DEAD ISLAND in the Sun


By Walter Fernandez Jr.

When the official announcement trailer for the horror video game Dead Island surfaced on the web last February, the impact it had on the gaming world was seismic. The ingenuity of a trailer is to entice and inform just enough to convince the viewer that what is being exhibited is worth his or her time. On rare occasions, the trailer inspires the viewer to spread the word. Above all, it must be memorable. In just over three minutes, the story of a little girl lost to a zombie rampage in front of her parents set off a viral conflagration that spread far beyond the usual RPG (role-playing video game) crowd.

Interactive game developer and distributor Deep Silver joined forces with Scottish animation studio Axis Animation to craft Dead Island’s first public incarnation. The nucleus of this project is Stuart Aitken, co-founder of Axis Animation. Aitken served as editor and director of the trailer, alongside producer Andrew Pearce. In early 2010, Deep Silver and Axis Animation met to discuss the initial stages of Dead Island’s trailer, but the creative process really got under way the following summer. “Pre-production was a slow burn. It took quite a long time, which is fairly unusual. We typically get three or four months to complete everything. The time was a nice luxury. It gave us a lot of time to discuss and refine the script and treatment,” recalled Aitken.

The potent mix of music and digital imagery is stunning but the real power of the Dead Island preview lies in its non-linear editing. The trailer focuses largely on one scene that is deconstructed. It begins at the end of the scene and is told in reverse while jump cuts from the beginning of that same scene are intercut within the narrative until they Benjamin Button themselves—meaning, they meet in the middle. “Once we knew we wanted to go down the route of portraying a family, the script followed in multiple iterations. There was a lot of discussion about violence and how to visually present it,” explains Aitken.

The haunting score of the scene told in reverse is interrupted by the horrifying shards of moments from the beginning of the scene.  It is only in these shards that the actual voices of the little girl and the zombies are heard. The interweaving of the two “removes a bit of the intensity of the violence and on the other hand allows the viewer to get an idea of what was going on. It emphasizes the tragedy of it,” reveals Aitken. “There was a possibility of it becoming a bit too one note-ish and it lacked a punch, so I came up with showing the events leading up to the zombies bursting into the hotel room and moved toward concentrating on the daughter. The smooth, balladic music lulls the viewer at first until they are jolted out of that calm.”

The potent mix of music and digital imagery is stunning but the real power of the Dead Island preview lies in its non-linear editing.

The concept worked and many users began posting their own versions of the trailer on YouTube. Some versions were cut so that the scene played chronologically. People wanted to unravel it and put it back together. Repeat viewings are welcome industry side effects of an effective trailer.

The cinematic quality of the trailer is no accident. Rather than use actual footage from the video game, actors were used in a motion capture setting and digitized to resemble the video game landscape. Movies and video games have lifted elements from each other for some time now, especially in the past decade. Video games aim to be as realistic-looking as possible without sacrificing their bombastic effects. Hollywood, in turn, has sought to up the ante by incorporating intense special effects that appear seamless with its live-action.

Hollywood took notice of Dead Island’s potential almost immediately and there was talk of possibly formulating a feature film out of the trailer. However, writing a script, casting, locations and production meant that Dead Island would likely be old news by the time a studio got all its ducks aligned. The idea of a movie has cooled but Hollywood was still hot for Aitken who signed with United Talent Agency soon after the idea was kicked around.  Not bad for a former art school student who edits his own short-form stuff.

Dead Island’s trailer continued to make waves late last spring. It won a slew of awards at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles and won “the Golden Lion in the Film Lion Category for its original approach at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.”  The actual of Dead Island video game streets in early September and Stuart is back in the UK working on his next projects that will take him through to 2013. Hopefully, he’ll be able to find time put his artistic eye to use in the film world.