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How The Lord Of The Rings Influenced My Career

My most recent blog posts were about the impact Star Trek and James Bond had on my childhood and how both influenced my career in game development.  The third, but certainly not the least, pop culture in influence on me was The Lord of the Rings, both the books by J.R.R. Tolkien and the films by Peter Jackson.  From my childhood up through today, the One Ring continues to work its influence on me.

Until I was twelve years old, I was much more of a reader of science fiction — especially Silver Age writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein — than of fantasy.  But that all changed when my closest friend in elementary school, Craig Ames, told me about a book he had just read, a book about a magic ring that everyone wanted to get a hold of.  Well, that didn’t sound too exciting to me, but my best friend recommended it, so I had to give it a read.

And read it, I did — all three books in the trilogy, over a three-day weekend.  I was so captivated by the story, it was as if the Balrog of Moria had fallen through the chasm and landed right on top of me.  The sheer depth of imagination Tolkien displayed in creating an entire fictional world astounded me.  The detailing taught me a lot about immersion, which I tried to emulate to a tiny degree in some of the video games I would later create.  But most of all, it was the characters who appealed to me — the wise Gandalf, the steadfast Aragorn, the loyal Sam, and most of all, the martyr Frodo, who saved Middle-earth for everyone except himself.

I then read all of Tolkien’s other works — The Hobbit, of course, the children’s book that Tolkien wrote 1937, thirteen years before its sequel, The Lord of the Rings; his medieval fable Farmer Giles of Ham; and his charming short story Leaf by Niggle.  I collected all sorts of reference material others authors wrote describing and analyzing Tolkien’s works, including The Guide To Middle-earth by Robert Foster and The Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad.  And of course, there were those wonderful Tolkien calendars illustrated by the Brothers Hildebrandt, which inspired me to draw my own illustrations of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and briefly consider an eventual career as an artist.

I was crushed when my mother told me in 1973 that she just read I of Professor Tolkien’s death.  It news affected me more than even the tragic assassinations of the 1960’s, and I shut myself up in my room for a couple of days to mourn the loss of someone who opened a whole new (fantasy) world to me.  However, I was relieved when Tolkien’s son Christopher proved to be so prolific in completing so many other works of his father, such as Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, The Children of Húrin, and especially, The Silmarillion, a narrative describing the creation and history of Middle-earth.

I lost contact with my friend Craig when we went to separate high schools, so I had no one to share my love of Tolkien’s work with until I went to college.  There I met Lee Garig, who headed up the local chapter of The Tolkien Fellowships, a network of Tolkien fans founded by Bernie Zuber in the 1970s.  Lee introduced me to her chapter, consisting mostly of fellow students at Cal State Northridge.  Everyone adopted the name of a Tolkien character.  Lee was our Frodo, and we also had a Sam (Therese Burr), Merry (Sue Corner), Pippin (Ellen Weinstein), Treebeard (Doug Farjardo), Aragorn (Mark Schlosberg), Boromir (Todd Hansen), Gimli (Albert Monroe), Galadriel (Susie Rose), Celebrian (Kathi Sea), and Fëanor (the late Earl St. Clair).  I adopted the role of Legolas, despite my dark hair, mainly because I thought archery was cool (long before it became cool in current movies).

Not only did our group meet monthly to discuss Tolkien’s works, we hung out and did everything together: attending science fiction conventions, watching movies (including Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of Lord of the Rings), going to Renaissance Fairs and Society of Creative Anachronism medieval tournaments, and marching in Pasadena’s annual Doo-Dah Parade (a parody of the Tournament of Roses parade).  Our Fëanor also ran game sessions of his own version of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that taught me many fundamental principles of game design, including systems, randomness and theme.

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to develop a game based on Tolkien’s works.  The closest I came was when I was hired as development director of The 3DO Company’s Heroes of Might & Magic franchise, an extremely popular fantasy turn-based-strategy game.  The armies that the player accumulates consist of all sorts of fantasy creatures, including Tolkien-inspired ones such as elves, dwarves, and halflings (the word “hobbit” is trademarked by Middle-earth Enterprises, and so we couldn’t use it).  I even got to become a character in the game when I returned from a short vacation and found that my development team had adding in a “Sir Mullich” character with this description: “Generally stoic, Sir Mullich is prone to spasmodic fits of uncoordinated excitement believed to intimidate his troops into working faster.”  Okay, it wasn’t as cool as Legolas, but I allowed them to keep it in the game.

