X-Strike Studios: Good Night, Sweet Prince of Space

Hello Internet. If you haven’t read Juese Cutler’s great (brief) history of the defunct indie video game film company X-Strike Studios, please do that now! I was inspired to revisit my own history with X-Strike, mainly because I felt that as the piece was written from Juese’s perspective, many things were left out – so it’s time to come clean once and for all.

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THE X-STRIKE PREQUEL STORY

My name is Chad Williams.  My history with X-Strike started in college where I suffered from deep depression starting my freshman year. It was a hold-over from high school where it wasn’t enough that I was a member of “the black t-shirt wearing miscreants”, those art kids who played D&D and moped about feeling THINGS, nay, I was kicked out of that band of brothers and somehow got back in after our mutual friend killed himself. Death brought me back into the fold, death and soccer (we traded our black t-shirts for yellow and gold varsity soccer jerseys every Fall).

Anyway during my second year of college (in between boughts of having zero friends, then having a ton of friends, and trying hard to imitate anyone that was ever cool) I was feeling particularly confident one day (a rarity!) and saw Jesse Cutler – a person I recognized from either our friend John’s TV show crew, or our friend Lindsey’s media arts capstone project. Either way he had mentioned when we were all passing our names and interests around the table during a meeting that he liked video games and rather than saying anything at the time and becoming his friend, I had quietly kept silent and wished that I were a different person who would have the balls to say something to someone who I thought was cool.

That day I ran over to Jesse and said something like “hey, did you want to play video games sometime?” which is as good of a “will you be my friend” pickup line as I could muster. He said YES and we became instant best buds. It was in that moment, in my mind, that X-Strike Studios began.

Jesse, or ‘Juese’ as his high school chums had christened him after a hilarious year book misspelling, introduced me to his roommate Ben Lathan (a skinny kid whose parents always seemed to pop in when the one ‘naked chick’ part of an anime was playing), his friend from U.B., Tim Ekkebus (a guy who had made / starred in no-budget horror movies and could burn pirated PSX games), and one by one the rest of our circles mixed into a tight group of people that we hung out with every day. By our third year of college, we were staying up all night playing burned Dreamcast games, watching the premiere of something called Adult Swim, and producing our own television show on campus TV.

THE GIGANTIC PAPER PILE MYSTERY POWER HOUR

The show was random. It was unpredictable and weird. It was poorly shot and favored concept over execution – mainly because I was director, cinematographer, editor, and had no idea what the hell I was doing. I was a Media Arts major. That meant that while I took some Comm classes and read about the basics of movie making, I ignored the slow and boring parts and just shot, shot shot. I’d figure out a way to save it later. A friend once told me point blank that the TV show was “like a car wreck. It was awful but I couldn’t look away.” Back then I took that as a compliment.

We wound up producing one episode of the show per semester, because there was so much post production and I had to learn how to do everything at the same time. Working on the show gave me my real college education, as everything else was just theory and paperwork. I knew there was more to moviemaking and by my senior year we were doing ambitious, experimental films featuring wacky fight scenes with costumed ninjas, zombies, clowns, etc. My major inspirations were other no-budget movies that walked the line of making fun of themselves while delivering a real story with memorable characters. We started to do 4-6 hour shoots to make 5-minute shorts about video game monsters come to life or an anime sound effect that killed people. Most importantly we started to believe that we were real filmmakers.

My biggest fear was that we would be found out, kicked out of a stolen location or told by someone who knew better that we were crap. We were never kicked out or talked sternly to, but maybe I wished that we would so that I would have to face the part of myself that knew it was crummy work. I was loving what we were doing and it took up all of my time. “Filmmaker” became my identity and yet I was always looking to improve, to show the invisible naysayers that I could make a successful film on $0. Juese expanded one of our more successful skits about a racist superhero comedy into a feature script and I was set to direct, shoot, and edit. We called our senior year masterpiece White Dawn: Dark Territory.

