On the 29th March 2017, after eleven and a half years of existence, the beloved Disney-owned social network for children Club Penguin closed its doors, leaving a community who had grown up alongside the platform out in the cold. Fortunately for us, filmmakers Zach Jones and Ben Kitnick were there to bear witness to the final doom-laden weeks of Club Penguin, condensing hours of gameplay into an, at times, heartbreaking depiction of a community’s untimely death. Zach joins DN to discuss how the pair honed their end times story from hours of captured online interactions and elegantly bridged the space between the virtual and the real world communities we belong to.

Waddle On isn’t the first time you and Ben have worked together, how did you become collaborators?

Ben and I met each other in film school, so we’ve worked on several of each other’s student projects (mostly as actors or crew members). We each started directing and releasing shorts outside of school, and eventually realized there was some thematic overlap in what we were both doing. We’re fascinated by the tension between pop culture and tragedy, like how when you’re on Facebook you see dumb memes between news articles about suicide bombings. We’ve both made films in the past that explore aspects of this tension between shiny nonsense and real sorrow.

Where did the idea of documenting the demise of Club Penguin come from?

Ben and I had been exploring the idea of massive multiplayer online games, and how people can truly inhabit and connect with these virtual worlds. Specifically, we were fascinated about what happens when these sites cease to exist. While we were discussing these ideas we realized that Club Penguin, a virtual world where its users play as anthropomorphic penguins, was closing in just a few weeks. The timing was perfect so we immediately began exploring the world in its final weeks of existence.

We’re fascinated by the tension between pop culture and tragedy.

Neither of us had played Club Penguin before, but we were hoping for some insight into what users were thinking as their apocalypse loomed. Ben and I took turns playing as our character, WowItsDan235, trying to engage the other users as much as possible. All of the Club Penguin gameplay footage in Waddle On is from these sessions, except for the final conversation in the igloo, which was scripted and featured us playing as both characters.

Did you enter the game with a predefined series of interactions in mind?

As we started interacting with Club Penguin players, all we really had in mind was that our character was socially awkward, perhaps having used the site as an escape through childhood. We talked a lot about how a user of Club Penguin would talk, and looked into slang (like “iggy”). Our goal was to blend in without fitting in.

There was something strangely intimate about the unscripted conversations that neither of us were expecting. Some people were genuinely heartbroken at the loss of Club Penguin, as it seemed like Club Penguin had been a fixture in their lives for years. The absurdity of a penguin apocalypse isn’t lost on us, but we were struck by how real the sense of grief seemed to be. We believed that despite how silly and insular this world appeared, the sense of attachment and loss experienced there could be universal.

What was your process for gathering the gameplay footage?

We spent a few weeks playing and collecting footage and a few weeks editing. We used QuickTime Player to screen capture the Club Penguin game footage. The game’s real audio is chaotic and repetitive, so we didn’t use any of it in the final film. Editing was an interesting experience as we had a mountain of gameplay footage that we attempted to shape into something coherent. Though we knew how the film would end, every other story element was organically discovered through editing.

Were there specific narrative threads you were looking for in the footage?

As we edited footage, we had two main narratives in mind. Our primary one was exploring how someone reacts to an impending ‘doom’, while the second narrative was our character trying to establish some sort of friendship in this online world. There were a lot of fascinating moments we captured that didn’t really fit narratively or were thematically redundant. The ‘street preacher’ in the beginning was a natural occurrence that we knew we had to include, as this was a doomsday prophet who was actually correct. The romantic interlude that begins at the nightclub was entirely unplanned, and we freaked out when Ben captured it. That random interaction ended up being the bulk of our story.

Did you always plan to move into the real world once the axe fell on Club Penguin? How did you capture your guerilla Target footage?

Ben and I knew from the beginning that we wanted to cut to reality after the ‘apocalypse’ scene. We liked the idea of a character experiencing a potentially devastating virtual event and then having to quietly process it in the real world. We chose Target for his job because we could film there inconspicuously, plus all he needed for a uniform was a red shirt and khakis.

For the Target shoot, we simply brought a BlackMagic camera, tripod and Zoom mic. Any larger of a kit and we would have been asked to leave, so keeping it low key was crucial. Ben and Saxon scouted inside before everyone convened in the back corner of the store to film. It was such a minimal setup that Markus Rennemann, the composer, is the customer who interacts with our character.

The absurdity of a penguin apocalypse isn’t lost on us.

We hoped using such a specific and common corporate entity would bring the film closer to our audience’s world, taking them to an extremely familiar setting (a department store) after guiding them through a foreign one (Club Penguin). The ending montage uses the same score by Markus as in the opening virtual montage, hopefully paralleling the online community to the community of real life.

We had some doubt about whether completing this film would even be possible, as it’s so dramatically unlike anything either of us had done before. Yet we’re both pleased with the result, and hearing from old Club Penguin users about our film has been incredibly gratifying.

What projects do the two of you have coming up?

Ben and I have a live action short script we’re in pre-production on about ghost hunter TV shows. I’ve got an animated short I’ve been hammering away at, and Ben is working on both short and feature docs.

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