One day while taking a break from my Heroes work, I was looking at a list of upcoming film productions the movie website Ain’t It Cool News and was shocked to see that Lord of the Rings was going to be made into a live action film.  Now, I had seen Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of half the story (his film only covered events up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep, but he wasn’t able to secure funding to do a second film chronicling the rest of the story).  I couldn’t see how Tolkien’s characters and world could be done in live-action, and I started reading everything I could online about the film’s production.

A lot of other Tolkien fans were interested in the films as well, many of who were skeptical of the project being undertaken by a director known previously only for low-budget horror films and fearful of what liberties he might take with the story.  The director, Peter Jackson, became an instant celebrity in his home country of New Zealand, where he was filming the picture, and so the local press produced a news story about the production at least once a day.  Much of what they reported did sound alarming to Tolkien purists — Saruman dying by falling on a spiked wheel and Legolas riding a surf shield in battle — but there were also a lot of false rumors being reported by fans, such as Arwen becoming a member of the Fellowship.

To separate fact from rumor, I began compiling a list of all the documented changes Jackson was making to the storyline for his adaptation, as well as the rumors that I could prove to be false.  I eventually published this list, which I called Ancalagon’s Complete List of Film Changes, on every Tolkien message board I could find.  Soon I became more famous for being the author of this list than I was for my work in game development, and I was being interviewed as a “Tolkien expert” in everything from the local newspaper to an article Wired magazine published on Tolkien fandom.

The most popular Tolkien message board on the internet, Tolkien Online (aka, run by Jonathan Watson and Ted Tschopp, offered a permanent home for Ancalagon’s list, as well as an opportunity to be a news reporter and message board moderator.  As moderator, my main task was to stop flame wars between Tolkien purists and “revisionists” (those who accepted story changes as necessary in a film adaptation).  However, the real fun for me was being a news reporter, which provided me with an outlet for my obsessions with the films: one day I published a total of 27 Tolkien-related news articles.

My biggest scoop came when a fan contacted me with a link to a file stored on New Line Cinema’s server that proclaimed that Donald Sutherland would be playing Denethor.  What made this exciting news was that actor John Noble was supposed to be portraying the role.  So, like any investigative reporter, I managed to track Noble down and ask him via email whether he was still in the movie.  Unfortunately, he declined to answer my questions and instead directed me to New Line’s Online Marketing representative, Wendy Rutherford, who always had been very nice to us Tolkien news sites, sending us all sorts of promotional materials, but quite properly admonished me to trying to speak to the actors directly.  I never did find out what the Donald Sutherland connection was all about.

One Lord of the Rings actor I was able to meet in person was Sean Astin, who played Frodo’s loyal servant, Samwise Gamgee.  About a month before The Fellowship of the Ring premiered, Sean appeared at a Beverly Hills bookstore-signing event for a movie art book.  I covered the event for Tolkien Online and brought my oldest son, Ben, who was 8-years-old at the time, and we got to have a picture taken with our favorite Hobbit, who many readers (including myself) consider to be the real hero of the story.

Ben was an accomplished reader for his age, and when our local Barnes & Noble bookstore in Santa Clarita started hosting a weekly Lord of the Rings reading group, it was an easy sell to convince him to go with me every Tuesday night.  One evening, a new member showed up at our group — Chris Pirotta, who I knew by the nickname Calisuri, the webmaster of the most popular Tolkien news site on the internet, TheOnerRing.Net.  What made this an even more amazing coincidence was that Chris had just moved to Santa Clarita from Pennsylvania because his fiancé was attending college there.

Now, there had been a history of animosity between our two sites because Tolkien Online had managed to snag the domain name just minutes before TheOneRing.Net did, and so they wound up with the less popular .net prefix.  However, Calisuri and I became friends, and we worked to end the feud between our two sites.  In fact, Calisuri invited Jonathan, Ted and myself to the lavish Oscar parties they hosted from 2002 through 2004, when The Lord of the Rings films were nominated for awards.  After the Oscar ceremonies, the film cast and crew would show up at the TheOneRing.Net’s party first, to thank the fans for their support of the films.  The 2004 Party was particularly memorable because The Return of the King had swept the Oscars that night, and afterwards Peter Jackson himself, along with Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, screenwriter Philippa Boyens, and composer Howard Shore, among others, came to our party.

