Posted May 30, 2012
VGHS Writer, Will Campos, breaks down the influence the Duncan Brother’s web masterpiece, Overdrift, had on Video Game High School.
Hey everybody—I’m Will Campos, one of the writers of VGHS, with the first in a series of (hopefully many!) blog posts on the influences behind VGHS’ style and tone.
If you’ve been following the Veeg this far, you know it’s a pretty reference-laden show. The pilot touches on everything from Korean pop music to Back to the Future: Part 2 to Twilight, and that’s just the first three scenes. There’s a lot of reasons we do this (sheer hackitude for one, our inability to resist a good ESRB ratings gag for another—wait, those might be the same thing), but honestly, I think the primary motivation behind our constant cultural namedropping is just an earnest desire to pay tribute to the stuff that inspired us as artists while creating the show*.
What I’m saying is we wear our influences on our sleeves around here. Like NASCAR drivers, but with less GoDaddy.Com and more Nope.Avi.
So when Matt was all up on my grill last week about coming up with article ideas for the website (picture J Jonah Jameson but with a can of Monster instead of a cigar and you’re getting the idea), it struck me that this might be an ideal way for us to talk a bit more in depth about all the cool stuff we ripped off—I mean, “drew inspiration from”—while creating the show!
I also figured that today was the perfect time to strike because the FAR AND AWAY COOLEST reference is coming up in tomorrow’s episode. I’m not gonna go into the spoilery details, but suffice to say, there’s an arcade game that plays a big part in tomorrow’s episode and that game goes by the name of OVERDRIFT.
If you, like me, are a fan of all things D-Dimension, you may find yourself involuntarily pumping your fist and hooting with excitement right now. If you’re left scratching your head, however, allow me to explain.
Overdrift is a short film created by YouTube filmmakers The Duncan Brothers. Made in 2007 as an entry for the Channel 101 film festival, Overdrift is an epic story about dinosaurs, drift racing, and one man’s search for his destiny amidst the tragedy of his past.
It’s also literally the greatest work of fiction ever created by man. That might be overstating my case a little bit. Look, just watch it already:
(Fair warning from here on out: I am pretty obsessed with this film. For sure, Overdrift is near and dear to a lot of hearts around here at Rocketjump, but I suspect I’m probably the only one who would unironically compare it to Shakespeare in mixed company. I tend to get this crazy gleam in my eye when I talk about it—you know, that gleam Salieri gets when he’s talking about Mozart in Amadeus that makes you go, “dude, this guy needs to take a vacation”? That’s the one. I’ll try to play it cool for the purposes of this article. But no promises.)
So, okay, now that you’ve watched it, you’ve no doubt been dazzled by its relentless energy, its over the top performances, its brazen commitment to its own insane mythology, and the brute simplicity of its one liners (not to mention the sheer genius of that downshifting-in-an-automatic gag). But you’re probably wondering what the big deal is here—not to mention what in God’s name does any of this have to do with VGHS?
Here’s why Overdrift continually blows my mind—and why it became such an enduring topic of conversation in the VGHS writer’s room. By the time the film has ended, we’ve seen our protagonist Blake Kagamura transform from an angry young man running from his past (“Duke threw everything away for the drift! I’m not going to make the same mistake!”) into a fearless warrior who has embraced his destiny (“So what are you gonna do?” “I’m gonna drift!”). Yeah, it’s a pretty typical Hollywood blockbuster kind of arc—but it’s also one that takes the typical Hollywood blockbuster about 2 hours to complete.
Yet Overdrift gets it done—and nails it—in five minutes flat.
FIVE MINUTES. That’s the time it takes most movies to get past their opening credits. I mean, I’m not trying to make some sort of argument here that faster=objectively better as far as storytelling goes (and I also realize the inherent silliness of comparing the accomplishments of a 5 minute internet short to the artistic ambitions of a big honkin’ feature length film like, say, The English Patient, or even VGHS for that matter), but DAMN is that one impressive feat of screenwriting.
What’s even more impressive is that it’s something Overdrift accomplishes without cutting corners or sacrificing characterization. Rather, it’s just one of the most efficiently told cinematic stories you’re likely to come across. To get what I mean, let’s look at how much story Overdrift can tell with just two lines of dialogue:
GRAMPS: Ya going to your ol’ dino job?
BLAKE: It’s called archaeology, Gramps. Someone’s gotta pay the bills around here.
This split second exchange gives us so much information it still frankly kind of infuriates me. Gramps calls Blake’s archaeology gig his “dino job”, a condescending nickname if ever there was one. He doesn’t approve of his grandson’s line of work. Blake corrects him: “It’s called archaeology.” Subtextually, Blake is defending himself against Gramps’ disapproval by insisting on calling his “dino job” by its more respectable name.
