Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky on ‘Indie Game: The Movie’

The directors of a documentary about the making of Super Meat Boy and Fez discuss the real-life stories behind the games.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Indie Game: The Movie tells the story of three individual video game designers. The film is there for the trials and tribulations as Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes create and release Super Meat Boy. There’s Jonathan Blow and his successful game Braid. And Phil Fish did not complete Fez by the end of the film, though it was released on April 13, 2012. All the games look fun but they’re nothing compared to the frustration Fish feels as he struggles in development, or the Xbox mix-up that nearly costs Super Meat Boy its entire income. Indie Game is the first film by directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky. Having played Sundance, SXSW and Hot Docs this year, it will be in theaters May 18, with digital following in June and DVD in July. We talked with Pajot and Swirsky about the human drama they captured within techie circles, and some specifically dramatic moments in the film (so SPOILER alert).


CraveOnline: How did you guys get together and make your first movie?

Lisanne Pajot: We’ve done docs and shorter things before this. James and I have been working together for four or five years now.

James Swirsky: And we’ve kind of both been working doing video and film for about 10 years. I had a commercial/corporate company for the past 10 years and we’re always doing that. We joined together about five years go.

Lisanne Pajot: Prior to that I worked at CBC Television which is the national broadcaster in Canada. My background was more in journalism and lifestyle television, that sort of thing.

James Swirsky: Through doing some commercial work, we ended up doing a small documentary on a Winnipeg game designer, Alec Holowka. He was actually a really big deal. He won the biggest prize you could possibly win in independent gaming in 2007. We thought it was going to be like a little glossy puff piece about just a guy who made a game. It really ended up being much more, or at least the story ended up being much more. We still had to make a five minute glossy piece on him but we found this story that had this guy where he was making this game and the more and more he worked on this game, the more personal it became. He poured absolutely everything into it, it started off as one thing and then through the process ended up being this completely other thing that was a reflection and extension of himself. It was just this whole idea of video games being personal, video games being an extension or telling stories through games that were new to us at the time. It’s not really a new idea. People have been doing it for a long time but it we went down to the Game Developer’s Conference and we kept on getting directed to the Independent Games Summit. We kept hearing more and more stories just like Alec’s. We thought if we can get that on film, that would be extremely compelling and that would be the perfect first big project for us to do. It just felt right at the time.


What was Alec’s game?

Lisanne Pajot: Alec Holowka, he made a game called Aquaria.


How did you find your subjects for the feature?

Lisanne Pajot: Through Alec actually. Through him we started talking to people and doing more research. We actually filmed with probably around 20 developers initially, interviewing them and meeting people at game jams and just collecting lots of stuff. As we were doing that, we spent more and more time with the creators of Super Meat Boy and Fez. They were working towards goals and it sort of felt like their stories chose us. We were organically presented to them during the beginning part of their journey. We just kept following it as we went and they became more of a bigger section of the film. Initially we thought the film would include a lot more game designers but when we got to the edit, we realized that the story was more about Super Meat Boy and Fez. We wanted to have a narrative, a look at someone making and releasing a game and that took more of the film than all these other game designers that we spent time with.


When did it become clear that you had the three opposing narratives, Super Meat Boy a struggling game, Fez in development hell and also Braid was already successful?

Lisanne Pajot: What we wanted these three stories to represent is making a game, releasing a game and what happens after. It’s sort of the past, present, future kind of narrative we ended up creating between these three stories. We just felt that each of them show a different part of the creative process.


Were you concerned at any point that Phil would come across as unsympathetic, and was he concerned about that?

Lisanne Pajot: No. [Laughs] Phil is cool with the way he comes across in the film. I think all the subjects in the film have an understanding and see the value in sharing this really stressful time in their life. This is the most exciting, life changing moment in their life and it’s incredibly stressful. Things go up and down, emotions go all over the place and even though it’s hard to see yourself vulnerable like that, we know everybody understands that there’s value in showing that and they’re okay with that. I think we tried in a way to just represent what they went through and show all the different things that they go through in the most honest way we could. We hope that people want to root for them and they want to see them succeed, but of course everyone looks at everybody differently. It was a thought a bit but not a focus in a way.

