Oh, I've got an idea for Dark Souls film, I thought. It'll be short. We'll not do anything crazy like half an hour about The Witness. But, somehow, things never go according to plan. Because there is no plan. There is just:
- OOH I'VE HAD A FANTASTIC IDEA I LOVE IT
- oh my god this is way harder than I thought
- YOU DIED
Here's a little behind-the-scenes insight on The Drake Incident.
1. The Boss Battle
I loved Steerpike’s Dark Souls Diaries over on Tap-Repeatedly and even devoted a whole Electron Dance post to them. His screenshot captions were particular highlights and I was quite taken with the Hellkite Dragon who seemed to come across as very cute. I wanted to do a silly skit in the Dark Souls film explaining the Hellkite Dragon wasn’t actually a dragon - and had the brainwave that I could do an homage to Steerpike’s captions, by having the Hellkite Dragon respond to this accusation in my daughter’s voice.
But my daughter keeps making appearances in my films. She was carried at the end of Bioshock Infinite is the Worst Game of the Year and threw crayons off the table in Into the Black. My son, however, has been out of the frame for some time and I felt it was his turn, you know? Without having any idea how the footage might be used, I decided I’d film a short boss fight, maybe with him saying he doesn’t want to do his homework, and give him an onscreen boss name of “Unruly Child”. There. Sounds good. I was pretty sure we weren’t even supposed to fight, he was just meant to walk towards me and that would be enough.
Filming live action is always a right pain, so put it off until I could put it off no longer. I set up the tripod in the garden, smiled at our neighbours, then asked my son to dress up in his Halloween devil costume. After testing the boundaries of the shot, we filmed a good five minutes of footage doing various parries and deaths. The masterstroke was when my son stabbed me in the balls with his pitchfork and, realising this would obviously make for a comical death, rolled with it.
I was impressed with the resulting footage but, no, I couldn’t stop there. I wanted to add the Dark Souls HUD and my God, the hours I spent on trying to get hold of that. You can get the DSFix mod to spit out textures but I could never find anything I was looking for. In the end, I just took some screenshots and used Paint.NET to isolate and touch up the HUD elements.
And no, I still couldn’t stop there. I actually had to show the health bars going down. Yes, for some reason having the health bars go down properly - with a secondary amber bar showing the damage sustained from each injury - was really critical. The more observant amongst you will also notice I increased the Souls when Little Devil is defeated. WHYYYYY
But every action has an equal and opposite reaction... My daughter was jealous because she wanted to do a fight scene as well, even though she'd got to voice a dragon. I mean drake. I did set up the camera to film us, but I never intended to use the footage. She donned a dragon dressing gown and chased me around the living room.
2. Across the Bridge
I’d seen the beautiful Dark Souls screenshots conjured up by Dead End Thrills and wanted to do something just like that - but as video. Normally I am forced to use the player’s viewpoint when taking game footage but realised if I could detach the camera, it would open up so many options. I wrote the Hellkite Dragon skit and fell in love with it before I had verified whether flying around with the camera was possible.
A post on the Dead End Thrills forum explained how this was done. With DSFix, I could turn off the HUD and freeze time. But to move the camera around I needed to use something I’d never heard of before, a tool called Cheat Engine used for making modifications of executables while they are up and running.
With DSFix working, it was miraculous to discover I could turn the HUD off and on at will, but the time freezing didn’t work at all. I kept trying different sorts of black magic to get it working but, no, there would be no time freezing. That was a blow as it meant I’d have to take all footage while in mortal danger. But worse news was to come. The Cheat Engine needs to be configured with a “table” for your target game and the table provided on Dead End Thrills was years old and barely worked. I could detach the camera’s position but it was still automatically rotating around the player’s position and orientation. It was virtually unusable.
After lots of digging around, I was able to unearth a more recent table which did cut loose the camera completely. I was so happy. I got the close up of the Hellkite Dragon, that wonderful zoom in shot across the church rooftop and was even able to get a scene where I was firing arrows at the Hellkite Dragon.
That last one was a late addition, replacing the cheap-looking placeholder edit, which was speeded-up footage of firing arrows at the Hellkite Dragon. To pull off this particular shot, I had to control the camera and fire the arrow at the same time which turned out to be silly hard to pull off as the position of the camera dictated the direction of the arrow! Shooting the arrow down looked stupid. So, I pointed the camera at the Hellkite Dragon, fired arrows, swept across, staying level while continuing to fire arrows. The final results weren’t perfect - the player's position just doesn't seem right to me and a big wall takes up half the picture - but I think it was as good as I could get.
