The year was 1999, and pinball was dying. After celebrating years of arcade domination and surviving the great video game explosion of the 1980s, pinball had fallen on hard times, unable to find a clear pathway to success that once came so effortlessly. The industry needed a change, and the fine folks at Williams thought they had the answer. It was entitled “Revenge From Mars.”
“Tilt” is a documentary probing the final effort to sustain pinball, with Williams putting everything they had into a videogame/pinball hybrid that would shock the industry. Filmmaker Greg Maletic doesn’t have much in the way of running time (60 minutes), but his selection of subject cannot be beat, especially if you’re any fan of the pastime.
“Tilt” is all sorts of fun, and even in the face of cultural sadness Maletic is able to pinpoint the joy of the game. Starting with a brief historical backstory of the Williams company and pinball itself (where we learn the origin dates back to 1871!), “Tilt” soon settles into the golden era of the game: the 1970s and 80s. With companies from all corners rushing to the market with the latest advancements and licenses, “Tilt” appeals to the flipper fanboy with footage of all those wonderful titles, such as “Space Shuttle” and “High Speed,” leading to more powerful technology and powerhouse hits such as “Addams Family” (the biggest title in pinball’s history). Time is short, however, and soon the film sprints to the topic at hand: the battle to resuscitate a dying company.
The solution to swat away low sales and interest gamers again was to merge the visuals of a video game with the fluidity and chance of pinball. Interviewing developers close to the process (including legends such as George Gomez and Pat Lawlor), “Tilt” traces the creation of the “Revenge” game (a sequel to the hit “Attack From Mars”), the birth of the “Pinball 2000” brand, and how the change in the technological tide strained relationships all around the company. The tension was thick and the hope for true innovation was nerve-wracking, but the hard work resulted in a genuine hit, reverberating through the industry as a game of unique execution and sweeping appeal.
Turning the fortunes of Williams around, “Mars” soon paved the way for the second “Pinball 2000” title, “Star Wars: Episode One.” This is where “Tilt” becomes invaluable as a tool for witnessing the vulnerability of the creative process. Following the elaborate construction of the machine, the documentary reveals the frustrations of dreaming up inventive gameplay, fighting the demands of management, and dealing with a fiercely protective licensee in Lucasfilm, who went to great lengths to keep story elements under wraps, alienating several Williams employees.
“Tilt” is humble, but it has the details down pat, showing the viewer the birth of a game and the agony of release. Maletic has a terrific subject in Williams, and their story provides the kind of prototypical portrait of corporate greed; the company eventually sacrificing its expensive pinball production line to lead the charge making slot machines – because the world needs plenty of those boring, spirit-crushing monsters, rightr
With a full-frame presentation, “Tilt” is a documentary made without the greatest reservoir of money, yet features just enough colorful glimpses of classic pinball games to cover the fact that it isn’t the most visually stimulating DVD of the year. Still, Maletic creates an ingratiating atmosphere with his film, and the friendliness of the visual scheme (and its retro leanings) overcomes any technical limitations.
The Dolby Digital 5.0 track is an unassuming mix, pushing all interview audio and narration to the front, leaving the score in the backseat for most of the viewing experience. Clearly, the aural experience won’t blow minds, but it satisfies with limited intent.
For a single 60-minute film, there’s a boatload of extras to pour over on the “Tilt” DVD. Rest assured that Maletic didn’t leave anything behind.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary by director Greg Maletic where he calmly shuffles through the film revealing inspirations and mistakes in this, his first directorial adventure. His big influence is the Robert Evans documentary, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and it’s entertaining to hear how the film influenced the visual manipulation of “Tilt” and fueled his ideas on non-fiction perspective. It’s a great track.
The rest of the supplements are essentially deleted interviews and expanded topics. They include…
“Inside Pinball” (18 minutes), which probes deeper into the history of the game (a legacy the film skims through) and breaks down in intricate detail just what it takes to design a pinball machine.
“Inside Pinball 2000” (76 minutes) takes a closer look at the design team that brought “Revenge from Mars” to life. This supplement is longer than the film itself, offering a better understanding on how the game came to be. This supplement also provides a look at the marketing and repair videos that gave buyers a peek at what “Mars” would offer. Both clips are tremendous time capsules of the era and offer some hearty unintentional laughs, with Williams going out of their way to hype “Mars” as some type of second coming.
“Inside Williams” (11 minutes) allows a more detailed understanding of why Williams shuttered their pinball division so abruptly. Included here are accounts of the final day of business, along with a factory tour as the last game is being prepped for shipment.
“Inside the Industry” (61 minutes) examines the legacy of Roger Sharp (the historian who “saved” pinball), traces the bust of pinball in the 90s, and spends more time with Steve Kordek, a design legend who worked in the industry from 1948-2000. Kordek is also known as the man who gave pinball the flippers we know (and often curse) today.
“Lost Machines” (8 minutes) presents footage of three games that never made it to arcades. First is “Bally’s Pinball Circus,” which is a jaw-dropping piece of pinballin’ that stands vertically like an arcade game. The other two titles, “Playboy” and “Wizard Blocks,” were intended to be the next step in the evolution of “Pinball 2000.”
“Tributes” (12 minutes) asks some of the key members of the “Pinball 2000” crew to comment on their co-workers.
“Expo Speech” (79 minutes) is footage of the infamous George Gomez “Birth of Pinball 2000” lecture, delivered at the 1999 Pinball Expo, mere days before Williams exited the industry.
“Cast Discussion” (75 minutes) is an extensive, leisurely, and highly informative audio interview with some of the “Pinball 2000” team.
“Industry Graphs & Statistics” is a collection of information showing the fluctuation of pinball through sales charts and Williams performance reviews.
“About ‘Tilt'” (5 minutes) is a behind-the-scenes look at how the film’s manipulated footage came to be. Some of the reveals here are impressive.
Finally, a theatrical trailer is included.
It breaks the heart to see the rise and rapid fall of pinball like this, yet “Tilt” is a sublime document of an industry that appeared to request death, only to be reborn again in a smaller arena where creativity is rewarded and expectations are more easily managed. “Tilt” is a wonderful, all-too-brief journey of the unsung jewel of arcade culture, and yet another delightful homegrown documentary feature this year that puts its more sophisticated brothers to shame.
For more information on “Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball,” please visit www.tilt-movie.comRating: A-