I’ve made reference before to working in the film industry. It’s not something I like to advertise, especially on the Internet. I’ve found, at best, it sounds like I’m trying desperately to brag. Further, I’m a fairly private person anyway (waves in “J Man”). I will say that I went to film school, am lucky enough to be paid to use that degree today, and when the pandemic really kicked off, it felt a lot like I had spent my whole adult life working up to be a respected zeppelin mechanic when we just got word that the Hindenburg crashed.
But here’s a game from film’s Roaring’ 90’s – when nary a streaming service was in sight, behind the scenes pieces on HBO and Entertainment Tonight were common, Fangoria and Starlog were still in print, and filmmaking still had the gilded edge of a rare craft with 100 years of experience behind it. This was the era that drew lil’ me into wanting to be a director, so it surprises me that I’ve never heard of this game before. I would have been such the target audience in 1996 that you could have put my dumb face on the cover.
Director’s Chair has you (yes, you!) being personally chosen to helm a major Hollywood production. You’ll be involved from start to finish, and while it doesn’t cover all aspects of the show (no casting, no budget meetings, improbably little interference from the studio), it’s a nice peek behind the curtain aimed at wannabe teen auteurs. This is all brought to you through the power of MID-90s MULTIMEDIA! where video clips of actors and crew, janky CG renderings of sets, and a whole lot of mouse clicking and disc swapping all abound.
First, of course, a warning. The game’s set up to make it seem like you’re going to make YOUR MOVIE, but just like the Make My Video series, get ready to temper those expectations. The game’s real production team only shot scenes for one film, and obviously, you’re not going to be including anything they didn’t shoot. This means your movie will always follow the tale of a framed prisoner on death row and his spunky girlfriend out to prove his innocence. Your chances to mix things up within that framework are pretty slim.
Further, your capabilities are intentionally limited and rolled out slowly. Your first film only shoots a fraction of the script, only uses wide shots, and will generally look worse than a first-year film student’s first project. Your second film opens up new script options and new camera angles, but is just a more complete version of the first. At the fourth trip through the process, you’ll have unlocked all possibilities. I should also note that you’re never graded here – literally anything you complete will be a smashing box office success – so don’t expect to learn much more than the surface level of how films are made.
Maybe the single most important power dynamic behind any film is between the Producer and the Director. The Director is the creative force, while the Producer is the financial. Loosely, the Director wants the world, while the Producer has to figure out how to pay for it. In this game, there is zero negotiation. Spielberg gets Executive Producer credit on your movie, but he acts more as the game’s gentle tour guide, while what passes as production decisions come from the invisible Studio you’ve signed with.
In every screen of the game, you can reference a clipboard showing your film’s budget, allotted days, and logs of how much of both that you’ve burned through. This is the most “gamey” part, as you’re forced to balance what you want to accomplish with what time you have left. You will not be able to get all your shots in. You might not be able to include all the scenes you’d like. You can go over-budget by about 12%, but eventually you’re prevented from shooting any more shots. What you can never do is break your schedule. Spending too long in one area forces you to trade days in another. There will eventually come a time when you’re out of days and your film is kicked out the door whether you’re ready or not.
Your Production Assistant exists to keep you somewhat on track. At the beginning of the game, she will give you a pager that then shows up somewhere in every scene. You’ll then get video calls (wut?) from her that will keep track of your progress and days, or give you light tips and advice. You can also drag the pager onto nearly any tool or item in the scene to get a text description, or a link to the digital user guide. Occasional headlines from Variety will reinforce if you’re headed in the wrong direction.
Budget handed down, you’ll head over to the scriptwriting office. Director’s Chair has Hollywood notables pretending to work on your film at each step in the process. Here, you’ll be paired with Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio who co-wrote 1992’s Aladdin (and much later, Shrek). Their cheeseball banter is over the top in a way that’s on-brand for 90’s Multimedia, but hopefully wasn’t actually written by them.
