Screenwriter and film score composer based in Vancouver, Canada. An honours graduate of Vancouver Film School's Writing for Film & Television program, he also teaches in the screenwriting department at SchoolCreative Institute of the Arts.
To all you creatives (writers, artists, composers, etc): I've been asked from time to time what film soundtracks are perfect for making art to. Everyone's tastes are different, but here are my "go-tos". Enjoy!
Tree of Life
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Little Prince
Hell or High Water
Manchester By The Sea
Passion (Peter Gabriel)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Extended Edition)
“Every step in the game development process, every aspect of gameplay, has to go through the mill of public opinion. And it’s really exciting to watch our students successfully navigate the paradigm shift from what they like to what other players like…and celebrate the process.”
Matthew Jenkins is the head of SchoolCreative’s video game department. He received his Masters of Digital Media from The Centre for Digital Media in 2009 and has worked as a member of the Electronic Arts’ production team, taught at Art Institute of Vancouver, and is founder of the MWJ Technology Group.
Let’s start with the most important question: What games are you playing right now?
At the moment, Blizzard’s Overwatch. Truly a piece of transmedia genius and they’ve already got 54 million players. Interestingly, they were kicked out of Russia because one of the characters in the online comic is gay, so it’s been banned there. Which is a shame because Russia was number two in the world after South Korea in this year’s first ever Overwatch World Cup. Another game that I’m really drawn to right now and am following closely is Bethesda’s Fallout 4.
You’re playing Fallout4 on PS4?
No, I’m pretty much an exclusively PC guy right now thanks largely to Steam, the most phenomenal delivery platform ever. You can mod, access online communities, it’s totally revolutionized the industry. The other area of focus for me right now is indie games, ones made by one to three people. For example, Stardew Valley, a farming simulator in 8-bit graphics that won a bunch of awards and made more money than Call of Duty in 2016. It was developed by one guy, Eric Barone, who worked ten hours a day, every day, for four years. I understand he made $24 million last year. I love high graphic, AAA-title games that I can immerse myself in for hundreds of hours; but the whole indie revolution, where the means of production and the means of distribution have become free or close to it, has empowered an entire generation of kids to make really good, really interesting games. It’s a very cool time.
What goes into developing a game? Where do you begin?
To start with, nobody knows what fun is until they have it. Which means that when you come up with a game idea you think is good, you’ve got to test it. Throw it in front of a bunch of people and find out: are they having fun or aren’t they? If they’re not, you make adjustments then test it again. It’s a grassroots, quantitative approach, a constant gathering of data to make your game better and better. There’s no genius designer anymore, no one sitting in a box for a year and suddenly – poof – Athena pops into their head fully-formed. It’s a much more incremental, cyclical, step-by-step process where we put something in front of people, get feedback, make course corrections, and repeat. This means that failure is both inevitable and critical to succeeding. True success starts from the lean-and-agile startup mentality, which is “fail early and often”. And get comfortable with failure. Make it your friend, expect it, embrace it. That’s essential in the video game industry because it’s not only a technical process, it’s also a creative one. And those two things bounce off of each other much more than they integrate, until they finally fuse into an alloy that is both technically strong and creatively unique, while of course also being a ton of fun to play.
What’s the best way to get started – as an indie developer or working for a big company?
If you’re planning to go indie right out of the gate, that’s a rather audacious goal. I hear this question often, should I go indie or work for a big company in the beginning? I absolutely understand where they’re coming from, but it’s really the wrong question. I could direct you to a video game company down the street that’s been indie for 25 years, privately owned by four guys, and pumping out solid titles since it started. They’re a company and they’re indie. You see, people tend to equate “indie” with “doing it on your own”, but that’s not necessarily the case. When starting out, you should aim for the greatest likelihood of success, seek out a place where you can learn the most and grow the most. Which most likely means working for a company, whether it’s indie or one of the big dogs.
Is that because “going it alone” will make it harder for an aspiring developer to get noticed?
