Dan Trachtenberg’s ‘Portal’ catches gamer love, Hollywood buzz
Video game fans love to debate whether their favorite game could be turned into a movie, but Dan Trachtenberg went out and did it. The 30-year-old commercial director and aspiring feature filmmaker made “Portal: No Escape,” a seven-minute movie inspired by the critically acclaimed video game series from Valve Software that features a woman trapped in test chambers that she must escape using a gun that can create entries and exits on any surface. (While Valve was not approached before the shoot, the company has posted the video on its Facebook page).
Trachtenberg shot the movie a year and a half ago for just a few thousand dollars (plus an invaluable amount of free labor) and finished the effects a few weeks ago. The final version hit the Internet last Tuesday and has already racked up more than 5.7 million views on YouTube alone and become a hot topic of discussion all over the Web. Entertainment Weekly’s website called it “all kinds of awesome,” SlashFilm labeled it a “must see for everyone,” and the video game blog Kotaku compared it to the work of Christopher Nolan.
It has also made Trachtenberg, who has spent the last seven years making commercials for such clients as Lexus and co-hosting the podcast “Totally Rad Show,” the latest viral video maker to catch Hollywood’s eye. His agents at International Creative Management are fielding incoming calls from producers and executives who want to meet the man who made Portal come to life.
Amid a week full of meetings, Trachtenberg had breakfast with Hero Complex contributor Ben Fritz, a gamer and “No Escape” fan, for his first interview since the film debuted.
BF: So what kind of commercials did you do?
DT: I did some for Lexus that were like little documentaries and I recently did a PSA for the Ohio Food Bank. It was a lot of reality-oriented stuff, nothing big and cinematic. I realized none of this work was setting me up for movies. I needed to start making some films. So I shot “Portal.”
BF: Why did you decide to tie your film to Portal?
DT: Well, obviously, I love Portal and one of the reasons is that it’s a unique way to experience a story because it’s a puzzle game. A lot of video games are inherently cinematic, like Halo and Killzone, but Portal is not. So there was something that was very challenging about that to me.
There are also things you never get to see in the game, like when [the movie’s protagonist] sticks her hand in a portal and it comes out the other side, because in the game you’re always in the first person. I love mind twisty stuff, like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, and I knew that’s what this would be. I also wanted to use a lot of visual effects but I liked the idea of not doing something with robots and aliens in it. It’s rare that a special effect can be intellectual and visceral and Portal has that.
BF: Did you know at first that you could make the Portal effect work?
DT: No. The thing that I learned from Portal was I’m not like those whiz kids who can do amazing special effects work on their computers at night.
I had a company lined up before I shot but they got busy with other work. From then on, it was this year-and-a-half struggle of “How do I get an awesome effects team to do amazing work and how do I get them to do it for free?” And that’s where Twitter was amazing. I tweeted out what I needed incrementally and that’s how I found this compositor, Jon Chesson, who became the visual effects supervisor.
BF: Who else did you get from Twitter?
DT: I got my 3-D match movers, who work the effects frame-by-frame, they were in the Netherlands. I got a particle animator in New York and a CG modeler in London. So it was a completely international team. The makeup girl I got on Twitter the day before shooting.
BF: When exactly did you shoot it?
DT: The weekend of March 27, 2010.
BF: And where did you make it?
DT: One of the biggest struggles was finding locations. I had never driven around downtown L.A. as much before, since I didn’t have money for a location scout.
We ended up on a rooftop next to the American Apparel building and we used compositing and plates and matte paintings for everything you see on it. It was the same thing in the cell, it was actually only two-thirds there. So there’s a lot more effects than just the portals in the movie.
The stairwell was from the old Sears building downtown that they never let anyone shoot in. If I was in New York, getting a staircase like that would be no problem. In L.A.? Every staircase has no gap in the center, or if there is, it’s really expensive … so that was just so difficult.
BF: How did you find your actress?
DT: The first person I got was a stunt coordinator and I needed him to help me find an actress, because the role was very physical. We got to talking about how we wanted it to be like that opening scene in “Terminator 2” with Sarah Connor and it turns out Danielle Rayne actually plays Sarah Connor in the live action “T2” experience at Universal Studios.