James Swirsky: Yeah, we wanted to make sure we presented as grounded a vision of Phil and Tommy as we can in those moments. Those moments that we filmed with them are kind of very specific times in their lives, when they’re in a certain headspace. They’re not just 100% those people that we see on screen at that time, but we tried to show the motivation as to why they’re making this game because I think once you consider why they’re making this game, when we get to the dramatic parts and the stressful parts, you understand their reaction much more clearly. If it just cut straight to Phil at PAX and Phil in the lobby and all that stuff, it would seem completely unsympathetic. It would just seem like a guy who lashed out for no reason. But once you understand how much they put into this game and how much their childhood and their lives were defined by games, you understand they’ve been working for four or five years, getting up in the morning, sitting at their computer working for 14 hours and then going to bed and doing the same thing the next day. For four years, and once you do that, you become completely defined by the game. When the game becomes threatened, all of a sudden your life is threatened. This thing that defines you is threatened.


Totally. In Phil’s case you see how every comment he gets wants something else from him and you realize whatever you think about his delays, he can’t answer every single person’s issue.

Lisanne Pajot: Yeah, I think that’s part of it and that’s part of the tension that exists right now with creators and the internet. For example the way we’re creating this, a lot of creators are being open with their process to a certain extent. It’s exciting that people online are enthusiastic about projects but it’s also a pressure. I don't think people realize how much work goes into independent work. That’s what we show. Behind the scenes, behind the comments, behind all that it’s one or two people trying to make something. How does that feedback, which is often awesome and fulfilling and jubilant like we see with Super Meat Boy, it can also have that other side that adds stress and pressure on the creator.


What were each of you thinking the day Xbox Live didn’t put Super Meat Boy on the marketplace page?

Lisanne Pajot: Yeah, that was really unexpected. And really unfortunate to see how they worked so hard and this one thing they were working so hard for just didn’t happen, mostly because of an administration error. It was really unfortunate to see someone on what is supposed to be one of the most exciting days of their life releasing their first major game, to have such a major disappointment and confusion over their release. Stuff like this happens to us. As you’re trying to put something together and do something, you’re so passionate about it and so focused, and no one’s as focused on your thing as you are. So there’s always these struggles and disappointments and things that happen along the way and it’s interesting to have that out there and to see. A lot of people in the gaming world now know that Super Meat Boy was a success but you don’t know all the different bumps and hiccups they went through getting there.


But were you thinking “Oh sh*t” or “Wow, this is some drama?”

Lisanne Pajot: Initially we were like, “Oh sh*t, what’s going on?” Because I was alone there and Tommy wasn’t even going to look at the marketplace. He woke up and he didn’t want to look at the leaderboards or anything. [We decided to] just check and see, it’s a great day, just to see what’s on the marketplace and then we’ll check and we’ll see it, we’ll have that moment and then we’ll go out for the rest of the day. But unfortunately things didn’t go that way. Poor guy, it just ruined his whole day because you don’t have enough information to know what’s going on. Interestingly, because of the time zone difference, he checked the marketplace a good five hours before Edmund did. So their realities, the situation was kind of different.


Did you have two cameras going for editing?

James Swirsky: Yeah, we always had two cameras going but we’re actually only a two person team. Lisanne and I did everything on the film, editing, color correcting, graphics. Everything but the music. When we were shooting, it was me on two cameras, the interviews anyway, me on two cameras and then Lisanne would be doing the interviewing.

Lisanne Pajot: Then when we were following action we both shot. In a certain section of the film, when Super Meat Boy is releasing and Edmund is in Santa Cruz and Tommy’s in North California, James was only in California and I was only in North Carolina so we were a one person crew for the last half of the movie.


The way other films show games on screen leaves a little to be desired. How did you approach photographing gaming?

Lisanne Pajot: We use a lot of motion graphics in the film and James created all the motion graphics by hand. He would capture all the gameplay and cut it in Photoshop and make it fluid. What we wanted to do was make it seamless so that you’re going in and out of the games as they’re talking about them but not in a way that is glossy and takes you out of the story. All the gameplay and graphics that we show, we really wanted to serve the story and not just be wallpaper.

James Swirsky: Any time we’re showing the game, we want there to be a point to the specific shot that we’re showing. In putting them together, we tried to make them as exciting and interesting as possible by cutting in, zooming in and all that good stuff. But we always wanted with the graphics to not be too polished, not to be too slick because we wanted it to actually be more reflective of independent games themselves, where they can be incredibly polished and incredibly slick, but they always seem to have a little bit of a soul and a little bit of a handcrafted feel to them. We wanted the graphics to reflect that as much as possible.


So some of the gameplay we see is animation?