You’ll select scenes from a “Script Outline” notepad and hand the pages over. Terry and Ted will “write” the scene and hand a page back to you. You’ll either place it in the script book as the next scene, or toss it in the corner trash can (they don’t like this). Through this process, you very roughly control what’s in your film and in what order.
Your first and only choice here is whether you want the film to be a drama or a comedy. This seeds what scenes you can pick from the outline, so every possible scene is not going to be available. It’s a limited form of replayability that will at least get you to the fourth run-through, as you find new options to include that you haven’t seen before. These range from the prisoner and the heroine getting killed, to a shot where the warden receives a last second phone call… about switching long distance carriers. Bear in mind you can’t remix elements within a scene – these are just self-contained blocks you can rearrange the order of.
If you don’t want to deal with the writing process, you can just pay extra up front to have Ted and Terry write the whole thing for you. A “director’s draft” option unlocked in the second playthrough lets you rearrange the script, while there’s no requirement anywhere that you shoot or complete all the scenes in the script.
Script in hand, you head next door to the studio. Here, cinematographer Dean Cundey (The Thing, Jurassic Park) introduces himself and pretends to be your Director of Photography. In actual union Hollywood, the DP composes shots based on the Director’s vision, articulated through on-set guidance and sketches or animatics created in Pre-Production. Here, you’re dumped behind an abstracted Panaflex and simply given a selection of camera angles that have all been pre-selected. It’s as “hands off the camera” as a real director would be, but without the ability to control what’s actually being shot.
Given the limits of CD technology, okay, fair enough that you’re not directly aiming the camera. What’s not great is that you have an incomplete idea of what these shots are going to look like. You’ll only see the first frame, with no indication of length of the shot or any camera movement. You can’t preview anything, only press a green button to call “Action!”
Whatever shot you’ve selected plays out within the viewfinder. When it’s done, you’re charged an amount toward your budget for the take. If you’re not going to use the shot, you’ve wasted money. If you want to keep it, you must click a red button to “Print it” for an additional charge. This is emulating the process of 35mm film, so anything you don’t order a physical print of won’t be available to you in Editing.
You can burn a lot of money and days blindly trying out different camera angles, which never seems quite fair. In a real production, you would have some kind of concept of what you’re shooting, either through storyboarding or blocking out the shot. The budget metagame never gives you enough days or cash to shoot absolutely everything you’re offered, making this lack of clarity sting more than it feels like it should. I started to get pretty raw when I was blowing $91,000 just to discover a shot of a clock was 2 seconds long and never moved.
Meanwhile, there’s no reason to ever run more than one take. You don’t coach the actors and you can’t get a better performance on a second try. The shot just exists as-is – take it or leave it. On your fourth playthrough, you’ll unlock “improv” shots, but these aren’t exactly alternate takes. They’re either literal additional scenes suggested by your crew, or fourth wall breaking quips and campy side action (like a Stooges-esque fight).
You’ll also be randomly stopped by members of your crew with some kind of unexpected issue. The lighting director needs more time. A costume wasn’t on the daily call sheet. These exist almost exclusively to challenge your budget. If you’re lucky, you can shoot a camera angle that doesn’t involve that actor or element while the issue gets solved. If you’re not, you either have to wait, or choose not to shoot that angle at all. Waiting eats into your production days, while cartoons about wasting money overlay the screen like the Whammies in Press Your Luck. However, once you solve one of the randomized “issues,” that issue never comes up again. Ma needs 30 minutes in makeup and then she’s good for the rest of the month.
You can check a “Costs” tab on your budget clipboard to see flat rate charges for each type of shot, printing a shot, and so on. Skipping through scenes to view available shots is free, so if you’re way into this, you could run some spreadsheets and see how many shots you can afford to take for each day. There’s also a limited reason to plan ahead and group shots efficiently. You’re charged the largest fee of your production (scaling up with your budget) every time you set up a scene, so leaving a set and coming back to it later hits hard. In fact, if you keep doing this, the studio starts taking days away from you as punishment.
