Chris Roberts explains what went wrong on the Wing Commander film
I recently spoke with Chris Roberts about his upcoming game Star Citizen, but as a fan who grew up playing Wing Commander it was hard not to pick his brain about the classic gaming series. Roberts said he’s most proud of the first and third Wing Commander titles, although he thinks the game was the best in the first title and the narrative was handled well in the third.
In fact, the first Wing Commander game was the only title he’s released where he wouldn’t change a thing. Roberts spent around a year prototyping the game by himself, he brought on a small team for the last six months, and the game he had imagined became the game we played. “We hardly did any balancing on the game. We designed it on paper, all the missions and everything, and it came together the way I saw it in my head,” he said. “It’s amazing, because maybe we tweaked one mission and that’s it. We put it on paper, and then we did it and it worked.”
There was something else I wanted to ask about, but I didn’t want to poke at old wounds. Looking back, what did he learn from the Wing Commander movie? There was a long silence, long enough for me to grow slightly uncomfortable, and then he began to laugh.
A learning experience
I don’t want to attack the man or mock the film, because even though Roberts was inexperienced when it came to Hollywood, he went in there and got that thing made. It takes guts to step up to that kind of task and take your best swing at it, and I have nothing but respect for someone who was able to bring a world to both games and movies, even if the final result wasn’t as good as it could have been. Roberts was candid about the experience, and seemed more than comfortable talking about what went wrong.
“The movie was very frustrating for me. I saw the movie in my head, and the movie that was made was not the movie I saw in my head,” he said. “I learned a lot making the movie, I think if I was making a movie again it would be very different, after the ten years I’ve spent making films.”
Roberts wrote and directed Wing Commander, but his career in the movies didn’t stop there; he’s since worked as a producer on a number of films, including the wonderful Lord of War with Nicolas Cage and Lucky Number Slevin.
So why wasn’t the movie. How do I put this… very good? “There’s a litany of reasons. I was a first time director, and even though I had directed live action in Wing Commander 3 and 4, directing a feature is a different level of subtlety. There are many small things and small moments that you need to pay attention to when you’re doing a film that you don’t need to doing vignettes for a game,” he explained.
“Film is all about the quiet moments, and the visual moments, and as a first time director you’re looking at a script and you see all this dialog, and naturally that’s taking up 80 percent of the page,” he continued. “And you just think you need to shoot that and you’re all good. But it’s the reaction shots, it’s the staring off in the distance, or just the texture of the scene to give you a feeling. You need to think about that, and now when I go back to building Star Citizen, I do think about that.”
He worries about fans who think he doesn’t care about the single player campaign of Star Citizen, because he’s bringing what he’s learned making movies to making the campaign its own game, apart from the multiplayer.
A short pre-production schedule
“You have to prepare correctly,” Roberts told the Penny Arcade Report as he listed what went wrong on the Wing Commander film.
One of the problems with the film was that the deal with Fox happened before the company had closed the deal on the Star Wars prequels. Fox then told Roberts that Wing Commander had to be done to release the Christmas before Star Wars, which gave him only two months of pre-production.
That’s an incredibly tight turnaround for any film, but it was even worse for an effects-driven production. Six months or so would be closer to the standard, and many films are in the planning stages for much longer. With only two months to prepare for shooting, there wasn’t enough time to do things like prototype the design of the Kilrathi. The budget was also an issue, as they were only given $20 million, a small budget for a science fiction film that would rely so much on special effects and action sequences.
“That’s why the Kilrathi sucked and they were basically cut out of the movie,” Roberts said bluntly. “If we had the pre-production we could have prototyped, and had some time and make sure it was done well. These are all things I learned so when I produce movies for other people I can apply what I’ve learned and hopefully help some of the other directors in the way I wish I had been helped out when I made a movie. But it was a learning experience.”
The pressure was also intense. He was already a well-known person in the world of gaming working on a well-known property. He didn’t have much room to learn, or to fail gracefully. “My first game wasn’t Wing Commander,” he said. It took a while before he understood what makes a good game, and then he created Wing Commander. He didn’t have the same luxury with the movie. “There’s a little bit of learning the craft and I went right in there in a visible position.”
So if anyone asks what went wrong with the Wing Commander film, there you go. You had a first-time director dealing with a compressed pre-production schedule, and a smaller than average budget for the effects-driven science fiction movie. Roberts said he wished someone had sat him down, forced him to pick four or five things that it was important to do well, and focus on those. Instead he tried to do too much, and didn’t have the budget nor time to do any of it particularly well.
Still, if someone were to give him a dream budget to make either a Wing Commander game or film, after having created both, he’d much rather go back to the games. With movies the trick is to get the viewer to relate to the main character, where the game allows you to be the main character. The player exists in that world.
“So then the trick is how to draw the rest of the world with such a level of detail that it suspends your disbelief and you’re in this world,” he said. “That’s what our industry is trying to work out, and will work out, and once all is said and done games are going to be the powerful immersive entertainment medium moving forward. We’re just in the beginning of it, and that’s exciting. Who doesn’t want to save the world?”