No, mainly because there’s just still so much to learn. It’s a classic case of “you don’t know what you don’t know”. You can have the greatest concept in the world, but you still need to learn how to finalize a game, how to get a game out the door. What I notice about people who want to do it on their own is that they get to the idea phase, maybe even the prototype phase, and then rarely go any further. That’s usually because they don’t know how to tune their game for a specific market audience. And there’s no one who can teach you better how to monetize a product than someone who’s done it before. Then there’s the whole dynamic of effectively communicating in a business environment. Solo developers are usually building games for themselves and haven’t yet learned how to speak to someone who isn’t them. And as mentioned, there’s the brutal reality of what it takes just to finish a game and all the sacrifices required to get it to market. If you plan on making money and being successful, you have to be willing to give up half of your brilliant ideas, watch your “babies” die, and be okay with that. You have to routinely expose yourself to criticism, grow a thick a skin, learn to ask the right questions. There’s just no way around it. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to spend a year or two with people who have already done it.
So what’s the right approach to getting in with a game company?
Just to get in the door, you’ve got to show them you have the chops. And the best way to do that is to pick your favourite engine and build something you can show, some tangible demonstration of your talent and passion, a demo reel or portfolio piece. You have to be able to show them something you’ve made. Whether it’s a Broken RPG Maker game, or Unreal or Havok, or just software that you downloaded for free, and you make a decent clone, if you can show that to an employer and say this is why I made this decision, then you’re at the top of the list. That’s the entire focus of the game department at SchoolCreative, positioning our students for success as soon as they graduate.
What’s the best way to spend those crucial first two years?
Quality assurance. Find your nearest location to do play testing and get started. Almost every executive producer I’ve ever met started in QA. Which means testing the same five minutes of game play every day for eight hours, trying to find every usability bug you can. You log the bugs and that eventually makes its way to the game team. Then the producers look at it and prioritizes the fixes, and it goes on from there. It’s gruelling work but it teaches you game design like nothing else. You become analytical at a very deep level of the minutiae of game play.
How does SchoolCreative’s training in game design and programming help launch students into the workforce?
While anyone can walk off the street and become a QA person, what we do at SchoolCreative is provide students with what they’d normally learn in their first year or two of QA with a company, while preparing them to start as entry level designers and producers. The core of all of our teaching is quality assurance. Like I said before, you don’t know if it’s fun until ten strangers or a hundred strangers tell you it is. Every step, every aspect of gameplay, has to go through the mill of public opinion. And while they master design and programming skills and develop their own original IPs, it’s really exciting to watch our students successfully navigate the paradigm shift from what they like to what other players like and celebrate the process. Testing with strangers repeatedly and getting positive feedback, they’re over the moon because they realize they’re getting closer and closer to the fun.
If you could summarize the top skills needed to be successful, what would they be?
To survive and succeed in this industry, once you’re in the door, you need to exhibit at least two out of three qualities: be great at what you do, be fun to work with, deliver work on time. Ideally you’re all three, but if you can nail at least two of those, the industry can work with you according to your strengths. They’ll forgive or work with your weaknesses so long as you’re willing to improve or at least delegate to team members who are strong in those areas.
How can new designers and programmers navigate the inevitable emotional ups and downs inherent in the game development process?
What allows you to take immense amounts of criticism is having a vision. That’s what allows you to stay calm and say to someone giving feedback, I’m listening to you because I need data. Then listen to fifteen other people and collect their data, and finally see how many people said the same thing, look for patterns, and if required, adjust my vision. If you’re just trying to validate your own vision without making any changes, you’re in trouble. So our aim is to instil confidence and courage in our students to be passionate about their vision as they collect data that will give their vision what it needs to become successful. I tell them, you are designers, you have good ideas, and those ideas will keep coming if keep learning and growing. If you accept that you are a creative person and that you have a definite role to play, I believe no amount of criticism can take you down. On the contrary, you learn to transform all of that criticism into added value. Once you start doing that, the future begins to open up and becomes yours to own.
