Old Grandma Hardcore

This blog is the chronicle of my experiences with Grandma, the video-game playing queen of her age-bracket and weight class. She will beat any PS2, XBox, GameCube, etc., console game put in front of her, just like she always has. These are her stories. She is absolutely real. She lives in Cleveland.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Great EA Adventure, Part 4

I'm a news photographer. That's my day job. Every instance I get to shoot an assignment, make some composition, some ethical choice- to say "no, I can't shoot it this way, because that would be masking truth" or "no, I can't Photoshop the levels so much that the picture looks awesome because it's going too far", I get that self-righteous feeling of glee that comes from knowing I did something right. Even if the assignment is just shooting the winner of the youth beef cattle competition at the local 4-H fair, goddammit- the pictures are going to be good and true; same as when I'm shooting Obama making a speech or an accident on the turnpike. Errol Morris, as a documentary director, challenges and moves and plays with those ethics. Not in some overbearing, propagandic way like Michael Moore or Ben Stein. He doesn't need that. But he can produce a reenactment with actors or stage camera work and slow down time and shift color saturation confident that his film is no less true than the doc purists. He absolutely fascinates me.

And there he was, a few picnic tables away, munching on a salad.

And I wasn't sharing this grand banquet with my fascination because I had worked hard; earning a place near the light. I wasn't at this place, talking about the nature of truth in photographs upon the success of his documentary on Abu Gharib as some key-note speaker on a panel with a colleague. I hadn't earned this.

I was there because my Grandmother plays video games for fun and doesn't give a shit what people think about it.

It'd be cliché to say the world is a funny place, but goddamn it sure is fucking funny sometimes.

Grandma, meanwhile, was putting on a front of her own. Sure, she was eating with everyone else, chatting away about the oddness of Florida weather to a Northerner.
"It was just raining a second ago, and now it's beautiful again!"
But I could tell she was terrified.

Her turn with Errol was coming.

She was already wearing the clothes that wardrobe had given her, complete with the hard, paper tags still jabbing her in the ass, making her shift around on the bench uncomfortably. After lunch was over and the crew had their fill, she was up.

The red-headed boy and his mom were talking now; apparently the kid did well. Errol even invited the mother into a couple shots. When she arrived, she was just another stage-mother, dutifully driving her son to another job. Now, she had a brief moment where she was an actress, too. She was beaming. Her son was telling everyone how he had gotten a hole-in-one, on camera- a feat that impressed us all.

Grandma was quietly getting ready. Her leg twitched a bit out of nervousness like she had to pee. She was concentrating on something, god knows what, rehearsing in her head the same routine I had seen in the faces of batters on deck.

I threw away our trash and got Grandma some water, betraying my lower-class Cleveland accent to the caterers before going back inside with "Let me tell you something: that fish was fucking awesome. Absolutely awesome. I wish I could make tilapia taste like that. Seriously." I went to the Green Room to get Grandma's purse and get her a bottle of water. Cleve escorted Grandma to the soundstage. Irene was outside waiting for me.
"You want to watch?"
-"I don't want to get in the way...."
"Come oooon, they don't give a shit. Follow me."

And there we were.

The soundstage looked like a darkened airplane hangar. To the right was a huge chroma-key green cloth that draped from the ceiling before being stretched along the floor. At the center was a single, leather chair. Grandma's chair. Surrounding this massive tapestry were intense lights diffused by sheer white screens as big as cars. To the left were an array of computer screens, mixing boards, oscilloscopes and tiny flashing LED lights which I could only guess their function. Next to them stood a corkboard, filled with Polaroid pictures of all the different actors at different stages of their interviews, arranged like a mafia hierarchy. Directly in front of me were a few couches pushed out of the way where Wieden + Kennedy staffers tapped away at laptops, endlessly checking emails and looking busy. Behind that, a line of directors chairs where people wearing business casual sat and studied the scene. At the far wall, over a minefield of cables and switching boxes, three folding tables held Nutrigrain Bars, soda, fruit, and candy. At the center of it all was a small, photobooth like tent. The Interrotron.

