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From Issue #32 December 19, 2013

Bit by Bit

A filmmaker spends excruciating years on a pixellated animated film to bring it to fruition.

By Richard Moss Twitter icon 

Chris Blundell is tired. He’s been working almost singlehandedly on a feature-length 8-bit animated comedy film called The Hit Squad for years. He crunched most of the production into just the past year and a half. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Hit Squad was meant to take him three, maybe four months back in 2010. Even then, he’d already spent three years tinkering with the idea.

When he started work on it, Blundell intended to keep the film’s scale small and make it quickly — something he did on the side, just for fun. The story focuses on an ’80s band that gets back together for one final song 20 years after they sank into irrelevancy. “The idea was to have really limited animation — pixel animation — because I can’t animate,” he says. “Then, as I went along, the idea sort of grew and grew.”

The production got progressively more ambitious, as Blundell upgraded not just the visuals but everything else as well. He tweaked and rewrote the script constantly, aiming to better flesh out the themes and to add more layers of meaning to the story. TV companies showed interest for a while, which pushed him to put in more effort. Eventually, that led to a successful Kickstarter campaign, more than a year of full-time work, a likely theatrical release in 2014, and perhaps most importantly, an overwhelming sense that Blundell had bit off more than he could chew.

And it’s still not done.

Hungry like a wolf

When Blundell, a British musician, first started working on it in 2007, The Hit Squad was a hobby, a blip of an idea. At the time, he was living and working illegally as a musician in New York, coming in on three-month tourist visas interspersed with three-week spells back in the UK. He mostly performed in small-time gigs and composed soundtracks for indie films, and he worked part-time in a bar job to fill the gaps in his pay.

In his free time, Blundell worked on The Hit Squad, which, as the 8-bit moniker implies, looked like a low-budget NES game complete with character sprites.1 He got the film idea from, of all places, a film about Duran Duran.2 “It was really bad, but I found it really funny,” he recalls. “I thought that the ’80s in general was just such a period of excess and debauchery. It sprung in[to] my mind as a really good subject for comedy.”

Blundell felt that he could draw on his own experiences as a musician to help put together a comedy that took inspiration from the lifestyles of so many rock and pop stars in the ’80s.3 Compared to the decades before and after, the 1980s are quite the oddity in terms of lavish excess. This proved fertile ground for taking the piss out of everything. “The songs that people sang were probably more emo than the emo music we have today,” Blundell says.

The film stars three characters — Roddy Stones, Frankie Miller, and Charles Whitecastle — who are the members of a washed-up synth-pop band called the Hit Squad that was big in the ’80s and forgotten in the ’90s, and that is now determined to make a comeback. Blundell drew not just from music but also from other areas of pop culture: then-mainstream movies like Airplane and Ghostbusters, off-beat comedy by the likes of Andy Kaufman and Chris Morris, and an eclectic mix of TV, radio, and fashion.

Blundell also found inspiration in how video games were developed in the 1980s. “Video game creators back then were teams of two or three,” he says. “They all had to take on many roles.” Realizing that he had filled every role in his one-man production team, and knowing that he had no animation training, he naturally gravitated toward simple, old-school pixel art for visuals. It fit thematically, but it was an idea ahead of its time. Pixel art remained mired in its post-PlayStation slump. It wasn’t until mid-2008 when that started to change, with Braid, the video game that started a new indie movement that embraced lo-fi pixel work, catapulting the style back toward mainstream culture.

The concept of an 8-bit comedy turned heads, but the TV companies that showed interest all wanted to change it. “At one point there was a company that was like, ‘Can you draw it in the style of Family Guy? Keep everything else exactly the same, but have it more in a sort of contemporary art style.’”

Blundell came to believe his work would be funded by a TV company. Although he never wavered from his vision, he put the project on the back burner while protracted discussions played out. “In the end, those companies decided not to go with it,” he says. “That was kind of a difficult time because I’d convinced myself that they were going to take it on.”

He couldn’t just throw the film project away: he’d done too much work to give up on an idea he’d clung to for years. But he also couldn’t bring himself to finish what he had. The Hit Squad needed a major reboot if it was going to meet its potential. With his New York music career abruptly ended by US immigration (which had finally realized he wasn’t flying in for multiple holidays a year), all he needed was the money to make it happen.

Take two

In April 2012, Blundell and co-writer Jordan Fuller took to Indiegogo in search of $25,000 to fund production. They raised $10,183, which was enough to keep moving along. The visual design changed to accommodate sprites that were bigger and far more detailed and expressive than in the early incarnations of the film. The script retained the same core story, but was similarly overhauled.

By March, they needed another round of funding. By then, they had secured Red Dwarf star Robert Llewellyn as part of the voice-acting cast, which gave the project some additional attention. The filmmakers raised a smidgen over £5,000 (over $8,000) on Kickstarter, which was enough that Blundell could continue making the film full-time. The Hit Squad was now slated for a digital release in late 2013.

