The Grannies – A film about breaking through boundaries

Commissioned for Now Play This 2020, The Grannies is a multi-channel documentary film following a group of artists as they explore the fringes of Red Dead Online. The film was directed by NPT2020 Guest Director Marie Foulston and recently had its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. We sat down with Marie to find out more about how this innovative documentary came about and to peek behind the curtain of designing virtual worlds.


Nick Murray: Could you tell me a little bit about how you envisioned the film? Where did the early idea come from?

Marie Foulston: I’m trying to think how best to define it – do we call it work or play or practice? Because it’s somewhere at the intersection of all those. The first time I came across the Grannies’ experiences in Red Dead Online was through an early Twitter thread. I knew that Kalonica [Quigley] and Goldie [Bartlett], two game designers and creatives from Melbourne, Australia have been playing Red Dead Online together. And they’d been playing specifically as older women. And something about that decision to play as those characters within that landscape led to the creation of these really quite evocative images. The first one that I saw was one in which Kalonica’s character, who is this elderly woman with this big matronly bun, is stood over and looking down at a dozen corpses of the same character. It’s just this really striking visual.

That and the following images that made up that early Twitter thread were a testament to Kalonica’s ability to capture really amazing photographs within video games. The thread documented their attempts to break out of bounds in Red Dead Online, to test out this way of glitching outside of the game that Andrew Brophy had introduced them to. It was a really captivating thread that just perfectly summarized their experiences and did so alongside these really evocative images. 

So much of the inception of the film owes a debt to Kalonica whose ability to craft and communicate this perfect narrative about their experience. The images that make up the film have been deftly captured by all of the team – all of the different players – but it was that first Twitter thread. And for me that’s something really valuable.

Despite working with digital mediums as a curator a big part of my work has always been to translate that which is digital and ephemeral into physical spaces, to give it a different weight and presence in the world. A big part of this work for me though is that it does so in a way that retains an awareness and respect for the tools and spaces it inhabited before.

NM: What is the kind of exploration that they’re doing that you found so kind of exciting about the work?

MF: It shows a conversation between different creatives in this ethereal digital space that’s being co-created. That’s an area I’m really interested in, thinking less about video games as objects, and more about video games as performance. Understanding that there are all of these many different ways that different people will engage with a video game. When a designer or a company or anybody creates a video game as an interactive work there’s only so much control they can place over the way that somebody will receive that work and the way that they’ll interact with it. A video game is not just the work that’s created, it’s about what happens when that work is in the hands of a player and what comes from that act of co-creation. 

Dan Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games, spoke about how he believes that part of the magic of their video games is in the fact that people don’t know how they’re made, and that it’s like they’re made by elves. I have a love-hate relationship with that quote. I disagree with the idea that people’s value and enjoyment of games is heightened by their inability to know how it’s made. I think if you invite people in to understand the constraints in the act of creation it can foster this much greater appreciation of the scale of the task that goes into creating these huge expansive virtual open worlds. 

What you have within The Grannies is a group of independent games developers and designers who, as they state within the film, are all visual artists and so all have an appreciation for the materiality and the craft of video games, but also an appreciation for visual arts and storytelling as well. Through them breaking out of bounds in Red Dead Online, they are exploring these almost archeological remnants of what this huge company and this huge team of creatives who sit at the other end of the game creation spectrum have made and in turn are in conversation with them.


NM: Do you have any advice or examples of where people could start their journey if they wanted to start doing the same exploration or kind of peeking under the hood at things? I immediately think of your experiments with how people can use Google Sheets as a way of turning software inside out.

MF: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. These digital things around us aren’t necessarily these rigid structures that we have to adhere to. It can be fun and interesting to bend the rules and to reappropriate things. And I think it’s something that a lot of people are perhaps a little bit more comfortable with after the past year. One of the most obvious examples is just how much people were pushed at the beginning of the pandemic to suddenly shift their social lives into tools and spaces where it hadn’t really existed before, like trying to have a wedding over zoom. And whilst those have been often unsatisfying experiences, there is some sense of learning and understanding about what it means to communicate and to exist and embody yourself unexpectedly within digital spaces.