This feature brought together everything that I had learned and all the people that we had met while filming and playing video games. Tim Ekkebus cameo’d as the film’s villain, Rory O’Boyle played the silly anti-hero, Darrin DeMarco played Rey Mysterio, it was about time travel, video game references, and Gordon Bombay from The Mighty Ducks. It was 60 minutes, enough to break up into two 30-minute chunks for our 5th and 6th (and final) episodes for our campus TV show. We screened it for a bunch of the cast and crew but I noticed that only a few of us close friends and cast members were giggling- everyone else was silent.

RIVER CITY RUMBLE

That Spring we used the same TV studio equipment, on-campus locations, friends, crew, cast, etc to make a new movie penned by Tim called River City Rumble. It was a great script that harkened back to his no-budget horror days. We split up shooting duties as most of us were looking for work or had moved back to their parents houses for the Summer. In the Fall, I made the rough cut of the movie in our freezing, no-heat apartment. Juese, Ben, Tim, and I had moved in together, purchased some new equipment, and were officially Townies living in our college town and convincing ourselves that we were going to make it. All we needed was our big break.

The first “MAGFest Cut” of RCR went over really well. In front of 100 sweaty male nerds (and 5 females maybe) there was nothing like it. We were the first feature length video game film made by gamers and we were applauded as geniuses. I shot and edited a documentary about our experiences going to MAGFest and it was through that wonderful excuse “hey there, can I interview you about your work?” that we met all the other amazing people that would shape MAGFest for years to come. We made connections, we felt like champions. Here it was, our fame and fortune was just around the corner if only we could get our first big break.

It was somewhere during the first Summer that we argued about the name of our new studio. Juese and I were S.L.I.T., Slip It In There Productions, but that was when we ran the show. Now Tim, Ben, and a slew of new friends were just as important to our decision-making process. It made for lots of arguments. We were all poor and unemployed. All of us had 4-year college degrees and nobody could pay rent without help. For a second we were Saikyo Studios, Tim’s suggestion, but the rest of us didn’t feel that anyone would understand that deep of a Street Fighter Alpha reference. We went with X-Strike, a double team-up attack from Chrono Trigger (people still talk about that game!) for our official name. We were in debt together (that equipment all cost money), and that made us a team.

The final chapter of X-Strike for me was the next Summer. Sure, we had all suffered together during the winter of “don’t turn on the heat, don’t have to pay for the heat” cheapness, and sure we had all bonded through our work and video games and were better friends than ever. We understood each other on a level that can only be achieved when you live with someone, work with someone, and depend on someone all at the same time. Still, I knew our work was shit. Even though we had made progress in our individual filmmaking skills, my nagging paranoia that our films were never going anywhere started to take over. I wrote a script for a Parappa movie that came to me during 8-hour lawn mowing shifts at a state park. Then during the summer of 2004, it all ended.

THE END IS NEAR

The first thing that happened was that we all got jobs working in a local ice cream factory. Then, during one of my better days there, my Dad called and asked if I wanted to work in a prison that summer. I turned him down. Then, after a real crappy day where I got bitched out by a co-worked with one tooth in her head, had ice cream thrown at me by the folks at the machine next door and a teenage girl told everyone that I was her boyfriend “HEY CHAD! YOU GOIN’ WIF KIM!” “Uh, no.” “OH.”, I called my Dad and asked if the position was still available.

The second thing that happened was that during the weekends I would drive from my prison job back to our off-campus home where we’d shoot the Parappa movie. It put everything in perspective. I saw the house as a death trap, a place I could not return to even if I was debt-bound to the company to contribute and wait for our big break. I made what was probably my best film yet, because I was still learning and constantly improving. It was still crap, but like all good fan films you can get by with a lot of nostalgia, references, and comedy. Lots of good things happened. Lots of bad things happened. A cast member told me jokingly before a take that she might have been raped the night before. Somebody had a bag of cocaine in their car. My girlfriend asked me to marry her, and when I said no, she hounded me for her Erica Badu CD back for months and months.

