Why Machinima is Good for Hollywood.

INTRODUCTION

French inventor Louis Le Prince’s experimental film Roundhay Garden Scene introduced the world to the motion picture in 1888. Over the past 119 years, the art of the motion picture has evolved into one of the largest industries world-wide, residing on the cutting edge of creative and technological innovation.

The introduction of the microprocessor in the 1970’s spurred the creation of the personal desktop computer, kick starting an ongoing revolution in the way we communicate, the way we engage in commerce and the way we entertain ourselves. When combined with the power of the World Wide Web and the Internet, the personal computer has become the tool of choice for innovative thinkers and creative minds.

Using the Internet as its catalyst to provide advancements in speed, size and power of the computer, this digital age is the driving force behind the “convergence” trend that is sweeping the world of communications. The newspaper is moving from print to computer, broadcasting on television and radio is being challenged by podcasting, satellite radio and on-demand content, books are being digitized and devices such as the Kindle are being created to replace the book as we know it. Finally, storytelling is seeing a radical shift in its form, function and methodology.

Movies and video games have evolved into the leaders in this new age of story telling mediums. Both industries are driven by technology and innovation and, until recently, have existed and evolved on parallel but inherently separate paths. Of coarse, we have intermittently seen the occasional cross over of a title moving from the film reel to the game console and vice versa. Today, we are witnessing a blending of the line previously separating these two once respective developmental paths. Some might argue that the two paths have become one, as both vie for the position of being the dominant sibling in the pair.

Technology has always been a driving force behind by special effects in the movie industry. The 1933 classic film, King Kong, is seen as one of the pioneering films in the field of stop motion animation and animatronics. Years later, Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects company started in 1975 by director George Lucas, has almost single handedly created the world of 3- dimensional CGI graphics and animation. These techniques and technologies are used in most film releases today and almost all new generation video games.

This crossover of technology and creativity between the two mediums of movies and video games has created a derivative art form known as machinima.

WHAT IS MACHINIMA?

Machinima is more than a technique for producing video, but an art form in itself. It can be best defined as “a portmanteau of machine and cinema; it is both a collection of associated production techniques and a film genre defined by those techniques. As a production technique, the term concerns the rendering of computer-generated imagery (CGI) using real-time, interactive (game) 3D engines, as opposed to high-end and complex 3D animation software used by professionals.”[1]

Machinima is as much a product of technology as it is a product of trends in communication and expression. Ease of production in popular creative arenas like music, video, and text from PC computers and desktop software programs like GarageBand, Final Cut Pro and Microsoft Word have given the power of creation to the individual. The synthesis of such creation was once a power solely in the hands of the large corporation. In addition to the creative power, the Internet has opened up the world of publishing to the masses through podcasting and websites such as YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, and iTunes.

It now only takes hours to generate and distribute what once took days to produce and months to get to market, where it would ultimately only reach limited numbers because of tightly controlled distribution methods. A podcast can be recoded, edited, converted to an RSS feed, submitted and be ready for download by a world wide audience via iTunes in the theoretical blink of an eye. Videos and audio can be posted to MySpace or YouTube in a matter of seconds. This ease of access to the market place has defined the “long tail” of Internet marketing, where niche items are easily accessible to the masses for little of no additional cost to the provider. What once was not a viable product due to small audience and large price for retail space, has become a market leader, and sometimes even a “cash cow.”

Today the avid video gamer has access to the tools, techniques and distribution channels to bring their vision to the world. Machinima allows the creator to show off their gaming prowess, create movie stories based on existing game characters and settings, and to produce emergent films where players participate in and take the design to unexpected results. As we have seen the trend grow in popularity, creative machinima use is not left solely to the gamer.

Traditional movie making can be a labor-intensive process requiring substantial investment of time and money by aspiring filmmakers for actors, editors, and support staff. Machinima techniques offer the under-funded, would-be filmmaker access to the cameras, grips, actors, sound effects, locations and editing at the same computer and for a nominal investment. Even a short film today can cost well into the tens of thousands of dollars, while a machinima production does not have to cost more than the software, the computer, and the subscription to the gam.

In addition to providing a low-cost solution to aspiring filmmakers, machinima has been a proven money saving tool used by Hollywood, springing an entirely new Pre-visualization industry. Directors such as George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg regularly use 3D graphics engines and machinima techniques to “previs” a scene before they spend millions of dollars setting and shooting the scene. We will explore the world of machinima, its origins, applications and the effect it is having on the world of entertainment.

