If you don’t know the name “Michael Shanks”, you probably know his pseudonym “timtimfed”. And if you don’t know timtimfed, you’ve almost certainly seen one of his videos. Perhaps it was Max Payne leaping towards his toaster, or a Skyrim adventurer freezing time to loot the bodies of his fallen opponents. Whether you’ve watched one or all of them, we can all agree they’re ridiculously brilliant.
Shanks, along with several of his film-making partners in crime, hosted a PAX Australia panel on Saturday entitled “Killer Cats, Talking Boobs and Skyrim: An Exploration of creating Video Content”. I caught up with Shanks after the panel to chat about his body of work, which along with gaming parodies includes music videos featuring people with mouths for eyes (NSFW) and murderous felines.
Despite the Australian accent, Shanks is actually New Zealand-born, having left the drizzly shores of his homeland at the well-marinated age of 12. Specifically, he hails from the “ancient, ruined city of Christchurch”, though it’s not something you’d pick up on in idle conversation.
Shanks realised early on the film-making was how he wanted to spend the rest of his days, however, learning his craft was not a straightforward affair.
“I was in Year 12 and it was the last couple of weeks and I was studying — I didn’t really care about school that much. The course I wanted to get into was a film course and they didn’t have an entry level thing,” says Shanks.
It left him with a bit of a conundrum — how was he to acquire the skills necessary to pursue his dream if he was unable to attend the very institution that would show him the fundamentals?
That’s where The Escapist comes in. In 2008, the site held its own film festival and undeterred by a lack of education in the cinematic arts, Shanks managed to take out the grand prize. His reward? An ongoing commitment to produce episodes for a series called Doomsday Arcade.
“By being contractually obliged to do that, I think I just learnt all the skills I would learn in a film course,” explains Shanks. He believes that today, all the tools and tutorials an aspiring film-maker needs are available online… and on your DVD shelf.
“In some ways a film course is a little unnecessary because, in my experience, you can just figure out [things] by watching films. You can learn how they work, how they’re structured and the internet has so many avenues of self-education,” Shanks says.
I drew similarities to indie games development — with the wide selection of engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine, it’s never been easier to stitch together your own creations, as long as you have the patience and motivation.
As you might have guessed from his videos, Shanks is a big gamer. Considering his abilities, I had to ask whether he’d ever considered getting into the industry.
“I’d love to do game design, but I feel like I have no experience in that field — that would be so hard to do,” he responds. “I’d love to write a game. I was even considering it. We’re about to make our most professional production yet — we’re going to make a sci-fi short film, throw as much money as we can at it and build sets and do all the pro stuff.
“I was thinking it’d be cool if we made an accompanying video game — it’s totally unnecessary but man, it’d be good fun.”
Shanks had an idea that involved “little pockets of time travel”, a concept he’d later see used in a Legend of Zelda game. “Then I decided I didn’t know how to make a game, so [instead I'm making] a short film using the same kind of idea.”
Shanks’ endeavours started out as almost entirely solo affairs, but as time has moved on and his plans matured, the need for additional personnel has become all but necessary. “I had friends coming in to act or hold a camera, but that was really the extent of anyone’s involvement, whilst now, I’m trying to get into the more industry side of things, you realise that’s not really viable on a professional shoot,” he says.
“I used to scratch my head when I’d see a film set with 60 people and they’re just filming a dog walking … but now I’m shooting a TVC (television commercial) … and you realise it’s all just for expediency’s sake. It takes all the pressure off if you know that there’s someone taking care of gaffing and lighting and every individual aspect. So the change going from really independent stuff to formal independent stuff is that you have to get used to working with big groups.”
A younger Shanks didn’t understand why films had to have extravagant costs, but now he concedes that “to get the best results you need a lot of people working”.
One characteristic that helps Shanks’ clips stand out from the crowd is their high quality. Sometimes, it can be easy to distinguish why a video doesn’t look professional, but as you nail the low-hanging fruit, it gets harder to tweak those almost imperceptible details that separate the adepts from the novices.
“I guess there’s no secret to it, but there are things like shooting at 24 frames versus 25 … those are little things you don’t really think about that make a subconscious difference,” explains Shanks. “I guess the more you do it, the more professional you get. Learning how to use a camera is really important. Like, I was going through the old series I did for The Escapist finding clips for [PAX] and so many shots are completely blown out — everything is just white and overexposed — and I remember not really realising how to stop that.”
