• FILM
  • BIO
SPECIAL WHEN LIT
UK | 2009 | 1:28 | Feature Documentary
Directed by: Brett Sullivan


Special When Lit rediscovers the lure of a lost pop icon - pinball. This American invention made more money than Hollywood through the 50s and 60s. Its success swept the world making it the epitome of ‘cool’. Today pinball is all but forgotten.

This is the definitive story of the rise and fall of pinball as told by the fans, collectors, designers and champion players from across the globe. A game, a sport, a lifestyle – pinball takes this eclectic bunch of self-confessed ‘pinheads’ back to their youth as they open up passionately pinpointing the attractions of the ‘world’s funnest toy’. 

Archive footage of former US news anchorman, Dan Rather, opens the film from a 1977 ‘60 Minutes’ segment on pinball. 

‘I spent an incredible amount of time at gas stations, honky tonks and other off the beaten path places trying to appear cool...while obsessively following the descent of a steel ball down the playing surface of a garishly lit machine...a pinball machine.’

Dan Rather captures a past time repeated by thousands across the world. ‘I used to steal pop bottles to get dimes’; ‘it was the place where parents told you not to go’; ‘my parents used to think I was going to church Sunday...but I’d be at the corner store playing pinball’; ‘all the back lot ma and pa store’s had a machine’. Pinball was everywhere. Simply everywhere.

Now pinball is virtually nowhere. Kids don’t even know what a pinball machine is. People stay home for their entertainment and kids hang out online, not at the arcade or corner store. The fate of pinball seems decided yet there exists a passionate sub culture keeping the dream alive. Whether it’s down at their local bar for a game, or choosing which game to play from a basement collection, pinball is a reality trip to a universe in a box. The ball is wild and can’t be controlled, but the challenge to tame it never stops. It’s a world that’s special when lit.

Roger Sharpe, tells the story of Pinball’s early rise to prominence in the Depression era, its banning by the US Government for 30 years, its comeback in the 1970s, and eventual defeat to video games. Living through the industry ups and downs, legendary game designers Steve Kordek, Steve Ritchie and Pat Lawlor reveal the inner workings of a game that fuses the mechanical and electrical ages. Starting with a primitive steel ball rolling around on a flat piece of wood, designers craft a game based on the simple premise - easy to play, but hard to beat.

Collectors who feed off the designer’s devilish imagination, all crave one thing - more space. ‘It starts with one...’ is the opening line from any collector. Ron Shuster built another house for his games, Steve Keeler built more sheds and Sam Harvey shares his bedroom with his. For Sam, who works on his collection full-time, pinball is ‘like an extension of my arm...I wake up and do it everyday.’ A walk around Sam’s house reveals meticulous games, schematics, images, and spare parts...all catalogued in his pinball bibles, handwritten, as Sam doesn’t do computers yet. And Frenchman, Raphael Lankar, owner of the Paris Pinball Museum, admits he would never sell any of his 350 pristine games, ‘They are like my children...but of course I like some of my children better than the others.’

But pinball is a game with a score. And where there are scores to settle there are competitions. ‘The Storm’, a stockbroker from New York City, confesses that you have to ‘build up your pinball muscles’ to compete at the highest level. From the European championships in Amsterdam and Sweden, to the World Pinball Championships in Pittsburgh, and a smattering of amateur backyard tournaments in between, we share the tension, dreams and disappointments of pinball’s tournament players. Rick Stetta, former World Champion, entertains with his flamboyant playing style, while current legend Lyman Sheats counters with ice-cool precision. Each in a contest that is as much a mental game as physical battle.

It is the story of former arcade owner, Steve Epstein, who ran the famous Broadway Arcade in midtown New York City, that draws the inevitability of pinball to a close. A man who ‘had a lot of life wrapped up in’ pinball saw his arcade close in 1997. Describing pinball as ‘a lot like life - you never know what is around the corner’, Epstein took the arcade closure hard and struggles knowing those days are gone forever. As Professor John Broughton from Columbia University describes, ‘the machine knows when you should go home’.

At a time where we can instantly access any song or movie from our past, pinball offers a throwback to an tactile experience that can’t be digitally reproduced. Special When Lit captures the passion for a game that inspired generations. But it also recounts the loss of a certain way of living and playing. Perhaps pinball deserves a better fate than simply a nostalgic footnote. Whatever the future, Special When Lit will leave you searching for an arcade to line up your coins to master the silver ball. Will the machine always win?


CREW
Director: Brett Sullivan
Producer: Clayton Jacobsen, Brett Sullivan
Editor: Brett Sullivan
Director of Photography: Brett Sullivan, Clayton Jacobsen

CAST
Josh Kaplan, Lyman Sheats, Pat Lawlor, Raphael Lankar, Rick Stetta, Roger Sharpe, Ron Shuster, Sam Harvey, Steve Epstein, Steve Richie, Steve Kordek, Steve Keeley, Tim Arnold

Brett Sullivan: Cinematographer/DP, Director, Editor, Producer
Brett Sullivan was born in Sydney, Australia, 1971. He graduated from the University of Technology in Sydney with a BA in Communications after being banned from the television studio for making too many pop promos.

He was one of the early adopters of computer graphics writing a book one the subject at age 19 and subsequently lecturing on emerging technologies at NSW University, Sydney University and Australian Film Television Radio School. As a technician Brett freelanced in motion graphics before founding a studio in 1995 with Julian Chow, later to be called Steam Motion & Sound. Steam is now a successful commercials production company in Sydney and London. In 2005 Brett swapped Sydney for Soho, relocating to London to expand Steam’s commercial production business as Creative Director. He has directed and produced hundreds of international commercials for major brands and entertainment companies. Special When Lit is his debut feature length film. Brett is an accomplished musician and provides the original score to Special When Lit. He lives with his wife and four children in South London and still has his original Star Wars action figures from 1977.