Ridealong is our regular feature where Brendan travels deep into game worlds to meet, question and journey with the inhabitants that dwell within. This month, he explores the movie studios and urban sets of Los Santos with one of its filmmakers, while they try not to get randomly murdered in the process.
I have just invested in a new suit, a new haircut and a fresh shave. And now I am driving as fast as possible through downtown in my old banger to meet Duggy. I’m talking to him over my headset, trying not to crash into oncoming vehicles.
“It can be a long drawn-out process,” he says, “but at least nowadays the tools are there.”
He’s talking about making movies. Duggy is a filmmaker in the world of GTAV. He uses the game’s in-built editor to make films about criminals, or serials about zombies, or comedy shorts about drunk workmen. To do this, his GTAV folder is normally stuffed to the brim with mods and scripts. But he’s had to strip them all out so that he doesn’t get autobanned when we meet up in GTA Online.
Some mods let him make scenes and put down props. Others let him move the camera to hard to reach places.
“Which opens up a whole new world to you,” he says.
I swerve to miss a pedestrian. A car in the next lane beeps its horn.
“Without that mod… you’re kind of trapped in a bubble. You can’t, say, get massive sky shots or you can’t be way off down the road getting a long-distance shot.”
Other mods allow Duggy to comb through thousands of character animations to get his ‘actors’ (NPC characters) to do an action he wants. If they don’t do it exactly the way he wants it, he’ll have to do another take.
“Sometimes it might not go right,” hes says, “like the actors might screw up. Or sometimes GTA will just do its thing… and suddenly there’s a random cop chase going on just outside the room and they’re shooting and your actors get scared and they run off on you.”
Duggy usually turns cars and pedestrians ‘off’ to get as much recording time as possible, like a real director might cordon off whole streets to get a shot. But even then things can go wrong.
“Sometimes a random car might spawn in and run over one of your actors and crash into something and your actors start screaming and they all start running off.”
I veer around a corner and, finally, I see Duggy down the road. I pull up next to him in my banger. He is driving a flashy red convertible – something you might expect of a movie director.
He’s wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket (“my character doesn’t look anything like me in real life” he says). We decide to go for our drive around Los Santos in his car. I get out and leave the banger parked in the middle of the road.
We start driving toward Vinewood, the game’s version of Hollywood, talking about his YouTube channel and the kinds of things that people might have seen, like his ongoing zombie series, ‘GTA Z’. Suddenly, he turns off the road and starts driving up the hill itself.
“I wanted to make the kind of zombie story I’d like to see… sort of ‘the downfall of Los Santos’. Whereas a lot of zombie movies might go straight into the apocalypse, like it has already happened – it’s done, it’s dusted, now it’s the apocalypse – I wanted to do it where the cops are still around, the army is still around, there’s people still around. It’s not completely the apocalypse yet – it’s coming but it’s early stages yet.”
He pulls to a stop under the Vinewood sign, and we step out of the car and look up at it. I can see graffiti scrawled on the bottom on the ‘V’. Other filmmakers, I remember, have spent hours trying to achieve the perfect stunt of flying a plane through the ‘D’.
Last year, Duggy was waiting patiently for GTAV to come out on PC when Rockstar announced they would be shipping it with an full-blown Editor – better than the more rudimentary one that was included in the previous game.
“Once I’d seen that, it was top priority over singleplayer for me. I was like: now I know exactly what I want to do when I get GTA, I want to make videos and movies and everything out of that.”
“It was a good outlet as well, a hobby for teaching myself these sorts of things. Which is great because I went through most of my twenties without much of a creative buzz. It was like a constant writer’s block… but pretty much as soon as GTAV came out, my head just started filling up with ideas.”
As a result, Duggy has made short videos about plane crashes, deadly mimes, surreal irish bars and drunk mechanics. As well as homages to Predator and the great astro-philospher Carl Sagan. But the important thing for him right now is to push the limits of what the Editor allows.
“When I was doing the zombie story,” he says, “I know when I started I was thinking: look, every man and his dog is going to make a GTA zombie video. So I have to do something that would make me at least stand out that little bit. So I just tried pushing the engine as far as I could. Like, I’d have 150, 200 people on screen at any one given moment. The downside of that was that the game crashes a huge amount.”
