The company iam8bit is known around town as the “crazy little production company that makes cool things.” Founded by Jon Gibson, a former TV screenwriter, and documentary film producer Amanda White, iam8bit is an art gallery and think tank that does advertising, publishing, film production and event planning. Sometimes, it makes T-shirts. It is composed of, as Gibson puts it, “tchotchke wizards.” They are, perhaps, the ultimate multihyphenates in a city of multihyphenates.
On a brisk November evening, a dizzying number of projects is being worked on, more or less simultaneously, at the company's cavernous Echo Park headquarters. In a few weeks, iam8bit will host the Machinima Interactive Film Festival, which honors movies made from interactive video.
Instead of forcing people to sit in theaters in the standard film festival mode, White and Gibson decided to build phone booth–sized “pods” to house video monitors for viewers to walk up to and click on stuff. “The idea is to build the space so it's like people are walking through the Internet,” Gibson says — to turn the festival into a “digest on your own time” sort of thing, not an “appointment-based, sit-in-a-chair” thing. The pods, he estimates, are pretty much finished.
The nine-person company grew out of an art show Gibson organized in 2005. The show, an ode to classic video games, became a book published by Chronicle Books. Soon, video game companies came calling. Would iam8bit make their press kits and promotional items? “The mailers put us on the map,” Gibson says.
To mail out promo copies of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider video game, they built little wooden crates. Recipients had to use the accompanying crowbar to pry them open. Another mailer involved old Nintendo cartridges, which Gibson gutted, cleaned, resealed and shrink-wrapped as if they were real old-school games from the '80s. They were so successful that, for a while, copies were fetching up to $1,200 on eBay. “It played with the idea of collectibility,” he says. “You had to break the seal to open it, but in the process you devalued it.”
Then there was the zombie hallway. They made it for the developers of Call of Duty. “Originally, I think they just wanted to buy some prints to hang in their hallway,” Gibson says. Instead, he and White redecorated the entire office with smeared blood, severed limbs, war murals and a 60-foot camouflage corkboard wall. They proposed it as an “employee wellness program.”
On and on their list of projects goes, a geeky teenage boy's dream come true. For the launch of Capcom's video game Duck Tales: Remastered, they built a life-size version of Scrooge McDuck's money vault, with piles of soft, giant gold coins for people to swim through. To promote the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, they threw a keg buffet party, with 18 kegs of international beers. Another time, they made a giant, 6-foot-tall, working Atari joystick controller, which was operated by leaning on it.
Recently, a Scottish satellite company hired iam8bit to design art for one of its satellites. Granted, it was a small, consumer cube satellite, approximately the size of a toaster oven, costing a mere half-million dollars, “which is affordable in the world of satellites,” Gibson says.
“When they sent over the specs for the art, the measurements were in millimeters,” White adds.
Space art is extremely rare. As far as Gibson knows, there has been but a single previous piece of orbital art, which Andy Warhol made for the Apollo 12 moon lander. His was much smaller.
For their piece, Gibson and White came up with the world's first interstellar charging station, with images of standard human USB outlets, “alien” outlets and a cheeky salutation: “Greetings Beleaguered Space Traveler. Welcome to the Universe's First Celestial Charging Station.” It's not actually a functional charging station but rather, Gibson explains, a bit of social commentary on our dependence on electronic devices. It launches, with the satellite, in February.
Outside the gallery, another unrelated project is under way. Workers are “dressing up” a couple of taxicabs for developers of the fantasy video game Guild Wars 2. Set to debut at a video game convention, the cabs are being upholstered in animal pelts and fake fur, to look as if they've emerged from the world of the game.
The purpose? Guerrilla market research.
“The idea is that the driver will try to get out of people what they don't like about multiplayer games. It's part Taxicab Confessions,” White says as he inspects the leather on the cab's navigation console. “Oh, and the drivers will be in costume.”
Sometimes, all that is required of Gibson and White is to step back and surrender their space. Tonight, for instance, iam8bit is hosting Los Angeles' first production of the Real Escape Game, which is wildly popular in China and Japan. Participants solve puzzles as a group, using clues — numeric codes, messages, images — hidden throughout the game space. Tonight's game, Escape From Werewolf Village, is part theater, part logic test, part board game and part scavenger hunt.
“People were beyond excited about this,” Gibson says. “Tickets were flying.”
Participants will show up in an hour. The goal is to “envelop them with content”: animation clips and ambient sound — moody organ music, sinister howling — to transform the gallery into a “werewolf village.”
Kazu Ya Iwata, Real Escape Game's slim, scruffily bearded showrunner, unfolds the Mac Book Air tucked under his arm and says, “What we are trying to create is opportunity for immersive and adventurous play.” He taps the keyboard and a PowerPoint presentation starts to play on the laptop. Escape games began in 2007 in Kyoto, Japan, with 120 people. Since then, so many people have taken to the game that the organizers require a stadium to hold them.
In Japan, there is a television component to the game. While watching TV, viewers answer clues on the website. At one point, more than a million people had logged on to play. Iwata's company is even working on a couple of Real Escape Game movies. Part 1, he says, is “a question movie,” and Part 2 “is an answer movie.” “If you win, your name is on the credits.”
From Tokyo, the game went to Taipei, then Singapore and San Francisco, and finally, to White and Gibson's space in Southern California.
Asked why people like it so much, Iwata shrugs. “I don't know. You are trapped. You have to escape. It's very simple.”
One challenge with this type of creative work, Gibson has found, is convincing people to invest in it — things like zombie hallways for “employee wellness” don't exactly have a distinct, measurable return on investment. Still, he argues, “You generate evangelists by giving them unforgettable experiences. You create superfans. It ends up being much more effective than a post on Facebook or Twitter.” And over the years, unforgettable experiences have become the iam8bit house specialty.
Explaining what they do, though, is tough. “Yeah,” White says,”we're complicated.”
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