Article dated: December 2010

One of the most significant pinball video productions of recent times was the Pinball 101 feature about pinball skills and techniques.

Created by Randy Elwin's production company, the DVD demonstrated a number of ways to improve your ball control along with tips and tricks to help you score more on several of the more popular games.

Now Randy is back with a new, but very different production - The Pinball Collector.

The 63 minute video examines 30 diverse games taken from the San Diego Pinball Museum's collection in North San Diego County, starting in 1898 and ending one year shy of 1960. 

They are:

  • Parlor Bagatelle - 1898
  • Jigsaw - 1934
  • Major League - 1934
  • Merry-Go-Round - 1934
  • Sportsman - 1934
  • Fury - 1935
  • Border-Town - 1940
  • Metro - 1940
  • Cyclone - 1947
  • Humpty Dumpty - 1947
  • Morocco - 1948
  • Yanks - 1948
  • Just 21 - 1950
  • Madison Square Gardens - 1950
  • Knock Out - 1950
  • Spark Plugs - 1951
  • Army Navy - 1953
  • Guys Dolls - 1953
  • Dragonette - 1954
  • Lady Luck - 1954
  • Star Pool - 1954
  • Balls-A-Poppin - 1956
  • Starfire - 1956
  • Harbor Lites - 1956
  • Carnival - 1957
  • Straight Flush - 1957
  • Satellite - 1958
  • Rocket Ship - 1958
  • Gusher - 1958
  • Hi-Diver - 1959

For each game, the unique features and interesting details in the artwork are explored while the narration tells us about the game designer, the artist and puts the game's theme into perspective by describing the cultural references it uses. These are shown using archive material from the time, comparing the images with those depicted in the game's art.

Detail on the backglass of Dragonette
Detail on the backglass of Dragonette

The license used by the artists to mix period settings with more modern day behaviour is also highlighted.

Playfield detail from Dragonette
Sherlock Holmes in Dragonette?

A royal setting complete with bathing suited beauties and showgirls
A royal setting complete with bathing suited beauties and showgirls

Many of the highly significant games from pinball's history are included such as World's Fair Jig-Saw, Humpty Dumpty and Balls-A-Poppin.

World's Fair Jigsaw
World's Fair Jigsaw

As with their earlier Pinball 101 video, The Pinball Collector includes plenty of close up and slow-motion shots to demonstrate how various playfield features operate.

Unlike Pinball 101 however, The Pinball Collector is much less defined as an educational film, with a more casual and freeform approach.  There is no introduction to explain which games have been chosen or why, which years or features will be covered, and no closing thoughts or conclusions.  Viewers are led on a tour which is guided, but leads into the unknown.  Even the end comes as a surprise (although there's no gift shop).

To find out more about the inspiration behind The Pinball Collector as well as Pinball 101 and other upcoming projects, Jon Olkowski spoke to the film's creator, Randy Elwin.

PBN: How did you first get interested in pinball?
Randy: I played occasionally as a kid, and then played quite a bit when solid-state pins became popular and I had more quarters to spend. My friends and I would hang out at local arcades and try to win as many replays as possible with one or two quarters.  Whoever didn’t win a replay would have to go sit in the mush-pot and wait till the next round. We usually beat up on Galaxy and Star Trek, and found pinball nirvana at the Sear’s arcade when they moved it briefly to a location with linoleum floors – no tilts!

PBN: You’re obviously proficient behind the camera.  What got you interested in video, and what’s your background?
Randy: I got interested in video as a hobby in the mid-1990’s – my first camcorder was a relatively cheap $800 Hi8 with NiCad batteries. My background is in software engineering and I soon became interested in non-linear video editing, meaning using a computer to edit instead of tape decks. This is back when I used a MiroDC30 video capture card, a $600 9-gig SCSI drive, and Adobe Premier 4.

I don’t have a formal video production background but I’ve shot a few weddings and event videos, and a made a bunch of videos just for fun.  I also belong to a local amateur video-making club where we show video and get great feedback.  In the dark days before YouTube it was pretty difficult to share video with folks (VHS tape anyone?), so having a captive audience to critique your work is very valuable.