Irene led me to a row of chairs behind one of the tables. On the table were three monitors. One feed had the camera that showed Grandma, one feed showed a build of Tiger Woods PGA '09 playing on a 360, and the last feed showed Errol's face; the end of the Interrotron no one other than the interviewee would see. From that spot I could watch everything coming together. The game she was playing, her view of Errol, and what Errol Morris saw through his camera.

It was heaven.

But not for Grandma.

She sat in the chair, staring into the Interrotron. Someone handed her a controller as Irene fixed her hair. Monitors were dimmed, cell phones were turned off, spotlights were turned on, a hot set was announced just as Grandma's tiny Tiger Woods stepped out onto the green at Sawgrass in the monitor in front of me, action was called and then...


Grandma was playing the game.

Her first tee shot blistered to the left. Her face showed a tiny bit of disappointment as she struggled to follow its path out of bounds.

Her second shot was worse. Something was wrong.

A few folks scrambled to whisper in each other's ears. They ran up to the camera operator, who moved everything a bit closer to Grandma.

She repeated her first mistake. They asked her something, she affirmed, and they moved a bit closer.

All in complete silence.

This happened a few more times until the decided to turn the chair and film from the side, so her monitor could be even closer still. She couldn't get a shot to go straight. Worse still, she thought she was to blame for playing poorly after playing a few beautiful rounds in the Green Room. She wasn't yelling at the game in frustration, perhaps what they wanted- she was sitting in silence, playing a game she couldn't see.

They stopped filming for a moment to assess the problem.
"It isn't her," someone told me. "It's the monitor. It's like.. trying to play a high-def game on hard mode while squinting into a teeny tiny television CRT screen. It's really fuzzy. We're working on it."

Now they were trying a different approach. If Grandma couldn't see the three click meter to shoot the ball correctly, at least she could give them some of her usual Grandma banter in frustration. Errol tried talking to her a bit.

"We need you to react more!" he shouted from the Interrotron tent. "Do it like you do at home!"
"WE NEED YOU TO REACT MORE!" he shouted again, smiling into her monitor.

But it was no use. Even with her hearing aids and the strange silence of the soundstage, she couldn't hear Errol's instructions.

He quickly found a solution. He grabbed a mic from a production manager and spoke over the PA system for the building.

-"Oh yeah, I can hear you now."
"Okay. I need you to react more, like you do at home."

She tried. But she was reserved and censored her profanity. It sounded stilted.

"Awww... missed it."
"Can't seem to get on the fairway.."
"Aw, you big fu-.. um, dummy!"

Errol sensed it right away, so he would try encouraging her into repetition.

The scene was bizarre. I don't know if I can do it justice in description.

There are forty people in this huge room, intently watching monitors and Grandma and levels and Grandma and laptops and Grandma. And yet it was deadly quiet. There was no game audio for what she was playing. Other than the clicks of the controller, the only sounds were her uncomfortable self-deprecations and Errol's booming voice over the PA system, reacting to her reaction.

"Darn... missed it..."
"I said I missed it!"
"Oh, I don't think you want me to do it like I do at home!"

She relaxed a bit.

The vulgarity began as small mutters under her breath.

"......aw, shit." she said.
-"WHAT?" Errol boomed.
"SHIT!" She yelled.
-"SHIT! He replied.

And then, again, silence.

The vulgarity grew in waves of confidence. She now knew what they wanted.

"Come on.... come on! FUCK!" she said.
-"FUCK!!" Errol replied.

Suddenly, the room was no longer silent. People were holding back their laughter. They loved it. This is what they wanted to see.

She was real.


More laughter. The business casual guys were looking at each other approvingly. The audio guys were smiling. No one seemed as on edge.

For a moment, I was reminded of that first day in the studio at MTV when the blog first took off, when she sat on a stool in a small studio next to TRL, trying desperately to please the producers. Nothing was working until loud voice on a PA system spoke up.

Alex - "Say things like you do at home."
Grandma - "I can't!"
Alex - "Don't worry, we can bleep things out."
Grandma - "I don't know..."

And with that laughter, she was back to herself.

Errol seemed to be pleased enough with that portion of the shoot. They took the controller, moved her monitor back in front of the camera, removed the chair, and Errol began the interview.

