Q&A with Filmmaker, Jeff Von Ward “The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time”
Q: Why make another movie about arcade games? Didn’t King of Kong and Chasing Ghosts already cover this topic?
A: My movie is about arcade game collectors. Those movies are great but they’re more focused on the guys, then and now, who get high scores. I was surprised to learn that there was little crossover between people who press points and those who like to turn their basements or garages into an ‘80s style game room. We have Todd Rogers and Paul Dean in our film and those are examples of people who have a foot in each world, but it turns out most of the arcade game collectors I spoke with are more interested in acquiring, restoring, preserving, and passing on their nostalgia for these old games to the next generation. Theirs was a story that hadn’t been told before and one that has a wide appeal beyond the collecting community. Anyone who has ever set foot in an arcade or played Pac-Man on their cell phone will likely enjoy this movie.
Q: Why Space Invaders?
A: Well, the title is meant playfully. Literally these old behemoth arcade games—games like Defender, Tempest, Tron, Asteroids, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and, yes, even Space Invaders—are “invading” home spaces, finding their second life in family rec rooms, walkout basement s and garages. The movie really has nothing to do with Taito’s arcade game, though that was the first breakout hit, and the game that launched the so called golden age of the arcades.
Q: How did you find all these collectors?
A: Well, I’m a collector myself so I’ve met a number of people online and in person, even before I started the movie. I think as I began going to gaming conventions like California Extreme and meeting more collectors, swapping parts, games, and stories, I was really drawn into this compelling subculture that I hadn’t even known existed previously. Every collector has a story about the first time they walked into someone’s home game room and realized you could actually do this yourself. So that was exciting and I’ve tried to capture some of the buzz we feel as collectors hunting down our favorites, as well as the excitement we feel getting a chance to bask in the glow of all these old games once more.
Q: When did you start making the film?
July, 2007. I’d just been laid off my job in high tech and I picked up a camera and headed to California Extreme. It was on-the-job training. On one level the whole reason to make the film was just to have an excuse to travel around the country and see all these amazing private game rooms and to be able to play everyone’s games. So many of them have been lovingly restored by their owners. They play like they haven’t played since they first appeared in arcades. So I used my frequent flier miles, did a lot of couch surfing. The collecting community has been extraordinarily generous to me. Often I’d arrive in a town, meet one collector and he’d introduce me to three or four more people who collected games that he knew locally.
Q: Why did the movie take so long to complete?
I went back to school fulltime in 2010 to get an MFA degree. At that point, I had accumulated nearly 800 hours of footage. That’s not uncommon for a nonfiction narrative film, by the way. But I needed time to digest all that material, to really figure out the best way to present it. I transcribed all the interviews. A little more than 1,000 pages once I was through. That was probably my least favorite task. So sometimes my enthusiasm would flag a little bit. I’d lose files or not be happy with the way things turned out. Since I was doing everything myself, I really didn’t have a producing partner to egg me on. Fortunately, again, certain collectors would contact me, “Hey, haven’t heard from you in a while? You still working on this thing?” I suppose I never doubted that I would eventually finish it but their continued enthusiasm for the project certainly helped see me through some of the darker moments of self doubt. So we edited fulltime over the course of two long summers. The first summer I had two of my MFA peers helping me and they were great in many ways, even just as a sounding board. We started organizing all the subject matter and I laid out the story on a big piece of butcher paper. I could finally see the beginning, middle and end. I’d read Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence and there was this great line in there, I’m paraphrasing, about how museums are places where time has been converted to space. I thought, yeah, that’s it, exactly! That’s how to structure this film. So the first act is about how when we were kids, we spent all our time in the arcades and the second act was about how, as grownups, we turned all of our space into arcades.
Q: And the third act?
Well, the third act is a little sad, but it’s inevitable: at some point, we all run out of time and space. I’ve really felt the passing of time, too, making this film. Near the end we have some footage of kids playing arcades and it was one of the first things I’d shot of my nephews playing these games in the summer of 2007. They were just toddlers then. It feels like they’ve grown up right before my eyes. I only get to see them once a year, if that. It was a very emotional moment for me. Anyway, when I completed the rough cut in July 2012, it was about 2 hours and 45 minutes which is too long even for a Batman movie.
