Coming up with a Meet the Team short is a lot like a game of Jenga. 99% of it involves making room for an idea and seeing what happens.
Most of the time what happens is the whole structure collapses. Then you have to figure out why it collapsed and rebuild it, this time making sure to add in some structural support for your idea so it doesn't bring the whole short down.
As you'll find out in this Behind the Scenes blog, though, sometimes you can spend so much time adding all that structural support that it’s not until you step back that you realize your short is now nothing but structural support.
You can spend a lot of time building around an idea, in other words, before it occurs to you that the simplest solution is to get a better one.
"Don't You Die on Me!"
Our first idea had Medic returning to the TF2 team after a long vacation. During his absence, of course, the mercs have been getting slaughtered but can't figure out why.
Showing the Medic returning from his time off via train gave us the opportunity to have some fun with the opening, as you can see from this animated storyboard:
For a long time, we'd wanted to play around with the cornball "Don't you die on me!" scene you tend to see in a lot of super-serious movies. This scene would have eventually had full string accompaniment, playing out as melodramatically as possible, until getting pantsed by the Medic's speeding locomotive in a not-so-super-serious nod to TF2's more tongue-in-cheek approach to death.
Why It Got Cut: The Medic's vacation, and the mercs' confusion with their subsequent poor performance, was taking a long time to set up in order to deliver a simple premise: The TF2 team needs the Medic to win. Since the big battle finale was shaping into a real keeper with successive iterations, and expressed pretty much the same message, the whole Medic vacation storyline was starting to feel redundant.
So we killed it. But that now meant there wasn't any connective tissue for the train in the opening. The scene, while funny, didn't have anything to do with everything that came after it.
"My Darkest Moment"
Eager to keep the opening, we decided to leave Medic on the train. But rather than eat up a lot of time having him catch up with the team post-vacation, we'd use the train sequence to interview our star talking directly to the camera about the finer points of his profession, as in previous Meet the Team shorts, with flashbacks to more action-oriented scenes.
This new flashback structure gave us a chance to tell more of an origin storysomething we hadn't tried yet with a Meet the Team shortand the origin story we thought we wanted to tell was the birth of the Medic's magical device that heals people, the medigun.
We figured the best way to show the gun's genesis was to create a need. To this end, our flashback gave the viewer a Medic before the invention of his gun, dealing with the day-to-day chaos of healing people on a battlefield as busy as TF2's:
One unintended side effect of showing Medic's frustration in this scene was that some playtesters thought he was weak and ineffectual because he was having such a difficult time doing his job. You never hear the Engineer complaining, after all. We tried a few iterations with the Medic acting more competent and unflustered, but instead of fixing the issue it just seemed to confuse it: Did the Medic need a healing gun or not?
The solution came in the form of a sudden attack from the Spy. This let us keep the frantic, overwhelmed tone but gave Medic an early hero moment. It also let us include a beloved bit of business that we'd had lying around for ages and never had a place for: The Medic pumping the blood out of a body with his foot into another body.
This next animated storyboard shows one of the many incarnations of our attempt to explain the medigun:
There was a great deal of internal debate as to how much of this discovery should be chance and how much should be due to the Medic's intelligence. This led to a "creation" animatic that showed the Medic applying a little brainpower to his discovery. Note the appearance of the Medic's new aide-de-camp, the Spy's severed head (who makes a cameo appearance in the final short):
The medigun built, our hero dons his gear and joins the war outside for the first time, segueing into the big battle scene from the version of Meet the Medic we ultimately released.
Why It Got Cut: We'd made a fundamental error in judgment. Did we explain the birth of the medigun? Sort of. Did anyone want the medigun explained? Not necessarily.
Playtesting made us realize that we'd invested a huge amount of screen time on the nuts and bolts of the birth of an inanimate object, when we should have been focusing on our star. We scrapped the origin story of the medigun and went back to basics. When people think of the Medic, what do they think of? What's the iconic image?
The Medic, ubercharging a Heavy.
Once we realized what we'd been missing, the story came together in record time. Instead of the medigun we'd explain the origin of the ubercharge, giving us a chance to explore the Heavy and Medic's relationship a bit, not to mention a few gross-out surgery gags. Better yet, this new opening segued into our big finish far better than our old story ever had: The significance of the big ubercharge moment had some dramatic heft to it now. Even the doves were now explained, instead of just being a neat visual effect.
We hunkered down with our new idea, adding this and taking out that. This time around, the structure wasn't collapsing; instead it was getting stronger with each new iteration. Confident we were on the right track, we doubled our efforts. Six weeks later, Meet the Medic went live.