This summer will see a pair of very different video game interpretations. There’s the 20th Century Fox action flick, Hitman: Agent 47, which opens Aug. 21, and there’s Sony Pictures’ comedy, Pixels, which bows July 24. Director Chris Columbus, who’s helmed a string of big budget Hollywood comedies featuring the latest visual effects, takes on video games in Pixels. The film, which focuses on an alien invasion in the form of life-sized 1980s video game characters, assembles a cast of former arcade champions to save the world for real. Columbus talks about entering the video game space in this exclusive interview.
What attracted you to Pixels?
Reading the Pixels script felt so original, so unique, that I just had to do it. I loved the blend of comedy mixed with action, which gave me an opportunity to do something I hadn’t been able to do since Harry Potter. It enabled me to push the comedy as far as we could, but also create this very intense action adventure film. For me, itâ€™s Gremlins meets Goonies meets Harry Potter â€“ it gave me the opportunity to create something really fresh using the tools I had gathered over the years. It would be an original summer movie that took you back to the 80s in an evocative, nostalgic way.
What was it like working with Professor Iwatani?
Well, the guy in the trailer, interestingly enough, is an actor playing Professor Iwatani. However, Professor Iwatani came to the set on several occasions and he has a cameo at the beginning of the film. Getting to know him a little bit, I found out he initially started his career as an arcade game repair man. So his cameo in the movie is him repairing a Pac-Man game.
How did you go about choosing which arcade games to focus on and what characters to bring into Pixels?
When I read the script it had bounced back and forth between a few writers, and I had read a draft by Timothy Dowling which was really very good, and kind of close to what we ended up shooting. From my recollection, Centipede and Pac-Man were already in the script. There was a completely different finale at the end of the movie, and it just didn’t feel as unique as what preceded it. So we were told Donkey Kong will never be in this movie, and eventually we persuaded Nintendo with really beautifully illustrated artwork and story boards and pre-animated sequences. Nintendo was very impressed by what we were doing, so that’s how we ended up getting permission for that one. And then there were other moments that we wanted to get into the film, as well as other games.
Some of those classic games have a pretty high learning curve. They weren’t the easiest games to play.
Oh, no, not at all. In fact, I realize that now. Donkey Kong was a little easier than Galaga, which was a pretty tough game. I know them fairly well when you’re doing the movie version of them, the gaming companies were very explicit in terms of telling us that we needed to stick to the traditional gameplay. So no matter how we were portraying these characters, it had to be based on the actual gameplay. We were able to have some artistic license here, particularly in the design of the characters, but I had to know the games pretty well to design a sequence.
Bandai Namco is coming out with the Pixels mobile video game. Were you able to work with them on that?
I looked at a few things, but I haven’t had time, to be honest with you. I’ve been completely and utterly — and still am — bombarded with visual effects. When I get off of this conversation I’m going into the editing room to look at some visual effects.
Do you feel there’s further opportunity for Pixels as a video game?
Yeah. It’s funny because I’ve seen my son play those games. I tried to play games like the Madden football game, the FIFA soccer game and the MLB game. I was more drawn to the sports games, but I still couldn’t play. It’s like I don’t want to waste the hours with my son trying to learn how to hit a fake baseball. But in my office we have two arcade games. We have a Donkey Kong and a Pac-Man game in our editing room offices, and they’re they old-fashioned arcade games. Pac-Man is very impressive. It’s signed by Professor Iwatani, but I find myself walking over playing it. It’s really mesmerizing and it’s simple and it’s just beautifully done. It’s challenging and it’s a great way to relieve some tension. There are these arcade bars popping up in cities across America. I know there’s a couple here in San Francisco that just opened, where you go in and you have some drinks and you play arcade games. So that speaks to me because that’s how I started getting into these games.
What impact do you feel the broader acceptance of gaming today will have on the audience for Pixels?
Of course, the parents out there are going to remember playing these games at a video arcade, and their kids will be just as amazed by the characters — there are a hundred jokes in the movie that work for parents, and a hundred that work for their kids. But it’s more than that. Theres a lot of nostalgia for these games and about the 80s in particular. I certainly hear it all the time — I talk to college kids and their favorite movie is The Goonies. There’s a lot of love for that era right now.
What was it like working with video game special effects for this film?
Most visual effects movies — including movies I’ve been involved with — set out to create extraordinarily realistic visual effects. Even if you’re creating a dragon or a monster, you try to give it the texture and skin of a real creature. On Pixels, we were aiming for something you’ve never seen before. When these videogame characters come to life, they take on this pixelated form with an aura lit from within, and constantly moving. It’s literally a three-dimensional version of the 8-bit games you used to see on your arcade screen.