MACHINIMA AND 3D GAMES

Aristotle once wrote in his Historia Animalia and was later quoted by Pliny the Elder: “Ex Africa, semper aliquid novi“. Aristotle and Pliny observed that since the animals all gathered at the river to drink, there was always some new species or interaction arising from this meeting spot. This same idea can be applied to Machinima in the 3D world. Machinima in the 3D world is closely attached to the gamers who take what the designers give them and create something completely new and different. This is the very nature of play and games itself.

Videogames can be seen as an intersection of two different logics: narrative representation, characteristic of the audiovisual culture, and the pleasure of play, characteristic of the game culture. Playing videogames can be understood as a sensorial experience that involves media and non-media practices; that is, game experience is embedded within a media practice, transforming precedent forms of audiovisual pleasures. (http://www.media-anthropology.net/ardevol_etal_gamepleasures.pdf)

In the 3D world from those who play MUVEs (multi-user virtual environments), machinima’s primary focus is for Role-playing. Role-playing is the staging of events in the game that are based on the lore of the game but independent of the quests and designs done by the designers. For example, many Role-playing groups will gather in a city that does not have as much player traffic as others to role-play out a script that is written on the group’s internet forum and “see” how it plays out. Most scripts for role-playing are loose, leaving room for on the fly interpretation by the participants. The whole scene within the game is sometimes filmed, sometimes not. An interesting trend is that some of the role-players make the case against filming, as this proverbially sets the events in stone. This allows people to revisit a given interaction, which would skew the spontaneity of the role-playing itself. A famous example of this is the Straylight Saga, which was role-played on the Rallos Zek PvP server when Everquest was released in 1999.

Here is a link to some of the Saga itself: Starfire – Event

Another technique of machinima is splicing and editing game footage to tell a story. Medieval Weapon is a famous spoof of Lethal Weapon, done using Everquest 2. There are 13 episodes of Medieval Weapon and can be viewed at this link.

This machinima is a prime example of what gamers do with the medium. Spoofing a movie that has a semi-cult following within the gamer community (on par with Chuck Norris jokes) creates a buzz for the machinima creator. Gamers view the machinima as something to do when NOT gaming. In this example, all Everquest 2 avatars and emotes are used to create the machinima. Voiceovers are added and as emotes are timed with the voice-overs to create a realistic movie. Also, there is no need to worry about setting up the context of the movie, as most individuals choosing to view will understand the parody of Lethal Weapon.

3D gamers also create cinematic splices. This takes cinematics from multiple games and tells a story as created by the producer. A famous splice of World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, Lineage 2, and Final Fantasy XI cinematics can be viewed here.

As one can see, it puts together all these cinematics to tell a new story of fantasy MMORPGs. With nothing more than cuts it achieves a result that each of the singular MMORPG cinematics cannot achieve.

MACHINIMA’S AUDIENCE IN THE 3D WORLD

Machinima in the 3D world is mostly tailored for and maintained by gamers. Between Half Life, World of Warcraft, and Everquest 2, there is plenty of audience to go around. Movies are very closely tied to the games themselves. Everquest 2 has the slogan, “Where Adventure Comes Alive!”, boasting how the interface is set up like a widescreen movie with the black bars on the top and bottom.

Machinima receives a lot of traffic from gamers in the 3D world, but mainly as an aside or a pastime. Most gamers want to create their own drama by actually engaging in the MUVE. This makes sense since the leisure time that would be spent watching machinima could be spent making the game. The big draw for many gamers into machinima is to broadcast one’s guild destroying an epic raid mob in the game, or perhaps showing off the PvP prowess of one’s group of friends. Machinima for role-playing usually only draws in those who are participating directly in the storyline. However, Straylight Saga became so popular it did envelop the Rallos Zek server for a time.

The gamer audience wants funny spoofs, otherwise they would rather be playing the game. Spoofs not only come in the form of movie spoofs like Medieval Weapon, but spoofing game cinematics.

World of Warcraft Burning Crusade’s trailer can be found here.

A few gamers in particular saw this example and took it to the next level. Their machinima spoof used gnomes as the characters and created a parody of Blizzard’s work using only the game itself:

Another spoof is done using the game engine to spoof music videos. Here is the spoof of Eminem’s Without Me.

As one can obviously tell, the gamer and 3D world users want humor, as gamers create their own fun in the games by playing them. These movies are made as free entertainment distributed via content sharing web sites such as You Tube. The films are not created as a means of profit, but are purely an act of creative expression.