Shanks also highlights audio as a critical element. “Sound design is really important. I generally do my own sound because I really enjoy it, but sometimes I get it done [professionally] and that makes a huge difference.
“But most importantly, to actually have a microphone on set, a guy holding a boom to record dialogue. It’s so crappy when people use camera mics. It’s just a bad idea and so many people are obsessed with the way a film looks [but] the sound tells so much more than you expect.”
He goes on to provide the example of a special effect that is “80 per cent good, but 20 per cent crap” can be taken the distance by a “really good” sound effect. According to Shanks, good audio can “fill in the gaps” of a video that’s less than perfect.
Shanks’ videos aren’t all about video games. In fact, my favourite clip mixes Back to the Future with Doctor Who. It features an actual DeLorean, something I’d have guessed is hard to come by. Fortunately, Shanks has a, uh, secret resource for acquiring esoteric props.
“It’s one of the great things about being young and living in a house with house mates, especially when they shift around a lot — you’re always meeting interesting characters,” Shanks explains. “A guy moved in who was an actor and was obsessed with Back to the Future. He was showing me all these photos he had with a DeLorean … there’s some weird guy in Melbourne called ‘Doc Braun’ who owns a DeLorean. He’ll take it to a supermarket and my house mate would just go to the supermarket and get all these photos.
“So I just said ‘Do you have his [Doc Braun's] details?’ and I called him and said ‘Hey, would you be OK if we came and filmed it?’.”
And that was that. The car itself is apparently more than just a shell, with “Doc Braun” having added to his precious collectible over the years.
“It was such a funny prop — Christopher Lloyd has signed the airbag and it’s Glad-wrapped so no one can tamper with it … it’s so odd, because half of it is from the real movie. He clearly goes to auctions and buys [parts from the films].”
The BttF / Doctor Who mash-up is a good example of Shanks’ approach to humour. He believes that grabbing the same elements from different genres and sticking them together inherently creates comedy. Ghosts are brought up as an example — they’ve been portrayed as ridiculous in movies such as Ghostbusters, to the more terrifying in The Ring (or any Japanese horror flick, really).
Interestingly, the BttF / Doctor Who mash-up was meant to be done on a larger scale, taking time-travelling concepts from a variety of sources.
“I was trying to come up with a bigger idea that was going to be a DeLorean, TARDIS and all the other time travel devices — we were going to do a Bill & Ted thing. I’m a bit of a Trekkie, so I wanted to do the Borg cube as well, but I was worried it was going to get too much and I thought bugger it, we’ve got the DeLorean so let’s just focus on that.”
With Shanks’ mention of his love of Star Trek, I couldn’t help but pry a bit deeper, being a fan myself. The conversation turns to the recent films from JJ Abrams and how they compare to the TV shows and earlier movies.
“I’ve been watching The Next Generation again and it’s like every episode has so much more in it than either of the Abrams films … it’s just action and nothing more and I don’t really like the way he shoots action,” says Shanks.
“The effects are good and the cast is fine, but action really bores me. Unless you’re doing something super unique with it, there’s got to be a reason to care about action … we’ve all seen explosions, we’ve all seen gunfights, we’ve all seen swordfights, [but] you’ve got to have a vested interest in it.”
He mentions a lack of proper character development as one of the more significant failings, but as we continue to talk, we both agree that the films stray from what Star Trek was originally about — exploring the human condition and cool scientific concepts in a setting where you had more freedom than you might have in a conventional show.
It’s at this point that I realise that I’ve not only gone completely off topic, but that we’ve been talking for almost an hour. We somehow manage to get back onto the subject of video games… but only after discussing everything from YouTube profits and work ethics, to my own excursions in indie game development.
Ultimately, I’m curious to know how Shanks feels about the popularity of his videos. During his panel, he mentioned that Bethesda approached him to do a video for Dishonored. Which sounds awesome, except the developer was hoping he’d do it free… well, almost free — they sent him a sweet mask prop for him to use.
That said, Shanks certainly doesn’t mind the attention. Film-making and video games are his passions, so any opportunity to combine the two is a welcome exercise.
“It’s really flattering because I love games, I love people who make games. So to have game developers like the stuff you do is kind of an honour. When I did the Max Payne video, Rockstar put it up on their Facebook and [I] was like, that is so cool.”
At just 22, Shanks has plenty of time to figure out precisely where to take his career. At the moment, he’s happy with YouTube and putting out a clip around once a month, though the video sharing site isn’t a large part of his long-term plans.
So what are his plans? We’ll just have to stay tuned, as it were.