If you asked me to pick a more hammy 90’s cast than Quentin Tarantino, Jennifer Aniston, and Penn and Teller, I couldn’t do it. Everyone here turns in the performances you’d expect, and that again, you can’t control. I had hoped you could select alternate line reads, or a different mood, but there’s nothing like that. Again, you’re just picking out scenes that are already shot – which is totally editing instead of actually directing – but that’s the limits of the technology.
Also, don’t get excited like I did when your third remake unlocks “stunts and special effects.” The stunts are things like hanging Teller upside down or smashing breakaway glass over Penn’s head. The only special effect I saw was blood squibs on a guard getting shot. This is ultimately a wildly cheap film. Stephen Spielberg’s name probably cost more than the entire production.
Overall, Production is the least authentic part of the show. I get that having multiple takes for each scene quickly blows away CD space and game budget limitations, but it’s frustrating that the game’s marquee section (being a director) has the least overall control. A director primarily envisions scenes, plans how to accomplish them, and coaches actors to get the best performance. You do exactly none of that here.
Michael Kahn (of basically all of Spielberg’s films) introduces you to the glorious world of reel-to-reel editing. You’re presented with a flatbed machine based off of a classic Steenbeck – I graduated film school in 2005, so I very well might have been the last generation to actually use one – and tasked with assembling your entire film through shots saved in Production. Since multimedia technology is strongly based on playing clips at specific points in time, unsurprisingly, this ends up being the most accurate part of the game.
Shots are organized by script scenes. Each shot for that scene is laid out in a row along the top and you’ll drag one to the left side of the machine to view it. Each side of a Steenbeck is a miniature projector with open access to the physical strip, which is emulated here. You’ll use a red clip to mark where you want your clip to start and play the reel until you find where you want it to end. A pair of scissors snips the section out where you can add it to the right side of the machine.
This is how linear editing was done, with sprocket holes controlling accurate timing, grease pencils to mark the strip, and tape or plastic cement to join the final cut. You’d use a splicer rather than a pair of scissors, and making a mistake here doesn’t mean you’ve destroyed your only physical copy, but otherwise, the experience is pretty well recreated. Many a theater projectionist worldwide would have to do similar tasks to build a final show reel for exhibition.
You can only make limited edits to what you’ve put together on the right side of the deck (your assembly cut). The game still treats your edited shots as individual clips, so you can jump between start points easily. Anything you drag from the left at this point will be considered an insert edit and automatically shift every scene after. This is helpful if you want to rearrange shots, but it’s certainly not as simple as slinging clips around in a digital non-linear editor.
You generally want to treat the right side of the deck as unchangeable and make accurate trims before adding them. With this in mind, it’s annoying that you can’t save clips made on the left deck (such as on a pegboard or stand). When you cut with the scissors, you can only add the clip or trash it. If you realize you need to do something else instead, you’ll lose that clip and have to redo those edit points. You’ll see this especially when you’re trying to match timing between two clips. Needless to say, roll and slip edits aren’t available here.
You also can’t separate audio from video to allow, say, Penn’s dialogue to continue under an insert shot of Jennifer checking her watch. The game tries to get around this in the sound effects room, where a limited number of dialog clips (such as the TV report setting up the plot) can replace audio entirely in the final edit. But this is a very rough fix and limited in how you can use it. You’ll also have to wait until your third playthrough to get it.
If you hate editing, unfortunately, you can’t really skip this part. You never have to trim clapboards or similar heads and tails from Production shots, but some of them definitely don’t start in a cadence that matches other shots. Some lines also get repeated across two different shots, so one of the lines needs to be cut out. You cannot simply smash the shots together and call it a day – well, you can since everything you release in this game is treated as the best film the world has ever seen, but anyone who’s seen a movie will know it doesn’t look right. Editing is a lot of tedious work that people get paid for, while you’re doing it as a… game?