PROFITS IN THE 3D WORLD

There has not been a huge push among 3D world moviemakers to move towards profit, with the exception of MMOvie. The trailer is linked here.

This is a full-length machinima film making spoofing films using the World of Warcraft game. From the trailer, it is obvious the producers picked popular titles such as Terminator and Indiana Jones.

The reality of profits from machinima in the 3D world as of yet unclear. If marketers target gamers, as they do in MMOvie, it has the appeal for those who play the game to see a spoof done with the game itself. Therefore, as it says in the trailer for MMOvie, it is wise for producers to make the movie humorous and connect it to real movies or reality using spoofs to draw in a wider audience.

MACHINIMA AND THE BIG SCREEN

For most of its infancy, machinima has been the child prodigy of the perpetually lonely and the terminally awkward. No longer, however, are these gaming enthusiasts alone in the arena of this burgeoning art form, as the practicality of its usage is presenting itself to some of the biggest names in land of Hollywood blockbuster CGI.

If you want to start dropping names in the film industry, Steven Spielberg is a good place to start. Highly regarded as one the most accomplished directors of all time, Spielberg’s work in special effects has revolutionized and permanently changed the way in which Hollywood, not only makes movies, but the ways in which they market and distribute them. He created the summer blockbuster as we know it when Jaws was release in the summer of 1975, forever changing the dynamics of special effects.

Fast forward over 30 years later and his influence is still felt today in areas across the industry spectrum, as his new ideas and techniques spread across the industry like wildfire. As far back as 2001, Spielberg began experimenting with machinima as a pre-production tool for his film Artificial Intelligence: AI.(Nitsche). Following the storyboarding process, many directors like to create an animatic or “pencil test” draft of their story. These animatics are very rough animations that serve as moving story boards for directors to see their story come to life (Russell).

For AI, Spielberg experimented with an adapted version of the Unreal game engine to produce his animatic for the film. As Spielberg found, animatics done in this way are much more flexible to work with, as they are able to edit and render in real time (Kahney). In certain instances, rendering of complex 3D segments using even the best CGI technology can take over a day for just one frame (Pasha). In a land where time is equal to the all mighty dollar, innovations that can save time and money on productions will surely see a big push to be utilized, especially by those who are shelling out the dollars to produce these films.

Spielberg is not alone in his utilization of such techniques, as other big name Hollywood blockbuster directors are finding use for 3D gaming engines. Two years following the summer splash of Jaws, George Lucas solidified the summer blockbuster as a mainstay with the release of Star Wars. With the latest three prequel installments in the series, Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic used Unreal’s 3D engine as a preproduction tool to create animatics much in the same way Spielberg did (Kahney). For Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, Lucas was able to make 23 revisions to the first minute of the film using similar game engine based technology, a technique he considered to save $10 million off of his budget (Harz). Chief Technology Officer at LucasFilm, Cliff Plumer, explains the effectiveness of such techniques:

“This is something we’ve been developing in conjunction with LucasArts – to hand the previs (acronym for previsualization) to the director. It’s almost like a game. The director can plan how to shoot a live-action or block a CG scene. Contained in the application are libraries of lenses and so forth. But, we can also record the camera moves, create basic animations and block in camera angles. And instead of handing rendered animatics to the CG pipeline, we have actual files – camera files, scene layout files, actual assets that can feed into the pipeline. It gives the crew input into what the director is thinking.” (Harz)

Plumer also believes in the future of the technology beyond that of a strictly “previs” medium, “Machinima is a great new technique for creating cost-effective animated stories…our initial use is for previsualization for our feature work (but) we envision eventually using it for all our production in movies, games, television and online.” (Pasha)

Relative contemporaries Peter Jackson and Michael Bay are also finding the utility of machinima. Jackson outsourced to New Zealand based Regelous for special effects help in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. This specialty program, coined Massive, generated autonomous digital crowds, allowing each character created to make and carry out their own choices (Strickland). For Jackson’s remake of King Kong, Weta Digital used a flight simulator to capture planes flying around the Empire State Building, effectively recreating camera movement (Harz).

Bay may be taking the biggest step of all as he crosses over into the video game industry. Behind a $100 million investment from Wyndcrest Holdings, Bay plans to convert his special effects house, Digital Domain, into a full scale production studio. The focus export of the studio will be a plethora of new video games. As an aside, however, the studio plans to use these new self created game engines to continue in development of low cost animation films using…machinima (Ransom-Wiley).

