I always love working on Firewatch, but I was nervous because this is the third full trailer I've made for it! If by the end of the second one (plus the mini-trailers) I thought to myself: "I found the best parts of the game" what was left for this one?
For the Nintendo Switch version, Jake really wanted a live-action component showing people playing the game in the woods. The direction he gave me was something along the lines of:
"It should feel like a nice chill time playing a chill game, not all AAAAA WE'RE IN DANGER AND GONNA DIE!"
With this in mind I sifted through dialogue for fun and playful moments between Henry and Delilah, and just a hint of the story of why Henry took a job as a lookout in the woods. I used the same intro dialogue as in the previous trailer, but I thought it was still important to re-introduce the characters to the new audience, and the live-action footage adds novelty to it, so I didn't worry too much about treading old ground.
I didn't want the dialogue flat out saying something like: "How'd you decide to get this job being a fire lookout?" because it sounded like a very dry way to do it. Instead, I selected dialogue to show a bit of Henry's job next to good character moments. This is how I arrived on the banter about the fire Henry put out, and also Henry playing Captain Obvious pointing out his tower’s visibility from far away.
The next bits about missing hikers is there to hint at the danger of the job without completely breaking the tone with something bleak. After this there's some heavy with Henry talking about his relationship. In order to moderate the tone, and avoid Henry spelling it out, I recut the dialogue to make it sound like he's being cagey. In the original game he says: "We didn't break up, we didn't choose to break up, she got sick." I added some pauses to the line to make it sound like Henry is having difficulty getting his words out, and removed the line about getting sick. I think it effectively got its point across in less time, and with fewer spoilers!
The ending with the clipboard is just one final tease of the greater mystery of the game to put in a little intrigue so the audience wouldn't think it's just a game about people talking (though with the game's dialogue and performances, that doesn't sound bad to me at all :P)
The gameplay portion came together pretty quickly, but the live-action went through many iterations before the shoot. I ended up knowing the PERFECT people to do it; my friend Robby has a YouTube show called Adventure Archives he produces with his cousins Andrew, Bryan, his friend Thomas, and sometimes guest friends. On the show they backpack and camp in places all over the United States, and even some countries like Japan and Germany.
I used footage from their episodes as b-roll for my rough drafts. I initially wanted to make a bigger story of the live-action portion. Like it was two stories getting intercut. One is about Henry getting away from it all, and meanwhile there's a person in real life doing the same. After seeing that version, Jake said he'd prefer the live-action characters act more like ciphers for the audience.
It's not often I have to give creative direction to other people, and putting so much trust into someone for a thing that can really only be done once. Live-action production is complicated and expensive! But from years of watching Adventure Archives and Robby's daily vlogs, I knew they could pull it off.
We wanted to avoid the need to composite gameplay onto the Nintendo Switch screen, so the plan was for me to capture the gameplay which the crew could then "play" on the Switch during the shoot. I did my best to pick simple shots so the actors wouldn't have to worry too much about pantomiming the controls. When I finished capturing the clips, I added a countdown to each of them, uploaded them to Campo Santo, and they loaded them onto a special Switch which was able to play the video files.
During the rough cut phase I kept a detailed shot list with notes about whether or not gameplay was included, and how much creative freedom Robby had for composition etc. We of course really wanted a fire lookout tower that looked as close to the one from the game as possible, so Robby looked around to find one he could film. He ended up at Thorny Mountain Tower in West Virginia just a 6 hour drive from where he was, but since he couldn't get permission to film inside of it, he found another location at Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory another 2 hour drive away. Since the camp fire at the end of the trailer wasn't tied to any particular location, they filmed in the woods near their home.
The live-action shoot was over the weekend of October the 13th. Andrew and his friend Marisa starred in it as the hikers. Robby shot every single shot at least twice with each of them so I'd have options in editing. I ended up picking shots with the most interesting background action where the game was also clearly visible on the Switch.
After I received the footage, broke it down and cut it into the trailer I did a sound design and mix pass before sending it off for review. The plan was to finalize the live-action portions, then send them to Olly Moss (Firewatch's art director) to color grade to match the look of Firewatch as closely as possible.
After some review, we realized the live-action portions in the middle of the trailer didn't feel like they were working. For one, the shots were simply the hands holding the Switch in different areas, but with the hiker standing still. I blame myself for not directing them to walk during these shots or something more active, but I think the trailer is better off having less live-action footage..
The lookout tower shot I used was over a clear blue sky, but it didn't look Firewatch-y enough, so Olly composited clouds shaped to his liking into the shot. Fortunately, the footage was shot in 4K, which gave more resolution to work with. In After Effects I added in some subtle camera shake so the shots didn't look too static.
This was one of the most complicated trailer jobs I've done so far, but I think we succeeded in making a cool and unique thing suitable to the platform. A big thanks to Jake Rodkin, Cabel Sasser, Sophie Mackey, Olly Moss, and my friends at Adventure Archives!