Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom made its online debut almost two months ago. Its high-octane action-driven set-piece sequences fused with a deep, meaningful narrative delivered a film created in a video game universe like no other. The movie itself clocks in at exactly 3-hours, which certainly made it a lengthy watch. This aspect of the film could potentially have been off-putting for many, but that hasn’t been the case.
Just one month after its release, Black Phantom accumulated more than five times the views of the previous most-watched film from KnightHunter Studios, which was Grand Theft Auto Darklight, the last entry in their blockbuster film franchise. It’s not just the numbers that has pleased this young group of British video-makers, however as Black Phantom has become a fan-favourite with positive reviews from fans and some even going as far as to calling it the best entry into the Grand Theft Auto film franchise to-date!
Naturally, the team at KnightHunter Studios are absolutely staggered by the response of the film, which has garnered more than 6,400 views as of writing. That’s an incredible achievement for this team and is a testament to the talents of this young group of writers, actors and editors. Recently, I had the chance to catch up with the cast and crew of Black Phantom to discuss its positive response and find out what they’ve been up to since its release on December 24th.
“The overall reception for Black Phantom has been absolutely amazing! It has only been out now for just over a month and it has already accumulated more views than any previous film KnightHunter Studios has put out – in terms of the opening month viewership,” Sam Main tells me, the Director of Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom and Admin of KnightHunter Studios. “The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, with some calling it the best in the franchise. Honestly, I am absolutely blown away by the reception and I am so thankful for everyone’s input in terms of positive and constructive feedback! On behalf of everyone in KnightHunter Studios, we say thank you!”
“At the time of giving this interview, Black Phantom is on track to smashing the 5,000 views mark in less than a weeks’ time and it’ll be the quickest film in our history to reach such a staggering amount of views! For a channel that consist of 480-odd subscribers, that’s pretty astonishing – especially comparing it to all of our previous movies,” he adds. “It’s been an absolute blast reading comments and hearing people’s opinions of the film, and I know that everyone involved in the making of Black Phantom is incredibly proud of the final product!”
With Black Phantom finally out in the wild, it has allowed team at KnightHunter Studios to prioritize other commitments in life for the time being. Much of the talented cast and crew are University students, working towards finishing their current academic year, but that doesn’t mean the editor suite remains untouched. Sam’s imagination is already full of ideas and concepts for future films and videos, some of which he teased to me during our recent catch-up.
“I personally finished shooting a short homage-type machinima on Grand Theft Auto V not too long ago, and that’s simply sitting in the editing suite making progress ever so slowly,” he explained. “In terms of other projects? We have some short ‘famous cinema scene’ recreation machinimas coming up that I think is going to be interesting. I believe the plan is to recreate a scene from Michael Mann’s Heat as our first attempt, but this is still in pre-production right now. In terms of large-scale machinimas, depending on how Rockstar turn Red Dead Redemption 2 around there are talks of perhaps doing a film on there; it’ll be an interesting break-away from the usual Grand Theft Auto V films we do. And plus, I’d love to direct or write a Western. I think it’d be a fantastic challenge to do!”
“I suppose the biggest question people are asking right now is, “When’s the next Grand Theft Auto movie out?” and to which I can reply… Sometime soon. The thing about KnightHunter Studios and the entire team is we never really stop working on things,” Sam tells me. “Even on my Christmas break, for instance, I was working on an entirely new script for another project. Ideas are always flowing, and so things are in the works for GTA 9 (the 9th Grand Theft Auto film) I can definitely say that. I don’t want to give too much away as it’s all still work-in-progress and I don’t want to give anything away, but you can definitely expect something in the very near future on GTA 9.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom is its take on Niko Bellic, whom acts as the lead protagonist of this film franchise. Voiced by Black Phantom’s co-producer Matthew White, the Niko we see in this movie is significantly different to the one seen in Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Auto IV, but still retains the overall grittiness and violence he’s known to have.
White took over as the lead actor for Niko Bellic during the early production days of Black Phantom. “Being cast as Niko was both an exciting and worrying prospect,” he says. “Taking over from Joel was an interesting prospect and I hope that the fans of the series can enjoy my own style. I think that I bring a new grittiness to the role to make it a bit...darker.”
