Turbo: The Struggle To Make A Better Video Game Movie

With a title like Turbo, says filmmaker Jarrett Conaway, it's simple to put across that the movie is either about arcade-style fighting or cars. Here, Turbo is about kicking, not cars. Simple, right?

Sure. But, getting the film made and made right wasn't so simple.

Turbo: The Struggle To Make A Better Video Game Movie

Turbo follows 4D fighting game player Hugo (Justin Chon of Twilight fame), who hopes to join a pro-team by winning a Super Turbo Arena tournament.

"People," Conaway recalls, "looked at me like I was crazy."

It wasn't the story that was causing the looks of bewilderment, but Conaway's vision for how the film should be made: An effect-heavy film with a budget of $100,000 USD.

This was Conaway's University of Southern California student film short. "It costs about $400,000 to make an episode of Power Rangers," says Conaway. "So if you think about it that way, it's really not that expensive."

Student films typically cost a few thousand bucks — maybe the price of a sedan at most, not a fleet of sedans. Sure, Turbo was to be Conaway's thesis film, but it was to be more: Atypical. It's Conaway's calling card. This would be a two-years-in-the-making showcase showing he could use to tell a story and made a slick, effect-heavy film. And ultimately proof that this young, up-and-coming filmmaker gets gaming, the internet, convergence.

Turbo: The Struggle To Make A Better Video Game Movie

It all started in 2007. No, actually it started before that with karate, anime and video games. The Last Dragon inspired a young Conaway to take up martial arts in junior high, studying Shorin-Ryu style karate and kobudo until he achieved a black belt. "There weren't many black action heroes that I was aware of as a kid," he says, "so Bruce Lee Roy fighting Sho-Nuff the Shogun of Harlem on a bootleg VHS was my inspiration." (The movie would even go on to inspire the final fight in Turbo!) By high school, he was got a gig as executive editor of game site PSXNetwork.com, going to E3 each year starting when he was 16. There was a stint working at Electronic Arts in marketing. And then there were movies, loads and loads of movies.

Movies took him to USC Film School and to a select motion capture performance class taught by Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis. The class got Conaway thinking about the Uncanny Valley Theory, about avatars, about effects and, even, martial arts. But it wasn't just about making a slick flick. "I wanted to find the story's emotional core," says Conaway. For him, that was the relationship between the two brothers in the film. Conaway was ready to go, Turbo was the picture he wanted to make for his master's thesis. Then, road block. "I didn't get a lot of support at USC for the project," says Conaway.

If he was to make the film using USC's cameras and USC's equipment, well, then, USC owns the film. Meaning? Meaning Conaway could not put it online. How did you see Turbo? On the Internet. How did I see it? Ditto. This is an age in which, if it's not on the Internet, it does not exist. And the only way for Conaway to ensure that the film existed was to get it online, which meant raising the money himself.

Turbo: The Struggle To Make A Better Video Game Movie

He didn't do it alone. Film is a collaborative endeavor — though the director is leading the charge. Conaway and his producing partner, Garrett T. Thompson, set out securing money. Conaway created a press kit — a press kit for a movie that hadn't been made yet, but a press kit that showed the visual vibe of the film. "Neither one of us comes from money, so we had to take a basic grass roots approach to raising the funds," says Thompson. Student loans, credit cards, fund raisers, matching gift donations, grants and any which way they could get the money they needed. "The challenge was convincing people that we could get this 'crazy Turbo' project done." The reward wasn't some monetary pay-off.

Remember, Turbo is a student film — they were convincing the donors to give money just so the film could get made. That's it. A donation of faith. "When people donate to a short film they are basically doing it out of the kindness of their hearts and pockets," Thompson points out. "They will really reap no monetary benefit, so your passion truly has to convince them."

With initial funds in place, shooting commenced on December 2007. For the next year plus, Conaway and his team would be hard at work on this short film. "I was never worried about it turning out great, I was just worried that it would take forever to get there," says Justin Lutsky. "To be honest, I never expected this to be such an undertaking. When I agreed to edit I was anticipating a several month commitment and couldn't really believe we were still working on a short film a year and a half later."

Lutsky had met as contestants on a Fox filmmaker reality show called "On The Lot" in May 2007. Both were eliminated, but became fast friends. Lutsky, a young filmmaker in his own right, was asked by Conaway to cut the film. "Turbo shot on the RED camera, which was fairly new at the time," says Lutsky. "There were no established post production or editorial work flows established. We essentially had to create our own work flow from scratch and had a lot to learn along the way." Learn as you go, learn as you go.

An effect-heavy film like Turbo needs effects. Lutsky introduced Conaway to the folks at Ember Lab, a start-up digital effects house in Southern California. "With the large amount of VFX work that had to be done, Jarrett could have easily spent his entire budget on post production alone if he had used an established Hollywood studio," says Ember Lab's Josh Grier. "We wanted to propose a bid that fit within his budget and would allow us to sustain our selves for the duration of the project." For the team at Ember, Turbo was their first complete project and the experience of working on this type of film was by far their biggest drive to get involved. That, and the arcade gaming.

"My brother Mike and I lived in Tokyo for about three years and we have always been fond of the Japanese arcade culture," says Grier. "After watching the first cut of Turbo, we knew right away that we wanted a hybrid look, combining elements of the retro eighties gaming culture with Japanese arcade flair." Those retro elements were massaged so that they felt futuristic and a look was developed that Conaway agreed completed his vision. "The most challenging part of Turbo was not a specific effect, but the design work that went into developing Turbo's game system," says Grier. "The HUD, UI and the futuristic TV were featured in about 75% of the shots and all had to be developed from scratch."

Turbo: The Struggle To Make A Better Video Game Movie

Not only was the game system complete mapped out, but the game's mechanics. "People sweat when they play DDR in arcades, right?" asks Conaway. "That's the same idea — Super Turbo Arena is a physical game. Kids want to be Turbo players, not basketball players." The game and its moves was created in the minds of the Turbo team so that it would be possible to play if the tech ever existed.

That's what sells the film — its authenticity. Whether it be the authenticity of Turbo's characters or its video game element, it feels real. Even for a movie wrapped in a sheen of CG and special effects. It feels realer than anything than has come out of the traditional Hollywood system.

Turbo is not perfect, but it's filled with promise. It's a vision of a future when those who grew up playing video games start to make movies about them. Movies that don't suck.

Turbo from Jarrett Lee Conaway on Vimeo.