Practicing editing with Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair (Part 1)

Before we explore editing storytelling techniques, I’d like to bring your attention to a great though largely forgotten resource that might have been helpful to many wannabe-editors in the 90’s: Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair. Footage and sound ready to be edited into a 15-minute story are still pretty scarce today. This could be an opportunity for you to cut your teeth on engaging material.


Steven Spielberg’s WHAT?!

In 1996, Knowledge Adventure came up with Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair (SSDC), a new concept for a video game in association with Amblin Entertainment. The goal was ambitious: turning the player into a director. Well, basically an editor, as all the footage — more than one hour — had been shot beforehand by Spielberg himself and stored on the game CDs. The story was simple: Jack Cavello (Quentin Tarantino) has been convicted of a crime actually committed by two lousy magicians (Penn & Teller), and is about to be executed. In the meantime, his girlfriend Laura (Jennifer Aniston) seeks evidence of the magicians’ guilt during a show. Will she succeed before Jack is executed?


Each of the four stages of the game follows the same routine:

  1. Start with a limited budget.
  2. Pick up script options — i.e. different flavors of the same story (humorous, tragic, multiple endings, improvisations).
  3. Select the shots you will need — most actions have been covered from different angles (master shots, close-ups, …).
  4. Edit them on a very basic editing board.
  5. Add sound fx and music.
  6. Create a poster for your movie.
  7. Develop the film and watch the result.
  8. Receive praise from Spielberg himself and go on for a new cycle with a bigger budget.

At first, your budget is very limited, and so is time, so you have to make smart choices. For example, if an actor happens not to be ready on time, will you wait and lose time and money, or give up the shot and do something else? That new exciting prop that you are craving for will take time or money to make: will you pay for it or use the money for something else?

But the game essentially puts you in the position of an editor. You pick up clips and edit them the way you want. Actually, the story has so many variants that you can change the plot entirely.

Here’s how Spielberg, Aniston and Tarantino were promoting the game in 1996:


A frustrating experience…

Did I mention the editing board was ‘basic’? Well, it’s so basic that it’s almost useless, actually. Editing in SSDC is a real nightmare, which is a shame as everything in the game boils down to the editing process. Only one track (linear editing), no sound control, no time control (slow/fast/reverse motion), no transitions. See what I mean?

Moreover, the sound recorded on set is terrible, sometimes almost inaudible with lot of noise. Lighting isn’t always consistent (e.g. an actor in the shade in one shot can be fully lighted in another). An action can be different from shot to shot; actors won’t make the same moves, the lighting won’t match, even speech will change, and so on. Also, many shots are trimmed too early (e.g. some shots are cut before an actor enters or leaves the frame). Not always easy to edit in those conditions.


…which proves useful.

But those limitations are precisely what makes the game so useful. This is so close to the worst case scenario! As an editor, you have to deal with the quality of footage and sound you are given, and that’s that. You are expected to try your best and get something interesting out of it, just like in real life. Isn’t necessity the mother of invention? A hard lesson maybe, but invaluable for any wannabe-editor.


But this game has been …discontinued, right?

True, but this is a resource we can still find and work with today. The bad news is: The game runs on Windows 3.1 & 95. Yes… The good news is: You don’t need to play the game. You only need to extract footage and sound from the game CDs and edit them on whatever editing software you like.

So tidy up your old copy, or get a second-hand one from Amazon, eBay, or wherever you want and give it a try. I’ll explain how to extract data from the CDs in part 2 of this article and I’ll give you an example of what can be done with it.

Note: The game bears different names in different countries (e.g. “Faire un Film avec Steven Spielberg” in France).


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