After taking a few photos of the Vinewood sign, we get back into the car. Duggy starts us rolling down the hill again. He tells me when he started getting good viewer numbers and good feedback (and after Rockstar featured him) it made him want to get out of his day job in IT and get into filmmaking proper, or even making cutscene videos. That’s somewhere down the line, he says, but getting paid to do this sort of thing is the dream.
We arrive at an intersection that looks familiar. That’s because it was used in one of Duggy’s recent zombie videos. We step out again and he begins explaining the work that went into making the scene – having the “actors” Trevor and Franklin do their bit while having a police car crash at the same time. A lot of work goes into editing these together. It took a month for him to finish this most recent episode. At twenty minutes, it is Duggy’s longest video so far.
“That episode was all filmed around here,” he explains. “I used the map editor to place abandoned cars all up that street. The map editor let me plant about sixty cars but that still wasn’t enough so I had to use the burnt-out car models, so I added a hundred more. I had to individually plant them on this road, to give the illusion of about 200 abandoned cars.”
This isn’t the only method he uses to create a scene. For instance, to get the hordes to come towards the camera, he has to fire shots at them to get their attention. To get other ‘actors’ to go where he wants he has to give them exact directions through his mods.
“Or you could just rough-and-ready shoot into the ground and frighten them. And then it’s just a matter of editing it, making it seem like they’re jogging or something, when in reality I’ve shot at them and they’re running away.”
We’re standing on the sidewalk. Duggy is explaining the editing programs he uses when suddenly there is a huge explosion about twenty yards away. A fighter jet crosses the sky mere metres above us. It is another player, firing missiles at us. I think this is because I have a bounty of $3000 on my head – a hangover from another session.
“Should we move out of here then?” asks Duggy nonchalantly.
Too late. The street has gone to hell. Another missile has landed right on target and blown me across the street. The police are on their way, sirens blaring, and civilians are running through the streets screaming. It isn’t long before I am being chased across the map by an angry player who accuses me of being a “scripter”. I leap off a nearby bridge onto some train tracks. Oh look, I think, this is another set from Duggy’s zombie series. But before I have a chance to admire the scenery, my pursuer catches up to me and blows me away with an uzi. Oh well, at least the bounty is now gone.
A few minutes later, Duggy and I are reunited. I drive away from the chaos. I ask him which of his videos are most popular. Annoyingly for him, it was also the one that caused the most uproar.
“It was only about 2 or 3 days since [the game] had come out on PC, and all I did was I went out onto a crossroad and just recorded me shooting everyone. The idea was that I just go into the editor and see what I could do, you know, camera angles and things.
“The problem was that with the PC version of the editor you could get up close with the violence. A lot of people – myself included – didn’t realise how visceral the violence actually was. You know, when you saw someone get shot and the way the body reacts to being hit with a round, you were kind of like, holy shit, that’s pretty realistic.”
When he posted the video on YouTube he got a lot of views but also a lot of mails and messages from people saying he should take it down, that he had made a “monstrosity” of a video, that if anybody ever shoots up a school, he’ll “be blamed for it.”
“I was getting fierce abuse for it. And my intention was just to say: hey guys! Look what you can do with the Rockstar editor!”
“At the time I made the video, I was proud of it, and I’m still proud of it – the angles and stuff – but in terms of the content of the video it is just mindless violence. Like, it is just a guy going out and shooting people. I would prefer another video to be a more popular one… hopefully the Predator one overtakes it.”
Our car tire bursts inexplicably. I slow and stop by the side of the road. By complete chance, we have broken down right outside the Richards Majestic movie studios. We hop out of the car to take a look around.
“I’ve actually never used this area for any sort of filming,” says Duggy, leading me onto one of the movie sets. “But I can sort of give you an idea of something.”
We step onto a set that looks like an old European city. Maybe the Venice of some Bond-style action movie. A technician is fiddling with lights and cables to one side. A few metres away, an actor in a spacesuit talks to another member of the crew.
“You see that green screen up near that wall?” says Duggy.
