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Interview With David Purchase, Co-creator of Escape From City 17

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[digg=] Viewed more than 1.5 million times since its YouTube debut last Thursday, Escape from City 17 is one of those rare viral videos that seems destined to launch a breakout success. In the live action indie short, a pair of argumentative rebel soldiers flee from a futuristic, totalitarian city about to blow, beset on all sides by stormtroopers, gunships, and general confusion. It’s set within the world of the best-selling video game Half-Life 2, which partly explains its popularity, but even non-gamers are likely to be impressed by its rollicking action and bravura special effects. Even more so when they take a look at the movie’s production cost, listed in its YouTube description box as: “[F]rom beginning to end on a budget of $500.” That would be 500 Canadian dollars — roughly $315 $400 stateside.

But is it really possible that a video about as polished as anything you’d see in a Sci-Fi Channel feature could be made so cheaply? And what did its creators, Toronto-based filmmakers David and Ian Purchase (known professionally as the Purchase Brothers), plan as a follow-up? To find out that and more, I got in touch with the brothers, who unsurprisingly, say they’ve been swamped by attention since City 17 went live.

So what’s the exact breakdown of that C$500 figure? “The equipment and software isn’t included in the budget because we already owned it from previous projects,” David Purchase told me by email. Rather it refers to the money spent on live-action elements, like the authentic-looking uniforms worn by the brutal Combine enforcers. “The costumes, and used/broken airsoft guns made up the bulk of the budget. There was no crew. We weren’t paid for the hours of time we put into it.”

Fans of Half-Life themselves, the brothers have already directed a number of commercials, like this great effects-laden spot for Coke. They created City 17 to showcase and promote their talents further, and experiment with several post-production techniques they’d developed. “We became commercial directors to help our independent work,” was the way David put it to me.

He said all of the visual effects were done from scratch. Many of the elements (the background, the gunships, etc.) were extracted from Half-Life 2, then graphically enhanced, and incorporated into the live action with “a lot of complicated tracking and rotoscoping.” Though the movie itself was made independently of Valve Software, the developers and publishers of the Half-Life franchise, David said the game company got involved with its promotion, plugging its premiere on Valve’s user community channel, Steam News.

The brothers plan to release part two of City 17 in 6-8 weeks, though the storm of attention over part one has delayed that somewhat. “We have been getting a ton of emails and phone calls, which has slowed things down,” said David. Judging from the brief teaser clips at the cliffhanger end of the first video, a spunky heroine joins the team — as do hordes of headcrab zombies. (The Purchases promise to reveal details about their cast after that goes online.)

In the meantime, the brothers are already working on a feature film, but David will only say that it’s not related to Half-Life and despite my pleading, won’t reveal anything else about it just yet. Presumably it’ll cost more than C$500 this time. With City 17, however, they’ve ably demonstrated just how much indie filmmakers working with a shoestring but a lot of technical ingenuity can do.

34 Responses to “Interview With David Purchase, Co-creator of Escape From City 17


    WOW dude. you may not be american, but you fit the same old usual stereotypical foreign fuck that gets its rocks off bagging on the american culture, now i dont give a rats ass where you may be from, nobody really does… but if i knew where you were from i could come up with a number of stereotypical comments for your lame ass country as well.. grow the fuck up.

    This film has awesome potential. i would be ecstatic if i saw previews for this film in a theater near me.

  2. Nathan Cornell

    I’m seeing some complaining about “oh the acting is terrible” or “the hand held thing is lame”

    This is almost entirely accurate to the game! instead of trying to “inject” some sort of style into the thing like most game to movie films now days they followed the working formula. I’d venture to say this is the most impressive project to date since the first star wars film.

    I can’t even express the amount of awe I’m feeling. I’m inspired, And based on this I’ve decided to go back to school this fall. I can’t wait to see Part 2.

  3. @Wormdundee

    Did you really have to bring your American bashing into this discussion you worthless meatbag? And before you assume I am not an American.

    This is an awesome piece of work, and the acting is fine with my only critique being the “I hate walking ok? grrr!” line.

    Could I do better? Not in my wildest dreams. Speaking of which, in my wildest dreams someone made a movie about Half Life. So thanks for fulfilling that and showing me that chasing a dream can pay off!

  4. Resident Emil

    “You’re joking, right?? Sorry but what I’ve seen on Sci-Fi Channel isn’t exactly what I’d call “polished”. Most of it is bad over acting paired with obvious CGI work.”

    So, what are you objecting to? Escape from City 17 IS a “polished” piece of bad over acting paired with obvious CGI work, i.e., the fake handheld camera, which breaks the illusion for me.
    Nonetheless it is quite impressive, especially from a budget and resource perspective. But it is in no way the fundament I would wish for a Half-life movie.

  5. Wormdundee

    I see, so now 500 CAD is equivalent to 315 USD? Did you even bother trying to convert that or just a pull a number out of your ass?

    I guess if it makes you feel better about your 10 trillion dollar+ national debt.

  6. Simeon Weinraub

    This production did not cost $500 CAD, that is just how much they spent. There are obviously other real costs that were not included in the budget because saying that you made something with this kind of look for $500 sounds cool. If you include the donated labor costs, the equipment and software (even amortized), then you get a more realistic number. I am will to bet that it is still an impressively low number for what they were able to achieve.

  7. Cyclocrossmechanic

    “But is it really possible that a video about as polished as anything you’d see in a Sci-Fi Channel feature could be made so cheaply?”

    You’re joking, right?? Sorry but what I’ve seen on Sci-Fi Channel isn’t exactly what I’d call “polished”. Most of it is bad over acting paired with obvious CGI work.

  8. I can’t wait to hire The Purchase Brothers for $500 for my next production. These guys are great. Who knew such great looking footage could be so inexpensive

    What’s wrong with the rest of you guys charging so much?