Finally, there’s no plates, mattes, or effects here. This isn’t that kind of movie. Michael Kahn does make reference to dream sequences and similar on your fourth playthrough, but there’s no controls you can use to distort or alter the video. I assume it was a feature that got cut.
Music and Effects
Your next stop is the foley studio. Sound recorded on set is either often unusable (production or environmental sounds are present) or needs to be “punched up.” Foley artists will recreate these sounds, either using vast sound libraries or props in a studio for more unique effects. This is the stuff you’ll see on studio backlot tours, where celery is cracked for broken bones, or shoes are walked in place on a variety of surfaces in time with the picture.
You’ll get up to three different rooms in the game; two with variations on the same prop sounds and one with noticeably zanier options. All of the main elements of a scene get a prop here, so if you question why the electricity or running water props were included, you probably just haven’t seen/unlocked that scene yet. Unfortunately, technology limitations rear their head again here. Foley is specifically used for natural, organic sound, whereas this process is like being handed a single Sound Ideas CD and told to make it work.
Each prop just plays a single sound recording, so trying to get footsteps to match the pace of the video is essentially impossible. You also barely have a chance at accuracy. There’s no sync pops to get ready, you can only hit “record” on the studio’s monitor and just go for it. You can’t adjust the volume effects play back at. You’re not able to layer any audio, so you have hit every cue in one take. Depending on the length of the clip, this is a mad ballet to try to click everything in order and let the fixed-length sound effects play. You also have only one invisible “track” to work with, so if you want to add a sound to a section already recorded, you’ve got redo every sound effect again.
Meanwhile, you’re charged every time an effect plays and given only a handful of days in the studio. Maybe it’s the perfectionist in me complaining, but out of all of the sections, this one feels most like you’re set up to fail. I also had repeated issues where sounds did not record when I started them, despite sounding correct at the time. Others would come in delayed. I can’t say if this is my fault or the game’s, as there’s no visual cue for where sound effects are added or an ability to view the track where they’re recorded.
Music is a separate studio and is much simpler. The room is set up as if you are conducting an orchestra while you have the same controls to review the film as you did in foley. Queue up a scene, hit record, and click the orchestra to play the music you’ve selected. Pretty straightforward. However, despite the CDs, all music comes in the form of short MIDI tracks. I don’t know if this is for technical reasons (it edits easier) or because recorded audio from a real orchestra would be too expensive.
The music selection book also lists all audio solely by drawings that try to convey the feel of the piece. I feel like this rarely comes across, but I get it, music is hard to describe. You have a similar set of days to score the film as you did in foley, so there should be plenty of time to preview all relevant options and lay them in. You also have three levels of volume control relative the rest of the audio and can start the recording at any point in the music, letting you start on later parts of the composition.
This part interests me the least, so my critique here probably isn’t very good. This room gives you access to machines that will create tickets for your premiere, credits for the film, and the ability to create a poster. The ticket machine is probably the least complicated, with very few design options. It basically exists to let you physically print out tickets on Letter size printer paper. You can do the same with your script, basically printing your own “feelies” for the novelty factor.
The credits machine steps you through various questions. Do you want credits to play before or after? Do you want to credit the notables who pretend to work on your film? What font out of eight generic system fonts would you like? It’s quick and straightforward, again without many choices. The only required credits are your name, the film’s title, and Spielberg’s EP credit, cause Papa Spielberg always gets paid.
The poster easel is the most involved, letting you construct a poster using very limited tools. You’re given three groups of pre-selected clip art to work with, ranging from character shots to backgrounds. You can shift any element to lay on top of any other element. You get those same handful of disappointing fonts, with only nine color options and no ability to resize text. I don’t think you have the tools here to make a great poster, but then I don’t have the talent and I didn’t try.
