If you've ever played and loved the greatest PC game series of all time Half-Life (go on, get out of here world of Warcraft nerds!) then take 12 minutes out of your life to watch the newly-released "Beyond Black Mesa" short. Fan filmmaker extraordinaire Brian Curtin and producer-writer Matthew Hall have captured the look and sounds, even the camera conventions, of the first-person shooter. Better, they have wrapped around it a mini-adventure that represents the best of fan fiction: it adds perspective and communicates a fan's passion for the original. It is a short burst of very well-orchestrated action that is driven by the underlying drama of the Half Life dystopian future. Not deep -- but it is in and out before you notice.
Remarkably, this film was made on a $1,200 investment, plus a lot of volunteer sweat and fan equity. The film has already been featured at the 2010 Sidewalk Film Festival and was voted best sci-fi short film at the Acton on Film Festival.
The short film is being released to film festivals and now online with some of the panache of a major film premiere. There is a Hollywood-style poster, concept art for a DVD release, and production notes online at BeyondBlackMesa.com. They are playing the fantasy out, and who knows where it leads? Curtain tells me they weren't in it for the money. "Our real goal was to make a very entertaining short film that showed our appreciation for a game that has inspired us throughout the years," he says. "We do hope that this film will help build funding for our future projects through DVDs or donations." They are now using a site called kickstarter.com, which rewards people for supporting independent projects like BBM. There has been some fan requests for a DVD with behind the scenes extras.
The Black Mesa short is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than Curtin's first release, 2008's "Concrete Hustle." There, again, he used pop culture as his inspiration. But this light saber duel in a concrete parking garage has a bit more wit than BBM, and is more willing to mock its own fan fiction conceit -- chunky fan boys playing at light sabers but endowed with pretty solid special effects. This group, calling itself Infectious Designer, clearly has creative chops and production savvy.
One hopes for their sake there is a business model sprouting from this labor of love -- even if it only works as a demo of the filmmakers' talents. But it is also a good illustration of how good fan fiction can be. Science fiction and gaming have inspired user-generated art for decades now. The overwhelming majority of it constitute tedious reminders that there are reasons why professionals get paid for their experience in entertaining us. Which only makes it all the more important to single out the places where those talented few get it right and demonstrate how well digital media can help surface creativity from all quarters.
As for the rights issues involved in fan homages to famous intellectual property. Curtin says that they did submit the film to famously elusive Valve, the makes of the Half Life series. Apparently, the company enjoyed the film. "They were nice enough to put BBM as their first Favorites video on YouTube," he says. "We didn't get sued, so I guess that's a good indication."