Making movies on PCs — Steven Spielberg's 'Director's Chair' premieres on a shelf full of shoot-it-yourself moviemaking CDs


Videogame Reviews: Making movies on PCs

In the cold, often cruel world of Hollywood, few stories are more heartwarming than that of the $100 million, lavishly hyped, crassly calculated epic that gets its butt kicked at the box office by an indie flick whose astonishingly small budget was charged to Mom and Dad’s credit card. That same maxim, appropriately enough, applies to the emerging genre of make-your-own-movie CD-ROMs. So you may be edified to learn that Steven Spielberg’s star-studded, two-years-in-the-making Director’s Chair has been soundly trumped by two relatively low-profile activity titles aimed at kids, Hollywood High and Nickelodeon 3D Movie Maker.

That Director’s Chair is such a jejune experience certainly can’t be blamed on its eager-beaver cast and crew. In this three-disc set, players arrange Spielberg-shot scenes of an energetically acted prison-breakout movie starring Quentin Tarantino (as a wrongly convicted felon), Jennifer Aniston (as his girlfriend), Katherine Helmond (as his ditsy mom), and Penn & Teller (as a pair of snide psychics — there’s a stretch — out to snare Tarantino). Along the way, Spielberg and a high-powered bunch of his industry confederates — including Jurassic Park cinematographer Dean Cundey and Aladdin scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio — pop up on screen to guide would-be auteurs through the intricacies of backlot production, including screenwriting, editing, and promotion.

It all sounds good. Trouble is, Director’s Chair isn’t any fun. Spielberg appears to have misunderstood why so many people fantasize about being directors — it isn’t so they can haggle over costume budgets and spend endless hours in dark editing rooms; it’s so they can bark commands to A-list actors and orchestrate a summer blockbuster. Since Director’s Chair‘s cast, scenes, and film clips are essentially prepackaged, there’s little room for creative input. Even more disastrous, the rigid linear structure of this game — you have to ”write,” ”shoot,” and edit footage in the proper order, or else your flick won’t get made — may be true to the moviemaking experience, but it’s completely at odds with the multilateral nature of interactive CD-ROMs.

The anarchic, let’s-do-everything-at-once mentality that’s lacking in Director’s Chair is precisely what makes Hollywood High and Nickelodeon 3D Movie Maker — both of them follow-ups to discs released last year — so enjoyable. Basically a screenwriting program for kids, Hollywood High features a gimmick so delightful that I’m surprised Director’s Chair didn’t come up with it first: After you type in lines of original dialogue on the bottom of the screen, you hear the words spoken out loud by the animated teen characters on top (sure, the speech sounds robotic, but in this version you can vary the pitch and tinker with syllables to alter pronunciation). Throw in scads of sound effects, colorful backgrounds, and delightful music by composer Dean Burris, and you have a disc that’s equally suited to young Ron Howard wannabes or adults intent on re-creating the dialogue (if not the action) from Last Tango in Paris.

Unlike Hollywood High, which gives players free rein with their twisted imaginations, Nickelodeon 3D Movie Maker limits the on-screen action to characters from three popular Nick cartoons — the Ren & Stimpy Show, Rocko’s Modern Life, and AAAHHH!!! REAL MONSTERS — and allows players to choose only from sampled voice clips (”You eeediot!”). But assuming you can master the confusing controls, this game is a technical marvel, enabling budding filmmakers to create textured, three- dimensional cartoons that only a few years ago would have been the state of the art in computer animation. And faced with the choice of directing Ren & Stimpy or Penn & Teller, I’ll go with the dumb cat and neurotic Chihuahua any day. Director’s Chair: C- Hollywood High: A- Nickelodeon 3D Movie Maker: B+