Event Report: MachinimaFest 2008 - Are We Nearly There Yet?

Gamasutra checks out New York's Machinima Filmfest to discover how the medium, which uses real-time game engines to create cinema, has been evolving in recent years, thanks to games like Mass Effect and machinima-filming environments like World
[Following an interview with the show director, Gamasutra's Matthew Hawkins checks out New York's Machinima Filmfest to discover how the medium, which uses real-time game engines to create cinema, has been evolving in recent years, thanks to games like Mass Effect and machinima-filming environments like World Of Warcraft.] This past weekend saw the Machinima Filmfest 2008 here in New York City. Most regular readers more than likely know what the word machinima means, but for those who do not, it's basically a blanket term for filmmaking that's directly related to video games. For the most part, it's a term given to the fruits and labors of amateur filmmakers who use video game engines to tell their own stories. For years now, those spearheading the movement -- as well as critics looking from afar -- have heralded the future of storytelling via this form. Meanwhile, others have needed some further convincing that it isn't just a niche effort and nothing more. I suppose I'm part of the latter group. I was first exposed to machinima via a festival at the Museum of Moving Images, five or so years ago. To put it bluntly, virtually everything I saw left me in a state of utter boredom and confusion. As I saw it, two things were holding the medium back: - Inaccessibility: quite a few movies were based upon the games whose technology they utilized, spoke only to players of those games while leaving everyone else out in the cold. - Over-infatuation with the form: everything else seemed more concerned and satisfied with the act of using game tech to make a movie than with the actual tale itself. I figured back then that it would take some time for things to mature, before we finally got something of substance that could be approached by the rest of the world. Five years later, it would seem that things are at least heading in the right direction. The festival consisted of two basic components; first and foremost, the movies, of course. All the Mackie Award nominees were projected on the big screen. The selection is indicative of how far things have come. Quite a few of the nominees were entertaining even for those unfamiliar with the source material. You don't have to be a die-hard Halo fan to enjoy This Spartan Life, although it doesn't hurt to be one either. It was the other part of the festival, the panels, which provided the most insight into where things are and where machinima might be headed. Interfacing Virtual Actors The first panel I caught saw each speaker touching upon the concept of game technology as being in essence "live theater...enabling creative decisions in real-time, in the moment.” In that sense, machinima can be best described as digital puppetry. Each person provided his own viewpoint, as well as technical solution to the struggle of getting virtual beings to look, act, and feel real. Perhaps the two most interesting examples, simply due to their bold-faced differences, were provided by Armando Troisi and John C. Martin. Troisi, the lead cinematic designer at BioWare, demonstrated a bit of the work that went into animating the principle characters in Mass Effect. The system is a extremely complex one that allows for a wide range of human-like emotions to be created and adjusted by the numerous artists behind the game. As sophisticated as the underlining technology might be, it's hardly automatic; Troisi noted that everything must go through "the hands of God" -- the aforementioned artists who ultimately control the show. Serving as a counterpoint was the animation suite from Martin's company, Reallusion; iClone simplifies the process for aspiring filmmakers who lack a certain degree of resources and technical know-how, when compared to BioWare's experience for example, by providing drag-and-drop tools that take the concept of puppets on a stage to a far more literal level. The real proof in the pudding was watching Martin animate a video game-like character realistically using the WASD keys. Traditionally, even the simple act of creating a walking animation has been a struggle for many users. Here, it remains quick and dirty, nothing close to resembling BioWare's final product. But it works, and is immediately accessible by using a visual language that every gamer, even the most casual ones, can understand. In a Q&A session, most participants agreed that "reality is overrated" and that photorealism is simply a stylistic choice. As was also noted, "the actors in real movies are real, but they can't help it -- they're real!" Machinima & Art Up next was a panel on "Machinima and Art" which demonstrated how, for better or worse, the artsy-fartsy world knows that machinima exists. In fact, from the few examples that were shown, machinima might be the new video art of the 21st century. One example, by French art