Filming pinball has become much more popular in the last year.  For the techies, give us the rundown on the equipment you use to make your videos and some of the techniques involved.
Randy: Pretty basic and relatively inexpensive gear – an old Sony HC7 HDV camera, a couple of older DV cameras, inexpensive tripods, and 2 banks of fluorescent video lights.  I like smaller cameras as they’re easily placed around/over/under/inside a playfield.  The hardest part in videoing pinball is minimizing glare and reflections on the playfield.

Other than that you just light carefully, set focus, then play! Then repeat that over and over and over...

PBN: Pinball 101 was a tremendous effort.  What were the factors in deciding to produce a video about pinball skills?
Randy: Way back in the day, Keith (Elwin) had me shoot some of his flipper skills and then he put them on his pinball web page. Since internet access back then was Netscape+56k modem we had to compress the video to little postage stamp MOVs .  It wasn’t very impressive.

Years later, Keith continued to get pressure from his pin-playing fans to video his skills.  I suggested making a DVD as it isn’t so technically challenging – but getting an hour’s worth of pinball material would be tricky.  We worked on a script outline, did a few test shots, then went from there.

The Pinball 101 title frame

PBN: Competitive pinball is, let’s, be frank, a niche market.  Did you think there was an audience for a video about pinball skills when you began working on it?
Randy: Initially we weren’t sure there were enough pinball fans to warrant pressing DVDs, but after seeing Greg Maletic’s “Tilt”, and the response it got we figured there’s enough fans out there clamoring for this sort of video. Plus with the popularity of online video we were seeing a few “pinball skills” videos pop up – some of which are much better than others, and a few horrifically wrong!

We intended to create a video that set the “baseline” of pinball playing vocabulary, thus helping pin-players all over the world share tips, strategies, and improve general game play communications.

The pinball-playing community’s response to Pinball 101 is fantastic, and I am most surprised by its popularity in Europe/Scandinavia/South America/Australia.  However, I don’t think it’s caught on too well in North Korea.  

PBN: My own efforts through the UN to expand pinball in North Korea have also failed.  And thus, Raven is still the most popular game there… (kidding). Seriously, though, what were the challenges during filming 101?
Randy: Getting that stupid “car-cam” to go were we wanted it to go. We would spend all Sunday afternoon with that little beast just to create 15 seconds of usable footage.

  • Having games malfunction during shooting.
  • Kicking the tripod/messing up focus/getting a hand or arm in frame during a shot.
  • Forgetting a shot on a particular game then having to set it all back up weeks later.

The car-cam
The car-cam

PBN: Some have cited Pinball 101 as being a “game changer” in the competitive scene, in the sense that now, many novices show up at tournaments with an understanding of more advanced control and scoring techniques, and play at a level that more resembles the longtime Pros.  What do you think Pinball 101’s impact on the overall level of play has been?
Randy: I think Pinball 101 helps the novice in that it demonstrates what’s possible and gives them some direction to gameplay, especially if the novice player has never seen an expert play.  If you start practicing specific skills you’ll build confidence to use them in competitive gameplay.

Some of the basic skills covered in Pinball 101
Some of the basic skills covered in Pinball 101

Novice players who play against others employing advanced control techniques realize they have to step up their skills to stay competitive.  In that sense I believe Pinball 101 raised skill awareness among novices in the competitive scene.

However, just like golfing you may know the course and how to swing a club, but come tournament time can you hit a specific shot when you need to?

Has there been any negative feedback?  For example, “I can’t believe you gave away so many secrets?”
Randy: We haven’t received any negative feedback.  For the experienced players any “secret” shots are quickly exposed and word gets around quick on how to exploit any game scoring weaknesses.

Recently, Pinball 101 has become available for mobile platforms, like the iPod.  What was necessary to make that happen?  Are other direct-download options (sites like in the works?
Randy: We hooked up with Bitfield Technologies to convert Pinball 101 into an iPhone/iPod/iPad This was a straightforward effort and I was surprised how great it looks on the newer iPhone.

Pinball 101 on iTunes
Pinball 101 on iTunes

We’re currently exploring HD content delivery options so stay tuned.

You debuted a new camera system at California Extreme to record game play (A very slick setup, I must say).  A couple months later, a similar setup was employed at the PAPA World Championships and the final game on Creature from the Black Lagoon became a sensation on the Internet, linked by sites such as Kotaku.  What are your future plans with this video, and maybe Pinball 102?  Can we expect expert breakdowns of strategy?
Randy: Don’t forget that earlier this year The Midwest Game Classic also used a camera and projector to show tournament action.

