It sucks when your Christmas party is invaded by Gauntlet demons. You have to don your warrior gear, get your party guests cross-bows, and try not to shoot the food. Luckily, roommates Jake Hames and Mike Monreal have plenty of practice battling video-game bad guys around their apartment. Gifted director Shane English gives them a new one to face every week in his expertly crafted live-action video-game parody series Co-Op Life, hosted on Machinima.com
Each episode is shot in the style of a different video game, ranging from modern first-person shooter games like Bio-Shock to hack and slash retro arcade games like Gauntlet. As Monreal and Hames banter and play the game-of-the-week in their run-down apartment, the reality around them begins to fuse with the world of their game until the action is no longer on their console, it's all around them.
In the episode below, BioShock, the character of Little Sister appears, just as in the game. The duo must decide whether to 'harvest' her or protect her, a decision made all the harder, and more hilarious, because she is actually in their living room .
In another episode, Monreal is playing Braid, a retro-style puzzle game where the player can reverse time. Monreal performs the entire episode in reverse so that he can play a practical joke on Hames, whose reality is moving forward. It's quite a film-making feat. In Portal, a sci-fi puzzle-platform game full of portals, the roommates battle each other to get to the pizza guy at the door by using portals to trip and transport each other.
While the script and scenarios range in quality from average to brilliant, the special effects and editing of every episode never waver. Each one is fascinating to watch even if you've never played a video game in your life and have no idea where your L1 button is or why you want to kill Big Daddy.
"I'm not a big gamer," admitted Amy Lachat, English's girlfriend and the series' producer. "They were able to run things by me and I could say, well I don't really get that, but I don't think I need to."
"We didn't want to alienate anyone," English explained. "I wanted it to be like when I saw Ghostbusters as a kid and found it really entertaining even though I didn't get all the jokes I got when I saw it as an adult."
Before English, a cinematographer and assistant director by trade, began shooting live-action parodies six months ago, he had no idea how to populate an on-screen world with 3D Cads, walking animated characters, or gun muzzle flashes. He and Hames, who met in college in Chicago, had always wanted to work together, and finally partnered last April to make PWN3D (The most realistic shooter ever). This short introduced the roommate duo of Hames and Monreal and caught the eye of Machinima.com, a popular media website dedicated to machinima, the art of using film techniques to create narratives out of interactive mediums like video games.
The prominent website, which according to Forbes got up to 70 million unique viewers per month in 2011, asked English to be part of their directors' program and then to develop a series for them. English suggested continuing the storyline of the odd-couple roommates and their realistic game play, and Machinima agreed. The website, however, was only able to provide a budget large enough to cover food and some art department costs. There was no money left over to hire someone to tackle to daunting post work necessary for the shorts, so English rose to the occasion and taught himself how to do it.
This simple resolution turned into days spent in front of his iMac watching tutorials online for each character or effect he wanted to create. English now uses at least four programs to create each episode, including After Effects, Cinema 4D, and Final Cut. Every object he doesn't have footage of he has to build physically or buy a 3D model, or CAD, online and learn how to animate it. Some of the shots for Gauntlet took an average of 1 ½ days per shot. "Luckily I'm fairly patient in front of the computer," English joked. "That is one skill I do have".
English certainly has far more skills than just patience. Not everyone with the attention span to learn an effect can utilize it with the humor and deft storytelling that he does. Hames and English co-wrote all the episodes and drew on their love of odd-couple buddy comedies for the roommate characters' dynamic . "Mike's Murtaugh and I'm Riggs," Hames chuckled, referring to the roles in Lethal Weapon played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover respectively. "Mike's plain crazy and I'm too old for this shit."
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When asked what his next goal was production wise, English answered, exhausted, "Find someone who can help me on effects!" Though he hardly needs it. As for whether he'll use his hard-earned new skills on films or TV next he replied, "I see commercials being more likely. I really enjoy short format but I'm keeping my options open."
You can check out the full Co-Op Life series on Youtube. Just be careful a Gauntlet demon doesn't follow you home. Unless you've got an extra wizard staff lying around.