Picture a man in his late 50s, wearing headphones and cackling hysterically at a computer screen. That pretty much captures the image my wife remembers of my first encounter with machinima 15 months ago. After 37 years of marriage, my bride has resigned herself to some odd behavior from her mate, but I rarely laugh so hard that I fall out of my seat. In this case, I lost it. The trigger for my unseemly moment was an animated film clip I had grabbed off the web called The Danger Attacks at Dawn: Episode II.
Written with bizarre, abrasive humor, the genius of the clip is this: The producers made it on a shoestring budget, with little or no professional help, and almost entirely within a popular videogame graphics engine — in this case, Lock On: Modern Air Combat. A couple of guys goofing around with their favorite toy had created a smart, inventive piece of entertainment. That got my attention.
Machinima — short for “machine cinema,” with a nod to the Japanese anime graphics style — is a growing media subculture and a child of the personal computer revolution. As PC graphics and computing power rapidly increased in the 1990s, so did the number of gamers, and so did the complexity and realism of videogames. Beginning in the mid-1990s, some games began offering “instant replay” features, allowing fans to save, edit, and share their gaming exploits on the Internet.
Videogame companies soon found that if they released free, game-specific software tools and even their game source code to the public, loyal fans would happily enhance their games (and, coincidentally, company sales) through “modding.” Whole networks of talented, computer-savvy players sprang up around games like Quake and Half-Life, eager to modify and extend the original game software in new directions.
Inevitably, somebody figured out that the same game tools that enabled modding might also invite a new kind of filmmaking — the kind that would bypass the crushing costs of professional animation. The first true machinima film clips appeared in the late 1990s. In 2002, pioneers founded the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences. By 2007, with videogaming now a $38 billion annual global industry, machinima had spawned a support culture of books like Machinima for Dummies and 3D Game-Based Filmmaking: The Art of Machinima, and DVD training series like Mod Your World from Noesis Interactive.
Hundreds of machinima film projects now crowd Web sites like www.machinima.com and YouTube. Many are mediocre, vulgar, or just plain offensive, but some of the work is astonishingly good. Clips like Real Heroes of Half-Life 2 — produced by the female machinima artist Kim “barneyvation” Lockwood and her husband — can take months of detailed work. The results are shrewd, funny, and impressively well-crafted mini-movies, all within the world of a $50 video game. Another outstanding machinima artist is Ross Scott, whose Civil Protection series of short film clips is among the best examples of “new media” talent anywhere. CP‘s writing, voice acting, darkly ironic humor, and attention to production detail rank it with professional-grade animation studios.
The democratic nature of machinima — the price of admission is the cost of a videogame — means that thousands of people, some of them very gifted and with something interesting to say, now have access to animation and filmmaking as creative media. In interviews, both Lockwood and Scott emerge as intelligent, articulate adult creatives. They enjoy the quirkiness and fun of their work — and would certainly like to make some money at it — but hold themselves to exacting standards.
Machinima has obvious limitations. While games like Valve Software’s Half-Life 2 have sophisticated animation capabilities and excellent free tools to exploit them, the artist is still constrained by the basic game design and environment. A movie made with the game Medieval II Total War will have astoundingly vivid battle scenes, but the game engine simply isn’t designed for intimate character dialogue. Nor has machinima made anyone wealthy. Most game companies tolerate and even encourage machinima because it publicizes their products. But copyright is still copyright, and machinima based on video games can’t be commercially marketed without the original game company’s approval. Free animation software programs like Moviestorm and Antics now exist that allow commercial machinima production, but half the fun of machinima is its videogame pedigree.
So why is any of this important to you? Two reasons.
First, machinima is yet another sign that the way we communicate as a culture is changing deeply. Network television, traditional radio, printed newspapers and magazines, old-style movie studios — these are dinosaurs, and so are their profit models. They’ll remain in our vocabulary for a long time, but their influence will probably continue to slip. At its best, machinima is today what music videos were 15 years ago: a testing ground for new entertainment ideas, technology, and talent. It’s one of the many new media tools reshaping and “horizontalizing” the creation of our information and how we spend our time.
I’ll leave the second reason and last word to my wife, a master teacher in Catholic schools for 30 years. Her immediate reaction to The Danger Attacks at Dawn was, “That’s weird. When are you planning to grow up?”
She stared at the screen for a moment, and then added: “How did they do that? I could use something like that with my students.”