She was still nervous. She hadn't heard the subdued reaction from the studio. She hadn't seen anyone smiling at her. She only saw the blinding spotlights.

Errol asked her questions over the PA system and she answered the best she could. It was over after fifteen minutes or so.

And just like that, we were in the corner of the soundstage as they struck the set in preparation for the next person. I saw this as my one opportunity to meet Errol Morris. I would not get this chance again. Probably ever. I put down Grandma's purse, approached him, shook his hand, spoke for a moment, and excused myself. He was as cordial and polite as I hoped he would be.

People came up to me afterwards.. "she did great. She gave us a LOT of good stuff. A LOT. We could fill a ton of 30 second spots if necessary."

Grandma felt like a failure. She hadn't even gotten the ball on the green. If she was here to play a game, she certainly didn't do it. If she was here to ask questions, she certainly wasn't the cheeky, honest and playful person just bullshitting with her grandson like she was at home. She didn't know what had just happened.

She was crying.

Nobody else had noticed. She hid it pretty well. I walked her outside the soundstage and Cleve went to fetch a PA to drive us back to the hotel. I gave her a hug.

"You did fine."
-"I fucked it up!"
"Nah, they couldn't get the screen working right on the game, for one."
"The Interrotron wasn't quite made to do that, it seems."
-"I couldn't even hit the ball straight. I looked like a fucking idiot to those people."
"You did fine!"
-"Like hell I did."
"You didn't see all the people in there while you were being interviewed. Trust me. You did great."
-"I felt like a moron."
"Grandma- seriously- don't worry! Don't worry! You did fine!"
-"I couldn't play the GAME!"

I realized exactly what had happened.

"Look- all those people in there? They're actors. All of them. Honestly? They probably could give a shit if you could play the game or not. You're a gamer. You tried playing the game. That's what you came to do. You. Those folks are actors. They can look like they are playing a brick wall if it had a controller plugged into it. You tried your best. You met some cool people, and trust me on this, you gave them usable stuff. Hell, Errol liked you."
"Yeah! I heard him say so myself." I wasn't lying. I had heard him speak with his assistant after the shoot.

Grandma quickly changed back into her own clothes and met the PA and I outside. As we rode in the car, the PA told us the news. Tiger Woods himself would be at the soundstage tomorrow to film with Errol for the commercials. This was just a couple days after his Masters victory, played through injury. He was coming, but we wouldn't be there to see it. And that was okay.

We drove back to the hotel, went souvenir shopping for the family, spent the last of the per diem on a three course meal at TGIFriday's, and flew back to Cleveland the next day, as new reports of Tiger Woods' injury graced the front pages of every newspaper we saw.


"Advertising is a wonderfully weird thing", someone at Ogilvy & Mather once said. And they were right. We too were right about our own predictions. An advertising campaign with a bunch of different actors in a few different cities with multiple games on multiple systems catering to multiple demographics, ready for E3, ready for broadcast, ready for viral spreads, etc.,. well, it's all very complex. One thing that Grandma and I constantly mentioned to each other about the possibility of this commercial before we flew to Florida was that- even if she was selected for a call back; even if she was flown down to Orlando; even if she filmed the commercial with Errol; even if she gave the performance of her life.. that didn't mean that a single second of all that excitement would end up on television, the internet, or as a still frame in a magazine.

And wouldn't you know it, that seems to be the case. For Tiger Woods PGA Tour '09, they seem to be focusing on two things:
1. Tiger Wood's Jesus Shot Viral
2. The Wii

There was one actor out of everyone down in Orlando, other than Tiger Woods himself, who made the cut for the system and demographic on which they wanted to focus.

Our little red-headed friend. (And for a brief second, his mother.) Remember him? The one whose legos were scattered around the Green Room. You've probably seen the commercial already. I saw it a couple times on ESPN just this week.

So here it is, the Errol Morris directed, Wii focused, red-headed dude whose mother had difficulty getting him cast in other things because the color of his hair didn't match the red of others... Tucker:

Tucker, if you're out there my friend, make sure your mom gets you a proper case for your PSP UMD's. Otherwise, they are all going to end up cracked like that, man.

Game on.

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