Many notable directors have tried to make the great video game adaptation and have failed. We’ve all learned the hard way that Hollywood, after years of adapting popular gaming franchises to the big screen, hasn’t quite figured out how to make a good video game movie. Even acclaimed directors like Duncan Jones – one of my absolute favorites – have failed to make memorable adaptations of narrative-heavy franchises like Warcraft. It may just be that video games – which demand direct interaction with their audience – just don’t translate to movies in the same way they do in the other direction.
But what of the directors who lend their talents to the video games themselves? Guillermo del Toro, for example, has been trying to make a video game for years. His most famous attempt is undoubtedly his collaboration with Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima on a new Silent Hill game starring Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead). And then there’s Peter Jackson, who first tried to produce a Halo movie and then an interactive episodic series called Halo: Chronicles for Xbox. Esteemed horror director and writer Clive Barker has actually made a couple of video games, including the underrated Clive Barker’s Jericho.
Then there are those who have directed video game trailers – a fascinating group of filmmakers who have assisted with the promotion and marketing of franchises like Halo, Dead Space, Resident Evil, and many more. Halo, in particular has had a few big names attached to its marketing, as you’ll see just below. Here are 11 directors who used their considerable talents to create memorable video game trailers:
George A. Romero – Resident Evil 2
This is definitely one of the most famous examples of a film director taking on a video game trailer, and it’s a match made in heaven. George Romero, the father of the zombie genre as we know it today, worked with Capcom on a live-action trailer for Resident Evil 2, the sequel to the game company’s seminal survival horror masterpiece about a house full of the undead. While the trailer itself may not look like much today, as Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield scramble to defend themselves against an oncoming horde of zombies, it’s the most faithful live-action adaptation of the franchise to date – sans Milla Jovovich dropkicking zombie dogs in bullet time.
The trailer proudly boasts that it’s directed by Romero, and so happy was Capcom with the short promo that it gave the director the greenlight to develop a full-length film based on Resident Evil. Capcom ultimately passed on Romero’s script, which would have provided a very different vision of Resident Evil than the current movie franchise. You can read way more about Romero’s Resident Evil script here.
James Wan – Dead Space
Dead Space is one of the best survival horror titles of the past ten years which mixed the over-the-shoulder gameplay of Resident Evil 4 with brilliant level design and terrifying monsters. Saw and Conjuring director James Wan certainly recognized the game as something special when he signed on to direct a trailer – using in-game footage – for E3 2008. The trailer, titled “Loved Ones,” is a heavy dose of shock and awe that showcased the horrors awaiting Isaac Clarke on the USG Ishimura.
“My imagination was so fired up that I approached the trailer like I was crafting a suspenseful, short movie,” Wan said of the trailer in a press release. The trailer certainly seems like something out of Wan’s playbook, as if Isaac were walking through hallways full of Jigsaw’s traps. It’s a fitting attempt from this master of horror.
John McTiernan – Ghost Recon Wildlands
John McTiernan’s Ghost Recon Wildlands trailer was a big surprise for action movie fans everywhere. In fact, it’s the first thing the Die Hard and Hunt for Red October director has made since 2003 (he’s had some trouble with the law in the past few years). McTiernan’s return came with very little fanfare at first – his involvement wasn’t really publicized by Ubisoft – until Vulture reported on the trailer a few days after the trailer hit the web.
The trailer itself, “The Red Dot,” is quite fun, with a tight narrative and an unexpected perspective, as a cat follows a sniper’s red laser through an enemy base moments before the assassin strikes against an evil drug cartel. It’s a very stylish trailer, proving that McTiernan still has a bit of action movie wizardy waiting to be unleashed.
Joseph Kosinski – Halo 3, Gears of War, DOOM, Destiny
Oblivion and Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski has directed several video game trailers throughout his career, including promos for Halo 3, Gears of War, Destiny, and DOOM. Both the Halo and Gears of War promos are pretty well known to people who actually care about this sort of thing (present company included). The Gears “Mad World” trailer is an especially somber bit of work, as protagonist Marcus Fenix runs down the ruined streets of Sera fighting off Locusts to the accompaniment of that super depressing Gary Jules tune (which is actually a cover of a song by Tears for Fears). It’s a pretty good introduction to the tone of the game.