“Acting is simple, but it’s not easy. However, if you’re willing to strip down and go all the way, acting and life begin to get a lot easier. And a lot more fun!”
Daniel Bacon is an actor and instructor in SchoolCreative’s Acting: Film, Television & Voiceover diploma program, with previous roles in 50/50, Fantastic Four, and Bob the Builder. He is currently starring in Disney’s The BFG, which opened in theatres on July 1.
You played Bonecruncher in a Disney adaptation of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, directed by Steven Spielberg. How did that happen?
I get an email from my agent in March 2015 inviting me to audition for the role of a giant in an unnamed film. And my first thought is, I’m 5’ 9’’, how the heck am I supposed to play a giant? I didn’t understand it. So I dug a little deeper and discovered it was going to be performance capture and I thought, okay, I get it, I could do this. Then about halfway down the page I see who’s directing and I’m like, ok-a-a-ay.
How did it feel to know you’d be working with one of the greatest directors of all time?
I’ve been fortunate along the way to work some successful actors and great directors, so my reaction wasn’t so much about hero worship or that kind of thing. Mostly, I was surprised he was going to be directing a film in Vancouver, which he’d never done before. He’d produced shows here, but not directed. That was interesting to me.
So knowing that height wasn’t a factor, what did you bring that they were looking for?
They wanted actors with a theatre background and who’d worked with animals, both of which I had done. For the audition, they gave us two scenes: one that was scripted and one we had to come up with on our own. And they wanted to see two different characters, once for each scene. This was a Thursday, and my audition was scheduled for the following Monday. When I finally found out what the movie was, I ran out, bought the book, and read it. I was very familiar with Roald Dahl – who doesn’t know about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox – but I hadn’t actually heard of The BFG. After reading the book, I watched the 1989 animated version of the story to get a sense of who the giants were. Then I went for a walk and started coming up with ideas for who my two giants would be and especially how the unscripted part of the audition would look.
Take us into the audition room. How did that go?
I came into town and visited a workout space where I did a full theatre warm-up, about an hour and a half. I don’t do that for every audition, but I knew this was going to be very physically and vocally demanding, requiring a British accent and a fair amount of grunting. When I got there, I took off my shoes and shirt, rolled my track pants up into a kind of giant’s diaper, and I just went for it. When I was done, I left the room thinking, I love what I just did. One take, the casting director thought it was fantastic, and because I did what I set out to do, I felt good about it and was able to let it go.
Do you think your preparation was the difference-maker?
No question. Preparation plus going all the way in the audition. Keep in mind there was only one audition, no call backs. Some of us didn’t have a clue what made the difference for us initially. But then as the full cast assembled, it became apparent that those of us who got the roles were the ones who really went for it. The ones who didn’t merely go over the top but were very detail-oriented and grounded with a very specific story they were telling. I’ve always said to my students that every audition is important, whether it’s for a student film or Spielberg. We should approach them all the same way, with the same dedication and focus. Adrenalin will usually remind you that one’s bigger than the other. But as far as the process is concerned, that part you actually have any control over, it’s the same: you always answer the same basic questions, go through the same paces, and have the same objective.
That being said, did you give your audition for The BFG a little extra something?
Not really. However, I would emphasize one thing: I wasn’t afraid to look silly or make mistakes. I wasn’t worried about being perfect. I didn’t think much about the fact that I was auditioning for Steven Spielberg. I just thought, this is my job, this is what I’m here to do. Actually, I was more excited about the creative choices I’d made with respect to the characters and performances. I committed to those, and that’s why I was able to walk in and out and forget about it, rather than obsess about whether I was good enough.
What happened next?
Three weeks later, I got a call from my agent and found out I’d been put on a short list. They were looking for nine giants in total and they’d auditioned a couple hundred actors in Vancouver, plus more in Toronto, L.A., and London. Two days after that, I learned I’d been put on a shorter list. Finally, five days later, my agent called with the news that I’d been confirmed as one of the giants. To which I said, okay, cool.