collective Les Riches Douaniers, is a recorded clip of the rider from Shadow of the Colossus, recorded and manipulated to be even more solemn and barren. The piece was originally projected on a city wall, and its audio employed the sounds of the traffic nearby, which also proved to be a different approach from the traditional hacking of a game's engine to create an end product. Then there was Annie Ok's use of Second Life. Two pieces were presented, one of her avatar doing an interpretive dance set to a black background -- the second of a series of films that explores her virtual self. The other was part of a mixed reality project in which a designer jeans sweatshop was set up in Second Life, with Ok as its documentarian. It's odd that many of the trappings of the initial wave of machinima artists were evident here, specifically the obsession of the form to an almost narcissistic degree. But at least the pioneers didn't see a need to pile on superfluous tech with needless integration of Flickr and blogs. But then again, the fine arts have always been about personal expression. People either get it, or they don't -- or they do and still think it’s dumb. The audience here appeared to be split 50/50, either completely engrossed (many appeared to be no strangers to the New York art scene) or totally bored to death (everyone else, or the "normal" people). Grassroots Machinima As such, the next panel, "Grassroots Machinima", which was about bringing machinima "to the people", was a breath of fresh air. All of the artists on stage for that particular hour were high school students or had just entered college. There were two young guys who simply loved movies and video games, and once they realized that the two could be merged, the creative juices simply flowed. While not exactly original, one of the two dudes' homage to Kill Bill was earnest and lacking pretense. Gone are the days when kids are running around their backyards, recreating their favorite film scenes -- especially given that backyards are a dying commodity in themselves. The rest of the kids, mostly girls, were part of an after-school program called Global Kids, for which they created movies in Second Life about pressing social issues. Each of the kids hailed from New York City, and many did not have access to video games, let alone computers and the internet at home, which also meant that they had no idea that stuff like Red Vs. Blue (one of the more popular examples of machinima) existed before their project began. Where Do We Go From Here? One of the final topics of the day centered around the state of machinima. Assembled was a trio of perhaps the most commercially successfully machinima creators today, including Chris Burke, the mind behind This Spartan Life; Frank Dellario of The Ill Clan; and Douglas Gayeton, creator of Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey. The three passed along helpful advice to those that are serious about machinima by talking about their own difficulties, primarily when it came to dealing with other people's intellectual properties. Gayeton chose Second Life from the get-go to avoid such hassles ("Think IP all the way" was his motto), while Dellario used the Torque Engine because he wanted to be able to purchase a license and work with its authors in order to help deal with technical hurdles. On the other hand, Burke's use of the Halo engine was something he couldn't keep a secret for long, due to the almost instant smash success of his series. "You can't hide when Marty [O'Donnell], the composer of Halo, wants to be on your show," he noted. Gayeton detailed how his show, which at one point caused a bidding war between MTV, Sundance, and HBO, with the last network winning out, basically wrote itself. One HBO executive said, "You just explained what online lives are to me." When explaining how he managed to keep all ownership over his work, including DVD rights, Gayeton simply pointed out how anything otherwise would be like someone buying the rights to Eddie Murphy's likeness from Murphy. Gayeton's persona in Second Life, despite appearing artificial, was still very much himself. That was simply one example of how machinima is rewriting entertainment laws and will continue to do so. If anything, the one clear message that was delivered by the festival, but accentuated in this particular panel, was that machinima is growing more accepted, perhaps thanks to the growth of online worlds. Dellario, who does frequent work for hire, noted that machinima "is no longer a novelty, it's an actual production approach. It's changed the very definition of animation." He further suggested that "the gatekeepers of traditional animation just don't get it," due to how traditional content production such as animation takes far more pre-planning, execution, and post-production. And so This Spartan Life's Burke had this one final piece of advice for all those eager to get their feet wet: "Don't sell yourself short. Whatever it is, try bringing [your creativity] to another audience."

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