Between 2012 and 2016 I worked on trailers for a multitude of games I consider to be career highlights, but two in particular stand out to me. The projects were the cutscenes and trailers for the game BattleBlock Theater, and trailers for the game Firewatch. To this day they're two of the most visible projects I've worked on, and I often encounter people excited to meet or work with me because of them. They're extra special to me because each opportunity stemmed from me spending time on goofy side projects that got the attention of the right people, and then being ready to say yes when I received the job offer. I wanted to write this post as a celebration of the side projects we do out of the joy they give us, and how sometimes they can lead to our most interesting opportunities!
In 2012 a friend of mine got a job working for The Behemoth who was working on their third game BattleBlock Theater. I'd been a huge fan of their games, and being in any way connected to them was already a surreal experience.
That Summer they launched a Kickstarter campaign for a vinyl figure of the Necromancer from their game Castle Crashers. When they heard I was an editor, they asked if I could shoot, and edit the campaign video for them.
The Behemoth's games are known for their sense of humor, and while shooting take after take for the video, it became crystal clear where it all comes from. Often they could contain their laughter or off the cuff remarks as they struggled to get through the script.
I ended up incorporating several outtakes in the final video, but also was left with a treasure trove of goofy off-script improv that was too funny to ignore. So I made an alternate cut exclusively for The Behemoth's eyes with some crudely animated segments I made in After Effects using simple animations, Motion Sketch, and some particle effects.
I spent a couple days on the video because even though I knew only a handful of people would ever see it, couldn't help but try to make it as funny as possible. They loved it, and had a good laugh. More importantly something in my crudely animated video caught the eye of Dan Paladin (The Behemoth's co-founder, art director and animator).
I'm not going to post the video, but its style was very much in the vein of this:
For BattleBlock Theater, Dan was animating the story cutscenes by hand in Flash. The cutscenes are in the style of a stick figure puppet theater which is quite laborious to do via keyframe animation. What he saw in my video is that doing stick figure puppets in After Effects would be dirt simple via Motion Sketch. The game had already been in development for a few years, and with only two artists, it was still a monumental task to finish the art for the game, nevermind animating 8 cutscenes of up to a few minutes in length each. So he asked me if he thought I could take on the job of animating all the cutscenes for the game.
Dan's original hand animated version of the opening cinematic (the script also changed quite a bit)
I said I'd think about it, and then investigated physics plugins for After Effects. This is when I stumbled upon the relatively new plugin Newton. I did a very crude test of a puppet with floppy limbs, and some figures in a boat. It was very rudimentary, but Dan liked the look of it.
So when he asked me again if I could do it. I said YES!
It was by far some of the most fun I've ever had on a project! It took several months of work, and a lot of problem solving for looks I didn't know how to create in After Effects. I learned a TON along the way, and if I ever even think about the first After Effects project I made for the game I cringe at how horribly set up it is. I'm always reticent to take too much credit for the cutscenes since so much is owed to Dan for the art and WillStamper for the audio and voiceover, but I'm tremendously proud of what I did.
To think this all came about from a silly video I did just to entertain myself, and some friends.
Of course you can wave your hands, and say that I only got that opportunity because I was friends with someone who worked at the company. That is partially true, but had I not made the silly video, the idea of me being hired for the gig would've never come up.
Some opportunities are out of sheer luck, a lot of them are because of friends, some we make on our own, most are a combination of the three. What's ultimately important is being ready when they come up.
In 2014 Campo Santo announced their first game Firewatch. There was a lot of industry attention on this game because of the talented people who formed the company. A few of them, Jake Rodkin, Sean Vanaman and Chris Remo were also part of the Idle Thumbs podcast which I've been an avid listener of for several years. So it would be an understatement to say that I was very much looking forward to this game.
After seeing the first footage from the game I knew that I wanted to make a fan trailer when it came out. It has a beautiful art style, and a story told via interactive dialogue between the main characters. Little did I know that a year prior to the announcement I had already planted the seeds that would get me the gig of working on the Firewatch E3 trailer.
Around Fall 2013, Valve introduced their Steam controller, but leading up to its announcement they released a teaser website with some cryptic iconography on it. There was a lot speculation surrounding the website, and on the Idle Thumbs podcast they put forward their incredibly silly theories. After hearing their discussion I couldn't help but animate it in After Effects the same week the podcast came out, and then I put it up on YouTube that weekend.