Q: How did you get it down to 85 minutes?
A: I spent the next six months polishing and trimming and doing a lot of test screenings. I showed it to people who were in the film. I showed it to people who know nothing about arcade games. After each screening, I had a questionnaire and I’d lead a group discussion to see what parts were resonating with people and what parts people found confusing or distracting. So we have lots of extras for the Blu-ray.
Q: What has been the response so far?
A: Very positive. We got into the first film festival we applied for, the Nevada International Film Festival this past November. We ended up winning a Platinum Reel Award for Best Documentary. Recently, we won the Audience Award for Best Film at the Northern California Film Festival. Now that it’s more widely available on Amazon Instant Video, more people are finally having a chance to see it and, so far, the reviews have been favorable.
Q: How did you choose who to include and who not to include in the film?
A: I was interested in why people collect and everyone has a different story. I didn’t want to make a special edition of Hoarders. I tried to find stories with the most human interest to highlight. These games have brought a couple together, helped someone cope with the untimely passing of a close friend, allowed others to fulfill a childhood dream of running their own arcade, and even more collectors to form a special bond with their children and their extended families. What I learned was that there are nearly as many reasons to collect as there are video games being collected, and it felt important to highlight these inspirational stories. But it isn’t a Pollyanna treatment. There are some candid moments of doubt in the movie as well where some of the collectors question their commitment to collecting, whether it continues to be healthy or not.
Q: How were you able to get so many nice, intimate moments?
A: Well I got lucky. I met a few collectors at just the right time and I got to hang with them, to talk to them, for a really long time. They were all very generous with their time and subject matter experts, all very passionate about this hobby and I think that comes through in the movie, their sense of humor and their love for these old games. Usually it was just the interviewee, me, and the camera. So we’d just get to talking and eventually we’d both forget the camera was even there. At that point it was just two guys shooting the breeze about video games and people could really open up. Some of these conversations were long, four or five hours at a stretch, covering the entire gamut of gaming related topics, including a lot of trivia and esoteria that most people ultimately wouldn’t care about. But it gave me a wealth of material to draw from.
Q: Why is the arcade game collecting hobby so male dominated?
A: That was one of the questions I asked. I believe that is true, though certainly there are a handful of female arcade collectors out there. I’ve learned about a few more since completing the film. But they’re certainly in the minority. Which is strange because back in the ‘80s, everyone was in the arcade. I interviewed 50 collectors and feature 25 in the film. Only one is female. Maybe women are just more sensible than men and don’t want these old dirty, rusty games taking up space in their houses. It’s still a little bit of a mystery, honestly. I hope, though, that both men and women will see this movie and get excited about the possibility of starting their own collection. As with any hobby there are challenges, but I think with arcade game collecting, there are a lot more rewards than risks.
Q: Can you talk about the music in the film?
A: One of the collectors I met when I first started collecting was Jean Baudin. He’s also in the film. In addition to collecting, he plays a custom made 11-string bass and has two solo albums that everyone should purchase on iTunes if you haven’t already. At any rate, he generously allowed me to use his music in the film and I feel like the images worked really beautifully to help evoke a certain tristesse, that kind of happy/sad feeling of nostalgia that I think is common emotional response to any form of collecting.
Q: Do you think these old games have a future?
A: That’s another great question and one I tried to address in the film. For now, I think they’re fine. In fact, in the past few years we’ve seen a real resurgence of interest in the form of barcades popping up all over the country. It’s not the same thing as the early ‘80s arcades but it’s great that they’re once again in the public sphere and that most larger metro areas now have a place where you can go hang out with your friends and relive some of these old memories—and even make new ones. Longer term, there are some significant technological challenges to keeping these games in their original condition. Most of this technology is now thirty or more years old. It’s antiquated. Just a simple thing like CRT monitors going away will have a huge repercussion eventually on all of these old games. Those old tubes simply aren’t made anymore and eventually they’re all going to burn out and that might finally spell the end of the arcades, at least in their original form. Who knows? When they were built, they were meant to be obsolete in just a couple of years. No one would have predicted that they would remain vibrant this long. I think it’s helped that there have been a lot of creative solutions, a lot of individuals who have made large and small contributions behind the scenes, to make sure we continue to enjoy these games for many years to come.