of things, which was mentioned a lot, and I took the opportunity to try using magic lantern raw video too, which gives those shots a far nicer grain pattern and makes them a tiny bit sharper. It’s barely noticeable, truth be told.

Finally the opening title is a play on Mega Man 2’s opening title, including ‘licensed by Nintendo’. The font was, predictably, pixellated, and a damaged-look effect added to all text titles to make them look more like NES graphics. The credits were designed around Ben’s thumbs up, and to add a cheesy, retro 80s feel. The final screen (continue/quit) is a personal favourite, and a very simple graphic to achieve.

Cheesetastic

Cheesetastic

Music was found simply by searching google for creative commons chiptunes – Incidentally, chiptunes are the worst music to try use as a bed, but I wanted music and the 8-bit style just fit too well. They’re by Eric Skiff. Some sound effects came from a public domain licensed pack – you’ll hear one at the ‘press start’ title screen cutting off the music, and one that sounds like dying pac-man at the end of the credits.

I’m sure I’ve left plenty out, but that’s most of how BITS was made.

And yes, I did forget Channel 4 had a show called BITS in the 90s until I had the whole thing made and online. Well spotted.

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