Once the three films were released, my obsession with them started to ebb.  I did interview for two jobs as on Lord of the Rings online.  The first was as a development director at developer Turbine Studios, but although everyone agreed I was a perfect fit, I couldn’t agree to relocate to the East Coast.  A couple of years later, I interviewed for a producer position at publisher Warner Brothers Interactive in Burbank, but although I thought I was a perfect fit, I wasn’t offered the position.   As for my son Ben, his interest in The Lord of the Rings waned, but he took up a new interest: Harry Potter.  He was such an articulate fan of the books and the films, that for nine years, he became the official Harry Potter expert of Los Angeles’ most popular morning radio program, The Bill Handel Show, where he gave a review of each new Potter book and film as it came out.

Tolkien became an active presence in my life again when Peter Jackson produced his trilogy of films based on The Hobbit.  Although the films themselves were not of the quality of Jackson’s Rings films, the did provide an opportunity for TheOneRing.Net to hold a new trilogy of Oscar Parties, the final one being at The American Legion Hall in Hollywood.  Once again, Calisuri was kind enough to invite my wife, Charlotte, and me to this fun event, where we had an opportunity to cavort with other Tolkien fans.

The excitement surrounding The Hobbit films also turned my youngest son Timothy into a Tolkien fan — maybe an even bigger one than I am.  He watches the Lord of the Rings films incessantly and his room is decorated with all sorts of Tolkien memorabilia that he has collected at film events and been given as Christmas presents.  Even the Legolas costume he wore one Halloween was far better than the one I used to wear in my college days (and his hair is appropriately blonde too!).

Timothy also had an opportunity to meet Sean Astin, just as his brother Ben did 14-years-ago.  Sean is hosting a new documentary show about the game industry, and a couple of months ago, he and a film crew visited The Los Angeles Film School to do a segment about our Game Production program.  As the coordinator for the event, I made arrangements to have Sean meet Timothy, who later told me, “That was the coolest thing ever!”

I couldn’t have put it better myself1  Forty-five years after I first read The Lord of the Rings, it continues to be the coolest thing ever!  J.R.R. Tolkien created a world so immense and immersive, that it continues to overlap into my own.




Our Favorite Hobbit And Gamer, Sean Astin, Films A TV Game Documentary Episode At LAFS

Earlier this month I received an email from Mediajuice Studios, the production company that made the documentary film Video Games: The Movie, which was released last year in theaters, iTunes, and Netflix. Mediajuice was currently in production on a documentary series titled Unlocked: The World of Games Revealed, an original series on the video game industry and community, and were asking permission to film a segment about The Los Angeles Film School’s Game Program.

Being constantly on the lookout for ways to promote our game program, I lost no time in passing on this request to my boss, our Vice President of Education, as well as our Vice President of Marketing. I was starting to get worried when almost two weeks had passed without hearing back on this, when I received an email from our Marketing & Events Manager at 4pm on a Friday confirming that the film crew would be here on the following Wednesday morning, and they wanted to have faculty, students and alumni available to be interviewed by their celebrity correspondent (and the show’s executive producer), Sean Astin.

This news was especially exciting for a couple of reasons. First, I was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings films in which Sean Astin starred as the faithful Hobbit Sam Gamgee. The Lord of the Rings is my favorite series of books, and when I first read that Peter Jackson was planning to film this “unfilmable” story, I read every news article I could about the movie’s production. I became such an expert about how the books were being adapted into a movie script that I began posting corrections to false rumors on message boards and websites throughout the internet. I eventually compiled all of my notes into what I called Ancalagon The Black’s Complete List of Film Changes, causing me to become the internet’s biggest authority in how the films were adapting the books. For a period I started receiving more press about my work reporting on Lord of the Rings movie news, including being featured in a Wired magazine article about Tolkien fandom) than I did for the videogames I made.

This all lead me to being “hired” as chief news reporter for Tolkien Online, the internet’s most popular Tolkien message board. Each day I would search the internet for stories about the films’ production and then synopsize them for Tolkien Online (this was all while I was also working at my real job as Development Director for the Heroes of Might & Magic franchise). Once or twice I had occasion to correspond with the films’ stars, but the high point of my “journalism” career was having a picture taken of my oldest son, Ben, and I with one of the film’s stars, Sean Astin, at a 2001 Lord of the Rings book signing I was covering in Beverly Hills. And now, fourteen years later, I had an opportunity to meet our favorite hobbit again.

However, the news that Sean Astin would shortly be coming to do an episode about our program was also exciting in a completely different way: there was preciously little time available to wrangle faculty, students, and alumni to be interviewed. Now, two business days might seem like more than enough time to gather up interview candidates, but the challenge is that our students (and faculty) are only in class every other day. We are a professional school, and we operate on a very different schedule than most colleges and universities: our terms are four weeks long and our students usually take only one class during that term. Classes can also be scheduled during the day (8:30am to 3:30pm, with an hour break) or the evening (4:30pm to 11:30pm). With the video crew being here only on one day, from 10am to 2pm, the chances are that most students and faculty I wanted to be interviewed would either have to come in on a day they wouldn’t normally be on campus, or would have to come in six hours earlier than normal.

