Machinima’s Movie Moguls

A new breed of filmmaker is bypassing the actors, elaborate sets, and even the cameras in favor of a couple of decent computers and a video game. Their movies may surprise you

13 min read
Photo: Matthew Mahon; Illustration: Sandbox Studio
Photo: Matthew Mahon; Illustration: Sandbox Studio

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.

Photo of Rooster Teeth\u2019s Gus Sorola, Matt Hullum, and Mike BurnsPop Art: Rooster Teeth’s Gus Sorola, Matt Hullum, and Mike Burns (from left) have turned do-it-yourself filmmaking into a business.Photo: Matthew Mahon

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.

Who makes machinima? High school kids getting together in basement rec rooms, adults blowing off steam on weekends, and a few scrappy start-ups like Rooster Teeth. Nobody knows exactly how many machinimators are out there, but as a group, they are incredibly prolific, churning out hundreds of thousands of animated films over the last decade. In recent years, machinima has blossomed into a tech-centric international subculture. With little more than a video game, a computer, and some imagination, anybody can create machinima.

For most machinimators, it’s more a labor of love than a moneymaking venture. But as video-game animation technology aims for Pixar-like quality, machinima is now finding a broader audience. Episodes of the popular TV series South Park and CSI: New York have featured machinima scenes. This May, the cable channel Cinemax premiered a machinima shot entirely in Second Life, reportedly paying the director, Douglas Gayeton, $200 000 for the broadcast rights. This fall, the grandiosely named Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, a group that nurtures the new genre and its practitioners, will host its biggest-ever film festival.

Of all the start-ups making a commercial go of machinima, Rooster Teeth seems to be the most highly regarded and may be the only one that generates consistent profits. It all started about six years ago, when Burns and a few buddies started making an improbably funny series based on Halo called Red vs. Blue, or RvB, as it’s known to fans.

In the show, two teams of hapless soldiers stuck in a kind of wartime purgatory consider their existential place in the universe as they battle each other and the occasional alien. From the first episode in April 2003, the program proved an instant cult hit, and it ran for five seasons. Hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide eagerly awaited the uploading of each new 6-minute episode to the company’s Web site.

At the end of May, fans rushed to the site once again, as Rooster Teeth debuted a follow-up series, Red vs. Blue: Reconstruction. “We wanted the next phase of RvB to have more of a ‘movie’ feel to it,” says Rooster Teeth cofounder Matt Hullum. And so it does: the editing and pacing are crisper, the scenes and sound effects are more sophisticated, and the action and dramatic tension get kicked up a notch. But the trademark absurdist banter that made the original series a huge hit is still there.

Rooster Teeth is privately held and won’t release financial details, but Burns says it now makes enough from DVD sales of Red vs. Blue and other productions, as well as commercial work for video-game companies, to support a full-time team of six. Their work has appeared on network and cable TV and at New York City’s Lincoln Center, and the company’s community site now boasts 650 000 registered members and about 750 000 video downloads each week. Rooster Teeth was even commissioned in 2004 to create a short introductory video for a speech that Bill Gates gave to Microsoft employees.

“They are the pioneers,” says Paul Marino, himself an accomplished machinima producer and now the executive director of the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences. “They not only made this a pastime, they made it a business.”

In the Rooster Teeth studio on this January afternoon, two guys move their Halo soldiers around on screen as a voice actor in a nearby sound booth reads from a script. Today’s project is a short instructional video on how to play Grifball, a multiplayer game that Burns invented to run inside Halo 3. Think rugby, except with gravity hammers and energy swords. Burns, who wrote the script, also directs the take. “Give me some more hoo-hahs at the end of the last line,” he tells the voice actor after one take.

Halo’s software and development tools don’t allow for an enormous range of expressiveness. The soldiers’ faces are entirely covered by face masks, so each player indicates that his character is talking by bobbing its head up and down roughly in time with the dialogue. “It’s like puppeteering,” explains Hullum.