“Given the opportunity, I would love to return to the role, and keep trying to make my own version of Niko grow with the series,” White added. “What intrigued me the most about it was the dynamic between all of the characters; the way they interact really clicked with me and made me want to take the reins.”
Matthew was also quite proud of the stunts featured in Black Phantom, which included an intense car chase sequence involving two classic cars racing through beautiful mountains and twisting country roads. Another one features the Kuruma being chased by a Coquette before a Bati motorcycle joined the action. “In my opinion the stunts performed in Black Phantom are on a different level to ones in previous films! Not only that, but it has a plot that really keeps the audience thinking on their feet,” he says.
It’s not just the action sequences that make Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom such an exciting watch, but also its overarching storyline that’s filled with surprising twists and turns that keep you gripped for the entirety of the film’s 3-hour watch time. That’s where KnightHunter Studios’ JJ Ralph comes into play. He’s the lead writer on Black Phantom and was tasked with bringing all the film’s characters to life, especially that of Niko Bellic. “More focus on Niko as a person, his relationships, professional and personal and, indeed, his past,” was a big focus for Ralph when developing the storyline surrounding this character during Black Phantom’s production.
“He has a very British accent. He is fundamentally a very different character to that of GTA IV, aside from the name Niko Bellic, the character you see in our films has become a completely separate entity,” Ralph stresses. “The early films were of a much lower quality and pre-date GTA V before character creation. As technology and capability has improved, we have continued to develop our own protagonist to the best of our ability.”
“Since I joined KnightHunter Studios, I’ve really pushed for strong character development and overarching storylines, so look out for that (always worth re-watching Darklight beforehand),” he mentions to me. “Black Phantom focuses on the relationships between the main characters and how they react and work together when pushed to breaking point. It is a particularly interesting story in this day where information means a great deal.”
JJ Ralph also spoke about the early days of KnightHunter Studios and how he was initially brought forward onto the team. “Started with Sam, with nothing but GTA and an iPad. I came in to do the titles for Sam’s 6th GTA film, Insurgency, after he found out during a lunch-hour I could edit a little bit,” he says. “I was brought back for the same role in Darklight but with a greater editorial role, bringing my views on storylines, character development and doing whatever I could to make sure he never used digital voices again! Nowadays I’ve worked my way up to all aspects of preproduction and presenting, including writing the script for Black Phantom.”
Nowadays, Ralph and the entirety of KnightHunter Studios has the Rockstar Editor to work with, a film-focused suite of tools included in Grand Theft Auto V. Black Phantom was the first entry into the Grand Theft Auto film franchise to be produced using it, but it certainly won’t be the last. When I asked JJ about it, one thing immediately came to mind. “Camera angles… my god some beautiful angles.” Black Phantom’s development also required “many hours spent in GTA Online and behind an editing screen,” JJ adds. “We’ve also propped up the coffee shops in the city the amount we’ve drunk.” But the overall experience of working with the talented cast and crew of KnightHunter Studios and the tools at their disposal? “Excellent,” he tells me, as the team embraces positive vibes and celebrates their recent success with Black Phantom.
Rick Manasa, another talented member of Black Phantom’s cast, signed up to provide voice acting for KnightHunter Studios’ latest film, saying “I'd never heard of machinima animation before and was eager to see how it tied in to a video game. The parts, while minor, looked important and I felt I could deliver the gravitas that seemed necessary to make them stand out.” Manasa tells me he submitted two auditions as he felt he could bring both characters to life, and whilst he didn’t go into it with any set expectations, the actor was ultimately surprised by Sam’s decision in the best way.
“I submitted two auditions, since I thought I might be good for either role. Imagine my surprise when Sam asked me to do both! I think I have the only older American roles: The Senator and President Morrison,” he explains. “While neither gets a lot of ‘screen time,’ it's hard to imagine the film holding together without the scenes these two characters are featured in. Any good character actor loves this – the chance to stand out in a minor role that makes a difference in how the story developments.”