With no time to lose, I began contacting alumni over the weekend. I first reached out to Christopher Federici, one of our star alumni. I first met Chris about four years ago when I was a producer at Jet Morgan Games and in need of a Flash programmer. I was also on The Los Angeles Film School’s Game Program Advisory Committee, and when I asked the Program’s then-director, Bob Bryant, if he had any students who were good at Flash programming and would be graduating soon. Bob suggested that I attend the monthly Game Fair to search for talent. This is where I met Chris, and after an interview at work, I hired him as my programmer. Within a couple of months Chris was promoted to associate producer and now he is working as a Technical Coordinator at Riot Games. The Unlocked crew said that they were looking for stories to tell through the interview, and I thought Chris’ story would make for a good one. However, after trying for several days to contact Chris my email, text message, Facebook and LinkedIn, I learned that he was away for the week, visiting his parents in New York.

Fortunately, I had another superstar alumni up my sleeve. John Doherty was a member of Chris’ LA Film School graduating class whom Chris suggest we interview when we had another associate producer position opening at Jet Morgan. I remember at the time grilling John for over an hour with questions about game production, and when I couldn’t stump him, I thought, “Wow, LA Film School must have an excellent program!” We did hire John, and not only was he an excellent producer for our company, he went on to become an associate producer at Disney Interactive. I thought this would be another good story for the Unlocked program, especially since I was the very first game producer ever hired at The Walt Disney Company and there was sort of a symmetry there. It turned out I was able to reach John very quickly, and he said he didn’t think he’d have problem taking time off from work on Wednesday for an interview.

On Monday, I met with our Career Advisor, Kevin Bannerman, to see if he could contact other alumni to show up on Monday. The Unlocked crew wanted to film scenes in our Computer Lab, which is where many of our Game Program classes are held, but the mandate from my management was that the filming couldn’t disrupt any scheduled classes. It turned out that a Game Audio class was scheduled to be in the Game Lab that day, but at 11:30am they would be moving down the street to work in a recording studio at our Recording School building, leaving the Game Lab available for taping the episode. My idea was that we would stage a “mock classroom” in the Lab so that it wouldn’t look empty, and I needed Kevin’s help finding students to fill up the room.

We especially wanted alumni who had game projects to show off to appear, since the Unlocked crew wrote that they were interested in seeing student projects. We contacted one recent student who had made a very nice 3D mobile game using Unity as his final project and managed to get it published through the App store, but unfortunately, he had an important deadline to meet at the game studio he was now working at and couldn’t take Wednesday off. We had better luck with two other graduates who had together developed another 3D Unity game using the Oculus Rift as their final project: one member promised Kevin that he would be there on Wednesday, while another member told me that “I’d probably be interested in coming.”

Probably be interested?! In being interviewed by a famous celebrity on a television show that might help your career? Argh! How many times have I told my students that to get a job in the competitive game industry, you have to network, network, network, and seize every opportunity to get noticed! I was amazed that the graduate didn’t jump at this opportunity, but I soon found the lack of interest was disappointingly pervasive among so many of the people I tried to get to participate.

Kevin tried contacting a number of other alumni to show up for the taping, but most couldn’t get off work that day. We were concerned that none of our female students were available to be on the episode. I suggested that we try to bring in three young women who had worked together on the previous month’s Final Project, but none of them returned Kevin’s calls. The Final Project that was being developed this month was conceived and being programmed by one of our best students, Krystal, but she was out sick. When I finally reached her Tuesday evening, she said that she too was working on Wednesday and couldn’t take the day off.

I did manage to get commitments from two of our current students who I thought would be good interview subjects: Nick, who was interning for Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s latest company, Brain Rush; and Jerry, a new student who I found had an encyclopedic knowledge of game history and created several games in GameMaker on his own before enrolling in our program.

Now to get commitments from faculty. I didn’t know if the Unlocked crew wanted to interview people individually or do so as a group, and so I tried to get as many people to commit as possible. I called together a special meeting of our game faculty at 3:30pm on Monday to see who would be interested in attending the filming. Unfortunately, only two Game instructors were on campus and showed up the meeting — Mike Dawson, our programming instructor, and Karen McMullan, our level design instructor. Although Mike would not be teaching on Wednesday, he would be available. As for Karen, her class wasn’t scheduled until 4:30pm on Wednesday but she would get her class to come in early at noon; however, she didn’t want to appear on camera herself. As for the other instructors, I’d have to hit them up tomorrow about their availability for filming.