Initially I had seen the character as a young, hip Asian girl, but I met Danielle and she was just awesome, and not typical. We had the actors we auditioned do action-y things first, but then one day we had them work on the emotional stuff and Danielle was really small and that was important because there’s no dialogue in this. I didn’t want anyone who gestured to inform what was going on inside. Danielle was just having an experience and we were picking it up.
BF: Did you not want her to talk because the main character in the game never talks?
DT: Actually, I wonder if that was happenstance or by design, I think I just wanted to tell the story of a person breaking out of solitary confinement, so there was never a moment where you need speaking. Also I like the idea of seeing a person going through an experience, and us being on the same page as her, even though there’s no dialogue.
BF: So you finished shooting and had an edit done pretty soon. Did the effects just take a ton of time to get right?
DT: It took a lot of time to find the right people. And people would keep getting busy so the process would get clogged up. We’d have a particle guy at one point and then he got busy so we had to find a new guy. It was just frustrating because every time I’d go out, somebody would ask me how it was going, and I hated that I became the guy who made something that wasn’t going to come out. I know so many people who have those projects that just never end and I was like, “Oh, my God, am I that guy now?”
At first we wanted to have it ready for E3 of 2010 because we thought they would announce Portal 2 there, but that didn’t happen and we kept setting new goals. Finally, what motivated everyone to finish the final stretch this year was that “Totally Rad Show” does a panel every year at Comic-Con and somebody said to me how awesome it would be to premiere it there.
BF: Obviously, this movie hit a nerve with millions of fans. Why do you think that is? To you, what is this movie about beyond, “Wow, it’s a live-action Portal?”
DT: Well there’s a quote I fell in love with that Joss Whedon said, that is, “You take people, you put them in peril, you find out what they’re made of.” That’s my mantra now. There’s two things I love about this short. One is the hash marks in the cell, which is the most damning thing, that someone else has been here for a very long time. It’s her biggest threat, the thing haunting her, and then it becomes her means to escape because they are her clue to finding the gun.
The other thing I love is the idea that just when you think you’ve escaped something, you discover you’re still inside. And I’m not a nihilistic person, I’m fairly optimistic, but there’s just no better way to end an escape movie than to say: When you think you’re outside, you’re really inside. There’s something very thematically Portal about that without being on the nose with the cake [a recurring joke in the game] and [game villian] GLaDOS.
BF: Why didn’t you include references like those? Fans would have gone crazy.
DT: I didn’t just want it to be a fan service, just a bunch of shout-outs. It’s how I feel about video game adaptations in general. The fans are going to see it anyway so as long as you’re not stepping on it or making fun of it or getting it wrong, it doesn’t need to be filled with allusions to the game. If at the end of the movie I had a cake sitting in that cell, anyone who hasn’t played the game would say “What the [hell] is that?” The fans of the game would tell them, “It’s awesome, go play the game” Well that doesn’t do anyone any good.
I wanted it to be gritty and real, and I didn’t feel that the story of that woman in solitary needed to have the humor that the game has. Maybe that would be more in tone with the game, but I can’t write that and I especially can’t write GLaDOS. Portal is one of the best written and performed video games of all time. I’m not touching GLaDOS.
BF: So are there any calls or meetings that you’ve gotten from this short that have you excited? I understand if you don’t want to name names.
DT: Yeah, I have meetings with places that I grew up as a kid adoring and places that opened in the past few years that I always wished I could work with.
BF: And is your goal to find a feature film to work on?
DT: For sure.
BF: So now the total fan service question: Do you want to do more films set in the Portal universe?
DT: I definitely want to do more in the Portal universe, for sure. We’ll see what incarnation that takes.
BF: Regardless of whether you do it, do you think Portal can make a good feature film?
DT: Yeah, I think there’s two ways in. I think there’s a way in that’s more true to the game, and I think there’s a way that’s more in line with what I was doing. And honestly both of those ways in are pretty cool. It’s just like Batman, I think Tim Burton’s Batman is awesome and I think Christopher Nolan’s Batman is awesome. And those are completely distinct takes on the same source material. I think Portal could have lots of interesting takes.
— Ben Fritz
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