The final thing that happened was that my prison job, although insane and memorable, paid off and I got to apply to an A/V position at the DOCS Albany Training Academy. I got the job. It was the first time that anyone in our group had actually scored a real job in their real field. It felt like a vindication of my 4-year degree, all my movie-making knowledge I used in the position and all of my people skills that I learned through filming and playing with my friends helped build my confidence to that of someone who feels CAPABLE.

I said goodbye to X-Strike. I didn’t have the money to pay my rent and live in Albany and also contribute to the monthly “pay off the computer and video equipment” film debt, so I figured that since I was moving away that someone else could pick up the slack. It was a dick move, and it wound up making the Albany position more of a “goodbye forever”. I went back to having no friends. It was the end of X-Strike for me, and since I was so involved in a lot of everyone’s projects, I selfishly figured that the company would fold without someone as amazingly talented as me leading the way. The truth was more complicated than that.

There were a lot of mixed emotions on me moving away. Albany was 5 hours by car, so that meant that I couldn’t visit on weekends to help film stuff. I could tell that the other were not happy for me, and I felt some resentment and a feeling of betrayal. How could I turn my back on the company that we had all started together, just when we were on the verge of a big break? My belief that our films were going nowhere started to leak out, and affected my attitude negatively. Here I was, literally working for The Man while my friends suffered through another year in the cold, no-heat apartment making no-budget video game movies for a few hundred people who would ever see them. I told myself that the big break was never coming and that the only way to move forward was to get a real job. I distanced myself from no-budget films for a time.

HINDSIGHT IS 20XX

I learned so much from my friends, hell I made so many friends through the films that we made together. We all had something special, something that I now recognize as our biggest asset: PASSION. You can’t get a project done without it. Sure, I felt at the time that our “shoot now fix later on $0 everyone is poor” attitude worked but that it couldn’t last. Now it’s pretty much the norm! Today I see a new generation of filmmakers doing the exact same thing that we did, but with better equipment (software and hardware) that makes their no-budget films look like GOLD. I am jealous sometimes of how awesome these college kids have it, because back in our day you had to pay $30 at Wal-Mart for a 3-pack of DV tapes to use in tiny cameras with no lenses that made your work look like ass.

Everyone makes fan films for $0 now. If you are good enough, people will pay you to make them through KickStarter or Patreon. As long as you have passion, you can do it. I continued to make fun web content after my Albany job was over, reconnecting with old friends and finding new ones through the work. I made real documentaries and worked on giant, huge-budget films and TV shows in New York City. Through it all, when the passion died out, I could tell that it was time to stop and move on to the next big thing.

When the remaining members of X-Strike announced that they were ending the company in 2014, I thought “well, it’s about time”. In my eyes, Resident Horror was their swan song – the best and last film they ever did. My friends and I slowly patched things up since the move to Albany. Everyone got jobs and left our college town. Some of us got married, had kids, moved on. Video games, when you are 30-something and have a “real job” and live far away from your friends, start to matter less and less. I read the same thing over and over again. Games matter less, you’re too busy, the passion has died out – no matter how much you might want to cling to the past. We all find something new, something different and exciting and do that instead.

I will always remember the films, the friendships, hell even the arguments fondly. It was my life and without even noticing, I had really made something of it. When I was in my darkest, lonliest depression in my freshman year, I wished for a life as cool as what we turned into: independent filmmakers making our own work with a dedicated fanbase who thought we were freaking awesome. In a way, it’s fine that we never “made it” like ScrewAttack, Mega64, or any of the others who went on to have followings in the millions. X-Strike, for me, was a pure time that gave me more experience than any other job or situation could have. It made me into a better person – or at least I pupated into an asshole who would eventually face all his issues and come out as a better person.

I will never forget the friends that I made during those years. I consider them family – and if you got all the way to the bottom of this self-indulgent crap, then you are probably one of them. See you at MAGFest, we will never stop going.

Thank you.

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