As a production tool, machinima is maturing at an extremely swift pace. It will only be a matter of time before the next generation in computing hard and software brings the technology to that of photo realism or “cinematic computing” (Kahney). This process of development can only be helped by the inclusion of the Hollywood big names and big bucks.

Although dollars will certainly be what helps to propel this market and spark whatever transformations it may undergo, immediately it seems to be a great tool for the small time independent or student filmmaker.

As the geek community’s grip on the pulse of the machinima movement progressively loosens, cinema scholars and students alike are recognizing the properties the technology has of an emergent art form (Sterry). Although still largely a “garage culture” niche, many have come to embrace this low-budget system for self-expressive filmmaking (Krotoski). As machinima director Hugh Hancock says, “If you want to bring your vision to life and it’s an action packed, epic vision, you basically have two choices. One is to persuade Hollywood to give you approximately the price of 100 London flats. The other is to use machinima.”

In this sense, directors with low budgets, from students to independents, have the power to generate massive foreign sets, elaborate scenery, casts of thousands and mind-blowing special effects (Kahney).

This is a great way for young directors to begin to understand the process, intricacies, and effort it takes to direct such a film in Hollywood. Directors are able to experiment with spectacular camera moves, extreme angles, and tricky shots that require specialized equipment in the field to produce. Filmmakers looking to break into the action/adventure genre are no longer handcuffed to the creation of an “art piece” just to show they understand how to make a movie. Here, their inherent creativity is allowed to flourish as it is given the opportunity to grow into something special through a genre they can embrace.

Previously, if you were a director who wanted to make a serious machinima film, a prerequisite was to have some level of expertise in coding in order to manipulate whatever host gaming engine you were using to create your work. However, now even this has become a thing of the past as many game companies are including movie-making tools within the feature of their products. Maxim’s The Sims, an ideal game to create sitcoms or romantic comedies, now has these tools, as well as machinima stalwart engines such as Half-Life, Quake, and World of Warcraft.

Beyond this, Lionhead Studios has put a game on the market dubbed simply The Movies. The sole purpose of this game is simply to create machinima. The movie making tool kit that accompanies the software is more in depth than any before, allowing the director to create down to the smallest details (Krotoski). The game basically puts the player in charge of a Hollywood studio, complete with actors and crew, whose job is to put out movies (Kahney). It’s power and poignancy is already being felt as Alex Chan’s The French Democracy is turning heads and winning awards around the world. His cinematic take on the French riots of ’05 was made entirely in The Movies platform and is being shared and distributed on the game’s sponsored collaborative director groups (Newitz).

For serious interactive gaming directors, one of the best features of the program is its modding tools. When a director has exhausted all the set, costume, and actor options in the game, the fun is not over. The Movies Workshop and The Movies Editor (MED) both allow gamers to open and rewrite the game’s .pak files, which basically control textures inside the game. MED allows users to export files to any desired 3D editor, modify, then re-import them back into the program seamlessly. It is as simple as machinima director Mike Dudley, creator of The Movies Review, puts it, “Now, if I have a movie idea, I know I can create one (Newitz).”

SEEING DOLLAR SIGNS

If it’s going to work in Hollywood, it’s got to make money. So far we have seen the proof of potential in this area. However, machinima currently finds its support in Hollywood not so much for the money it can potentially make, but for the money it can potentially save producers.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, by no means a blockbuster action/adventure film, had a production budget of $71,682,975 (TheSmokingGun). Leaving only the fees for the director, writers, producers and a few production assistants, the budget drops down to $15,585,832. A five minute machinima short can cost as little as $600 from pre production to distribution (Pasha). Extrapolate these numbers out to average cinema length and a 100-minute machinima film could cost only $12,000. Obviously there exists a certain grey area when dealing with theoretical numbers such as these, but even so, the difference is astounding. Even if Hollywood were to juice up their production techniques, it is still fair to assume that the studios would save a bundle of money on actor salaries alone.

With this new technology offered by the low cost software from Lionhead Studios, gamers are able to control facial expressions and actor movements, giving directors absolute control over their works. Therefore, paying giant salaries to live actors would no longer be a deterrent for studios making pictures. Filmmakers can make new characters, or presumably digital likenesses of existing actors, and manipulate them in anyway necessary. No longer will directors have to pay doubles for stand in scenes or have to worry about actor and crew safety.

Similarly, directors usually only are budgeted enough time and money for one shot at big action stunts and explosions. Now they will have the comfort of being able to shoot and re-shoot high end action sequences as many times as necessary. Cameras can be placed in any area without worry of damage to equipment or staff.

