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Behind the video: 'Wizard Mode,' a doc on pinball & autism

Sam Morrill
October 12, 2015 by Sam Morrill Staff

Over the years, one of the distinct pleasures of working at Vimeo has been witnessing the origins and evolution of thousands of different filmmakers’ careers. I’ve seen filmmakers make the leap from hobbyist to professional, from film school to Hollywood, and from obscurity to notoriety. Nathan Drillot and Jeff Lee Petry, the directing duo known as Salazar, are two such filmmakers. They got their first Staff Pick a few months after I started working at Vimeo in 2009, and since that time they’ve amassed eight more Staff Picks and are currently in production on their first feature film, a documentary called Wizard Mode.

Wizard Mode follows Robert Gagno, a pinball prodigy who is gaining notoriety in the international circuit, as he ascends the ranks while transcending the label of autism. The finished film will be released via Vimeo On Demand in early 2016, and we’re thrilled to be contributing to their campaign’s success as part of our awesome partnership with Indiegogo — so support important art and donate if you’re able!

We caught up Nathan and Jeff, who are currently busy raising those finishing funds for the film:

Vimeo: What’s your elevator pitch for Wizard Mode? Wizard Mode is ‘________’ meets ‘_______?’

Salazar: If we were in an elevator and could only use one sentence, we’d say, “Wizard Mode is Hoop Dreams meets The Wizard.”

How did you decide to make a film about Robert?

We met Robert through mutual friends and were immediately interested in his story. We wanted to make a film that would showcase an individual overcoming a potentially very difficult situation, while bringing attention to the millions of individuals living on the autism spectrum.

Across all of our documentary work, we’ve sought to create films that challenge outdated assumptions and quietly champion inclusivity.”

In terms of audience, who do you think this film is for?

Anyone interested in pinball or retro gaming will enjoy the film. We’ve tried really hard to represent the dedication, skill, and talent that is needed to compete at the top levels of professional pinball. The film should also appeal to individuals living on the autism spectrum and their families and friends. Beyond this, we hope it strikes a chord with anyone who has struggled to fit in and find their place in the world.

How has making a feature film compared to making shorts?

Making a feature is a completely different beast than a short. Most of our shorts are one- to two-week shoots whereas we’ve been filming Wizard Mode for nearly two years. Working on those kinds of time scales and dealing with stories that span years is a real challenge, but they also offer a pay-off that shorts often don’t. Features give you the chance to develop deep, life-changing relationships that educate and change your perception of the world. For us this is the most rewarding aspect of documentary filmmaking.

How does Wizard Mode relate to the rest of your body of work?

Across all of our documentary work, we’ve sought to create films that challenge outdated assumptions and quietly champion inclusivity. Whether it’s through art, sports, or simply a way of living, we’re always looking for protagonists that are pushing the boundaries. We love when our protagonists use unusual methods to achieve change. Whether it’s the world’s first professional Muslim sumo wrestler, an ex-oil driller turned horse whisperer, or in the case of Wizard Mode, pinball and autism. Robert is very interested in changing the way people perceive autism and what someone on the spectrum is supposed to behave like. His medium for doing this happens to be pinball. The fact that pinball might not be the first thing that pops into someone’s mind when they think of autism awareness is something that we gravitated [towards].

To succeed in anything you need to be determined and you need to get your hands dirty.”

Tell us about your crowdfunding campaign. What are you raising funds for? What are some of the perks you’re offering on Indiegogo to your backers?

Wizard Mode started with a small grant from TELUS. Without their support we wouldn’t be where we are now. It’s been a labor of love for us over the last two years, but we knew we were going to need more support to finish it.

We’re using Indiegogo to raise funds to help us complete Wizard Mode and get it onto the big screen. Everyone’s contributions are going [towards] finishing the edit, color correction, sound mixing, licensing, and music. In order to have the movie look and sound amazing on the big screen, we needed help covering the financial costs associated with post-production.

We have some really awesome perks including signed Mac Demarco records, T-shirts and bags, signed Walking Dead memorabilia, and even a few pinball machines from Stern pinball. We’ll be announcing a bunch of new ones over the next two weeks!

What are your distribution plans for the film when it’s ready? When can we see it?

We’re applying to major film festivals throughout North America including Sundance, SXSW, and HotDocs. Our plan is to do a festival run in 2016 and also release digitally with Vimeo On Demand. We’re negotiating some very exciting potential distribution deals that we can’t fully comment on at this time. All we can say is we’re very, very excited and it will allow a lot more people to see the film in the very best environment possible. Stay in touch with us through our social media by visiting our website so you we can keep you up to date with Wizard Mode!

We’re essentially part of what we call ‘generation Vimeo.’”

What role has Vimeo played in your careers?

Vimeo created a community online of filmmakers and film lovers and that has changed our careers immensely. We’ve been inspired by the work that we’ve seen on the site [and] encouraged and supported by our followers, and most of our international commercial and broadcast work has come from people seeing our videos online and hiring us. We’re essentially part of what we call “generation Vimeo.” That’s how big of an impact we feel Vimeo has had on filmmaking in general.

Who are some of your favorite filmmakers on Vimeo?

It’s really hard to pick our favorites, so we’ll shout out a few super talented people that we’ve collaborated with. Ben Loeb, Liam Mitchell, and Peter Hadfield are all incredibly talented cinematographers that everyone should follow. Kevan Funk and Matty Brown are two directors that inspire us. We’re also big fans of our hometown boys Anthem Jackson, too!

Advice for aspiring filmmakers?

It’s said so often that it has the potential to sound cliché, but honestly, “Go make a film.” The biggest opportunity to learn is by getting out there and doing it. To succeed in anything you need to be determined and you need to get your hands dirty. Prepare yourself for failure, but never be scared of it. As long as you’re never making the same mistake twice you’re evolving, and that’s really the whole end goal of life.

Thanks, Salazar! 

For more behind-the-scenes advice and stories from video creators, read n’ watch our Behind the Video series on the blog.


Daryl Middlebrook

Great job Salazar, you guys rock. I am so pleased to see a film focusing on Autism and the kids who are dealing with this and not only surviving but thriving. I couldn't help making the connection of Robert to the Who's iconic Tommy movie. While Tommy was not an Autism person, the idea of those with disabilities overcoming them through sports or game is awesome.


Visually stunning from the first frame to the last. But the story and positive portrayal made me watch it a second time. Top Notch!

Matty Brown PRO

So awesome you guys are making it into a feature! Hope to pick your brains sometime on the process of it all! Looking forward to seeing it!

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