Today’s how-to video features two of the main characters from Red vs. Blue. Although the plots are sometimes punctuated by more or less random violence, the characters’ sardonic banter is what separates Rooster Teeth’s work from the competition. In one memorable episode, the Red and Blue teams call a truce and then stand around in an uncomfortable circle, guns at the ready, debating the absurdity of their situation:

Grif: “So now we’re forced to work together? How ironic.”

Simmons: “No, that’s not ironic! Ironic would be if we had to work together to hurt each other!”

Donut: “No, ironic would be if, instead of that guy kidnapping Lopez, Lopez kidnapped him.”

Sarge: “I think it would be ironic if our guns didn’t shoot bullets but instead squirted a healing salve that cured all wounds.”

Caboose: “I think it would be ironic if everyone was made of iron!”

The scene then cuts to 2 hours later, which finds the soldiers still locked in their semantic standoff. Blue team leader Church, in a deliberate and slightly testy voice, attempts to sum up the consensus: “OK. We all agree that while the current situation is not totally ironic, the fact that we now have to work together is odd in an unexpected way that defies our normal circumstances. Is everybody happy with that?”

When the series’ second season premiered to a sold-out crowd at Lincoln Center in 2004, Graham Leggat, then director of communications for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, called it “truly as sophisticated as Samuel Beckett.”

RvB, like most machinima, sprouts from the desire to reach inside a video game and manipulate it into something personal, or at least more original or funny—the same urge that compels car enthusiasts to pimp their rides and fashionistas to accessorize. That desire isn’t new to the gaming world: players have been hacking into computer games for at least 25 years. For example, in 1991, John Romero and John Carmack started a legendary game company called Id Software, in Mesquite, Texas, and the two, former game hackers themselves, made specific concessions to gamers in order to make such modifications easier.

For Id’s 1993 first-person shooter game Doom, Carmack created a subsystem of media files called WADs, for “where’s all the data?” The WADs were separate from the core engine, the chunk of software that renders the 3-D objects and tells them how to move around. WADs let players swap different images of characters, props, and other objects without damaging the engine. One industrious player tweaked Doom ’s demons from hell to re-create Star Wars, complete with Death Star.

Id also included a function that allowed gamers to record clips, or demos, of their own game play. Users soon began swapping demos of their death matches, just like weekend fishermen trading snapshots of their big catch. From there it was only a small step to making movielike clips. When Id’s next game franchise, Quake, debuted in 1996, gamers started modifying the content of the game, recording the action, and creating scenarios that looked like little movies.

Quake machinima quickly proliferated, and other game developers began to see the benefit of such user-created content. Their main incentive was the only one that really matters in a competitive industry: money. “A steady stream of new content keeps the game on store shelves and relevant even years after its release,” says Jeff Morris, producer of the multiplayer shooter Unreal Tournament 3, from Epic Games.

Encouraging machinima can also broaden the appeal of computer games, often dismissed as being mindlessly passive. Eric Lempel, director of Sony PlayStation Network Operations, says, “With games, we now have the opportunity to open up the experience to players and allow them to get creative in their own way.”

Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with JupiterResearch, a research firm based in New York City, views the machinima craze as part of the larger trend in user-generated content. “The ability for users to generate their own content is becoming a standard part of the equation,” says Gartenberg. “It’s not something everyone will do, but for a lot of users it becomes an important way to differentiate [themselves] from competitors. You’re not just playing but participating in the game.”

To create machinima , Rooster Teeth does essentially no coding. Some machinimators do call upon more advanced special-effects techniques, such as motion capture, and on such dedicated machinima tools as Moviestorm, iClone, and Antics3D. Others hack into the video-game engines to get them to do what they want. But you don’t have to. Rooster Teeth takes the purist approach, refusing to modify the graphics with anything other than what’s bundled with the game engine.

Halo 3 and Half-Life 2, another sci-fi shooter, are preferred by many machinamators because the built-in software is so flexible. Bellevue, Wash.–based Valve Corp., creator of Half-Life 2, offers a free software development kit called FacePoser, to animate characters’ facial expressions, from the droop of the eyelids to the clench of the jaw. There’s also a lip-synching function, so that the character actually looks like it’s speaking.

