Q&A: Oddworld's Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna
Abe's cocreators talk creating a game and a movie at the same time; <i>Shrek</i> producer on board for feature film.
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In April 2005, Oddworld Inhabitants closed its internal development studio after a decade's worth of work and four games in its eponymous Oddworld franchise. At the time, company cofounder and president Lorne Lanning said he was moving the operation into "massively multimedia properties," or franchises designed for a wealth of formats--like film and games and television--from their conception.
Now, after a year-plus of silence, Lanning has unveiled the company's first such property. Oddworld will be working together on an animated movie titled Citizen Siege, which is being described as "1984 for the 21st century." Assisting Oddworld in the development of the property will be Vanguard Animation, the studio responsible for last year's Valiant, and headed up by Shrek producer John Williams.
Lanning and fellow Oddworld cofounder as well as CEO Sherry McKenna sat down with GameSpot to discuss the movie and game aspects of the project (which are being worked on simultaneously), as well as what they've been busy doing for the last 18 months.
GameSpot: So, what's been going on? For a while there it seemed as if you'd vanished off the face of the planet...
Lorne Lanning: Yeah, we really haven't been visible for a little over a year. What we chose to do when we started the company 11 years ago was to build properties that would transcend media and really be premiere candidates for the 21st century digital entertainment. And for a while that worked out rather well.
And then the game business also changed a lot, and we see today a more conservative, risk-averse climate... So what we did a year ago was we said, "When we set out we wanted to create these stories as movies and we wanted to create new, fresh properties as well, but as long as we are continuing to run an internal development company then we're very constrained in what we have the ability to do," because in-house game production for a third-party developer is becoming more and more time-consuming.
So we chose to dissolve the interior production element and instead focus on the properties in a larger context.
What we wanted to do in birthing our latest universe was we wanted to sign a film development deal first, and so we've just done that on our latest property, and it's called Citizen Siege.
GS: Tell us something about this latest project, Citizen Siege?
LL: It takes place on near-future Earth, and it's highly relevant to current global social-political circumstances.
We felt that this would be our opportunity to truly design a film and game of a property at the same time. Sort of what everyone's talking about doing, but we still don't really see it happening.
We see one or the other being conceived first and the latter to follow, regardless of which medium started it. And this concept--Citizen Siege--was conceived as game and movie, as a fully fleshed-out game design and a fully fleshed-out story concept for a motion picture at the same time.
GS: Is it going to be a project where you have to do both--play the game and watch the movie--to get the full benefit of the story?
LL: No. Well, having said that, exactly what the marketing tie-ins will be will depend on who the game partners wind up being. The first piece of our strategy was just to secure what we felt was the hardest piece of the puzzle and that was the film deal, [for] which I will be directing the motion picture in 3D CG animation.
GS: Is it going to be anything like the Oddworld series?
It's a more mature-themed sci-fi action thriller. And that gives us an opportunity to break new ground with animated motion pictures where currently we're still largely in a plush toy storyline. This is going to turn up the intensity dial quite a bit.
This was an opportunity that we did not want to miss the timing of because we believe the audiences are now ready for this. Now, the concept, of a 3D animation for film and because the next-generation systems are a lot more powerful, the concept is a very tight marriage between game and movie. Now we can really deliver two triple-A experiences on two different mediums that will hopefully close the gap on what we've always wanted to do and the timing hasn't been right for. Now it is.
GS: Can you tell us anything more about the storyline or the characters?
LL: I can tell you that it's a world gone slightly awry. In this near future, the world is governed by corporatism. And within this world, an expatriate returns home to find himself in a certain state where he has been legally repossessed due to credit rackets run by the corporatism-ruled world.
Sherry McKenna: A lot of CG animated films are about talking animals. We really wanted to show that the medium of computer graphics can be just another medium to tell a story. And so, what we're doing is it's not the world of Oddworld, it's the world of the near future. It's going to be something totally different to any of the other CG-animated films that you've seen to date.
GS: It sounds as if it's going to be a bit of a political statement. Would you say the film and game will be very political?
LL: It has heavy political undertones.
SM: You don't really want to make a political film because people aren't that interested in political films, so I would say that it's more of a comment on what the world could be like in the near future if corporations continue on the path that they're on.
LL: I would say it's a 1984 for the 21st century.
GS: Are you a big Orwell fan?