Once everything is set, you hit the Lab to create a release print. I won’t get into positives and inter-positives because the game doesn’t, but the room mimics a film processing lab. You simply hit “Start” and the software chews on your film for up to 15 minutes, depending on the complexity of your edits. Best I can tell, these are instructions saved on your computer and not an actual video file you can take and view outside of the game. You can replay any project so long as you keep those files, but only in the game’s theater.
Finally, the Premiere. A limo drives up and drops off someone important. Spielberg takes the stage every time and makes the same lame joke about you throwing up backstage. You click your ticket to play the film. Absolutely no one applauds. I’m honestly surprised that they didn’t include some kind of audience cheer or similar feel-good animation, but instead, the corpses watching your film remain seated and you get the option to run it as many more times as you like. Afterward, Spielberg congratulates you and you’re off to your next remake.
I should point out your work is not going to be entirely frame accurate. The tools are here to allow that to happen, but the CD technology is not. Clips will need a few frames to load when playing back, introducing unintended pauses into your edits when viewing in the theater. It’s unavoidable, no matter how careful you are. You also aren’t limited in how long your film is – an honest effort at telling the full story would probably run 15 minutes – but playback seems to degrade the more complicated the film is. This is where you’ll see those missed sound effects or cues starting late that you’re pretty confident you got right.
As said, literally anything you do is a smash hit. My third film was the shortest, 3 second clip I could find in editing. My fourth was a 5-minute supercut of Teller getting electrocuted, laugh track included. Didn’t matter. The Studio and The Spielberg loved me and gave me a bigger budget for the next one.
Because of its reliance on an early version of QuickTime, I wasn’t able to get this to run on anything newer than Windows 98. No hardware acceleration was required, so a real or emulated system should do the job. There’s three CDs, roughly divided between Production, Post-Production, and the playback theater. You’ll have to swap between discs as often as you move between these sections – and you can indeed go back and pick up shots or re-edit a finished film.
As a game, I wouldn’t say this is very fun. You have the light management aspect, but that really frustrates more than it challenges. As you keep making the same movie over and over, I suppose you’re really just shaving time off each attempt until you know exactly how you want your perfect film to look. Exactly which shots to pick, exactly which music cues, until you’ve made the best film you can make with the tools you’ve been given. That doesn’t sound like how I’d want to spend my leisure time.
As a simulation, it’s a solid “eh, not bad.” As someone with experience in this realm, I felt limited more than it feels like you should be, but I think I’d still feel the same way as a dopey 14 year old whose only credentials are watching entirely too many episodes of Movie Magic. I find it hard to believe that this would be anyone’s first-ever exposure to how movies are made, even though it seems built that way. Many of the limitations are related to the technology – you can’t have infinite videos and infinite options – but again, as someone who’s seen a movie, you can’t help feeling that your best attempt here is trash. I know that would frustrate the hell out of me in 1996.
As an experience, um… I guess? There’s certainly novelty to the whole thing. It’s amusing watching the various performances. Penn clearly loves acting like a cheesy showman and Teller seems like he’s always having fun. Tarantino makes full use of his opportunity to make out with Jennifer Aniston. Spielberg leans heavily into that “cool Uncle” vibe it seems like he was going for in the 90s. Overall, I’m glad they made it, but you could probably get the key experience out of the web-based “remake” this guy produced.
Click the link to view my 5-minute magnum opus, SECONDS TO MIDNITE
Probably a better attempt at introducing filmmaking than something like The Movies or 3D Movie Maker. Using real talent in front of and behind the camera makes this more novel and impressive. Covers major aspects of filmmaking, with editing being particularly authentic.
You’re only making the same movie over and over (just like modern Hollywood! laughingemoji) Technology limitations mean you’re just assembling pieces intended to fit together a certain way, or doing something weird and contrarian, with basically no in-between. Little chance to actually be a director.
You just put five bullets in this guy’s costume, and there’s blood everywhere!” – Allison, our costume designer