June 16, 2012

Remarkable Short Docs: Caine’s Arcade

A conversation with Nirvan Mullick

This short film about a nine-year-old boy and his homemade arcade premiered online in early April, and it has gathered over 7 million views online to date. Ben spoke on the phone with director Nirvan Mullick in mid-June, just a day before he and Caine flew to France for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, where the film’s star would be the festival’s youngest-ever speaker.

Ben: What kind of work do you do?

Nirvan: I work across the board. I’ve done animation, short films, and dipped my toes in the documentary world. I work in digital media and transmedia storytelling for the online space, and this was my first short documentary film.

Ben: What attracted you to Caine, as a character?

Nirvan: I was attracted to Caine because of his imagination; he built this world that I related to. The idea that he spends all this time making something but doesn’t have any customers is very similar to independent filmmaking, where you spend your time making films that you’re passionate about. You don’t necessarily have an audience, but you make them anyway.

Ben: It was, I believe, a New Yorker article that described you as a struggling filmmaker…would you have used that language to describe yourself?

Nirvan: It would depend on who I’m talking to! [laughs] You know, I do have a ‘96 Corolla that did have a broken door handle. Currently, I have to get it towed over to George’s [Caine’s father’s garage] because the starter is broken.

I’ve been working on passion projects for the last 15 years and turning down other more commercial work to chase things that I care about. Recently I started a creative agency in order to get myself more financially stable and pursue a different path. The agency is called Interconnected, and we produced this film as an example of Interconnected storytelling linking online social engagements and trying to do something for social good. So, I’m definitely an outsider when it comes to the commercial film industry.

Ben: One of the things that strikes me about Caine’s Arcade is that the process is built into it: the story is about the making of the story. Did you set out to do that?

Nirvan: When I first decided to make the short film, I really wanted to document the arcade. When I went back to talk about making the short film with Caine’s dad and I learned that I’d been Caine’s first and only customer, that broadened the story to me and resonated with me emotionally. That is why I put myself in the story, and I wouldn’t have been in the film otherwise. And then important story points happened along the way, with the flash mob being on Hidden LA and the front page of Reddit. That impacted the story and allowed it to reach more people.

Ben: Can you describe for me your role as director on the team and how you put this all together?

Nirvan: I guess I was kind of an instigator. First I played the games and came home and told all my friends about it. I’d been thinking about making a short film for a while, and I decided this was the short film I wanted to make. I have very talented cinematographer friends, people who’ve got equipment, people who do catering, people who paint signs, and I just called up all my friends and told them what I wanted to do, that the idea was to make this kid’s day. And everybody just chipped in and got behind that and did it for free. I have enough web experience to build basic websites and run social media campaigns, so I worked with my creative partner at Interconnected and we developed a strategy. I guess I was a community organizer as much as a film director on this.

Ben: When you were crafting the story, were there story threads that you had to leave in the editing room?

Nirvan: There was tons of cute content—cute games, Caine interacting with his games—and we had to cut some of that to not be repetitive. There are certain notes that you hit, and in order to be efficient there wasn’t room to hit the same note more than once.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was the length. A lot of people suggested that it get down to three to seven minutes, what’s considered more viral for the online space. And ultimately I decided I didn’t care if the film was viral or not. I just decided it was more important to document the games and inventions that Caine had brought into the world. So I made the film the length I felt it needed to be to tell the story, and I didn’t worry about how many people wouldn’t see it because it was maybe longer than their attention span. I’m glad I did that.

Ben: In what order did you film? We begin the film with this Steadicam shot of Caine showing off the arcade, and then you get introduced and you’re playing the game. Was that photographed before or after the flash mob?

Nirvan: That was photographed after the flash mob. First, I tried to document Caine’s normal day and routine. I did interviews with him and his dad before the flash mob happened. Then we filmed the flash mob, and we started editing and listening to the footage and the interviews we had. In that process, I started realizing the tone of the film. To get some of the beauty shots, I went back and I called in some favors. I got a Steadicam to come in for an hour to get some shots that I wanted, to tell certain story points that I knew that we had. For instance, connecting the space with the dad in the back and Caine being out front, or starting with the first basketball hoop that Caine had made and pulling out to reveal how big the arcade had grown.

Actually, a lot of the descriptions, like Caine talking about the games, also happened after the flash mob. When we were first talking to him he was shy on camera, and kind of limited to one-word answers. After the flash mob and after cameras had been around, we came back to do pickup shots and he was much more relaxed and started talking much more freely. I just picked up the camera, and grabbed 90% of his dialogue in one shot, and captured him talking about his whole arcade. So that’s the order in which things happened.

We finished a rough cut of the film for DIY Days and did a test screening. That audience feedback was really helpful and I realized that there were moments that needed to be a little bit longer to allow the audience to react, and there were other moments that I needed to go back and rework, like the calculator sequence. I could tell people weren’t quite getting that idea yet, so I did some pickup shots and had Caine redescribe that moment, because it had to be articulated quickly but also fully.

Ben: What gives you as much joy as Caine gets from his arcade?

Nirvan: I love to make ideas! [laughs] That sounds kind of vague, but that’s what I do in film, and in other manifestations. I like to make ideas that I believe in and share them with people.

Ben: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked about that I should know.

Nirvan: The Caine’s Arcade Imagination Foundation grew out of this film. It is a foundation to help find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in more kids. There’s a matching grant of up to $250,000, matching the scholarship fund for Caine. And we will be doing a follow-up film to this, and launching a cardboard building challenge around the world in the fall.