In May 2006, the creator of the Metal Gear series, Hideo Kojima, announced that the well-known video game Metal Gear Solid was going to be made into a film, the release date being in 2009. Little did he know that such a project had already been underway for several years, and that a non-profit spin-off film produced by amateurs might even pip Sony's official version at the post.
The Video Games
But first, a little explanation for those not familiar with the series.
Since the release of Metal Gear for the MSX2 home computer and the NES console in 1987, Hideo Kojima's war-worn protagonist Snake has sneaked through no less than seven canonical games as well as a number of spin-offs. In Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake had to infiltrate enemy camps and prevent the use of different variations of a bipedal nuclear tank known as Metal Gear. The same theme is also found in MGS 3: Snake Eater and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, prequels to the above games, in which Naked Snake1 must destroy first a Russian nuclear tank known as the Shagohod, and then a prototype Metal Gear.
While still set against the same background, the theme of the later sequels is subtly different. MGS 2: Sons of the Patriots introduces the sinister organisation that is the Patriots, a group whose secret control of the world led to the orchestration of the Shadow Moses incident in MGS 1, and which serves as the background to the bitter struggle between Solid Snake and his brother Liquid in the futuristic MGS 4: Guns of the Patriots.
Where, then, does the film come into all of this? In the first chapter of MGS 2, Solid Snake is working for a company known as Philanthropy, an organisation formed by the survivors of the Shadow Moses incident to deal with the growing abundance of Metal Gear derivatives on the black market. It is this concept that inspired a small group of Italian students and filmmakers, led by Giacomo Talamini and Gianluca Longo, to start producing a live action film following Solid Snake's struggle to end the Metal Gear arms race.
The Old Project
The so-called Old Project was begun in 2002 by a small group working under the banner of Shamrock Creations. The aim was to make a full-length feature film using what little they had - 'nothing but enthusiasm and a cheap-as-chips camcorder' - and the name was to be Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy. However, this bold first attempt turned out to be little more than a learning exercise, as problems with lighting and continuity had damaging effects on the team's morale. The footage produced wasn't good enough and the non-profit nature of the project made it difficult to continue. Those members of the team whose careers didn't lie in filmmaking found it difficult to reconcile this time-consuming pastime with the rest of their lives, and those who were hooked on cinema found they longed to produce something much better. By winter 2004 the Old Project had died, and Shamrock Creations was no more.
The following year was spent using the best of the footage to create a 30-minute prologue for Philanthropy. The prologue provides a little backstory and then the action begins on Shadow Moses Island, picking up the story at the end of Metal Gear Solid. Solid Snake is seen heading for an extraction point when he encounters Black Arts Viper2, a mysterious enemy who confronts and shoots Snake but is ordered to leave before the area is nuked3. The enemy warns Snake, allowing him to escape far enough to survive.
The next scene shows Otacon, a survivor of Shadow Moses, entering a high security facility with a man known as Harrison Bishop. Harrison explains that Metal Gear's technology was extracted before the nuke hit and has been sold on the black market. He proceeds to talk to Snake about the possibility of forming an anti-Metal Gear group under the UN's Strategic Weapons Reduction Section (SWRS), following which he leaves Otacon and Snake alone to discuss the matter. At first Snake refuses outright, claiming that he does not wish to fight the inevitable for the rest of his life, but in the end he agrees. As they're leaving, Otacon asks Snake where his other companion from Shadow Moses, Meryl, is and discovers that she had become the last casualty of the incident. The prologue then finishes with an explanation as to how an attack against a US facility has driven the SWRS from the UN, causing Harrison, Otacon and Snake to form an underground group known as Philanthropy.
The New Project
After the release of the prologue in October 2005, some of those involved in the old project, including Giacomo Talamini, got together to discuss a more serious attempt at a feature-length film. The basic plot was already laid out for a trilogy of films, each 60 - 70 minutes long, and so a new team known as Hive Division formed to take the project forward. For the next year, a group of around 40 people worked to develop story boards, mock up computer graphics and search for mountainous and post-industrial locations in the provinces of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. Progress was slow, but by the end of pre-production the way had been laid for a whole new batch of filming.
This time, the results were a lot more pleasing, both technically and in terms of direction. Furthermore, after a frantic batch of post-producing, the early footage had been transformed with 3D effects that made it look good enough to rival real cinema. In April 2007, Hive Division released a 'next-gen' trailer to demonstrate the leaps and bounds the project had come on in. The trailer led to coverage of the project in Rolling Stone magazine and in the Official PlayStation Magazine (UK).
A year later, a second trailer was released, showing that the team's production values had improved even further. At the time of writing4 the project was in post-production, with the demolition of a building required for the final scene having set the project back so that it missed its original deadline at the end of 2008. All in all, the project has cost its makers at least £5,000 and taken six years, and yet Philanthropy will almost certainly be free to download as soon as it is ready for release. If there is any proof that amateur productions can be amazing if enough effort is applied, then this is surely it.