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Interview: Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet's Creators Talk Quitting Their Day Jobs

Renowned filmmaker Michel Gagné and Fuelcell CEO Joe Olson talk with Gamasutra about creating XBLA's Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, leaving Hollywood, and the differences between working in the movie and game industries.

Jason Johnson, Blogger

September 2, 2011

6 Min Read

[In this interview, renowned filmmaker Michel Gagne and Fuelcell CEO Joe Olson talk with Gamasutra contributor Jason Johnson about creating XBLA's Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, leaving Hollywood, and the differences between working in the movie and game industries.] Five years ago, Joe Olson, CEO of Fuelcell Games, and Michel Gagne, an independent artist, met for lunch at a Thai restaurant in Seattle. Gagne was an animator from Hollywood who had quit to become a comic artist. Olson was a special effects artist in the game industry who was tired of the grind. As a result of their meeting, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was born. The game was set on its twisted path towards being featured in Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade. Where did the idea for Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet come from? Michel Gagne: I had never worked in games before. I didn't know anything about the industry. I hadn't played games in over 15 years. I thought I should do some research. Joe said, "No, this is perfect. The industry needs fresh visions." He asked me what type of game I would like to play. The new stuff is so fast. The camera swings all over the place. I get dizzy. The only games I was interested in playing were old 8-bit side-scrollers. I said, "But people don't play these anymore, do they?" Joe Olson: I was a special-effects artist at Surreal. I had been there for 10 years at that time. We were studying some of Michel's film work; stuff he did for The Iron Giant and the 2D Clone Wars cartoon. He gave a workshop, and we hit it off. The next day, we started talking about doing a collaboration together. I wanted to use the power of modern consoles to drive feature-quality animation. Gagne: My background is in the movie industry. In Hollywood, there is a bit of a prejudice against games. A lot of animators look at games as, well, if you can't hack it in the film industry, then you go into games. I wanted to show them that games can be as beautifully animated as a movie. That was my goal. A lot of friends from the movie industry have been writing to me, telling me how blown away they are by Shadow Planet. I think we'll see a shift where more people from movies come into games, and vice versa. Why did you leave Hollywood? Gagne: I worked in Hollywood for 15 years. I was head of special effects for Warner Brothers Feature Animation. I could have kept going -- climbing up the ladder. I had a big team. I was the head of my department. But I wanted to pursue my individual artistic vision, rather than dealing with the executives and the system. Since then, I've been doing books, graphic novels, and short films. One was shortlisted for an Oscar. Shadow Planet is the next part of my vision. I've worked on 25 feature films, but they never really felt like they were my own. I was just one of many soldiers building that film. A lot of my friends would rather work for the studios. You get a steady paycheck. For me, it was something I had to do. I would come home and work on my own stuff. I had to make a choice. Do I want to pursue my vision, or do I want to keep working for Hollywood? Olson: I had a similar experience at Midway. I was getting up in my 30s. If there was a time to take a risk, it was then. The industry is becoming a lot more specialized. You're this cog in this machine. You do this one part, and you shouldn't venture outside of that. That is one of the reasons me and my partners left Midway. We wanted to make a bigger impact. How did Shadow Planet's development begin? Olson: We quit our jobs. Up until then, we had been working on Shadow Planet in our spare time, only about three or four days a month, seeing if we could get the quality to the level we wanted it. Then, we put together a prototype, and went up and down the west coast pitching it to publishers. We got a couple of offers, but they weren't ideal. So, we started taking on contract work to keep the team together: Call of Duty, Transformers. We would take on a contract for 5 or 6 months. At the end of the contract, we might have a week or two to work on Shadow Planet again. Then, another contract. In the meantime, Fuelcell got out of my basement. And Michel was working on Ratatouille. How did you find a publisher? Gagne: We had talked to Microsoft for awhile, but it didn't work out. When we released our second trailer in 2009, they called us back. At that point, it was a whole new regime. It had a good feeling. After eight months of negotiations, we finally decided to go with Microsoft. They were pretty tough to negotiate with. Olson: Getting a publisher to see what I saw in the project was iffy. We would get really positive responses, but when the offers came through, it seemed they thought we didn't know what we were talking about. It was a real struggle, especially because we didn't have a game under our belt. Even though everyone I work with has multiple titles on their resume, not having a game as a studio is a real point of contention. The biggest challenge was convincing a publisher to take that risk with us. Michel, how would you compare working in the movie industry to working in the game industry? Gagne: Working in the games industry is very grueling. I see how hard those guys at the studio work, and that inspires me to work harder. The last year of production was absolutely insane. It's probably the most hours per week I've ever worked in my career. It's a crazy industry. Movies are crazy too. You work a lot. But with movies, you get time-and-a-half. We had unions. We were well-protected. Olson: Right now, I think the game industry is at a point similar to where Hollywood was in the 1930s and 40s. The big publishers equal the big movie studios. There are definitely some things that are a little exploitative of the talents. I don't know if we are going to get a union, or if it will be something else, but I do see things changing.

About the Author(s)

Jason Johnson


Jason Johnson is a freelance writer, a writer of fiction, an amateur painter, and a student of ancient knowledge and mythology. He also writes weekly reviews for our iPhone centric sister-site FingerGaming.com.

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