“Okay, cool.” That’s it?
I’ve worked long enough in this business to know that, until a project wraps, I’m not going to get too excited. Because anything can happen. Just because they cast you, it doesn’t mean you’ll be in the final product. It’s okay to have your head in the clouds so long as your feet are on the ground, if you know what I mean. You need to stay focused on what you’re there to do, especially with big productions like this. Because if you’re not, you could easily be replaced. Having said that, every day I was filled with a sense of excitement and gratitude for this amazing opportunity. Every day, a part of me was going “woo hoo!”
Can you tell us about one of those “woo hoo” moments?
There’s a sequence in the film where I’m lifted up from the ground in a cargo net about three or four feet. When we filmed that, Mr. Spielberg came and laid down on the floor right below me, coffee in hand, to walk me through the scene. That was one of those moments where I was like, okay, this isn’t happening. Another one was when I got to stick my butt in Bill Hader’s face, walk over and push Mark Rylance over, then have Spielberg tell me, “great work!” And of course, there was walking the red carpet in L.A. I’d always wanted to experience that and, for years, had imagined what it might be like. Of course it never occurred to me that it would for a Disney film directed by you-know-who, with a bank of forty photographers shouting my name.
What was it like working with the cast and crew?
Mr. Spielberg was full of this incredible energy and joy right from the start, putting us at ease and getting us excited. That took all the anxiety away on day one, which I’ll never forget. I mean, he must understand that he and his body of work exude a certain aura that some could find intimidating. So for him to go out of his way like that to break the ice, it was wonderful. And he was there every day, equally enthusiastic from one day to the next. He could have kept to himself if he wanted to, be unapproachable and stand-offish, but he never was. At all times, he seemed genuinely excited to be working on this project. And it trickled down to the rest of the cast and crew. He’s got award-winning costume designers, lighting people, and camera operators that have been working with him for years, and they’re all incredible gracious and humble, working together to get the job done. Mark Rylance was the same, an Olivier-award winning hero of British theatre, treating everyone with dignity and enjoying the process. It felt extraordinarily collaborative, it was wonderful.
What did you take away from that experience that you’d pass on to your fellow actors?
Same things I’d say in general: Remember your reasons for being there, know what your job is and do it. As an actor, you’re there to support the story. Everything else is bonus. Above all, stay grounded. I had two cards, one that said “breathe” and one that said “trust”, and put them in my shoes. Every day when I walked on set, with every step I took, I was reminded: Breathe and trust. It’s okay to be nervous, but breathing is how you overcome that and get on top of it. M. Scott Peck once said, “fear is excitement without the breath.” Do just remember to breathe! And trust. Trust that I got here for a reason, trust the process, trust in my peers, my cast mates, the director.
When did acting start for you?
I went to theatre school when I was 26, but before that I was going to be a teacher. I completed two years of a bachelor of physical education in Nanaimo, BC, then decided I wanted to get off the island for a bit and visit the big city before continuing my studies at the University of Victoria. So I came to Vancouver and while I was here, I got involved in a singing project. A Vancouver company was interested in me because of my involvement with a group in Nanaimo and eventually I became part of a boy band that toured and performed for a couple of years. This was 1991 as as hip hop was starting to gain steam, pre-internet and well before the Backstreet Boys. As a result of that experience, I was invited to audition for a commercial, which I landed. Then I got a couple more right out of the gate, and I thought, hey I could do this! Some actor friends at a restaurant where I worked recommended I take some classes, which I did and really enjoyed. Did that for a year before I came to a serious crossroads: do I pursue acting full-time or finish my teaching degree?
A lot of aspiring actors end up at that crossroads. “Do I go all the way with my dreams or choose the ‘safe’ path?”