“There’s a mod that replaces the cinema screen texture and gives you an enormous green screen. So, say I’m here in single player. I could just spawn it anywhere – an enormous green screen. That opens up a lot of possibilities.
“I’ve used it two or three times but the main time I used it was for the Predator video, to do the cloaking effect… I was able to use the green screen and a simple effect in Sony Vegas to achieve that.”
That the machinima makers of GTAV have figured out how to use an in-game green screen seems incredible to me. I start to wonder what else Duggy has used for his films.
“Have you used this space man before?” I ask, wandering up to the actor.
“I have,” he says. “I used him in the Carl Sagan video.”
“Everyone kept asking ‘how did you get him floating in the air, making it look like he’s in space?’ I basically had this gravity gun, and I had just shaken him up in the air. I was just like —
Duggy whips out a 9mm pistol and waves it around over the astronaut’s head, demonstrating how he moved his actor around. The entire set starts yelling at the sight of the gun. The spaceman cowers and runs away, screaming.
“It’s okay! It’s okay!” shouts Duggy. “I’m only explaining how I made the scene. Come back!”
Almost immediately, I can hear police sirens.
“I guess we’d better high-tail it.”
We start running through the fake cobblestone streets of the studio.
“I still think there’s a huge amount of potential left with Rockstar editor,” says Duggy.
We leap from a high wall into a car park.
“I know a lot of people have had their fill of GTA…”
The film director smashes the window of a black jeep.
“…or they’re just moving onto other things…”
He starts hot-wiring the car.
“… but for me it’s just the icing on the cake.”
The car starts and I clamber in.
“Don’t mind me,” he says, closing the car door. “This is just a typical day at the office.”
We speed off, away from the movie studios.
The big dream, he says as we drive away from the police cars, is to make a full-length feature that keeps the viewers attention, that doesn’t feel like you’re just watching someone play a videogame but like they’re watching TV or a movie. There are limits to this. With Duggy’s stuff, he relies on the lines of dialogue that the game provides – Trevor or Franklin shouting at each other in vague barks. And to get these he has to trawl through thousands of lines within massive audio files – just for a few seconds of material.
“It’s an enormous amount. But you can kind of make up any kind of conversation… I mean, yeah, it could run out but because there’s so much and their dialogue does cater for so much, you could create dialogue to suit the scenes that you have. Worst case scenario, you run out of it and there’s a wealth of voice actors out there who do actively get involved in these videos.
“I would voice act myself, but I’m just not sure it would work. I did some voice work for the last episode… but I just wasn’t happy with the output. You could tell it wasn’t GTA – it was just a guy with a mic in a room.”
We drive to the end of a pier as the day is ending. There is an expensive yacht floating on the waves.
Duggy is telling me about the community of filmmakers on Reddit that he is a part of – r/GTA_Vinewood – when another player strolls up to us. He looks at us for a moment and then approaches a pedestrian. He punches him directly in the head. Then he turns around and gives us a double-barrelled peace sign.
“Good lord,” says Duggy.
The player disappears and reappears with a helicopter. We decide to go for a ride. He takes us directly to the yacht. As soon as he is out of sight, I suggest to Duggy that we take his chopper and ditch him. We could finish our interview in the air. Besides, it would be much better for photographs. He climbs in and we take off without the psychopath.
Duggy has put 800 hours into filmmaking in GTAV – a testament to how much time it takes to direct and edit in any format. But many people will just be starting out, he says. And he is always asked for advice, tips and tricks.
“I say the same thing to everybody. Which is: just keep making videos. A lot of times people say ‘oh, I make my videos and then I see yours, or I see somebody else’s and they’re so much better than mine and I’m put off, I’m losing motivation, mine are shit.’
“You kind of just say to that person: Don’t have that outlook – just keep making videos. Because every video you make is a lesson for the next video… you’ll get better at it… Don’t pay attention to what other people are saying. Make what you want to make.”
“That’s pretty good advice for anything,” I say.
Duggy laughs off the compliment.
“I’m not exactly Carl Sagan.”
We are hovering over the city now in our stolen helicopter. The lights below are glinting like orange stars. In the distance, the Vinewood sign is shining brightly.
Ridealong will be back next month