If you are interested in doing this stuff for games, there are communities online that can help people learn the basics of understanding what it might mean to open up a developer console in a game, or mod it, or perform a glitch within it. I consider myself a bit of a luddite with technology and the easiest I found was messing around within the Source Engine games, such as no-clipping around Half Life.  A good reference is the noclip website, which allows you to look around in different video game locations by moving the camera.

NM: I think you’re exactly right that maybe the best advice is to find the thing that you’re interested in and then find the people who are doing it in that specific place. Yeah, if you want to look under the hood of Dark Souls or Pokemon or whatever, there will be a community for that doing it already who will be happy to share knowledge. Onto the technical stuff. How was the process of putting the film together? So I know you had this amazing team in the Grannies and the incredible videographer Luke Neher with you.

MF: The starting point was establishing the script, something that was already several steps along as Kalonica’s twitter thread was to form the backbone of the film. I drafted an early script in a spreadsheet, capturing the original tweets alongside their accompanying images and gifs. The next step was to then build upon this to contextualize and introduce this experience within a broader narrative. 

Once the draft script was laid out we brought in Luke Neher, a really great film editor from Melbourne. He has a lot of experience working with multi channel videos and synchronized screens and was the perfect collaborator for the film to continue to evolve with. A multi screen set up was very much the original ambition for the piece at Now Play This, a projected installation across two custom-built freestanding screens filling one of the central rooms. The idea of it being across these two screens was important in reflecting that sense of this as a multiplayer experience, knowing that there’s not just one experience or one perspective from this journey, it’s this shared collective experience that happened from multiple perspectives. 

One of the things that I found really odd with the film though – now that we’re at the other end of exhibiting it at film festivals – and it’s something that I forgot, as somebody who has a background in film – I used to work alongside and be very familiar with the film festival circuit, but I’ve spent over a decade since working in games. It’s been an odd contrast being pulled back into this creative space that is so focused still around this idea of a singular auteur. When you’re filling in festival submissions, when you’re talking to film festivals, it’s like, okay, “tell us who the director is. Tell us who directed this, give us their biography, give us their photograph, we’ll invite them to the festival, we want to give them flowers. Oh, and can you just quickly scribble down on the back of a post-it everybody else that worked on it”. It made me realise that within the games festivals I’ve worked across, there’s a much greater appreciation of the fact that these are works that are made by a creative team, and everybody’s efforts are valued. And so whilst my name sort of sits alongside the film as like curator or director, that is a title for my role in this as the person who did the wayfinding and structural stuff, bringing people together. But that’s not something that supersedes the creative input and the creative work of Luke with the editing and the sound design that he did with Sam Gill, or equally your work, Nick as a producer, or as the Grannies themselves as the people who captured and wrote that narrative.


NM: How’s the process of presenting the film to the world going? So, it had its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival recently…

MF: It’s been bittersweet in a sense that the work was originally, and is still intended to be screened in a certain way as part of Now Play This. And it’s also bittersweet that because of COVID, it’s not been something that we, as a creative team have been able to bring to the world collectively in the same space. But it’s been really lovely showing it at film festivals and having a work that is something that was originally intended for a games festival breaking into these other cultural spaces. So that’s been really lovely to see. I think one of the most surprising things was that I just kind of forgot that people were going to watch it. And by watching it, people were going to react to it. When I was in the first screening, there is a moment in the film where the Grannies are trying to get over the wall for the first time. And the audience laughed. And I forgot that was a thing that could happen! Because, yeah, it is funny. 

NM: That’s kind of magical.

MF: Yeah. And so that was, for me, one of the small things that I really liked. Also, because it’s a multi channel film across two screens, in this screening context it’s a very wide film. That means when you’re in a cinema you have this little moment before the film comes on, where the screen widens to accommodate it. You just hear the screen whirring slowly and click out, and you can just see through the darkness the screen expanding. That was another unexpected joy of seeing it out in the world.


NM: That’s really amazing. Do you have plans for the film going anywhere else in the near future?

MF: We do. We’ve been really fortunate to have been approached by different venues and different partners who are keen to help sort of support the screening of the walk in future. This is happening at a difficult time globally, but fingers crossed, the film will be screening next at the London Short Film Festival in January. Also, we are looking at other ways that we might be able to allow people to experience the film sort of virtually, in different ways.


To learn more about The Grannies click here