I had a lot of fun making it, and the Idle Thumbs guys even put it on their blog, and retweeted it!
Later that year, Google purchased the robotics company Boston Dynamics which birthed another ridiculous Idle Thumbs discussion about how this was going to lead to humans being taken over by robots. It was a much longer conversation, but it had me laughing so much envisioning it, I once again couldn't help but animate it in After Effects. This one was nearly 7 minutes long, required some thumbnail storyboarding, and about a week of work.
They also featured this video on the Idle Thumbs blog!
At this point I still had no direct contact with anyone on the podcast save for some Twitter comments and retweets, but it still never occurred to me to ask them if they were looking for a trailer editor. The following year Campo Santo was at PAX East 2014 to show Firewatch to the public, and also have a separate Idle Thumbs panel.
I eagerly attended the Firewatch panel, and got very excited for the game. Later I met Jake and Sean on the PAX show floor, talked to them a little bit, and gave them a business card. Even then I still didn't think that they'd actually hire me for the job, but I allowed myself to imagine the possibility that they would.
At Double Fine's PAX party I met the rest of the Campo Santo team, and found out their graphics programmer Paolo Surrichio was a HUGE fan of my trailer for the Steam version of BattleBlock Theater! When I get compliments for that trailer I'm usually quick to give credit to Stamper who took my basic premise and bullet points, and sent me liquid gold in audio form. Again, it didn't occur to me then that this might've helped me get the Firewatch trailer job, but in retrospect it might've at least kept my name on the radar.
Skipping to the good part, six weeks before E3 2015 I got a DM on Twitter from Sean asking if I was available to make a trailer that would debut at the Sony Press Conference. They were too busy working on the game to devote time to the trailer. I was positively dumbfounded, and gave an emphatic YES!
For this blog post I asked Sean to confirm the story of how they decided to hire me.
We decided to hire you because your Idle Thumbs fan videos actually communicated two things to us: one, that you were a very competent editor and two, that you shared our bullshit sensibilities in terms of humor and entertainment. That was a good mix. PLUS when we learned that you were doing the job for an agency, and therefore had been in a professional environment, we felt pretty confident that you'd deliver. All of those things together made it a no-brainer.
ALSO, personally, we realized it was so so so much better to get someone else to cut our trailers instead ourselves, despite Jake and I being really competent with editing suites and making professional-looking video content. By having someone new cut your stuff you find out what's good about it from his or her perspective, instead of your own, which, thanks to years of development, has become pretty myopic.
You can read my post about making that trailer on the Campo Santo Blog. After that trailer I also made the Launch Mini-trailers and Accolades Trailer that announced the Xbox One version and Audio Tour mode. Just for fun I also made a Cinematic Playthrough of the game so that my mom could see what I'd been working on.
After I delivered the final version of the Firewatch E3 trailer I had one more thing for them. After the PAX Firewatch panel there was an Idle Thumbs panel where a reader mentioned he thought Firewatch looked like Gone Home, but in a forest. They had a laugh about it, but I thought to myself: "What if Campo Santo and Fullbright were petty, bitter rivals? What kind of trailer would come from that perspective?" (To be clear, the people at both companies are very good friends)
The result was another incredibly goofy video I spent no more than a day working on. Long story short, everyone at Campo Santo loved it, and sent it to Steve Gaynor, co-founder of Fullbright. Later via this connection I got to work on the launch trailer for the console release of Gone Home, which was another dream gig!
Side projects can be a wonderful thing, but it is also still important to have work experience. That is what can separate you from even the most talented editors posting on YouTube. If you're at the beginning of your career, it's important to find work at a post house so that you have the discipline required to work with others, and hit deadlines. If you can't finish a job in a timely manner then it doesn't matter how talented you are.
Multiple times I've had people mention that they were impressed with my side project work, but knowing I had worked at actual production companies is what gave them the confidence to hire me for the job.
In retrospect, what I realize is that side projects can show how passionate a person is about their work. When I think of my friends' side projects, it shows me they don't work just for the money, and that makes me more interested to work with them.
So if you have side projects you want to work on, then do it! Don't necessarily think about job opportunities they'll create while doing it, because that might take the joy out of it. Do what you find enjoyable, and you never know where it might lead!