“There was just so much anger.”
Sam Balcomb doesn’t remember how old he was when he got The Legend of Zelda for his birthday.
“I remember unwrapping it and seeing this gold reflected back at me,” Balcomb tells Inverse. “There was something so mysterious about it, something that caught your imagination from the get-go. From there, I was in love.”
Little did he know it, Balcomb — who also grew up on Tolkien novels read to him by his father — would be defined by this link to the past. Thirteen years ago on April 1, 2008, Balcomb teamed up with online publisher IGN to fool the internet with a fake movie trailer for The Legend of Zelda, one of the most beloved Nintendo gaming franchises of all time.
Here’s the thing: It looks incredible. While the trailer would fool no one in 2021, Balcomb and IGN actually fooled fans in 2008 with what looked like an authentic Hollywood adaptation that could rival Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. When fans learned its true nature as an April Fool’s Day prank, the internet’s collective heart broke.
“When we disclosed that it was April Fool’s, there was just so much anger,” says IGN’s current General Manager and former editor-in-chief Peer Schneider. “It was worse than if you gave a popular game a 0.5 rating lower than people were expecting. This was a time you did not expect a big production [in fan films]. That’s why it worked.”
Forging a Legend
The story of one of gaming’s most infamous pranks begins a year prior, in the spring of 2007. Balcomb was employed at a post-production studio in Burbank when he connected with Fran Mirabella, who was then working as IGN’s chief video producer. With a collaboration on the table, Balcomb pitched IGN on a series of movie trailers based on video games. It was never supposed to fool anyone.
“Just to say, hey, if this game were a movie, this is what it would be like,” Balcomb says. “The series was a way to figure out what it would take to make an interesting video game film.”
When Mirabella confirmed IGN’s participation, he asked Balcomb for the first game in the series. Balcomb answered with Legend of Zelda (coincidentally Schneider’s favorite franchise).
For such an ambitious project, work was finished “well before” the end of 2007 on a budget of “a few thousand dollars.” A hand-drawn animatic was the project’s bible, followed by a casting process that found actors Camille C. Brown as Princess Zelda, the “imposing” six-foot-five Gregory Lee Kenyon as the villainous Ganondorf, and J.R. Kilgrew as Link.
Kilgrew had never played a Zelda game. “He’d go to my place to play Twilight Princess,” says Balcomb. “He would look at how Link moves, how Link jumps and twirls, to recreate for the trailer.” Later that year, Kilgrew played David Bowie in Zack Snyder’s 2009 film Watchmen.
Shooting took place in California over four non-consecutive days, in Topanga and Pasadena. It was hot. The cast, dressed in chainmail and prosthetics like Hyrulian elf ears, ended each day drenched in sweat. Picture an elaborate renaissance faire under a desert sun.
“It was grassroots, guerilla filmmaking,” Balcomb says. “It was driving to the desert getting hit by high winds and sand and having Kilgrew do jumps off cliffs. Then packing up to a horse ranch. We were doing something we loved in a world we loved.”
During filming, Balcomb sent regular updates to IGN that never failed to surprise the office. “One week he’d go, ‘I got a horse!’” says Schneider. “It blew my mind. I didn’t expect him to have sophisticated shots, with nice lightning and composition.”
Speaking of the horse, it was a “gorgeous Belgian” whose color was closest to Link’s horse Epona. Except Epona is a female horse, whereas the Belgian was male. “We had to do a little digital trickery to hide certain things,” Balcomb says.
One hurdle was securing a large-enough blue screen stage to shoot the trailer’s breathtaking panoramic shots. “We found plenty of green screens, but Link’s costume is green,” says Balcomb. “We weren’t going to shoot on green. We finally found this ginormous warehouse, but these things kept adding up.”
The Legend Lives
The trailer was finished before New Year’s 2008. It was at that time IGN (and IGN’s lawyers) started to fear serious consequences.
“We’re not in the business of making false announcements. We run news,” says Schneider. “We want to make sure people trust us.”
Another concern was that April Fools’ Day isn’t a tradition around the world. It certainly isn’t widely celebrated in Japan, the home of Nintendo. Schneider thought Balcomb’s work was so good, it could land IGN in hot water. “We were worried Nintendo would be mad at us because they did not give us the license.”
Schneider ultimately decided to run the trailer on April Fools’ Day, because, well, look at it. “When Sam showed us the first cut, we were floored,” Schneider says. “This is way too good as a fan trailer.”
The trailer was released on April 1, 2008 on IGN ‘s proprietary video platform. (YouTube was not an option, as the site did not offer high-definition settings at the time.) The article, published with the byline of “IGN Staff,” had the titillating subhead, “Your dreams realized.” While reactions varied — Schneider recalls some fans were disappointed that actor Orlando Bloom was not Link — the prank still worked. Fans were convinced of the trailer’s veracity, whether they liked it or not. Traffic to IGN’s home page “almost broke our website,” Schneider says.
“Social media was a different world back then,” Balcomb recalls. “It didn’t have quite the instant feedback [now], but I was checking message forums and trade posts. We couldn’t see the view count live, it wasn’t until later we learned it passed one million [views]. We couldn’t believe something as basic as our fan film could have that reach in a short amount of time.”
Eventually, the truth came out. While readers were indeed furious the trailer was a hoax, IGN didn’t lose credibility as Schneider had feared. Instead, it found a new tradition to follow every year; IGN followed up its post-Zelda years with similar pranks like a fake Darth Maul series and a Bollywood Halo movie.
The Zelda trailer also raised the bar for future fan films, as seen in the likes of Kevin Tancharoen’s Mortal Kombat: Rebirth from 2010 (which spawned an official web-series) and Joseph Kahn’s POWER/RANGERS in 2015. Today, YouTube search unearths thousands of fan films of equally impressive quality.
“It encouraged people to pursue a project like that with confidence an audience would show up,” Schneider says.
Balcomb attributes the trailer’s success to lucky timing amid a broader trend. “If we inspired people to make films, that’s great,” he says. “The late 2000s was a big shift in equipment and software that became readily available to create higher-quality stuff.”
From his perspective Zelda had it easy. “We cheated,” he says. “We made a trailer. We picked our favorite moments and did not worry about telling a story. [Legend of Zelda] was not made to be a movie, it was cinematic in our minds. Maybe that’s the way it should stay.”
Still, Zelda gave Balcomb the path he would embark on for the rest of his career. It was a dangerous one, and he didn’t go alone. The release of Zelda on IGN was the same day Balcomb and his closest collaborators on Zelda established Rainfall Films, whose recent clients include Netflix, HBO, Marvel Studios. And it’s all because Balcomb spent his youth roaming 8-bit wilds on a Nintendo console.
“When I think of Zelda, I think of adventure,” Balcomb says. “That never lost its magic for me, the mystery of not knowing what is ahead of you.”