James Wallis levels with you

Once Upon a Time – interview with the director

Last week I posted a link to the short film Once Upon a Time, based on my card-game Once Upon a Time—if you missed it it’s here:

It’s a labour of love and remarkably accomplished for a first film from a writer/director. So having badgered him to put the film online, I badgered him into talking about how the film came to be and some of the creative challenges in converting a card-game into a half-hour drama.

Who are you and what are you doing on my blog?

I’m Andrew Shellshear! The “!” is silent. I’m an amateur film-maker, puzzle designer, webcomic writer, juggler, classical guitarist, computer programmer, and game designer. I lack focus, is what I’m saying.

I am here thanks to kind words Mr Wallis had for a short film I made twelve years ago. It was my first short film, and I decided to make it about a game of Once Upon a Time.

Why did you choose Once Upon a Time as the subject for a film?

Film-making is expensive now, but was cripplingly expensive before the late 1990s. Video cameras were several thousand dollars and produced less than broadcast quality, but that was nothing compared with the cost of the editing equipment. By 1999 you could finally do editing on home computers (with specialised video capture boards) for only a couple of thousand dollars. So, having blown all my money on equipment, I wanted to make a first film that wouldn’t cost much, which meant a small cast, few locations, and indoors (outdoor locations are a pain in the neck). People sitting around talking. I had recently been playing OUaT and it struck me that a film about a bunch of people sitting around playing it would be cheap, and potentially dramatic: we can have parallel stories of the fairy tale and the tellers, and the levels could interact in interesting ways.

Did you use the game itself to help the creative process?

Yes – I knew the rough beats of the story, but used OUaT cards to inspire most of the fairy tale elements – more like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, though. I’ve used OUaT cards for that a few times, particularly when participating in Nanowrimo.

Watching people play a card-game can be a bit static. How did you get around that?

Actually, because this was my first film, I was happy to confine it to the traditional “bunch of people talking” scene. It was good practice for the kind of film-making you have to do a lot. I storyboarded the whole film and put in a couple of dolly shots (using a home-made tripod dolly which proved nightmarishly difficult to move around), and tried to make sure I had good coverage (that is, shooting the same scene from several different angles including a master wide shot) to allow variety in editing. I didn’t want to get too adventurous because I knew we only had two weekends to film 30 minutes worth of footage. The main trick to keeping it interesting was to make sure the story was interesting enough, and I tried to make it as tense as I could. Viewed twelve years later, that’s an aspect that does still work, I think.

The story within the film—is that really the kind of story you guys were telling with the game?

Noooooo. I’ve never played a game remotely like that. The script really needed to be punchy to get around the aforementioned static card game problem.

How did the shoot go?

It was a frantic rush. I prepared for it more than I’ve done for any other shoot, but I made a lot of mistakes as well – recording audio separately on minidisk proved a massive pain in editing, and I made a huge mistake in deciding to capture using the Sony TRV900’s “Progressive Scan” mode – it had a frame-rate of 12.5 frames per second (slow and jerky) and the result looked grainy and washed out. On the positive side I had a great crew, and we got through everything in the two weekends allocated.

How was the film received?

I didn’t attempt much of a release – just showed it to my friends and sent it to the creators of the game. Having said that, I *did* rent out a movie theatre and limo, made up posters and t-shirts. The premiere was great! Everyone laughed at the right moments.

The film version of Once Upon a Time modifies the game’s rules. Is that for dramatic convenience, or are there actual house rules in there?

I incorporated a house rule I always use: you only get the ending cards after the first card is played. I found it stopped people planning ahead too much. Otherwise yeah, the changes were because it takes too long to explain about interrupt cards. The game would never work as played in the film.

What other films have you made? What are you working on at the moment? Do you still play Once Upon a Time?

I really burned out on OUaT after the film, but I still use it for the Oblique Strategies on story ideas. This discussion has gotten me thinking about it again, though! I’ll introduce it to my lunchtime game group (the Comic Irregulars).

I’ve made a dozen or so short films, but none that have reached a professional standard. The best two (besides OUaT) are a music video for my friend Evan’s band (he provided the closing credits tune on OUaT), and a fifteen-second segment of the final cut of the Star Wars Uncut film (Scene 302, 1:17:42).

It’s very hard work, and I’m just not focused enough on film-making to push it beyond the occasional amateur effort. I have a full-length movie script about a botched kidnapping, which I’m very proud of – but I just can’t see how I’ll ever get the time to get it made! Nowadays I just make Youtube videos featuring my daughter.

Many thanks to Andrew for talking to me, and for making the film in the first place. Having someone adapt one of your works for a different medium is a wild compliment, and when the end result is as good as the—you’ve not watched it yet, have you? Go and watch it. Really.

And a quick reminder that the third edition of Once Upon a Time—the Games 100 card-game not the film—is newly released and available from all good games stores.

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  1. […] Wallis interviewed me about my old film “Once upon a Time” (now up and public on […]

  2. Jon Blum says:

    Jon Blum here — I’m one of the actors in the film (the crap one, I’m afraid), and that’s my old flat you’re seeing on the screen! (And my wife who has a cameo partway through.) Just wanted to say that it’s great to see Andrew getting some recognition for the film, and that we’ve played some great games of OUAT over the years. Thanks for prompting him to dig the film back out of the digital attic.

    I’m actually directing a project of my own right now with Alistair Rigg (who played the utter bastard in OUAT — typecast again!), and we’re hoping to involve Andrew as well — assuming he’ll ever have any free time again!

  3. I would have had Jon’s part, but my son was too eensy for me to make the filming sessions. Then “the crap one” would be truth, instead of self-deprecatory hyperbole!

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