I spent most of Tuesday trying to reach people we could contact and verifying commitments with the ones we had. The person I most wanted to get a commitment from was John Doherty, and it wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon after I sent him a reminder via Facebook that he managed to get out of a meeting he had scheduled for Wednesday so that he’d be available to come to campus. Just before teaching my own class at 4:30pm, I glanced at that fourteen-year-old photo of Sean Astin with me and my son Ben, when it occurred to me that my other son, Timothy, was actually the family’s biggest Lord of the Rings fan, and I see if I could get Sean to take a picture with him too. During a class break, I called my wife and she agreed to let Timothy get out of school tomorrow and attend the film.

As luck would have it, the freeways were unusually jammed on Wednesday morning. The Unlocked crew was supposed to arrive at 10am, and so I had planned to come to my office an hour earlier to print out materials for them. But with this traffic, I didn’t reach my office until 9:40am. As soon as I sat down and turned on my laptop, I got an email from Jeremy Snead, the producer, that the crew was down in the lobby and wanted someone to meet them. I told my son Timothy to wait in the office while I ran down to the lobby.

After greeting Jeremy, I handed him a list of the faculty, students and alumni who agreed to be there today and why I thought they would be interesting to interview. Sean Astin hadn’t arrived yet, but the plan was for Sean to do an interview with me in the lobby, and then take a short tour of the campus with one of our tour guides, Whitney. As I was waiting for the film crew to set up in the lobby, Whitney asked me what she should say about our Game Program, because she was much more acquainted with our school’s other programs. So, I dashed back to my office to print out a copy of script for the orientation tour that we give to incoming Game students.

When I got back down to the lobby, I saw that Sean Astin had arrived and was talking with some of the production people. Just then, one of our Animation instructors, Rob Silva, began setting up equipment in the lobby for an event he had scheduled at noon. Sean then went over to help him out, and somehow wound interviewing Rob instead. However, everything seemed to work out, as Rob had an Oculus Rift headset with him, and the crew filmed Sean trying it out. Meanwhile, I set a text to my son Timothy to come down to the office right way.

As the crew began to set up for their shots of the tour with Whitney, Sean came over an introduced himself to me and we discussed, off camera, what I teach at the school. Without trying to sound too much like a fanboy, I told him about my own experience with Lord of the Rings, and how for a brief time, I was more famous for my Rings reporting than I was for my work in game development. Sean then very enthusiastically agreed to take a picture with me and my son Timothy, and seemed genuinely tickled to see the photo he took with me and my other son, Ben, fourteen years ago. (Timothy later told me, “That was cool” — I got big Dad Points for setting that up).

Sean then got called away to shoot his scenes with Whitney, and so I went into the Computer Lab to set things up. Working with producer Jeremy Snead, we put Nick, Jerry, and John in strategic positions for being interviewed when Sean entered the room. (I also put myself and Timothy in good background positions so that we would be included in some of the shots).

When Sean went into the Lab, he immediately went over to the teacher’s desk to interview Amy Zimmitti, our Game Audio instructor, who had remained for short while after her class had ended. Ironically enough, Sean then moved over to talk to Karen, the Level Design instructor who originally did not want to appear on camera, but she gave a very enthusiastic and informative interview. Plus, I was happy that Sean interviewed our two female instructors because all the students in the Lab were guys, and I didn’t want this to be another case of women being underrepresented in the game industry.

Filming concluded with a talk with our superstar alumni John Doherty. As I told John afterwards, he could not have handled the interview better than if I had written a script for what I wanted him to say about our Game Program. John eloquently described the value of earning a Game Development degree at our school (my favorite part was when Sean asked “Is it worth the price of a degree here?” and John earnestly replied, “It would be worth it at any price”), and Sean seemed completely enthralled by him. In fact, they were only supposed to talk for two minutes, but the interview went on for about twenty. I think the Unlocked crew finally found the story they wanted to tell.

Afterwards, as the crew was packing up, one of the students I requested to be there, Jerry, asked me if he was still going to be interviewed. He looked very disappointed to hear that there wasn’t enough time after all (filming was supposed to last to 2pm, but they needed to leave an hour early). I sympathized with him; I missed my time on camera too. But, as I told him, keep on making newsworthy achievements, and more opportunities will come to you.

As soon as I found out when the episode airs, I’ll post it about it on my blog.