Halo 3 had some of the best video game promos ever made, and Kosinki’s “Starry Night” is close to the best. The short, one-minute trailer provides that sense of wonder that’s always been a big part of Master Chief’s adventures, while also raising some questions about the protagonist’s origins. Is the little boy in the beginning of the trailer John-117 before he was put into the Spartan program? The trailer is quite ambiguous but seems to suggest as much. It’s a surpising little moment in the stoic hero’s psyche before the bombs start falling and Master Chief rushes back into action. It’s fantastic.
Kosinski’s DOOM trailer is a tad bit less nuanced, but then again this franchise isn’t really known for its subtleties. “Fight Like Hell” is exactly what you’d expect from DOOM trailer and it makes a good case for why Kosinski should get a shot at a live-action DOOM movie. It can’t be any worse than the last one, right?
Last but definitely not least is the Destiny “Become Legend” trailer, which stars a squad of Guardians taking on the Hive, Vex, and Cabal to the sound of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Ever wonder what Destiny would look like as a live-action space western? Kosinski’s got you.
David Lynch – PS2 Commercial
While researching this article, I looked up a couple of directors I really hoped had made a video game trailer or two at some point in their careers. John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, and Danny Boyle were at the top of my wishlist. I didn’t set out searching for David Lynch. Instead, he found me…
Someone at Sony had the brilliant idea of giving Lynch, best known for surrealist work such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks, a shot at promoting the PlayStation 2 in Europe. The results were a bunch of absolutely stunning short films meant to capture the sensation of playing the console.
Although the jury is still out on whether the auteur has ever actually played a game on a PlayStation, the director posited that the experience of playing Sony’s new console would allow gamers to go “beyond human” and into “the third place,” which I assume is another plane of sensation or a dream world. Forget your opinions on the actual quality of the trailers. The fact that these promos were ever even made is amazing enough.
Michael Bay – Need for Speed: The Run
You didn’t expect the King of Boom to miss the video game trailer party, did you? I’m actually surprised Michael Bay (Transformers) hasn’t directed more video game trailers considering his movies could rival the Call of Duty franchise when it comes to number of explosions. His Need for Speed: The Run trailer plays out like a Michael Bay greatest hits reel, jampacked with vehicular stunts, avalanches, car crashes, explosions, police helicopters laying down indiscriminant turret fire onto city streets, characters diving under moving eighteen wheelers, and much more. There’s no reason to break down this trailer any further.
Rupert Sanders – Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST
Rupert Sanders, who’s just directed the Ghost in the Shell live-action film starring Scarlett Johansson, first cut his teeth on a trailers for Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST, which won him two Golden Lions at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival a few years back. As I’ve already mentioned, Halo 3 had some of the video game best trailers ever made, and it’s spin-off continued that trend with “The Life,” a look into the life and times of a career Orbital Drop Shock Trooper named Tarkov, from his earliest days in boot camp to a battle-hardened warrior. The trailer is meant to represent the sense of duty the ODSTs have to each other and to those they protect – a big theme in the actual game. It’s an affecting two-minute promo that opens with a military funeral accompanied by the sad sound of bagpipes.
“The Life” is very much cut from the same cloth as Halo 3‘s “Believe” campaign, which also featured work from Sanders and another director on this list. According to Sanders, he watched news footage of military operations in Afghanistan and Russian films Stalker and Come and See for inspiration.
“I really wanted to do something a bit Eastern Bloc, so I started scouting Chernobyl,” said Sanders in an interview. “I liked the idea of doing urban warfare in Chernobyl, but we had very little time to make the film, which meant we couldn’t really move locations.”
Sanders even used Russian lenses he bought in Moscow to shoot the ad.
The director’s Halo 3 “Believe” ad campaign is also a marvel. For these short trailers, Sanders, Stan Winston Studio, and New Deal Studios created a gorgeous diorama of a battle between the UNSC marines and the Covenant. The trailer includes interviews with “real veterans” who fought in the war against the Covenant, as if the ad were actually part of a documentary meant to chronicle the events that led humanity to victory. The entire “Believe” campaign was meant to inspire hope, that even though the aliens had reached Earth and ravaged it, there was still a chance to fight them back as long as you “believed.” It was a brilliant and memorable bit of marketing.
Brett Ratner – Guitar Hero: World Tour
Activision told Rush Hour director Brett Ratner to sell Guitar Hero: World Tour as hard as he could and that he did. His promos for Guitar Hero were a mix of Bob Seger via Risky Business with famous athletes playing the game in their underwear. If you’ve ever wanted to see Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant, Michael Phelps, and Tony Hawk playing in a band where the gimmick is to perform pantless, this is the trailer for you.