Blundell fell progressively deeper into a fugue state of production, from which he’s only now emerging. With a perfectionist streak, Blundell didn’t work through his lengthy production process only once for each scene — he’s redone many scenes multiple times. “It probably takes about a month to do maybe a minute and a half’s worth of stuff from start to finish,” he explains. “It’s the most boring thing I’ve ever done with my life. Ever.”

But he pushed through. Whenever he found a lack, he says, “I was like, ‘It’s not the way it should be.’ I cannot waste this opportunity to create something not just good but great.” He reassessed and refactored. But it’s there now, finally, he feels; The Hit Squad lives up to Blundell’s vision, and it meets its potential.

The journey almost broke him. “I think the romance of creating does not match up to the reality of creating, especially when it comes to solo projects,” he confesses. He doubted himself, time and again, and could only shake off the feeling by making changes. The greater contributor to all the delays and the creeping fatigue and frustration, though, was mere naiveté.

“The reality of the situation is just so different from the sort of ‘spritely young lad’ kind of attitude I had,” he admits. Then, in his best impression of an excited youthful voice, he exclaims, “I’m just going to make a film, and it’s going to be great! It’ll only take me three months, and I’ll make five thousand pounds from it and it’ll be great!”

Blundell fell into the classic trap of a first-time creator, taking on far more than he ever anticipated or could possibly handle. “The biggest mistake that I’ve made is making this film,” he says flatly. It’s not that he regrets the result. He likes the film, and he’s happy it’s done. The Hit Squad was a mistake purely because he convinced himself it could be made in three months, when the reality was closer to three years.

Flickers

The Hit Squad still isn’t done. It’s close, but it will miss the end-of-the-year target for providing copies to crowdfunding backers and making it available for sale from the project’s Web site. Blundell says he has a rough cut, but the ending still has to be completed.

Once he has a final cut in hand, it turns out that full-on distribution is a monster of a task, made harder by the fact that he’s back in a semi-regular day job managing a pub and restaurant. He’s been scrambling to set up meetings with the right people, to travel to film festivals, to make sure the pieces fall into place. He says he thought this would be the easiest piece, but he started six months out of sync with the schedule for release.

Most films lose money on theatrical releases, he explains, then make it back on DVD and digital sales. But he sees a way to do it without sinking into debt, and he plans to make it happen: to get The Hit Squad in cinemas around the UK and US, and perhaps elsewhere, ideally with Q&A sessions between him and the audience afterward.

Blundell was inspired by the award-winning 2012 documentary film Indie Game: The Movie, the creators of which did exactly this to great success: touring the world with their film, doing interviews and Q&A sessions after screenings on a highly focused and targeted theatrical tour and at film festivals.4

Blundell loves this; he talks excitedly about the idea of meeting his audience after a screening and “talking about stuff,” like why they’ve paid $10 to see “an 8-bit film running on a 40-foot screen,” which he considers a delicious mismatch. And he’s determined to make it happen in 2014, preferably early in the year because he needs closure on this nightmarish ordeal as soon as possible, to know that it’s really done and that something meaningful and tangible has come from it.

He can’t wait for people to start picking out all the hidden details and references drawn in the background or woven into dialogue. He’s on the cusp of what Cliff Johnson, the creator of celebrated 1987 “meta-puzzle” The Fool’s Errand, described so beautifully to me a week after completing his own ridiculously prolonged development cycle on a sequel called The Fool and his Money: “This is what I’ve been waiting for — to experience other people’s experiencing of what I’ve done.”

Blundell’s next project will be small: a low-budget live-action film. “It’d probably take five days shooting, maximum, with minimal cast,” he says. “I’m processing ideas for that at the moment.” Just nothing involving animation. After this drawn-out nightmare, that option is off the table.

Photo by Ana R. França.


  1. Sprites are two-dimensional images that were heavily used to represent people and non-background objects in video games and computer graphics prior to the advent of 3D video cards. Artists would typically draw a series of small bitmapped (that is, pixel-based) images of characters in different poses that animators could use and re-use in sequence. So a simple walk animation may include one frame of the character standing still, with their feet together, and one frame with one of their legs forward — and these two frames could be looped ad infinitum. 

  2. Duran Duran was a mega-popular new wave English rock band in the ’80s. They had big hits in the US as well as the UK and Europe, with songs like “Hungry Like The Wolf” topping the charts. They’re still around today, clinging desperately to their past success. 

  3. He actually approached Duran Duran’s management a few years ago to see if they’d be willing to be in the film. “They’re too famous to be in other things,” Blundell says, “so they said no, unfortunately.” 

  4. The film follows the hellish journeys of a group of independent game developers as they struggle with success, expectations, and heavy and prolonged development crunch in their respective projects. You can buy a digital version directly from the filmmakers. You can listen to two interviews by editor Glenn Fleishman with the pair that made the film: one from just after its theatrical release in 2012, and one from just a few days ago, checking in after they’d finally completed everything associated with the movie. 

Richard Moss is the content editor at Archive.vg and a freelance writer focused on games, technology, history, long-form journalism, and interesting people and things. He has the dubious honor of being an expert on the history of Mac gaming, and is crazy enough to have written a book on soccer-management game Football Manager 2012.

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