Ready Player One is one of my favourite books of the last few years.
So when I heard that the Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg was going to direct a film adaptation of it I was excited.
When I heard that some of the filming was going to take place in and around Birmingham, my old stomping grounds I knew I had to do whatever I could to check it out.
For those of you not familiar with the novel let me present you with the official synopsis –
It’s the year 2044, and the real world has become an ugly place. We’re out of oil. We’ve wrecked the climate. Famine, poverty, and disease are widespread.
Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia where you can be anything you want to be, where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade is obsessed by the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this alternate reality: OASIS founder James Halliday, who dies with no heir, has promised that control of the OASIS – and his massive fortune – will go to the person who can solve the riddles he has left scattered throughout his creation.
For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that the riddles are based in the pop culture of the late twentieth century. And then Wade stumbles onto the key to the first puzzle.
Suddenly, he finds himself pitted against thousands of competitors in a desperate race to claim the ultimate prize, a chase that soon takes on terrifying real-world dimensions – and that will leave both Wade and his world profoundly changed.
The novel is pure geek heaven, full of 80s nostalgia and a cracking adventure story which I urge you all to check out.
So how successful was my stakeout of the filming locations?
So very early on a slightly rainy Monday morning I ventured out into the city of Birmingham to see if I could catch a glimpse of Mr Spielberg in action.
I now live in Wolverhampton so I took the tram into Birmingham.
Some filming had taken place in the Digbeth area of the city a couple of weeks back so I was hoping I had not missed out on anything huge.
I was aware that some set graffiti had been put up earlier in the week around St Paul’s Square in preparation for filming and it didn’t take me long to find whole street walls covered in the stuff.
As you can see there are lots of references to DC comic book characters, Thundercats, and there was even a “Don’t Panic” thrown in for good measure. The most recurring motif in all of the graffiti was the word “Gunters” and the phrase “Lvl Up”. Gunters is the name given to people who are actively looking to win Halliday’s prize in the Oasis. My money is on the latter term will be used as a hashtag for promotion further down the line. All in all the art was really good and it was fun to try and work out the pop culture references thrown in by the art department.
As I approached Ludgate Hill that is when things became a lot more interesting. I spied some huge trucks labelled with the Warner Brothers logo on the side and behind them I spotted my first vehicle from the film.
Photos of this mail van had been doing the rounds on social media a few weeks ago when the production was filming in Digbeth, but it was really cool to see it up close and worryingly unguarded.
A short walk revealed that the whole of Ludgate Hill had been changed into a dystopian street in Columbus Ohio. The location managers that were moving pedestrians away from the closed roads let me and some others stand on the corner of to watch what was going on. Many of them were volunteers from Birmingham University and were just as excited to be there as I was.
So what did I see?
A row of worn down cars and motorcycles and many extras getting ready for what looked like background shots.
The extras were all dressed in worn down clothing, and some strange 80s hybrid fashion. What was most striking was that many of them were wearing VR visors and what looked like customized Haptic gear.
The four extras you see together in the photo below were getting ready for a sequence where they put on their visors and enacted some sort of battle that was taking place I assume in the Oasis.
The lovely lady in the orange gear kindly let me get a closer look at what she was wearing. Her visor was covered in gaming stickers including the SEGA logo and she was wearing a cassette tape necklace. Written in masking tape across it was “Mixed Up Shit.” Plastered over the gloves and body suit was the IOI logo and it seemed to be the same for every other extra wearing the gear on set.
IOI (Innovative Online Industries) are essentially the bad guys in the novel. Imagine Apple but tax evasion is not their biggest crime. This mega corporation wants to get to Halliday’s secret first to win control of the Oasis and turn it into a digital play ground for the rich. They are willing to do anything to achieve their goal including kill.
As you can see the amount of detail that has gone into the costumes is staggering. The lady in the black and white hoodie had black Wii nun-chucks attached to the inside of her sleeves which she grasped and simulated fighting with when filming began.
The crowd wasn’t allowed to go around the corner up the street but from what I could gather the scene being filmed was a crowd scene with a smoking trash can and car. I managed to take a couple of sneaky photos though.
A truck with a 360 degree camera rig attached to the back drove up and down the street for each take. I managed to get some footage of this.
During a break in filming I discovered that on the corner of the street I was standing on was the production office which was also doubling up for an Oasis cafe called The Plug. If you have read the book you will probably have heard of this place, and one of the location managers kindly let me cross over the road to snap a photo of it.
By this point the rain was picking up and I had been out for more than a few hours, and not being able to get a good view of what was going on around the corner I decided to head home.
It was only when I got home I found out Mr Spielberg had turned up not too long after I had left to film some scenes.
Thankfully a much sunnier day was in store for me so I headed back to St Paul’s Square and found that many of the roads where cut off for filming.
I had to walk the long way around and discovered that filming had moved away from Ludgate Hill. There were some crew members around the street beginning to clear up scenery from the previous day so I had to jump in and find out up close what I had missed.
Readers of the book may recognize the store “Thr3ads” and further up the street I saw IOI recruitment posters and a building that had been converted to look like a US Post office.
Across the road from this were fake IOI solar powered wi-fi turrets and next to it I believe a separate one run by Gregarious Games, the company that created the Oasis.
The building that had been the run down Columbus High School had already had the set dressing taken off so I decided to try and locate some more filming. After walking around in circles I eventually hit the jackpot!
As you can see the crew was setting up for a car chase involving the aforementioned mail van and two fearsome looking jeeps belonging to IOI. As you can see it all looks rather exciting.
After seeing one take the crew decided to move on due to the harsh light of the approaching midday sun. I was content to finish up and head home but it seems I still had some luck left. As I turned around a inconspicuous street corner I found another mail van.
I believe this was a duplicate which would allow the crew to film several sequences at once. As I looked further down the road I could see a glimpse of a shanty town that I believe Mr Spielberg was filming in yesterday, and some banners proudly proclaiming Columbus as the birthplace of the Oasis.
What was interesting about this sequence was that the crew had prepped a huge drone to fly up above the street and film the van racing down the road. I didn’t get any good footage of the Drone taking off. But I did manage to get this…
By this point my phone battery was about to die so I decided to call it a day, but I found myself at the corner of Ludgate Hill again. I knew there was something I had to do or I would regret it. I approached one of the set guys that was there and asked if I could have my picture taken standing in the doorway of The Plug?
As you can see, achievement unlocked!
Filming will be taking place throughout the week in Birmingham so if you are in the area I suggest you go and have a look. You may be luckier than me and get to see Mr Spielberg work his magic, because from what I saw, I think this is going to be a really big movie!
Source: The Streets of Birmingham
GS Blogger: Matt Davis @DecadentGent
All photos and video taken by the author.