Meet the Documentary Makers and Daredevils of ‘Grand Theft Auto V’
The Rockstar Editor has introduced a thriving performance culture to <i>GTA V</i>, proving there's more to Los Santos than murder and stealing cars.
A shark, just minding its own business for now, in 8 Bit Bastard's 'Sharks' documentary
From its gun-slung backwater towns in the north to its neon-bleached cityscape in the south, the Los Santos skyline cuts an impressive figure against the seemingly endless ocean that hugs its shores. Like every Grand Theft Auto game before it, Rockstar's fifth main series entry presents players with an open-world sandbox filled with people, wildlife, cities, and vast countryside. The latest setting fills an area larger than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Read Dead Redemption combined.
At its core, crime and unscrupulous activity are once again the order of the day. Yet Los Santos has since become more than just a playground to engage in unlawful enterprise, following GTA V's release in late 2013 on PS3, November 2014 on Xbox One and PS4, and last April on PC. Nowadays, the sprawling metropolis also plays host to a thriving performance culture, where thousands of people create art in various forms that millions of people keenly watch.
"I remember this as clear as day," Alec Chaney tells me. "When I did the second heist mission in GTA V's single-player campaign—where you go into the submarine and go underwater—I went under and noticed how incredible everything looked. I was like:Ooh shit, there's some potential here."
A still from 'Onto the Land'
Alongside production partner Sonny Evans, Chaney makes up one half of YouTube outfit 8-Bit Bastard, a team who cut its teeth in the ever-popular Grand Theft Auto V machinima scene two years ago creating skits, guides, and virtual reenactments of scenes from famous movies and television shows. The pair's channel now boasts hundreds of videos, the majority of which befall the streets of Los Santos, and has accrued over 44,000 subscribers.
Driven by a lifelong admiration of esteemed naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, 8-Bit Bastard's most successful video to date, Into the Deep, examines the world and wildlife that exists just off the shore of the bustling city, and has been viewed close to one million times. It's really quite impressive.
'Into the Deep', by 8-Bit Bastard
"The Blue Planet is probably my favorite David Attenborough documentary [series], and all of that just came rushing into my head," says Chaney. "I started ignoring the mission and just going around in the submarine and just having a look at what was there. I had no idea that Rockstar were going to introduce animals into the water, so I was so impressed when I saw dolphins and orca and humpback whales.
"I basically recorded what I saw and just based a story on that. None of it was choreographed. I just went out and recorded—which is how I imagine it might work in real life. You just film what the wildlife is doing and pull it together afterward. It was just a huge source of inspiration, seeing the animals and how amazing it all looked."
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Into the Deep was created prior to the introduction of Grand Theft Auto V's Rockstar Editor—a feature that allows players to record, edit, and share footage in the game's story mode and GTA Online—meaning Chaney had only first- and third-person control over the shots that comprised the end product.
All told, the ocean overview (or underview, perhaps) took just three days to make, although Chaney admits to pulling some ridiculous hours, with minimal sleep, to make it so. Conversely, its overground follow-up, Onto the Land, was made via the editor and took several months to complete.
"When Rockstar introduced the Rockstar Editor, things just became enormous," explains Chaney. "Suddenly you had to think about camera angles, camera motions, depths of field, almost as though you were a videographer. It's intense, but it's also made GTA machinima that bit harder to make because you've got all this stuff at your grasp and it's like, Oh, how do I do this? While making Onto the Land, I'd be editing and would set the camera angle before deciding it wasn't really good enough, and then it was just continuous filming and re-angling, sometimes for hours at a time, simply tinkering on one little clip.
"That said, I'd definitely say the Rockstar Editor is the way to go because the results you get at the end are just vastly superior to what they would be if we were just stuck with the traditional views of first- and third-person. Being able to have free use of the camera has made everything so much better."
'Onto the Land', by 8-Bit Bastard
While YouTube and social media did exist when Grand Theft Auto IV was released in 2008, both platforms have since risen to considerable cultural prominence in the interim, thus features such as the Rockstar Editor have introduced an element of celebrity to the world of GTA. Prolific directors have sprung from various online communities—filmmakers, stunt performers, and comedians, for example—and viewers now keenly await, and often impatiently demand, the Next Big Thing from these auteurs in their droves.
To this end, the Stunt Lads is a comedy series from Hat Films created entirely in the Rockstar Editor. An extension of trio Alex Smith, Chris Trott, and Ross Hornby's weekly GTA V output as part of the YOGSCAST network, the idea came from a collective interest in light-hearted, slapstick fare and an inability to perform stunts to the same standard as some of the online scene's dedicated crews.
"We like to think we're a Jackass meets Top Gear–type team," says Smith. Trott agrees. "Yeah, we knew that we definitely couldn't do any of that stuff ourselves. It's very impressive and takes a ton of time to find those tiny little kinks in the game where the engine allows your bike to fly over skyscrapers. We wanted more to tell a story, and we thought our form of content on YouTube is quite blundering and humorous, and we thought having three guys trying to do stunts and just getting injured and hurt all the time would be funny as a premise."
By scouring the vast digital archipelago for the best locations, Hat Films use the GTA V Map Editor tool to position ramps and jumps and platforms in the most unlikely of places. This process, coupled with recording and editing, can take anywhere between two and four weeks of full time work, while the onscreen avatars don full body jumpsuits and masks or helmets so as to sidestep potential issues with voiceovers and lip syncing.
'The Stunt Lads', pilot show
As we chat, Smith, Trott, and Hornby make regular mention of promoting their "brand" and delivering the best "content," such is the commonly understood vernacular shared by popular people who make a living from a prominent medium made so by popular culture. They've also worked their own brands into the Stunt Lads itself, such as the made-up caffeine supplement Crazy Pills, which is emblazoned onto their merchandise in a similar fashion to Rockstar's real-life approach to branding.
"It's just a way for the viewer to be part of the joke, really," says Smith. "There's a Crazy Pills sticker on the back of all of our Stunt Lads snapbacks, for example. You were saying about how people associating with a brand that's virtual within a virtual environment might be considered strange, but I think that's just a reflection of the online community as it evolves. People don't care if it's virtual because they see it everyday and talk to real people who understand what they're talking about. In that respect, it's as real as any other brand, really."
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This typifies where the Grand Theft Auto community is today—V is a video game that's transcended itself, almost, becoming as much a playground for people to hang out, do cool things, and promote their interests, as it is a game about murdering, robbing banks, and stealing cars. This concept, and the associated pseudo-celebrity streaming culture that's now steadfastly attached, is by no means exclusive to GTA V. But its level of realism arguably makes it more relatable than, say, Minecraft or similar games with huge online communities.
Hat Films has placed the Stunt Lads on temporary hiatus at the moment in order to gauge demand. Rockstar, however, has showed continued interest in the series and even invited the threesome to the developer's London studios for exclusive access to new updates as a direct result of the show.
Chaney, on the other hand, followed Onto the Land with another ocean faring expedition, named Sharks, that focuses on the cartilaginous monsters of the deep, and is now hard at work on another foray into the world of wildlife documentary making in Los Santos. And he's not planning on stopping there.
"I know it's not gonna be around for years," he says. "But as soon as GTA 6 comes out, I'm going right into that water, mate. Hell yeah, right in there, to see what I can find!"