“Black Phantom is the latest episode in a series that long-time fans have been waiting for,” Manasa says speaking about the film in general. “If you're new to the series, you'll be surprised at the high-quality graphics and amazing soundtrack, the well written script and engaging plot and how all the pieces of the production come together to make an entertaining hour of spy drama viewable on your computer on demand.”
Meanwhile, Jeremiah Rhodes who played the role of the charming yet mysterious politician, Robert Peers, described his character as “an opportunistic and devious little bugger, putting it eloquently.” Rhodes told me that he was “most excited to play a larger role in KnightHunter Studios’ latest machinima, Black Phantom, because I lent my voice as a minor character for their previous project, 2015's Darklight. Since then I have kept in occasional contact with the studio and was excited when they offered me an opportunity to voice a main character such as Robert Peers.”
“If you love film series’ such as James Bond or Mission Impossible, you’ll come to enjoy and respect Black Phantom's inspired themes and dedication that the crew has poured into this film over months and months and months,” he says enthusiastically. “Give it a go, you can't go wrong!”
Finally, there’s Harry Quirk, who played the role of Professor W in Black Phantom and handpicks the costumers used by characters during production. “I first, in a way, joined the KnightHunter crew back when they were putting together ForeverMore, the 3rd Grand Theft Auto movie,” he explains. “The headman, Sam Main, and I have been friends since primary school, pretty much, and just after ForeverMore came out we started working on, what was then called, ‘Mr. Holmes’, but then had to change because of a certain big budget film that came out. We had written a few episodes together and got to the voice recording stage and it was at that point Sam asked if I was interested in doing a voice in the GTA series.”
Harry’s role in Black Phantom saw him providing the voice of The Professor – “the gadget man; the man in the chair who gives out all the intel and the special toys that all the proper action heroes get to play with,” he tells me. “The Professor has much more of a hands-on role in Black Phantom. He is forced to be out in the field, where he is least comfortable, and must act quickly on the spot, which he is not very good at. He is shoved out from behind the desk and even gets to use a firearm, with mixed results.”
I asked Harry how Black Phantom turned out to be KnightHunter Studios’ biggest and most ambitious project to date. He told me, “Everything is bigger in Black Phantom. The locations, the stunts, the action sequences, and there are more writers than before!” But obviously, it’s not just the narrative behind the film that makes it such an enjoyable watch. “How they actually managed to get the stunts they did is beyond me,” he adds. “I've played a fair bit of GTA, but I couldn't do that. And on top of all that there is a compelling story, which develops and builds on the characters that we have known for so long.”
In terms of difficulties or challenges during Black Phantom’s voice recording sessions, he told me about the amusing struggles he can sometimes face when working alongside Sam. “Sam and I always have a good time when doing voice recording, which is a blessing and a curse all at the same time because we just keep laughing or have conversations about goodness knows what,” Harry mentions. “With the Professor it’s difficult because I'm the one who gets all the tricky, technical talk, which I have to say all in one take very quickly. We have a lot of takes of the technical talk.”
For Harry though, Black Phantom is a must watch for any fan of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Whether you’re there for the story and its unexpected twists or the incredible stunts and the unmissable car chase sequences, Black Phantom has it all. “If you have been following the franchise, then why wouldn't you? You don't just stop at the second Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It's an all-round great action film with guns, fists and cars… What else could you want?”
Considering Black Phantom’s incredible car chase sequences, not to mention the team’s love for all things automotive, I had to ask Sam which car chase sequence in cinematic history would he call the best. “Now this is a tough question. I don’t think it’s possible to pick a singular ‘best’ car chase scene, because there are so many that are just amazing! For me, Ronin by John Frankenheimer has some of the best car-chase sequences ever put to film,” he says. “Everything from the vehicles used to the tension it builds, the Paris car chase sequence is possibly one of the best.”
