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Machinima: Gaming Meets Hollywood Cinema

CGI meets sexy sci-fi in Tripping the Rift, Sci Fi Channels first adult-oriented cartoon.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip of a machinima movie by simply clicking the image.

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What is machinima? Fountainhead Ent.s Anna is an example. © 2003 Fountainhead Ent. Inc.

Machinima is hot. Its got its own film festivals; its being used to produce pilots for TV shows and games; its being sponsored by first-rank animation businesses such as NVIDIA. What is it?

What is it?

Machinima (mah-sheen-eh-mah) is the creation of films within a realtime, 3D virtual environment such as a videogame engine. It is the convergence of filmmaking, animation and gaming its name is a combination of machine and cinema. This is storytelling within an interactive virtual space where characters can be controlled by humans (in essence, puppeteers), scripts or artificial intelligence. By skillful re-use of gaming assets and techniques, machinima producers can create short or long stories for a fraction of the time and costs of a conventional 3D keyframed animated production.

Rather than normal 3D animation, which is created frame by frame and then rendered, machinima can be created and rendered simultaneously within the hardware. This can of course put some real stress onto the graphics processor unit (GPU), and compromises in resolution and depth of detail must be made to keep the frame rate at a filmic 24 frames per second. Nevertheless, with the quantum increases in graphics power afforded by new generations of GPUs these days, its easy to see that this will get better and better with time and machinima films such as Anna (a short that can be seen on www.machinima.com) are already very good, and can tell a moving story within what some call a microbudget.

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Where Youll Spot Machinima

Machinima was first used to create cinematics, the story-telling parts of videogames (also called cutscenes) that set up a game sequence, or transition from one level or area of the game to another. It made sense to create these sequences using the basic tools that the game was created with. Cinematics, which were once limited to short, low resolution sequences due to the memory constraints of gaming cartridges, are now a major production item on games that have DVD-sized memory space to play with, and can be short, artfully created stories within their own right.

In fact, the game Anachronox (produced by experienced cinematographer Jake Strider Hughes) had so many cinematic sequences that the decision was made to edit them together, and Anachronox: The Movie was born. When I added up the total running time of all the cutscenes, it came to two hours and 30 minutes, so I thought it might be fun to string them together to see if it would work as a straight narrative, Hughes notes. The movie (which can be downloaded in segments from www.machinima.com) won a number of awards at the Machinima Film Festival of 2002. Although the film shows its gaming roots, the compelling story of Sylvester Sly Boots, a down-at-heel private investigator in a futuristic world, comes through loud and clear.

Matrix: 4x1 is a popular machinima short. © Strange Co. 2003.

Matrix: 4x1 is a popular machinima short. © Strange Co. 2003.

Another place youll find machinima is as a game tie-in with a new television show, Game Over, produced by Carsey-Werner-Mandabach and currently airing on the UPN Network. The game, Game Over in Machinimation, which debuted on www.UPN.com, was produced by Fountainhead Entertainment (www.fountainheadent.com), and tells a story about the main protagonist from the TV show, Raquel Smashenburn (voiced by Lucy Liu), a modern working woman juggling family and her job as a monster-fighting agent. Players can choose to play in either first- or third-person mode. There are six levels to the game. Players can also use the built-in game tools (based on the Quake III engine) to produce their own take-offs on the storylines.

The ability to play a game as a character from a television show, and then to take that character and make your own short film, is just plain cool, says Katherine Anna Kang, Fountainhead Ent.s ceo. Game Over in Machinimation can be downloaded for free from the File Planet (www.fileplanet.com) Website; there is also a link from www.UPN.com. The game was sponsored by GameFly (www.gamefly.com). We are the leader in the game rental space, making games easily accessible to the masses, says Jung Suh, co-founder of GameFly. Combining our strong following of dedicated gamers with UPNs loyal viewers, both the Game Over show and the Game Over in Machinimation game are teed up to be an extremely popular union.