The TourneyCam is mainly used to promote pinball tournaments at shows by projecting pinball games up on a screen, and as a side benefit records up to four pinball matches simultaneously. I edited the tournament video and uploaded it to Vimeo.

However, unless you’re familiar with the game you may not understand what’s going on, other than watching skillful play. If somebody wants to record a voice-over to narrate the action please do so!

Using this video for future strategy guides or examples is definitely an option but for now I’m just putting it out there for interested fans.

Randy's cameras in use at the Pacific Pinball Expo 2010
Randy's cameras in use at the Pacific Pinball Expo 2010

PBN: Moving on to your latest effort, The Pinball Collector, this is a very different video from Pinball 101, right?  Who is this video targeted at and what can people expect to see?
Randy: Correct – I always want to do something different. The video is for every pinball enthusiast, especially wood-rail fans, and features 30 various games from the 1930’s to late 1950’s, with one 110+ year-old bagatelle thrown in for good measure. I also mixed in material from roughly the same year as the game to show what themes or pop culture might have influenced the game’s design and artwork.

PBN: How did the idea for The Pinball Collector come about?  And what’s your particular fondness for the older games?
Randy: I visited the San Diego Pinball Museum with the San Diego Pinball Club last year and had a great time playing vintage pins. I found that older games have playability that isn’t always obvious and their beautiful artwork is something you just don’t see today.

The colours on the playfield of Genco's Metro
The colours on the playfield of Genco's Metro

I’m a pinball history neophyte but the museum owner, Steve Yerkes, is very knowledgeable about his collection and enthusiastically divulges all sorts of interesting trivia related to his games. I couldn’t have made this video without Steve’s help.

What were the challenges in filming The Pinball Collector compared to Pinball 101?
Randy: No room! The games are closely spaced to maximize floor coverage but not too packed to prevent playing comfortably. However, there’s hardly any room for light stands and a camera tripod. Most of the gameplay is split-flipper (one person per flipper) as once the camera was set there was no room to stand in front of the game. In a few extreme cases I had to kneel on the floor and look at the camera monitor to play.

However, the biggest challenge was selecting which games to video – we had so many games to choose from but a very limited time to shoot.

Fury from Rube Gross
Fury from Rube Gross

PBN: The Pinball Collector features some of the most impressive and professional video of older games.  Will it be available on Blu-Ray and other formats, such as Direct Download?
Randy: I’m investigating various HD delivery methods and Blu-Ray fabrication is still a pricey option compared to DVD.  All I can say is stay tuned…

The Pinball Collector includes profiles of games that were “firsts” at something.  The most obvious example is Humpty Dumpty - the first game with flippers.  What other “firsts” can viewers expect to see featured in this video?
Randy: We see other “firsts” such as the first score reels, retractable pop-bumper, and metal playfield components, but I believe flippers made the largest impact and everything else is just a combination of manufacturing cost reduction, gameplay evolution, minor technology improvements, and a sprinkling of novelty features.

Humpty Dumpty's flippers
Humpty Dumpty's flippers

What’s interesting is to see features such as wireforms, kickers, and retractable bumpers appear in vintage games, disappear for many years, and then re-appear in modern pins. Even more interesting are the “lasts”, where some features such as gobble-holes, trap-holes, push-up flippers, impulse flippers, bulls-eye targets, etc., are phased out as either un-reliable, expensive, or obsolete, never to be seen again.

The ball heads towards a sewer hole
The ball heads towards a sewer hole

PBN: Many thanks to Randy for talking to Pinball News.

The video's closing directions
The video's closing directions

Undoubtedly, The Pinball Collector is a proficient and lovingly filmed account of early, historical pin games, and a glimpse of the many innovations that historically influenced the modern pinball game.   Historians, woodrail enthusiasts and home collectors can expect to see a mix of both familiar and rare games on display.

If you're intrigued by seeing how pinball's development through the decades made the game what it is today, this is a must-see video.

The Pinball Collector DVD cover
The Pinball Collector DVD cover

The Pinball Collector is available on DVD right now from Film Baby for $19.99 (+$2.99 P+P).  Click here to go to the order page.

Further details are available on the website which also includes a trailer and camera recordings from the Pacific Pinball Expo 2010.

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