Oh, and because Activision and Ratner decided this wasn’t enough, there’s a NSFW version featuring model Heidi Klum doing what can only be described as an exotic dance with a plastic guitar. You can’t make this shit up.
Tim Miller – Halo 4, DC Universe Online
You’ve probably heard of director Tim Miller in the past year. He’s the talented filmmaker who finally brought Deadpool to the big screen in 2016 to rave reviews and box office success. The guy’s super hot in Hollywood right now. (His next movie is a conclusion to the Terminator series, produced by James Cameron, if you’d like to know.)
But before he was directing the Merc with a Mouth, Miller made a couple of trailers that ultimately landed him the big job at FOX. His 2010 DC Universe Online trailer with Blur Studios was specifically the piece of work that earned him the director’s seat on Deadpool. The trailer is a battle of epic proportions featuring all of the greatest heroes and villains of the DC Universe, with a great story meant to introduce the conflict in the game. Miller’s talent for big action setpieces and comic book storytelling – two things that made Deadpool so great – is clearly on display in the six-minute promo, and it’s no wonder he went on to even greater success in Hollywood.
In an interview with Time Out Dubai, Miller talked a bit about how the trailer got him the director’s chair on Deadpool:
“The executive at Fox who’d been working on X-Men: First Class with Matthew Vaughn had seen a piece I’d done for a DC Universe project, which had a lot of superhero action… He came down and we met, and by the end of that meeting he said, ‘You know, I think you should really be directing your own film. You’re a first-timer so I can’t get you on anything big, but we have this other movie… Deadpool. Are you interested?’ I’d read the script already and I thought it was great, so I jumped at the chance.”
You know how the rest goes.
Just two years after his work with DC Universe Online, Miller also directed a promo for Halo 4 called “Scanned,” which was also produced by The Social Network director David Fincher. The trailer takes a note from Joseph Kosinki’s earlier Halo 3 trailer by once again showing us John-117 as a boy, as he goes through the Spartan program and is turned into a super soldier. It’s a grisly bit of footage that sort of foreshadows the direction Miller took with the Deadpool origin story, especially the scenes that take place in that horrible lab.
Eli Roth – Dark Souls III
The Dark Souls series is known for being punishing and terrifying, but not in the traditional horror sense. Luckily, we have Eli Roth to provide the nightmare fuel. His animated Dark Souls III trailer, “The Witches,” is a trip straight back to the gruesome torture porn Roth is best known for, as a group of witches prey on a knight in order to turn him into a monster. The shots of the crows pecking his eyes out while the witches hold his mouth open in order to pour a cauldron full of what looks like magic lava into his mouth are about as horrifying as it gets in the world of video games.
“I’ve always loved Medieval History. I’ve always wanted to do something that was in the space with knights and fire,” Roth said in a making of video about the trailer. “Now that I’ve done this, and it’s gone so well, I really want to do it more.”
The sounds more like a warning to me.
Neill Blomkamp – Halo 3
Neill Blomkamp directed one of my favorite sci-fi films, District 9, which arrived in 2009, just a few years after his attempts to get a Halo movie made. Blomkamp was in fact a bit of a pioneer in terms of the Halo franchise, having been the director to spearhead the franchise’s first forays into live-action film.
His series of short films, titled Halo: Landfall, play out like a proof of concept used to show Microsoft, Universal, and FOX what Blomkamp’s Halo movie would have looked like. Blomkamp was apparently frustrated with the minimal progress in the film’s production due to the studios’ constant bickering about what the film should look like. (Microsoft was also apparently not happy with having a very young and untested director helming their big blockbuster project. Blomkamp was chosen by the film’s producer, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, after Guillermo del Toro [Pan’s Labyrinth] dropped out.)
While the Halo movie was ultimately never made – and you can read a lot more about that here – Blomkamp’s Halo: Landfall is a testament to what could have been, as space marines charge into battle against the Covenant’s Brutes. Like the rest of the Halo trailers on this list, Blomkamp’s short film is brutal and emphasizes a gritty realism. Landfall was eventually used as promotional material for the upcoming Halo 3.
Halo: Landfall actually acts as a prologue of sorts to Halo 3, as soldiers race to the Master Chief’s crash site. You might remember that the beginning of the game sees Chief falling from the sky and landing in a jungle minutes before Sgt. Johnson and his men reach him. So Blomkamp did get to make an in-continuity Halo film after all.