Another form of machinima was presented at the NextArt portion of the Florida Film Festival in March, 2004 (www.floridafilmfestival.com), where the zany ILL Clan (www.illclan.com), a New York-based animation studio, presented a live 3D animation show, On the Campaign Trail with Lenny & Larry Lumberjack, which featured two characters, Lenny and Larry, as they held a Town Hall Meeting as part of their campaign for the presidency. The animated characters were controlled and voiced by the ILL Clan performers (who have a background in improv comedy), and interacted with the audience. And unlike the actual candidates, you can ask them anything you want, and theyll give you an honest answer! noted Matt Dominianni, animator and voice of Lenny the Lumberjack.

The ILL Clan produced a similar machinima show, Common Sense Cooking, for the 2003 Florida Film Festival, where their pioneering work was documented by the Discovery Channel.

The ILL Clan was also responsible for machinima productions for Spike TV, a division of MTV Networks. The company created short animated vignettes, co-directed by David Kaplan and Dan Torop, to introduce The Video Game Awards (VGAs). Each animated intro was created by game designers around the world. By tapping the resources of the public gaming community it allowed us not only to produce animation quickly and effectively, but also to support the efforts of a lot of talented 3D designers, says Frank Dellario, president of the ILL Clan. The use of machinima shorts as interstitials is reminiscent of how the animated show The Simpsons started out as interstitials for the Tracy Ullman Show, where these short clips proved so popular that they were greenlit as a full-length primetime show.

This type of usage for machinima generating short clips to try out in one venue, then using the resulting successful feedback to get approval for a full-out show or game may become a prime application for this genre, especially in an age where TV shows, videogames and films represent huge gambles for studios, which are increasingly reluctant to try out new concepts that do not already have a proven track record in some other format (and thus seem hell-bent on flooding us with either unending sequels or re-workings of old TV shows).

Machinima production for TV does not stop with shorts. An animated drama to be made for broadcast television has just been commissioned by Scottish media groups. Called Rogue Farm and based on a story by sci-fi author Charles Stross, the machinima-based film tells the story of a near-future couple that is hidden in a technologically advanced but deserted area, and whose marriage is threatened by their reactions to a strange new threat a rogue farm. Machinima is a powerful technology, which is why we have been developing and shouting about it for the past few years! says Hugh Hancock, director of the film and head of Strange Company (www.strangecompany), the animation company that is producing it.

Strange Co. also produced the popular machinima shorts Ozymandias and Matrix: 4x1. Rogue Farm was financed by the Newfoundland funding scheme, run jointly by Scottish Screen (www.scottishscreen.com), Scottish TV and Grampian TV (www.grampiantv.co.uk).

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Hugh Hancock of Strange Co. has been preaching the gospel of machinima for years. Rogue Farm (right) is the first broadcast machinima drama. © Rogue Farm.com Ltd.

Deus Ex Machinima: How its Done

There are two basic ways to produce machinima. It can be script-driven, where characters, effects and cameras are directed by scripts for playback in realtime. Unlike normal animation, the action is driven by events, rather than keyframes. For instance, a storm effect could come on at the moment a character exits a building. The second method (which is predominantly used) is to record the action in realtime within the virtual environment, with virtual cameras and lights positioned much as in normal filmmaking. It is this ability to shoot live that gives machinima its advantage for short production times.

A live director should feel right at home in this environment, and an animation director will enjoy the ability to give a direction and have it executed immediately, rather than in weeks or months down the road. Multiple takes can be done in realtime and then edited in post for the final product. Post-production can take advantage of the fact that all the data relevant to each scene has been captured the location of the characters and set pieces, the camera angles and light values and these can then be modified in a what if interactive process. Its as if the director can retroactively adjust his camera angles or lights without having to call back the cast and crew.