There was one fly in the ointment. Dark Souls would crash whenever I detached the camera in the Undead Burg area near the Capra Demon. It wasn't random, it was every time. I was able to fly the camera around but not turn it; it would continually snap back to a direction it felt comfortable with. I was originally looking for a particular long shot of the Capra Demon alleyway but it was not possible under these conditions. Playing around I found if I floated into the sky then I could keep the camera stable while looking directly down. It gave me the idea for the zoom-out cut when declaring the Capra Demon’s death. Without the crashing problem, I would not have considered this angle!
3. Traverse the White Light
While I was completing The Unbearable Now, I carried the title cards for each act around with me. If I found an interesting location to film in, I would whip them out and film then and there. For example, the opening of the first act “V TRAP” is done in The Clink Prison Museum in London. “I” is shot somewhere in the middle of the New Forest.
I knew I wanted to have some scenes where I posed as a Dark Souls character in real life. Again, I didn’t know exactly how I was going to use the footage, but anything that increases the image diversity is helpful, otherwise you're going to be watching one long mixtape of Dark Souls footage. We were travelling in October to the Peak District and so I carried around my son’s cardboard shield and sword which were lightweight enough to take anywhere. I would have to ask my wife to take some film whenever I found a decent spot.
Now one problem with asking my wife to take the footage is that she didn’t know what I was looking for. With home video, you point and shoot and that’s all you really need. For a film you're going to put out there, you want to be more precise. For example, we came upon something at the Longshaw Estate that reminded me of Bed of Chaos:
But in this video I'm bang in the centre and those interesting branches are practically out of shot. I had to ask her to reshoot because you want me at the side. The Golden ratio and all that:
I felt a bit bad asking her to keep retaking footage all the time, especially as we were making the children wait for Daddy to do his silly videogame stuff. Plus, I’m not really an extrovert so found it uncomfortable every time a stranger went past watching me wave my little sword and shield around.
Two unexpected opportunities presented themselves which I could not ignore. We came across a war memorial at Crich reminiscent of the bell tower atop the Undead Parish. I knew immediately that this was the shot to open the film with! We had to take this a few times to get it right; I knew exactly what I wanted but I didn’t know if I my wife would be able to pull it off: oh, but she did.
The second unmissable opportunity presented itself when we climbed Mam Tor. A thick fog had settled on the peak and I recognised the rare chance to do traverse the white light in real life! We did it a couple of times and I was comfortable with it - the camera even lost focus on the second take as I disappeared into the fog which was brilliant.
I leave you with one final anecdote. I walked close to the edge on Mam Tor but fog prevented me from seeing what was actually over the edge. Much later, after our descent, the fog cleared and I could see exactly where I had been standing.
Yup, no biggie. All for a short film about a videogame.
Appendix: Vegas, Baby
I’d been migrating away from my tried and trusted video editor, Serif MoviePlus, as it was no longer being updated. I tried out Lightworks but it was a terrible fit and the final straw was discovering it could not mix and match footage of different resolutions and frame rates; this is my goddamn bread and butter. To get around this, I’d have to re-render everything by hand before I could put them into the film: not happening.
I’d settled on Vegas, which people still refer to as Sony Vegas even though it's actually Magix Vegas today. I’d already put together one project, the Side by Side episode on Affordable Space Adventures. Side by Side, however, is a rigid format. The challenge was to see if I could create the next film epic on it.
I fell afoul of many problems. The method of splitting clips felt unnatural to me and I kept splitting everything on the timeline by accident, which came to haunt me the night before the film was posted! I caught lots of weird audio tremors and to my surprise the audio was riddled with unwanted splits that I had to repair. The trimmer tool was great, which is like a staging area in which you can extract bits you want from a video clip without having to add the whole clip to your timeline; however, it had a horrible bug where it kept forgetting the endpoint of the cut. I was also genuinely surprised at the awkwardness of the text generation options. MoviePlus was really good on this score; keyframing was integrated into the timeline and you could move the text directly inside the preview. In Vegas, keyframing and positioning is in a separate window, which means you have to nudge it around hoping to slot it into the right place in the preview. You would be shocked at how much time it took to set up the “DEAD DRAGON” shot because, something that would have taken me just a few minutes in MoviePlus.
Overall, Vegas helped rather than hindered. The ability to nest projects, a feature I had first discovered in Lightworks (known as “prints”), was perhaps the most magical change: I could create the credits sequence in a separate project without having to clutter up the main one. This would also make replicating the sequence for future projects a lot easier. Also organising billions of media files into bins, something MoviePlus did not support, was also welcome.