It's a warm January afternoon in Austin, Texas, where another movie is being shot. That's not so unusual; with its laid-back pace and funky vibe--the city's motto is ”Keep Austin Weird”--this university town has become a hive of independent filmmaking over the past decade, sparked by the success of local directors Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez. Both directors built their reputations in part on their willingness to experiment with low-budget digital animation and special effects.
But even by Austin's anything-goes, do-it-yourself standards, today's shoot is notably bootstrapped. For one thing, it's being made above the Pita Pit sandwich shop, overlooking a busy downtown street. The movie studio here at Rooster Teeth Productions consists of a tiny windowless room at the end of a hallway, in what used to be the restroom of a Wendy's burger joint. ”We had to run 30 gallons of bleach in here to get out the smell,” says Michael ”Burnie” Burns, a stocky 34-year-old in a T-shirt and beat-up jeans who cofounded Rooster Teeth five years ago.
The aroma of disinfectant may have dissipated, but the place still suggests more slacker hangout than filmmaking enterprise. The only pieces of equipment in sight are three Microsoft Xbox 360 video-game consoles, assorted Xbox controllers, a 3-gigahertz Hewlett-Packard Blackbird desktop computer, and the obligatory lumpy couch. There's no sign of the usual trappings of Hollywood moviemaking: no actors, no stylists, no catering table. Also missing are sets, costumes, and props. That's because at Rooster Teeth, the cinematic process occurs almost entirely within that HP computer.
Burns and the four other young geeks intently twiddle their Xbox controllers, moving their video-game characters on screen in carefully choreographed moves. Technically, all five are playing the science-fiction shooter game Halo 3 , but they're also making a movie. As the players put the characters through their motions, the computer records all the action, which will then be edited and paired with dialogue and a soundtrack into a short animated video.
It's a new genre of filmmaking called machinima, and it's one of the brashest DIY developments to hit moviemaking since Roger Corman pointed a camera at a guy in a rubber monster suit and catapulted himself into B-movie history. What's making it possible is the latest crop of popular video games and Internet environments, like Halo 3 , the human-simulation game The Sims , and the virtual world Second Life . These products all have deeply immersive environments powered by sophisticated real-time three-dimensional graphics engines, and they usually come with free video-editing software and other tools that let players modify the games' characters, environments, and sound and then create and record their own scenarios. Machinimators exploit those free tools to produce animations that span the gamut of film types, including short comedic riffs, serial sitcoms, and even 2-hour feature-length films.
Machinima (a mashup of ”machine” and ”cinema,” pronounced muh-SHIN-ah-muh or mah-SHEEN-ah-muh) isn't intended for the silver screen; most of the films get downloaded or streamed via the Internet and watched on a computer monitor. And they're cheap to make: instead of pouring millions of dollars and many months into a film, Rooster Teeth may spend US $5000 and a week's time on a 5-minute video--and that covers everything from the first-draft script to the final formatting and uploading of the finished film to the Web.