With Halo 3, the creators at Bungie Software, in Kirkland, Wash., included a powerful new function called Saved Film. As with other games, you can record your game play as a data file for later viewing and editing. But Saved Film also lets you change the camera’s point of view after the fact, so you can replay a scene from any angle or perspective—zooming in on an explosion, say, or freezing a scene—and then save that new sequence for later playback and editing. You can also record a scene through one character’s eyes, reverse the camera angle, and then play it back through another character’s eyes.

Bungie encourages the kind of aftermarket videos that Rooster Teeth produces. “It’s a great way for our game franchise to get represented in a whole new light,” says Bungie’s Brian Jerrard, whose job is to interact with players, including machinimators. “There are people who probably heard about Halo for the first time in Red vs. Blue.

For those games that don’t include video-editing tools, machinimators often invent their own. Pawfect Films’ San Andreas Studios is a set of tools for shooting films within the ultraviolent action game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The original game doesn’t allow for much customization of the characters, but with San Andreas Studios you can create new characters on the fly and control an entire cast in real time.

“Games are transitioning away from the movie metaphor into the hobbyist metaphor,” says Will Wright, creator of The Sims and the upcoming Spore, which will enable players to create worlds and creatures from the DNA level on up. “In terms of the editing experience and sharing with other people, it’s intensely motivating for people.”

Back in Austin, a production break gives the Rooster Teeth guys a chance to effuse about just how easy it has become to make digital movies. They should know: before turning to machinima, Hullum and a few others served time in Hollywood working on big-budget films.

In a typical week, Burns will write up a script on a Sunday night and polish it on Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the team will record the audio; Burns does the voices for several RvB characters, including Church and Lopez, while Hullum voices Sarge and a few others. Eighty minutes of audio will be distilled down to a 6-minute episode.

Thursday will be spent “filming” the sequences within a game according to the script. Rooster Teeth uses three Xbox 360 machines that are networked together. One machine is the director’s box, which functions as the shoot’s “camera”; data files created during the shoot are stored on a nearby PC. The other two Xboxes each run up to four video-game characters—the “actors” in the film. Even this amount of technology is pretty elaborate for machinima, notes Gustavo “Gus” Sorola, Rooster Teeth’s designated tech whiz. When the company got started back in 2003, it relied on Burns’s old 2.6-GHz Pentium 4 computer with 1 gigabyte of RAM. “All you really need is a computer and a video capture card,” Sorola says.

Again, creating machinima at Rooster Teeth is not a matter of slinging code; it’s simply a group of players running through sequences in a multiplayer game that they’ve modified into a production set. On a real set, actors follow tape marks on the floor that indicate where they should stand. In a machinima game, the director may fire lines of bullet holes into the ground to show the characters where to go.

Once all the filming is done, the piece is edited using Adobe Premiere. The finished piece may run to about 3 GB of data, which gets compressed down to a more palatable 10 megabytes for online downloading and viewing. To facilitate playback, the film gets encoded in three formats: Flash, Windows Media, and QuickTime.

Keeping the many fans satisfied means more than just cranking out new films. Rooster Teeth also has to maintain a robust infrastructure that can support the downloading of about 500 terabytes of data each month. The site previously ran off of file servers in Sacramento, Calif., and Washington, D.C., but recently the company moved its servers to Austin to give Sorola easier access to the hardware. At one point, he had to rebuild the disk array—the servers’ storage system of disk drives—because heavy traffic on the site had slowed download rates to a crawl. “It’s a problem that few people have,” he says.

But Rooster Teeth vastly prefers that fans use its site—or better yet, buy its DVDs—rather than viewing its videos on public sites like YouTube. In fact, the company fights a constant battle against the free distribution of its videos by others, regularly sending requests to YouTube to take the videos down. In any event, many gamers seem to prefer the DVD format, because it lets them watch several machinima videos at a time, offers behind-the-scenes footage, and carries translations in French, German, and Spanish.