LL: Oh yeah, huge. But I mean, 1984's a little dark, whereas this is really about the power of the human spirit and the potential of the individual. Anyone familiar with our previous work knows that that's always a strong underlying tone in the worlds that we create. This will be no different--it's just in a more relevant world. It's really a story about an everyman, a very common man who becomes something he never could have dreamed of through first unfortunate circumstances and then taking off the blinders to the world that he really lives in.
GS: How do you feel about working with John Williams [the producer of Shrek]?
SM: When we presented it to him, he looked at it [the idea] and also shared the same belief that CG-animated films don't just have to be about talking animals.
LL: It's great. We're really excited.
GS: So, would you say this is the highlight of your career to date?
LL: Yes. This is basically what I've been working towards my whole career. This opportunity is a real dream come true. For us, there's a lot riding on it, we took a lot of risks to get here.
When we closed down the games production division, it was very hard for the game industry to understand what was really going on because it's outside the box of the normal build game company, sell it to big publisher system. We were certainly in a position to do that but in doing so we wouldn't be able to follow the dream that we were after from the very beginning. It was highly risky to do what we did but we did it and now our dream's becoming real. But it was scary because if you decide to take the leap and you don't pull it off, they'll be laughing. So, basically, we're dead set on pulling it off.
GS: What kind of a time frame are you working on here?
LL: It will be a couple of years. Which is why right now, we don't want to go into too much detail--there'll be plenty of time for that.
GS: What's your opinion on other movie/games around at the moment?
LL: Well, they're largely tails wagging dogs. They're derivatives rather than original conceptions. Usually it's brand recognition and that's what they're banking on and that's what they're riding on. I think in general the quality of those has gone up since the Acclaim days, but still they're not really all that...
They're not conceived as original properties in the game realm when they come from movies. For example, we look at Spiderman and we go, oh well, swinging on ropes, OK, so that's what we'd like him to do because that's what he does in the movie. Or we look at you know, the King Kong movie and go, OK, we're just going to get in fights with all these dinosaurs and, you know... But they aren't really worlds that are conceived to stand alone. It's usually obvious which came first.
SM: It's really hard because, in a game, I mean the most important feature of the game is the gameplay. In a movie, one could say that what's really important is developing the characters and the storyline. So when you take a preexisting game and try to translate that into a movie, it's a little hard because your main character has not been developed necessarily the way you would do it if you started at the very beginning and created a character for a movie. So maybe that's one of the reasons why it's so difficult for preexisting games to be adapted into movies.
GS: There seems to be a general feeling that movies that come from games are generally not all that good...
SM: A lot of people feel that way because people aren't really aware of why they don't adapt well. So we have to be careful that when we come out with something people don't just automatically write it off. That's why we thought if we start with a movie and people really like that movie, then maybe they'll want to play the game, whereas the other way around...even if you're not consciously aware of it, you know that the character hasn't been developed the way you want it to, and the storyline hasn't been developed the way it would have been in a movie, so you know, people feel why go see the movie?
LL: And it's also another opportunity as a medium for gaming, for creatives to come out of this new medium and step into higher levels of storytelling. We could debate with RPG fans that RPGs are great storytelling, but really no one does it better than a great motion picture.
At one time film directors were coming from theaters, like Orson Welles. So theater was the natural stepping stone. And then commercial production happened on TV and then you had the Ridley Scotts that went from being commercial directors to film directors. Then you had music videos, which was the next area, and guys like David Fincher, they went a similar path to the one we did, started off in visual effects.
Directing films is an extremely hard job to land. But no one has really made a successful transition of going from video games to film. But there is an opportunity to do that also. There's a lot of pressure on us to do a great job for the other creatives in this industry so that they're looked at more seriously as storytellers by a mainstream entertainment audience. So if we do our job very well then we are essentially the next stepping stone for creatives to take that leap. As much as the games community wants to say, Well, we have our own Will Wrights and Warren Spectors and things like this, they're not getting movie deals. There's a tremendous amount of talent in this business that isn't really maximised because of the conservative environment.
GS: So we can be expecting a strong and involving storyline here?
LL: We always started with the script. I think that resonated with the fans of Oddworld. One of the things we were always recognised for was the story. In my opinion, I always massively compromised the story for the most important element of the medium, which is gameplay. In my heart I'm more of a storyteller first, and games was more of a way of embellishing stories for an exciting new medium.