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The first step in generating a machinima project is choosing which game engine to use. Popular game machines include Unreal Tournament (either the original or 2003 edition), Half-Life, Warcraft, and the real genesis of the whole industry Quake (now in versions I, II or III), created by id Software (www.idsoftware.com) of Mesquite, Texas, which created the classics Doom, Wolfenstein and Quake.

As a beginning machinimator, you can work with an existing game as it is, and simply do a run-through of your favorite game, having your characters interact soulfully and meaningfully instead of hacking and slashing each other, and then record the output of the game to a video source such as a DV camcorder, after which you edit the video. After you get your toes wet, you can then go onto the professional track and create detailed scripts and storyboards, generate entirely new characters and sets [or buy them from sources such as Turbo Squid (www.turbosquid.com)], and use the game engine toolkit to fine tune the movements, lighting, camera angles and other features, and add precise lip-sync and appropriate audio, with more extensive post production to align with your directorial vision.

Professional quality production involves recording at the data level, instead of as simple video. Recording the data that describes the details of each scene the exact locations and motions of each character and model, the camera movements, the locations of light and other physical properties generates the most flexible form of machinima, as it creates a product that can play back within the game engine itself, and is ameliorable to future modifications by gamers.

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Eschaton, from Strange Co., is another popular machinima project. © Strange Co. 2003.

Advantages of Machinima

The obvious advantage of this medium is that it can be produced quickly, even in realtime. The use of game controllers to move characters around could mean that even animation non-pros such as businessmen or teachers could produce animated sequences to illustrate their marketing presentations or classroom lessons. An educator could move an avatar through a 3D scene to explore the environment, for instance, and let the underlying game engine take care of such details of physics as lighting and gravity. Repurposing gaming assets can lead to production costs of a few thousand dollars for a rough pilot or storyline demonstration for a TV show or videogame. With the costs of a videogame hovering around $5 million (not including promotion costs of several million bucks), it takes more than a storyboard to pitch a concept these days; an inexpensive machinima production could lead a possible sponsor to the Ah, ha! moment of greenlighting a project.

Furthermore, since the medium is Internet-compatible, a machinima producer can use the Doom marketing model to gather revenue and get market recognition. Doom was revolutionary in its day not only because of the content of the game itself but because of its distribution and marketing model rather than sell the game to a distributor in return for paltry royalty payments, id Software gave the game away free as shareware, and then made a profit by selling both a packaged version of the game with printed instructions and successive upgrades and new levels to gamers that had become addicted to the gameplay and had to have more. A low-cost machinima game released as shareware that catches on and creates buzz could become a likely candidate for a production pitch.

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Beginning machinima designers use a game like Quake to create an engine. This game started the whole machinima industry. © id Software. All rights reserved.

Machinima Now and Then

Although machinima may be too low-res for some artistic tastes (companies such as Blur (www.blur.com) prefer to create cinematics with more detailed professional toolsets such as Maya), there is no doubt that machinima use will grow for certain applications such as low-cost short animations, live animation productions like the improv comedies produced by the ILL Clan, and non-entertainment uses such as virtual worlds that enable educators to get their points across by 3D graphics instead of text. There may also be apps that are still nascent, such as machinima games built around product tie-ins for the interactive television (iTV) market, which would allow the viewer to interact with and possibly purchase products within a televised show, via either an enabled set-top box or synchronized webcast. Check out some of the free machinima available, and enjoy.

Christopher Harz is a program and business development exec for new media enterprises around the world, and covers topics such as the Next Gen Internet, vfx, online gaming and wireless media. As vp of marketing and production at Hollyworlds, he produced 3D games for films such as Spawn, The 5th Element, Titanic and Lost in Space, and for TV shows such as Xena, Warrior Princess. As svp of marketing and program development at Perceptronics, Harz helped build the first massive-scale online game worlds, including the $240 million 3D animation virtual world, SIMNET. He also worked on combat robots and war gaming at the Rand Corp., the American military think tank.

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