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Machinimation Nation

Do-it-yourself machinima animators are using video-game technology to engineer low-cost, high-octane productions

4 min read

Back in the 1970s, I had a hippie film teacher in middle school. It was the best class ever. We ran around campus wielding 8-millimeter cameras. I made a movie by cutting out magazine photos and doing stop-motion animation. My friend made a live action version of the 1968 film Herbie the Love Bug using our teacher's beat-up yellow Volkswagen.

Those films are long gone, but the spirit of do-it-yourself innovation is more alive than ever. After a decade of experimentation, gamers are finding their groove with machinima (machine + animation)--homemade animation created with video-game software tools. With free editing and development programs distributed with the game disc or online, anyone can cheaply and quickly create short films and freely distribute them on the Net. It's like having Pixar in a box. The work has run the gamut from the sublime to the sub-lame, but now it's finally tipping into the mainstream. There are machinima festivals, machinima books, even machinima-inspired TV commercials.

These days we're seeing more and more game developers embrace--and nurture--the machinima community. Developers like Bungie (creators of Halo ), Valve ( Half-Life ), Id Software ( Doom, Quake ), and Maxis ( The Sims, Spore ) have gone out of their way to provide the tools and support needed to grow this burgeoning medium. As machinima maven Paul Marino says, ”We're seeing more game developers include tools they've used with the games they ship, so people can create machinima works of their own. That's a great technical advance for people making machinima--putting these tools in the hands of gamers creates all kinds of interesting works.” He estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of such works online--and counting. ”It's the equivalent of a garage band market,” he says, ”because the technology is so accessible, anyone can form a team to make a film.” Case in point: The production studio of Rooster Teeth Productions in Austin, Texas, which I profile in the July issue of IEEE Spectrum (”Machinima's Movie Moguls”). [LINK TO: /jul08/TK] These guys make movie magic in a small office over a gyro shop with an HP Blackbird 002, a Mac Pro, the Adobe Production Studio software (which includes Premiere for editing), and Multibridge capture cards.

The low up-front costs and the potential to build a rabidly loyal following has led to a proliferation of machinima makers all over the globe. Here's a primer on machinima from 10 essential sites:

Red vs. Blue (https://rvb.roosterteeth.com): Sometimes called the Seinfeld of machinima, this comedic series has set the bar for how to make and build a fan base around DIY animated productions. Red vs. Blue follows the misadventures of existential Halo soldiers in scenes that are part Keystone Cops, part Beckett. Rooster Teeth, the developer behind the series, has parlayed the success into other features and commercial work.

Machinima.com (https://www.machinima.com): This site is like YouTube for machinima fans and offers a good survey of the scene--all for free viewing online. The community organizes around different games. Click on Halo or Half-Life 2 to find some of the more popular channels. The site also includes interviews with machinima creators and forums in which newbies and pros can swap machinima-making tips. Ultranewbies should make sure not to miss the ”What Is Machinima?” introductory video.

Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences (https://www.machinima.org): If it sounds official, it should. This is the machinima organization that aims to button up the determinedly button-down underworld. The board consists of top machinima innovators, including Paul Marino and Hugh Hancock. They also host the (fairly) annual machinima festival, the Sundance of the medium.

Sims99 (https://www.sims99.com): Though launched as a portal for The Sims 2 movies, this hub has broadened to include other games as well. Because The Sims is set in the most recognizable ”human” world, the stuff here milks reality for all it's worth. Check out the music videos set to U2 and Radiohead for a hint of what the future of MTV might resemble.

Lit Fuse (https://litfusefilms.com): This virtual team of machinimators churn out some of the most consistent--and consistently innovative--movies around. War of the Servers is a feature-length spoof of War of the Worlds , while Ignus Solis shows what an eye-candy-generating game engine and some ”improvised machinima,” as Lit Fuse's team calls it, can do.

The Ill Clan (https://www.illclan.com): Machinima kicked into gear after the release of Id Software's 1996 shooter, Quake . One of the earliest notable entries was Apartment Huntin' , a comedic short that crashed the scene in 1999. Since then, the Ill Clan has taken its place in machinima culture and industry. The clan is making productions for TV shows like ”CSI New York” and virtual-world producers Electric Sheep (which creates Second Life in-world experiences for groups from Major League Baseball to Starwood Hotels).

Thinking Machinima (https://blog.machinima.org): Looking for some thoughtful takes on the machinima movement? Start here. Blogger and Ill Clan member Paul Marino has his finger on the pixelated pulse of the scene. Fittingly, he's a machinima maker who has managed to go full circle. He started out as a gamer, moved into machinima, and now works as a cinematic designer at Bioware, the developer of hit games like Mass Effect and Neverwinter Nights .

Warcraft Movies (https://www.warcraftmovies.com): By now you've heard all about World of Warcraft , the massively multiplayer online game. But you may not know how far some players are taking their obsessions. Warcraft Movies is a homebrew hub for the WoW inspired films.

BloodSpell (https://www.bloodspell.com): Hugh Hancock made his name with this acclaimed feature-length machinima movie built with the Neverwinter Nights engine. The gothic adventure BloodSpell --set among some mythical beings imbued with dangerous magic blood--was serially released online in under-10-minute chunks.

Bitfilm Festival (https://bitfilm.com/festival): While not entirely devoted to machinima, this Hamburg-based festival shows just how far DIY online filmmaking is coming. The organizers honor innovators working in everything from Flash to Mobile and doles out prizes for machinima creators.

Borg War (https://www.borgwarmovie.com): A feature-length machinima movie set in the Star Trek universe? But of course.

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