James Swirsky: It’s a combination. Some of it’s animation where we took the basic assets, put them together and recreated the game. But a lot of it is the gameplay so it’s just capturing gameplay and playing and playing around with it. So sometimes you take a capture of gameplay, rotoscope some things, but never in a way that’s too obvious, hopefully if we’re doing our job right.


What were the games that got you hooked in your childhood?

Lisanne Pajot: Oh, I played Game Boy like crazy with my brother. We fought over the Game Boy and he has tons of games that he loves.

James Swirsky: Yeah, I was raised on Commodore 64 and I loved all those games. The Castle of Dr. Creep, then after that going to VGA and IBM stuff all the Space Quest stuff. Anything with Quest attached to it.


Oh, those Sierra games taught me how to type!

James Swirsky: Actually, that’s true because the early ones with the command line where you’d have to say “Go to the washing machine. Open the door.” That’s true actually. That’s about when I learned to type because it forces you in order to play it. Then when it went point and click, then I guess my typing probably took a dive. From there you go to Nintendo and then Genesis and all that stuff. I was a Nintendo kid and a Commodore 64 kid for a long, long time but probably by far the Sierra games hold the most special place in my heart.


Lisanne, what Game Boy games were you obsessed with?

Lisanne Pajot: The usual. I’m such a girl, I love Tetris. I know that’s such a girl answer but it’s true. Those type of things, we played any sort of cartridge that we had over and over but it’s funny. After that sort of period I lost games a bit and only in discovering indie games did I feel like I could be part of it again. There’s a whole time when games demanded a certain amount of dexterity and buttons and physical talent to play and I just missed all that, so I just felt that games weren’t for me. In discovering indie games and learning about games like World of Goo and Sword & Sorcery, all these titles where I felt I could be part of it again because I didn’t need to have such fast reflexes to do it.


Or those super in depth stories you had to keep up with.

James Swirsky: In depth stories and it seemed to me like the same story going over and over again. There seems to have been this whole space marine thing that happened for a long, long time. It still exists but I think it’s getting more and more diverse. I kind of went away from gaming for about eight, nine years and it wasn’t until, like Lisanne, finding indie games that kind of reintroduced some of that magic back to gaming.


Or the expansive free roaming games.

James Swirsky: I love the free roaming stuff, I really do. Like playing Grand Theft Auto for the first time kind of blew my mind and it only gets better and better with Red Dead Redemption. Just beautiful crazy experiences are being had in games. I still love free roaming.


As an indie movie, how is your self-distribution model working out?

Lisanne Pajot: We did a tour with Adobe and we sold out probably 13 out of 15 dates which is kind of insane. We did extra shows, showed across Canada through Hot Docs in 37 different theaters last week. We are releasing in New York, LA, Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, Miami and a bunch of other places so we’re moving really quickly to get the film out there because we have this really hungry audience. We couldn’t wait. We just had such a hungry audience that we couldn’t do a traditional model of not releasing the film theatrically until maybe the fall and everything after. It just wouldn’t work for this film just because of the demands so that’s why we’re doing this ourselves. We have some help in certain areas, like some help with representation and broadcast but we’re trying to do as much as we can ourselves to get the film out quickly to the world because we get e-mails every day asking, “Where’s the film?”


Are you able to compensate your costs from the years of making the movie this way?

Lisanne Pajot: We will. We’re getting close. We raised money through Kickstarter and preorders which totaled over $150,000. The tour made a bit of money. Maybe in June we’ll have all the money that we’ve poured in paid off but it’s been an investment of time and energy and money, but I think it’s been worth it. And an amazing education in how films are distributed. We know from the very level of how to get it in a theater rand all the mechanics of that. We know from that to getting it on iTunes. It’s just kind of neat that we’re able to learn all this and fail at some points but get this education that not many people have the opportunity to get.


What surprised you about distribution deals?

Lisanne Pajot: Yeah, we didn’t know how those things worked. We learned about that at Sundance. We found out about how films, generally if they’re released theatrically through big companies, they lose money. That was an education for us. In our case we’re not losing money. We did it in a slightly different way and we’re not putting tons and tons of money into P&A because we’re using social media and the tools we have as two people to do it. So that was a learning experience for us because we’ve never gone to Sundance. We’ve never made a movie, we’ve never distributed a movie before so we learned that. We’re just doing the things that make sense for our audience and really what makes sense for our audience is a lot of people want to see it in theaters, and we did the tour. We’re doing this theatrical based on the success of the tour and really online is where this film is going to live.