Video game players might be familiar with Colette, a short documentary film that features a 90-year-old former member of the French Resistance and appears inside the virtual reality adventure Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. Movie buffs may know the project from its distribution by the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper.
Others, meanwhile, have no doubt noticed the film’s inclusion amongst the Oscar nominees at the 93rd Academy Awards. It is the first Oscar nomination for writer and director Anthony Giacchino and producer Alice Doyard, as well as for Electronic Arts’ Respawn Entertainment and Facebook’s Oculus Studios, the gaming companies that co-produced the film.
The film’s road to nominee status began when it entered the Oscar-qualifying Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana, and won best short in 2020. “When it won Big Sky, what was possible changed,” says Respawn’s Peter Hirschmann, a 20-year veteran of the game industry and the director of Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond. “[The Oscar nomination is] a wonderful validation of the quality of what these stories can be,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Giacchino, who is himself not a gamer, explains that he was interested in a story like this being put in front of an audience that he never would have had access to before. Such an assembly includes fans and players of the Medal of Honor franchise, which first debuted in 1999 and now includes numerous expansions and entries. Colette, which is one of a number of shorts included in the game to introduce players to real WWII veterans and transport them to the battlegrounds where the historic action took place, finds Colette Marin-Catherine traveling with history student Lucie Fouble to the site of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in Germany where her brother died 75 years prior.
Since the Oscar nomination, the idea that a gaming company may be a place where documentary filmmakers can go for their projects is something Giacchino says filmmakers are actively talking about. He hopes that this could be another space for funding, for making films, for forming industry partnerships. “I am very much about being on site, where things happened,” he says of his own storytelling interests. “You can bring people to spaces they would never go to.” That is a major part of Colette, which is a traditional 2D film that can be experienced in the game with a VR headset. “I never would have thought that something like this could be a new way of telling documentary.”
Before Colette was in the video game, it went out to festivals and had a life in the cinema space. Giacchino points out the unusual distribution route that the project soon took, being hosted by The Guardian. “The idea that a gaming company partners with a news organization to release this — is a first,” he says. “That’s never happened before [and] it’s pretty amazing to me.” The film is available to stream on the newspaper’s website.
Of the film’s roots in Medal of Honor and how its path as an educational film in a VR game was, in a sense, initiated long ago, Hirschmann is quick to bring up Steven Spielberg who formulated the original vision for the franchise. “[It] was created because he had the foresight 20 years ago to know that video games would be the dominant form of entertainment and that that [would be] how the majority of young people would be learning.”
He adds, “It’s a testament to his genius that he could look down range that far and know this is where things were going to go. To use technology as a tool to tell stories; games are a wonderful platform — the penetration that they have, they’re everywhere. They’re on your phone, your TV. It’s the platform that people spend the most time.” To harness that platform to tell stories, he says, is a “completely natural and powerful evolution” of that process.
Noting that Roger Ebert has referred to movies as “empathy machines,” Hirschmann goes on to point out that games are empathy machines “times 1000” because players are making decisions. “You’re involved by the very nature of it being interactive. The empathy that builds is so powerful that when you tell stories when people are in that empathetic zone, it hits all the more powerfully.”
Hirschmann says that “For Respawn, EA and Oculus, it’s a wonderful validation of the quality of what these stories can be. Colette is the apex of this kind of content.”
As far as video games themselves being eventually recognized by an industry body such as the Oscars, Hirschmann points to how quickly things tend to advance. “One of the maddening and wonderful things of the game industry is just the rapid evolution,” he says, “what you can do today is radically different from what you could do just ten years ago.” That pace hasn’t let up, he clarifies, adding that if anything, it’s going faster.
While he does not know what will happen in the future — as no one can really predict — Hirschmann says that Colette’s nomination is a “wonderful validation to putting the time in to build entertainment with a lot of value, depth, heart, and a lot of socially important and critical things.”
According to Hirschmann, the most meaningful thing about the film is its honesty and its truth. “Colette herself, Colette’s story, Colette the film, are so powerful in telling truths that are relevant to us today,” he says. Of games, they are “an almost magical platform” for such storytelling.
“We owe everything to the genius of Spielberg,” emphasizes Hirschmann. “The fact that we’re having this conversation today is a direct evolution from his genius and his foresight: the origin story is him.”