The Last Express: Revisiting An Unsung Classic
November 28, 2008 Page 2 of 6
A Film-Like Production Model
The concept for The Last Express is amazingly strong and coherent for what an unusual game it is, and even the development studio's name ties into that vision -- that sounds a lot more like film production than typical game development, where you have the concept, set up the production studio, and build the appropriate team for the project.
MM: That's very much true. I've spent the last eight years working as a film producer, and every time we produce a movie, we start a production company just for that purpose. People always ask, for tax forms, "Are you a board member or executive of any companies?" I think there are maybe nine for me, because of all the film companies.
There's a lot of research that Jordan did in Europe with a friend of his -- Patrick Ladislav, from France -- whom he had met during some time he spent in Paris.
They actually went and found the last two remaining cars in existence from the 1914 Orient Express. Over the course of history, those cars were used in the wars and kind of destroyed there. They were used for firewood. One of them was in a junkyard in Italy. It was a passenger car. It was a little beat up, but they went in and took a lot of video and a lot of pictures -- stuff that was used later by the 3D modeler to recreate the Orient Express.
They could've bought it, but I think shipping charges would've been too much to get it back to the States. And then, also, I think it was in Yugoslavia.
MN: I think one was in Budapest, actually.
MM: One was in Italy, and the Budapest one was the dining car, which had kind of been converted into a dining attraction, or some ridiculous thing.
MN: "Ride the Orient Express! Dine in style!" It was a really big deal.
Jordan had a friend who had been at NYU Film School when I was there. Jordan would come and work on his friend's movies, and we became friends. We had done a little writing together -- the first early Prince of Persia script attempts for a feature film, which never came of anything.
He knew I knew how to do production, so I did a test shoot where I brought a cameraman from LA and we did a test for a day to see if the rotoscope process would work. There are a lot of tools now that didn't exist in 1993 to 1994, but we did that, and then Jordan asked me to do the main shoot, which was an 18-day shoot.
Mark and I bonded over that, because of all the people who were all programmers and technical people working at Smoking Car Productions, Mark who had no film experience prior to that and was very young -- he was 18 years old -- he actually understood from my end what I was trying to do.
Mark functioned as a second [assistant director]. We hired a first AD who knew how to film and move the actors and do the traditional call shoots and everything, but Mark really was there at all times making sure that things would be right. Technically, we probably had a lot fewer problems than we should have had later on with the integration.
Jordan asked me to stay on after that to be the producer on the game. He had never run on budget before. At that point, we didn't know we were going to spend five million dollars, but we did over the next year and a half to two years. And we kept hiring people, and we had to bring on people from various things, because we were reinventing the wheel.
It was a very complicated process. We were, for example, writing our own sound system, something that you don't really do these days. Now you'd be more likely to write to an API. And we had to write a whole system to deal with frames and the comic book style. We did a whole video transfer, where everything we shot in 16 went to a video transfer house to get non-interleaved format frames, and we would take single frames on little cartridges.
This is all probably stuff that you could do over the internet now. We took those and imported them into our own custom system, which had a custom paint system that originally was supposed to be automated, and then we found out that you really couldn't automate it. So we actually trained a number of artists who at that point were basically low paid but eager young artists, one of whom I'm still very close friends with [and] is now a high-end 3D artist working in Hollywood.
There's also no licensed technology. A lot of the things we did in The Last Express you could never do today. It was pre-digital video, so at the time, the only way you could film images was either to literally shoot on film or on some analog format that was way too low-quality to get the resolution that we needed.
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