Like the rest of us, Kevin Munroe is well aware that video games don’t have a great track record when it comes to being adapted for film. As the director of the upcoming Ratchet & Clank movie, based on the long-running PlayStation series, it’s something he has no choice but to think about. But the filmmaker also believes that he knows the reason why these movies often turn out poorly. "I think that with any adaptation, but specifically video game adaptations, filmmakers just get super arrogant in terms of the producers and the studios, and they think they know better than the guys who have been working on the video game up until that point," he says. "I think there’s a lot of feeling, especially with video games, that you have to go in and reinvent a lot of stuff."
For Ratchet, Munroe’s going in a different direction, sticking relatively close to the source material and working in tandem with Insomniac Games, the studio that created the franchise. Ratchet has been around since 2002, spanning five main releases, multiple spin-offs, and selling more than 27 million copies to date. "My whole approach to it has been, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’" says Munroe.
The director may have a different perspective than most of his peers, given that he began his career in the games industry. After studying animation at Sheridan College just outside of Toronto, he moved to Los Angeles only to find that he couldn’t get a work visa in his chosen field. But the games industry was hiring, and he eventually got a job at Shiny Entertainment, the studio behind Earthworm Jim. He went on to work at Midway Games, and eventually, he transitioned into film, as originally planned, tackling animation projects for places like DreamWorks, Disney, and the Jim Henson Company. Slowly, Munroe moved his way up to the directorial ranks, and in 2007 he helmed the CG reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Part of what drew him to Shiny was its strong focus on characters and storytelling, and that’s something he saw in the early days of Ratchet, as well. During his time in games he remembers creating complex animated cutscenes, knowing that people would be eager to skip them — in play tests he would see people mashing the X button to get to the gameplay — but what Insomniac created was different. "Ratchet was one of the first [games] where you actually wanted to watch and you would get a laugh out of the cut-scenes," he says.
"I think there's a lot of feeling, especially with video games, that you have to go in and reinvent a lot of stuff."
When it came to tackling Ratchet, Munroe says that one of his biggest priorities was to remain true to the source material, and to do that he worked closely with Insomniac. The collaboration was proposed by Rainmaker Entertainment, which produced the film alongside Blockade Entertainment, and is also in the process of turning another PlayStation franchise into a film with Sly Cooper.
Insomniac’s fingerprints can be seen throughout Ratchet. Creature Box, a character design company created by longtime Insomniac artists Dave Guertin and Greg Baldwin, worked on the movie, while T.J. Fixman, a writer on many early Ratchet games, created the first draft of the script (he followed that up by writing the recent Ratchet & Clank reboot on PS4). Oliver Wade, the film’s animation producer, had previously worked as an animator on the very first game in the series.
This expertise helped ensure that the movie never strayed too far from the foundation laid by the games, and made sure that tiny, but important, details weren’t lost. Wade, for example, had very strong opinions on how Clank, a diminutive robot, should move, constantly telling the team that he needed to walk as if he was a toddler. "Oliver was completely invaluable," Munroe says.
The film and game also share some of the same actors. While the movie boasts big names like Rosario Dawson, John Goodman, and Sylvester Stallone, the titular duo is voiced by James Arnold Taylor and David Kaye, the same pair fans will recognize from the games. "It was really important for us to get those core guys," Munroe explains, "and not have Seth Green’s voice coming out of Ratchet’s face so that you could put another name on the poster."
"It was really important for us to get those core guys."
On a more practical level, the film and game were also able to share things, including the paintings used for backgrounds. Meanwhile, some of the animations and character models featured in the movie were based off of ones originally created for the game — though Munroe says that they needed to be upgraded in some ways for the new medium, as a movie displayed on a huge screen needs more detail than a game played in your living room. "I just wanted more control over the face, I wanted more range and subtle movement," he notes.
Munroe has previously worked on adaptations of everything from Kingdom Hearts to The Mask, and he says this kind of collaboration is rare in the film world. "I wish it was a lot more common," he says, "but it’s not." Sometimes it’s a case of the filmmakers not respecting the source material, other times it’s the original creators being too protective of their work. The collaboration between the film team and Insomniac is something unique, then, and a reason that the Ratchet & Clank movie could end up as one of the rare game-to-film success stories.
"It always comes down to trust," Munroe says. "You’ve got to get everyone around the table and have everyone feeling like the other person isn’t there to screw up what they’re trying to do. With Insomniac, it was great, they were so open to it, and I think they looked at it as a chance to really re-launch this franchise and do it in a way that would make everyone take notice."
The Ratchet & Clank movie will be in theaters on April 29th