As machinima matures and its popularity grows, game companies are beginning to set some rules on just what filmmakers can do with their products. Last year, for instance, both Microsoft and Blizzard Entertainment, the powerhouse developer behind the massively multiplayer online franchise World of Warcraft, released restrictive new guidelines aimed at machinima creators.

In exchange for a “personal, nonexclusive, nontransferable license to use and display Game Content and to create derivative works based upon Game Content,” Microsoft now prohibits machinimators from, among other things, reverse-engineering their titles, creating anything Microsoft might deem obscene, or selling the machinima works. (Rooster Teeth is one of the few machinima developers not bound by Microsoft’s ban on profits, having cut a deal early on to use Halo for the Red vs. Blue series.) Blizzard, based in Irvine, Calif., similarly prohibits the sale of machinima and requires that content reflect the equivalent of a T (for Teen) rating.

The upshot is that despite the DIY nature of machinima, the medium is not as freewheeling as traditional filmmaking. It’s hard to imagine Sony setting rules on what kinds of scenes directors can shoot with its high-definition cameras, for instance, but that’s exactly what the game companies are doing to machinimators. To circumvent the intellectual property issues that arise from using video games, a few software developers have come up with specialized programs for creating machinima. With the Moviestorm package, for instance, created by the Cambridge, England, company Short Fuze, the user can produce a machinima-style film from start to finish, including writing a script, developing characters, and choosing shots and camera angles.

Machinima sprouts from the same urge that compels car enthusiasts to pimp their rides and fashionistas to accessorize

Some machinimators view the video-game restrictions as an odd form of flattery or as a validation of their work—they’ve now moved sufficiently above the radar that mainstream companies are taking notice. But even long-time machinima creators say it’s a necessary step. “Before there was a potential liability because, if you read the user license agreements, they said you could only play a game,” not modify it, says Marino of the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences. “Now people can create legally.”

As a long day of filming at Rooster Teeth comes to a close, the entire team is tired and cranky. Making machinima can be as tedious as shooting a live-action film, as the sequences are filmed over and over again to capture just the right look and feel. Moving the characters around is hampered by the fact that they weren’t exactly programmed to be emotive actors. Just to get a Halo 3 soldier to lower his weapon, the puppeteer must perform a contortionist combination of moves, holding down so many buttons on the controller that he has to use his nose to make it all work. (Try this at home: simultaneously hold down the left and right bumpers, the left stick, the d-pad, and the A button for 2 to 3 seconds.)

Just as they’re shooting the final sequence, an errant soldier wanders into the background on screen. The character isn’t under the control of anyone at Rooster Teeth, so it’s assumed to be an admirer who somehow found his way into their private online game room and decided to see what was up. It’s the machinima equivalent of the annoying bystander who waves and mouths “Hi, Mom!” as the camera pans a crowd scene.

“Um, we have a fan who made it onto the production set,” Hullum says wearily.

“We’ll have to kill him,” Burns replies. With that, he discharges his video weapon into the fan’s character, who hits the ground in a splat. The character is gone for now, but the moment this video goes online, that fan will almost certainly be waiting, searching for his moment in the sun.

Although their art form has been around for more than a decade, for Rooster Teeth and other machinimators, it’s still the beginning. “As real-time rendering approaches photo-realism, it will get crazier and crazier,” predicts Burns. It’s just a matter of time before machinima supplants carbon-based performers, he says. “Who wants an actor that gets old?”

About the Author

DAVID KUSHNER, a Spectrum contributing editor, is the author of Masters of Doom (Random House, 2003) and Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House, 2005). While reporting his article “Machinima’s Movie Moguls”, he visited the offices of Rooster Teeth Productions, in Austin, Texas, to watch the team in action. The director even let Kushner control one of the onscreen animated characters; sadly, he got blown up.

To Probe Further

A complete archive of Red vs. Blue and new episodes of Red vs. Blue: Reconstruction are on the Web site (Note: The videos contain lots of profane existential banter and some violence.) And if you’d like to try your hand at machinima, start with Machinima for Dummies, by Hugh Hancock and Johnnie Ingram (Wiley, 2007).

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