Movie/Gamer: Dan Trachtenberg on His Wildly Successful Short Film 'Portal: No Escape'

Movie/Gamer: Dan Trachtenberg on His Wildly Successful Short Film 'Portal: No Escape'

Sep 08, 2011


The strange puzzle hybrid Portal was first released in 2007 on the PC and Xbox 360 as part of "The Orange Box," a grab bag of Valve games all powered by the shoot-'em-up Quake engine. Portal is completely non-violent and makes use of physics and space in a mind-boggling way. Our protagonist Chell wakes up in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center and must figure out how to escape using a portal gun, which shoots holes into walls, ceilings, and floors. Her only guide is a computer called GLaDOS, which might or might not be leading her astray. And what about the cake she's promised at the end?

Valve released a sequel to Portal earlier this spring, but even before that, commercial director Dan Trachtenberg was hard at work on his short film, Portal: No Escape. The live-action short film was released on YouTube on August 23rd and already has over 6 million views; it's wowed gamers, film geeks, and industry folks alike. Now that the dust has settled, Trachtenberg chatted with me about his film, fandom, and plans for the future.

You can catch Trachtenberg on the web, on Twitter, and on The Totally Rad Show. Be sure to check out Portal: No Escape below. Why do you think Portal has remained so popular? I've seen everything from Portal tattoos to my friends'office, which is painted and decorated like a room in Portal.

Dan Trachtenberg: Well, it's an exceptional game in every way it could be. From the gameplay, to the story, to the actual writing of that story -- there's no other game like it.

I also think the length of that first game, being something you could complete in one sitting, it was like a dessert that kept you wanting more. It's definitely a challenge to translate what makes a video game exciting into a movie or short film, especially a puzzle game. What was it about Portal that appealed to you as the subject of your short film?

Dan Trachtenberg: Funny you should phrase it in that way -- because for me, one of the biggest draws to adapt Portal was that it was so un-cinematic. The game is so wonderful because it never feels like you are playing an "interactive movie," but the story elements resonate so well because you have a controller in your hand. I felt very challenged by that -- and as soon as I honed in on some iconography that WAS cinematic, I knew I had to make it. What was your first thought when you read that they were making Portal 2, especially in relation to how it would affect your film?

Dan Trachtenberg: The basis of my take was really just the last section of the short- bringing the Portal gun in the "real world" and using it in an action scene. So I was very nervous that Portal 2 was going to become more of an FPS [first-person shooter] with the Portal gun, perhaps even a merging of the Half Life universe with the Portal one.

That being said, when I finally played Portal 2 I was in awe once again because they retained the identity of the first game while still expanding on the universe and telling an incredible story. Can you describe the process of casting, filming, and then adding special effects and post-production on Portal: No Escape? Do you think that you would have been able to make it without already having experiences and connections in the film and advertising industries?

Dan Trachtenberg: One of the main reasons why I decided to make Portal: No Escape was because I thought it was something I could do on a budget -- limited locations, one actress, compositing but not too much CGI, etc. But it turned out to be much more difficult.

The minimal locations I presumed would be so easy to get ended up being quite the challenge in the filming savvy town of Los Angeles. If I were in NYC or smaller cities, the locations would have been far more willing to work with me and there would be more to choose from with the look I was going for. For instance, that stairwell with the open center is practically non-existent in LA. But we finally discovered in the historical Sears building downtown who we convinced to let us shoot in just a few hours.

We had a lot of on-set problems, generators malfunctioning, things like that -- but you roll with it, adapt… We ended up not shooting 3 pages of the script.

The connections I had from working as a commercial director certainly got me part of the way through a challenging production -- but your connections can only take you so far. I am very lucky in that my brother, David Trachtenberg, is a very talented editor who's been in the biz for years. But I certainly wish I had another brother who was a VFX genius -- because that was much harder to come by. But you learn your strengths and weaknesses and adapt. I discovered my own international stable of FX whizzes through twitter (I used a strength to combat a weakness) and I couldn't be more proud of my badass FX team.

Dan Trachtenberg How does being a gamer inform or relate to your filmmaking? Do you generally like movies that are based on video games? Why are so many games based on movies so bad?

Dan Trachtenberg: I actually think my filmmaker brain informs the gamer in me much more frequently (I know my co-host, Jeff Cannata, on The Totally Rad Show, would agree with that) as I am so often comparing a game experience to a cinematic one.

I don't generally like movies that are based on video games. I think so many game-to-movie adaptations are bad because they are slaves to the source material. It never seems like their goal is to be a movie, rather, just to be a big-screen recreation. Do you have plans to make a feature-length version of Portal: No Escape? In a perfect world, what other games would you like to make into movies, whether full-length or short?

Dan Trachtenberg: I look forward to working out a feature length movie set in the Valve universe. There are many other games I'd love a crack at. I know there was talk of a Tomb Raider reboot -- I'd love to do for that franchise what Nolan did for Batman.

Categories: Sci-Fi, Features, Interviews, Geek
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