Now, I can’t support this next bit with specific textual evidence from the film, but I’ll throw it up for discussion anyway (if for nothing more than proof of how much time you can spend obsessing over someone else’s work while trying to figure out your own). To me, Blake’s correction of Gramps here also highlights a really key aspect of Blake’s character—he’s insecure about being an archaeologist. Blake could just ignore the jab or laugh it off, but he doesn’t. It irritates him enough to make a point of correcting Gramps, even though this probably isn’t the first time they’ve had this conversation, nor will it be the last.
Why is Blake insecure? Because deep down, he knows Gramps is right. In his heart of hearts, Blake knows that he’s just running away from his problems, that the Kagamuras really ARE “a family of drifters”. But because he’s still wounded from his brother’s death, he’s not ready to accept that truth. And that’s the character in a nutshell, right there in that line.
But more to the point, what the exchange also highlights is that while these two people might not get along, they care about each other. Gramps’ salty disapproval comes from a place of genuine concern. Likewise, while Blake’s remark to Gramps about who “pays the bills around here” might seem like a cheap shot, it also reveals that Blake takes care of this old man who drinks all day and heaps disapproval on grandson. They’re the only family each other have.
This does two huge things for the script. For one, it allows for exciting drama when Gramps is kidnapped. We’re rooting full charge for Blake to go forth and kick ass to rescue him, something we wouldn’t be doing if Gramps was just a jerk to him or if Blake didn’t care. Secondly, the relationship generates a huge amount of empathy Blake, which is crucial to creating a main character that the audience can engage with. Here’s this guy who’s clearly scarred by his past who still takes the time to selflessly care for his surly, disappointed grandfather. We feel for this guy, and since we feel for him, we will gladly follow him on his quest. When he feels happy, WE feel happy. When he gets angry, WE get angry. When he drifts so hard he opens a portal to the D dimension and his dinosaur brother tosses him an energy drink, WE… uh… okay, moving on.
Look, the point is, TWO LINES of dialogue gives us all of that! And again, what’s inspiring about that to me isn’t so much the speed of it, but rather the demonstration of how powerful two simple lines of dialogue can be from a storytelling perspective. It’s a firm reminder to make sure that every moment in your script serves a purpose (or even two or three), that you’re never just indulging in cleverness or blowing stuff up to be cool. That’s a lesson that films of any length can learn from, and it’s one that we tried to apply whenever possible while writing VGHS.
And I do mean whenever possible. To continue with the racing metaphors, Overdrift was like the mechanical rabbit to our greyhound (or the Running Man to our Link, if that’s more up your alley)—always out in front, always out of reach, putting us through the paces, showing us how it’s done. Oh, and causing a lot of gnashing of teeth and late-night drinking in the process… but that’s a different story.
Ironically, one of the most consistent criticisms we’ve gotten about the show is that the episodes are too short. In retrospect, I can definitely see a bunch of places in the script that we could have hit the brakes a bit more and let things breathe, but I can also say with certainty that any overzealous brevity on our parts was fueled by an Overdrift-inspired determination to not waste the viewer’s time.
But of course, all of that’s just a small part of the REAL Ultimate Lesson of Overdrift. The REAL lesson, the real inspiration we took from the film (or at least, the lesson I spent the most time in the writer’s room rambling about while Matt and Brian shot each other their “Looks like Will is at it again” looks), was simply to take your job as a storyteller seriously even when the story you’re telling is goofy as all hell.
Overdrift could have so easily been just another wacky internet video—random for the sake of random, spoofing the same old film clichés with the same old cliché jokes. But because the Duncan Brothers took their job seriously and crafted a great story out of their crazy idea, Overdrift became what it is today—that is, literally better than if War and Peace and Crime and Punishment had a baby and then that baby wrote a movie and Orson Welles directed it. Again, I might be overselling my point here.
But anyway. While we knew that hoping for VGHS to reach the same Olympian heights of greatness as Overdrift was but the fevered dream of a madman, we also knew that we had to try. We had to approach our goofy world with the same passion for storytelling as the Duncan Brothers had approached theirs. And for better or for worse, the decision to do so was a huge part of making VGHS what it is today.
And for the record, I’m pretty happy with how all that turned out.
Until next time… DUKE! OUT!
*SUPER FUN ARTICLE TRIVIA ROUND: Between YouTube and Rocketjump, you guys have been sharp as tacks about spotting our various references. But so far, I don’t think anyone’s caught one of my favorite references in the entire show: the origin of the name Jenny Matrix! First person to comment with a QUOTE from the movie that the original Jenny Matrix is from gets mad e-props from me. No googling, though, that’s just lame.