<i>Titanic</i> producer on the collision of games, movies

James Cameron collaborator Jon Landau discusses the appeal of massively multiplayer online games and how they will enhance, support, and stand apart from the future of film.


AUSTIN, TX--Jon Landau is a Hollywood producer who has helped create big-screen blockbusters like Titanic, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and Dick Tracy. He has never made a game before, but he delivered a keynote address at the Austin Game Conference this week. Understanding the confusion that might cause, Landau explained his presence up front at the beginning of his presentation.

"Fox Interactive asked me to come here and announce Titanic: The MMO," Landau deadpanned to a chuckling crowd.

The real reason Landau appeared at the conference was because of his interest--both personal and financial--in massively multiplayer online games. In February, he and frequent collaborator James Cameron (who directed Titanic and is working with Landau on the upcoming films Avatar and The Dive) signed up to be on the advisory board for Multiverse, a MMO game network. And while a game based on Avatar is technically still in the realm of rumor, Landau did refer to himself during his keynote as "a filmmaker who's involved in creating IP that games are based on."

The intersection of games and film might be something of an inevitability, as Landau said technology from the former medium is rapidly making its way into the latter. He described a new production paradigm that creates a virtual movie set, letting a director like Cameron film an actor and see whatever special effects and digital backdrops he wants to insert in real time. So instead of having to imagine what a shot will look like after all the special effects are added, Cameron would be able to see a much more fleshed out take of the shot as he filmed, complete with digital stand-ins for actors (like Andy Cerkis' Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and computer-generated environments.

"Combining existing technologies allows us to do all of this," Landau said. "We're not creating anything new. We're just putting things together that exist in a way that hasn't been done before."

One benefit of the new methodology is that it will create a smooth pipeline for assets to be shared between filmmakers and the developers who make games based on their movies. From skeletal animations to the rough 3D models that directors will see in the virtual camera, Landau said the assets could easily be converted for use in games.

In comparing notes with fellow Multiverse advisor Mike Sellers (a designer whose past credits include The Sims 2, Ultima Online 2.0, and Meridian Online), Landau said the pair found a common theme in the success of games and films. That theme was themes. Specifically, themes that stick with the player after they're done with the game or movie--themes bigger than the game or movie itself.

"It turns out films and MMOs are not that different," Landau said. "That shouldn't be too surprising, though. After all, what we do as filmmakers is create virtual worlds...Both our industries build experiences that have the same goals."

Audiences have changed from a decade ago," Landau said. "Today they seek richer entertainment experiences. They still want great movies, but if you have the right IP, with engaging characters and environments, the public wants to experience it in greater depth and breadth than films can actually provide. And we as filmmakers have to respond to that. You have raised the bar for us. Games and MMOs in particular are providing such a sustaining experience that challenges us to make the theatrical experience better."

Landau was excited to see how the games based on the right IPs would fill out the worlds glimpsed on film.

"We're way beyond the notion of game-as-brand-extending afterthought," Landau said. "Let the virtual world--the vibrant, living world that people inhabit--let that influence the movie. Let it feed back into the process and provide unparalleled riches and depth to what we're doing."

However, it isn't necessary for a good MMO game to be based on a license, Landau said. He ended his presentation by stating his emphatic belief that the unlicensed, independent MMO game production scene is small today but sure to grow as technology breaks down the barriers to entry.

"The indies won't replace the Jim Camerons, or the [World of Warcraft lead designer] Rob Pardos," Landau told the audience. "But they will become the next generation of Camerons and Pardos...and here you are now, and I applaud you for being at the frontier of all of this."

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