WarGames movie launch detection scene

Joshua learns how to nuclear war in WarGames, 1983

Games On Film III: WarGames - Is This a Game Or Is It Real?

(Page 3 of 5)
United Artists, 1983

Change in Direction

Actor Dabney Coleman and director John Badham on set of video game movie WarGames

Director John Badham (R) directs Dabney Coleman on WarGames set

In pre-production, director Martin Brest shapes the film more to his own vision, working a nine-month polish of the script with hired gun scriptwriter Walon Green, and subsequently wrestling the movie from Lasker and Parkes, shutting them out of the project. When he begins principal photography, he immediately draws the ire of the studio with his insular nature, and dark vision of the subject matter. A short two weeks later, he is fired as director, with frequent blow-ups on set with the producers finally doing him in. In August of 1982, John Badham is brought in to replace him, a director who had cut his teeth in television before shaking the world’s booty with his second feature film: the seminal 1977 disco movie Saturday Night Fever, starring another TV alumnus, John Travolta. Don’t cry too much for Brest, however, as he scores big the year after WarGame’s release with the massive hit comedy Beverly Hills Cop, starring Eddie Murphy. Badham keeps most of Brest’s shot footage, but he also lightens the tone considerably, coaxing his young leads from the stiff zombified attitudes they had assumed under Brest to more loose and engaged, and looking like they’re having fun. Sheedy’s role is greatly expanded from the original draft; instead of vanishing from the last half of the movie, she aids with Lightman’s escape after Cheyenne Mountain and joins him in coaxing Falken to do something about Joshua. Lt. Col. Wilmore, having retired from the military since getting Lasker and Parkes a tour of NORAD, works as technical advisor for the film, as well as appearing as Col. Lem, the computer operator in the war room who gets locked out from standing down the missiles by WOPR towards the end of the film. For the soundtrack to WarGames, Badham enlists Arthur B. Rubinstein, beginning a collaboration with the director, also scoring Blue Thunder (1983), The Hard Way (1990) and Nick of Time (1995). Rubinstein is also a member of electronica band The Beepers, who provide WarGames with the catchy pop song Video Fever.

The War Room

One other major star of the movie is the NORAD Crystal Palace war room set, the most expensive single set built for a movie up to that point. The original NORAD Cheyenne Mountain facility was completed in 1966 to the tune of $142 million; its Hollywood replica would only run around 1 million dollars. Three large sound stages are utilized by production designer Angelo Graham in order to create NORAD HQ. The centerpiece of the set mounted high in the air behind rows of computer terminals, are 12 giant screens displaying computer graphics representing various geopolitical locations and situations around the world. The visual effects team, headed by Michael Fink, wishes to avoid the tell-tale shimmy of composite photography added in post-production, so all the visuals shown on the large displays are pre-filmed computer graphics which are then projected onto the custom-made screen material during live filming. Sporting credits from such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Colin Cantwell works with a team creating the computer imagery projected onto the Crystal Palace screens. An HP 9845C colour desktop graphics computer is used to generate the images, although its low-resolution output must be displayed one frame at a time on a high-resolution vector monitor for capturing on film recorders custom made by the effects team. While high-res, the vector monitor can not display in colour, so RGB filters must be applied to produce coloured graphics for the screens, resulting in missile tracks and explosions similar to those in Atari’s coin-op armageddon simulator Missile Command. To produce the computer visuals for use in the five weeks of shooting in the war room set, 130,000 feet of printed film is produced in the space of seven months. While filming the scenes in the war room, 12 35mm projectors are synced up with an Apple II computer, each screen showing 12 different graphical presentations.

Photo of the real NORAD Command Center, 2005

The real, slightly more modest NORAD Command Center, 2005

Weapons of Choice

As for Lightman’s slightly more modest computer setup in his bedroom, his weapon of choice is an IMSAI 8080 microcomputer, already deeply obsolete by 1983. A line of computers originally introduced in 1975 by IMS Associates, Inc., Lightman’s unit is provided by the Fisher-Fretias Corporation. They were a service centre for the IMSAI computer that purchased the rights to continue production when IMSAI went out of business in the summer of 1979. They also provide the acoustic coupler modem Lightman uses, again a hopelessly outdated piece of equipment, but makes for a good bit of business on camera. A neophyte when it comes to using computers, Broderick is outfitted with an Atari 800 computer and a typing program before principal photography starts, in order to get proficient at the keyboard of the IMSAI. However, he finds the program so boring that when the time comes to film his scenes at the computer, he still isn’t any good at it. Luckily, a program has been devised so that no matter how the actor bangs away on the keyboard, the correct lines are fed to the computer screen.

Also fitted to Lightman’s rig is an IMSAI FDC-2 dual floppy drive, into which he inserts a startlingly large 8″ floppy disc in one scene. When David and Jennifer eventually get Joshua to speak via an external speaker in Lightman’s room, it is not real voice synthesis, but merely actor John Wood’s voice, mechanically treated and dubbed into the scenes. During recording, Wood reads Joshua’s lines backward, to flatten the tone of his voice and interrupt the cadence. Asking why Joshua retains the same ability to speak in the same voice at McKittrick’s terminal at NORAD, or in the NORAD war room itself, is strictly verboten.

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Comments >>

  1. avatarPatmanQC

    Excellent article. I can recall seeing this movie in science class and I knew immediately I had to have a computer. I had no interest in one prior to seeing this movie.

    1. avatarWilliam

      Thanks for the kind words. I remember being jazzed up on the whole online thing, but at the time it was pretty hard to network with the ColecoVision except network with all the kids in the neighbourhood around the console, heh. I imagine memories of WarGames might have been in the back of my mind when I jumped through hoops to log onto fidonet through BBS’s in the 90s. WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME? NAMELY TRADEWARS?

  2. avatarAndrew Dobson-Frueh

    To-99/4A also had a game, Computer War, based ostensibly on the movie. The games was made of two parts – an action stage to shoot down icbms, and a puzzle stage to match patterns with the computer.

    1. avatarWilliam

      Whoopsie, I choked on my cereal when I read your post. I will correct my mistake, and point out that Cap’n Crunch contains a whopping 754mg of sodium per serving, or 31% of the daily recommended intake! The Cap’n surely be a salty dog! Thanks for writing! Yaaar.

      1. avatarPatmanQC

        Don’t you just love idiots who point out a mistake in a massive article like this rather than at least give a compliment or two before doing so? Once again, excellent article

        1. avatarWilliam

          I have to say that I enjoy any user interaction with the site, both positive and negative. Negative, because no matter how many times I review the material there are always things to improve here and there, and it helps when people point out things I can correct and make the site that much better. And positive because, I also like hearing positive things! As always, thanks for your kind words.


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