“That being said, I’m also a huge fan of the Mission: Impossible – Fallout car chase sequence, with the BMW 5 Series E28 racing, again, around Paris by the one and only Tom Cruise! I saw the film in IMAX and that was just breath-taking; being a petrolhead it was my favourite scene in the movie, and possibly the best car chase over the last decade… perhaps? That’s a very tough question! There are so many I could choose. I suppose some honourable mentions, of course, would be Bullitt (who doesn’t love that green Mustang tearing around the streets of San Francisco?), Baby Driver, and Drive. My general rule is anything with shakey-cam is immediately a no-go. God, I hate shakey-cam.”
Sam also took the chance to explain the most difficult scene the team had to shoot for Black Phantom. This honour went to the plane stunt due to its overall complexity and the time commitment it required. KnightHunter Studios did several takes of this scene in order to get it just right, and as you can see in the film for yourself, the outcome was well worth the effort. “After seeing Rogue Nation, as in our usual tradition, we had to take inspiration from it and so we designed this plane stunt where Niko would be on top of a moving aircraft,” he explains. “It was going to look spectacular, especially as it would have been done on the Xbox One console and not PC, where mods, of course, could be used.”
“The only trouble is what we originally planned turned out to be virtually impossible to orchestrate as the motorbike we were using would always ricochet and bounce off the aircraft as it got airborne,” Sam continues. “It was only until a few weeks after rehearsals JJ and I saw a ‘stunt compilation’ video on Grand Theft Auto V on YouTube, and someone was fooling around with push-pedal bikes and hanging on the side of planes…”
“That’s when a light-bulb moment happened, and after much planning and a lot of sequencing design, we found ourselves on the Fort Zancudo runway, in the early hours of the in-game morning, so lighting wasn’t very good for us, with Niko on a bicycle wedged between the engine and the fuselage of this Shamal aircraft… Then as soon as I called action what unfolded was, possibly, one of the greatest shot moments of our franchise. It was bloody difficult to do, and it took many, MANY takes to get it right, but the end result is just spectacular!”
Black Phantom was undoubtedly a huge undertaking for the team at KnightHunter Studios. The machinima was 3 years in the making and it saw the cast and crew behind it taking many late nights and filming retake after retake – and that’s before the editing process even begun. The result was most certainly worth it, considering Black Phantom has now gone on to be the team’s most popular and well-received original movie to-date. For Sam, this means he can not only experiment with new ideas and focus on his studies, but he can also spend more time just chilling in front of some of his favourite racing games. I asked him about which one he’d say was his favourite, considering his overall passion for the genre, and his response shouldn’t be too surprising.
“For me, this question is simple: If I’m looking to play a racing simulator, it’s Forza Motorsport 7. If I’m looking to play a racing game socially with friends, it’s 100% going to be Forza Horizon 2,” Sam joyously tells me as he discusses his love for the franchise. “Both those games are brilliant in their own way, in my view, but Motorsport 7 is just a technical masterpiece and really raised the bar from Motorsport 6, and Horizon 2 for nostalgia-sake. It was the first true open-world game Forza had made, because of course Horizon 1 had barriers and boundaries, and Horizon 2’s setting just made the game a great joy to play!”
Whilst the journey towards Black Phantom is done and dusted for KnightHunter Studios, the Grand Theft Auto film franchise still has another, final installment due to arrive sometime in the future. No date has been set in stone yet, and considering it’s still early days, it could be quite some time before we hear anything official about the upcoming film to conclude Niko Bellic’s incredible, underworld adventure. But as Sam noted earlier, there’s still plenty of machinima-related projects that remain in active development. Between those and the ongoing success of Black Phantom, 2019 should prove to be an incredible year for the talented group of young filmmakers at KnightHunter Studios.
Grand Theft Auto Black Phantom is available to view today on YouTube. The film was developed entirely within the Grand Theft Auto V sandbox using the GTA Online and Rockstar Editor suite of tools. You can learn more about the development and storyline of Black Phantom, as well as its iconic car chases and stunts, in our first exclusive feature story from December with the cast and crew of KnightHunter Studios.
Alan is the co-founder and co-owner of FullThrottle Media. As someone who enjoys spending all his free time playing video games, he delivers the latest in news stories, reviews, and feature articles to the website, as well as videos on his YouTube channel and livestreams over on Mixer.