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

[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.