The amounts of money to be saved are still only speculative at this point, but nonetheless promising. As discussed previously, if Michael Bay, today’s king of the summer blockbuster, is looking into switching his production to machinima, then there must be an applicable use for the industry.

BARBARIANS AT THE GATE

Hollywood has no reason to resist the emergence of machinima; plus, it really doesn’t have much of a choice. With machinima becoming a viable movie-making medium, the genre itself is beginning to take on a façade similar to the makeup of big business film industry.

Film festivals including, as well as featuring, machinima works have been appearing all over the scene. Machinimas have been featured at the famous Sundance Film Festival in Utah since they broke onto the scene in the early 2000’s (Krotoski). Machinima specific festivals also are popping up both in the real world and across virtual worlds. The Independent Film Channel sponsors the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences Film Festival in New York yearly, whereas last year’s seven day, 80 film Second Life Avalon Film Festival was shown completely in the virtual world (Kiss). With several others also in the mix, the more machinimas being made, the more that we will actually see.

Generally film festivals are done for the art scene and are not about making money; until of coarse your film is discovered and picked up by a big budget Hollywood studio. On that note, despite its garage band status, machinima is starting to generate Hollywood money. Rooster Teeth’s Red vs. Blue, a machinima series made using the Halo platform, is doing extremely well commercially. Its creators earn a salary comparable to that of popular sitcom writers (Sterry). Its popularity only continues to grow as its episodes are continually shown on The Independent Film Channel.

On the other side of the spectrum, the first machinima work to be sold out of Second Life origins was made by Douglas Gayeton. This documentary of Gayeton’s SL journey through the eyes of his avatar Molotov Alva peeked the interest of television producers in the HBO organization. The rights to the documentary alone were reportedly sold for a six-figure price. Gayeton, an accomplished multimedia director, has spurred more Hollywood directors to begin to explore the virtual world, both to examine its utility and to browse for hidden talent (HBO).

Even the gaming industry is contributing to the action. Epic Games, creators of the well-liked machinima platform Unreal, are using their popular Unreal Tournament to spur the machinima community. In 2003, the company shelled out $50,000 to the winner of the Make Something Unreal competition, in which the best machinima movie generated within the UT2003 environment was given the award and the money (Kahney).

Just as the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences exists to further the motion picture industry and monitor its progress, Paul Marino has created the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences. The academy puts on film festivals and promotes the art, hoping to reach new and creative individuals who will enhance its reputation. This reputation can only be helped by examples like Jake Hughes’ Anachronox: The Movie, the first full-length machinima to go on tour and Zero 7’s music video In the Waiting Line, a regular in the MTV rotation.

Along with the creation of small machinima studios, such as Paul Marino’s ILL Clan, Rooster Teeth, and the Fountainhead, machinima is beginning to create its own subculture in Hollywood. With this versatility and growing fan base, Hollywood is beginning to see how its imitations are becoming reality.

CONCLUSION

Digital medium is here to stay: music is recorded with computers and delivered via the Internet to avid listeners; motion pictures are shot in front of green screens so backgrounds, crowds and 3D characters can be rendered later on a computer, and video games are growing to become an industry that will dwarf almost all other entertainment industries in a few years.

The world of the video game has moved from that of the lone player sitting in the bedroom in front of a console, to the world of MMORG’s where players form guilds and clans and do battle in social gaming worlds. Outside of these gaming worlds marketers, advertisers and movie producers have seen the movement from that of static observational entertainment to that of fully immersive interactive media experiences. This interactive experience goes beyond merely participating in-world, it extends to sharing and collaborating with other interested people all over the world. Machinima combined with the Internet is one of the more powerful tools available to marketers and active participants in the digital age. Whether promoting one’s self for ego, product, or profits, these techniques are invaluable.

Hollywood is embracing machinima and other 3D environmental technologies as both a cost saving techniques and creative resource. The shift to the digital world has had a massive impact on the how, where and when we consume entertainment products, and on how these products are delivered to us. There are no signs that these paradigm shifts and industry changes are going to stop or slow down.

Machinima is the current derivative of the digital shift and the convergence of media. It has been shown to have immeasurable value as a marketing tool and a form of creative expression. Not only will it make money, but it has the ability to save bottom line value as a money saving technique in the production of million dollar films.

It is difficult to predict what will come next, but as our lifestyles adapt to new technology and new opportunities to consume crop up, there will always be that new medium to satisfy the demands of the consumer.

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