And I totally get that. It’s inevitable. What you want versus what society tells you that you should want. At first, I chose to finish my degree and moved back on the island. But it was while I was at university, preparing for the next school year and filling out my timetable, that I thought, what am I doing? This isn’t what I want to do. But I’m not a hundred percent sure about this acting thing, either. It felt like the 25 year-old version of a mid-life crisis! So I snapped my pencil in half and walked out, wondering which way to go.
What did your family think of all this?
I’m a bit of a black sheep, a do-my-own-thing kind of guy. My mom mostly stayed in the background, a bit unsure of the whole acting thing. But she was never heavily involved in my life path, so that didn’t play too much of a role. I did, however, have a roommate who was very supportive. After the deadline passed at UVic, I spent a lot of restless hours working at the restaurant and watching Oprah, trying to figure out what I was going to do next. One night, I went to my roommate and we sat up all night talking about life, and I realized that while I loved teaching, I loved acting even more. So I decided then and there that I was going to move back to Vancouver, give everything to acting and see it through. A month later, I was back on the mainland in acting school.
Over the span of your career, have there been other moments when you felt stuck, and that resolving to give it your all lifted you from that plateau?
About eight years in and roughly 30 roles under my belt, I hit a place where I felt stagnant. I wasn’t moving forward. I was still getting parts, but they weren’t growing in size and they were infrequent. Plus I was in debt and didn’t have some of the things I wanted in life, like a house and a wife and kids. So I began to question whether I’d made a mistake with acting. I even seriously considered becoming an agent, realizing I’d come to a place where I could walk away, make a living doing something else, and pursue the kind of life all my friends had. But in that moment, I also realized I wouldn’t be happy; that deep down, I’d spend the rest of my life realizing I didn’t invest fully in what I really wanted to do, and that I’d really regret that. So I made the choice to level-up and give 100% to acting. Struggle, toil, claw, whatever it took, even if it meant bartending at 50. And I was okay with that. But I also knew something had to change. I had to step out of my comfort zone, take another class, make some sacrifices, do whatever it took.
Can you give an example of a sacrifice that helped take your career to the next level?
There was a night, a big gathering of friends for a guy’s night out, an annual thing we all did. I was super excited, all dressed up and ready to go, and I got a call around 6:45 from my agent with two auditions lined up for the next day. At that moment, I had a choice: I could either carry on and go to the dinner I was really looking forward to or say, sorry guys, I’ve got to go. The old Dan would have gone for dinner, but instead I made a quick appearance, then went home to prepare.
Truth is, if you want to be successful doing what you love, you’re going to miss out on a few things. I’ve missed out on birthdays, weddings, a lot of things. And that’s a choice you have to make as you build an individual identity of who you are and how you move through life. Your true resume is about how you conduct yourself in the industry. The cream will always rise to the top, which is way less about talent than about how passionate and committed you are. And by the way, if you don’t choose to go all in, someone else will. And they’ll get the part.
As an instructor at SchoolCreative, what do you hope your students leave the classroom with?
To know this: that acting is messy and to embrace the mess. Acting it’s about translating real life into your art. I see a lot of actors who try to be perfect in an audition or performance, try to nail it without making any mistakes, try to get it right, whatever that means. But I say, embrace the mistakes, the mess, the struggle. Life is messy, awkward, often irrational. So often, students come in and want to make it neat and tidy and orderly, but that’s not life. So just be yourself. Everyone’s always looking for the secret to giving that extra five or ten percent, but the real secret is to just let go of “getting it right” and be you. Acting is a field, a craft where there is no getting it right. No right, no wrong, only strong and true. It’s not about giving a flawless performance, it’s about whether they believe you. It’s not about the costume or the gimmicks or the tears, but about knowing the story, how your role fits into that story, and above all, being yourself. Which can be hard, I understand, because that means taking the time to find out who you really are. Like we often say, acting is simple, but it’s not easy. However, if you’re willing to strip down and go all the way, acting and life begin to get a lot easier. And a lot more fun!