Documentary 'Insert Coin' Details History Behind 'Mortal Kombat,' 'NBA Jam' Arcade Developer (Exclusive)

Director Joshua Tsui, who worked at Midway Games during its heyday in the early 1990s, opens up about his latest film, which was set to debut at SXSW before the event was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Originally set to debut in the Doc Spotlight at SXSW — which was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak — Insert Coin offers a detailed look at Midway Games, the developer of franchises including Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam and one of the first companies to use live-capture techniques in coin-operated arcade video games.

The film is directed by Chicago-based video game developer Joshua Tsui (Fight Night, Tony Hawk), whose first job in the industry was at Midway in the early 1990s. While most artists came from a comic book or illustration background at that time, his film school education (Tsui had stints at USC and NYU before graduating from Columbia College's film program) and video background was appealing to the company. "Back then, Midway was really starting to use digitizing technology," Tsui tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I came in a different way, but it was just great timing."

He set out to make the doc with the goal of giving people a window inside Midway, the now-defunct company that was once a leader in the game industry. "I had been in so many conversations before the film, talking about my time at Midway, and I’d say that I was working with the team that did NBA Jam, and then later on I worked with the team that did Mortal Kombat, and people were like, 'Oh, so they’re two different companies?'" says Tsui.

At that point, Tsui would explain that it was one company. "We were all in these horrible conditions in the back of a pinball factory, making these games," he recalls with a laugh. "At the time, it was one hit game after another, all coming from the one place. A lot of people didn't know that." Continuing that train of thought, he adds, "Because I come from a film background and I always wanted to make a film, I thought, 'This would be a great first film for me to make. I know the story and the people really well.'"

Tsui explains that the live-action capture techniques — where characters could jump in the air and move more animatedly — largely began in the late '80s with a run-and-gun arcade game called Narc. "It was probably the first modern version of digitizing, and that's where they mastered the techniques," says Tsui. "Some other companies had done it before with varying degrees of quality, but Narc really nailed it down. It wasn't until the very first Mortal Kombat when every single game coming from Midway was using that technique."

Sharing a little bit of the process, Tsui remembers how different things were back then. "You would bring actors into a very small stage — we would shoot in a storage space," he says, adding that they couldn't use green or blue screen because "the images were so low-res that the green or blue from the background would bleed into the characters and cause all sorts of problems". "So, they would have someone do punches one after one another and that video would be recorded on VHS tape against a gray background and then every single frame of animation would be cut out," he explains. 

Often, that responsibility would fall on Tsui. "In a game like Mortal Kombat or Wrestlemania, there were literally hundreds and hundreds of frames," he recalls.

"One of the secrets to why Midway’s games look so good was that we weren’t just videotaping the actors and then putting them into the game," he goes on to say. "Once we videotaped and digitized them, every single frame was touched up by hand. We were hand coloring to make sure the colors popped, we would add lighting to the edges. There was a lot of frame by frame manipulation to get them to look great."

While arcade games up until that point had been dominated by lot of fantasy and sports titles, Tsui says that Narc, Mortal Kombat, and, to some extent, NBA Jam, had a level of realism — cushioned by humor — that led the development team to have a "punk-rock" attitude to game design from that point onward. "It was basically, 'do anything to shock people.'" That attitude really changed the way games were perceived, he explains. 

"When Mortal Kombat came to the home consoles, that's when it really blew up," he says. "It was very distinct because, [while] the game was kind of controversial in the arcades, at the time most parents didn’t know what was going on inside [them]. When it came to the home market, moms and dads were seeing it in their living room. That triggered the need for ratings to happen in the video game industry."

It also triggered a shift in how arcade games and console games were viewed against each other. "At the time, the arcade machines were the most powerful game machines — the top of the food chain — so our attitude was always, ‘We are the best,'" explains Tsui. "Later on, a big shift happened in the industry that reversed it, and that led to arcades being less desirable to go to. Suddenly they weren’t as powerful and then also, they’re really expensive to play."

These days, Tsui is playing around with experiential design as an executive producer. There's one project that hasn't been announced yet, so he has to be a little bit vague in his description. "I'm working on installations where groups of people can be in a room and experience what's called a VR experience without the headset — more like a communal VR experience." 

While he has stepped away from games for a while, Tsui is intent on exploring experiential content that is video game related. "I'm straddling the fence between video and interactive [content]," he concludes. "It's blowing up all over the place, so I wanted to leverage what I've learned in my career so far and go in that direction."

View the exclusive clip above and follow Insert Coin on Twitter to be informed about screenings. Cargo Film & Releasing is handling worldwide sales.