Straight From Video

Times Staff Writer

On a recent foray to scout movie locations, Noah Eichen found a cozy log cabin nestled in a lush grove and surrounded by gentle hills.

“It’s a good house, and the light’s OK,” he said, snapping a picture for future reference. “It’s dawn right now, and the hills will be a good place to put the cameras. It’s got nice vantage points.”

The vista Eichen surveyed exists only on the computer servers of Sony Computer Entertainment, maker of the popular “EverQuest II” online game. Over the last month, Eichen, a production coordinator for G-Net Media, has scouted 20,000 spots in “EverQuest II” for a new kind of moviemaking that relies on the guts of video games to produce animated -- often humorous -- shorts.

Called machinima -- a portmanteau of machine and cinema -- the movies use the backdrops and characters from video games. The game characters are virtual marionettes in the hands of directors who manipulate them with a keyboard or game controller, record the action and dub the voices later.


Long an underground pursuit, machinima has made its way into music videos, TV shows and commercials. Creating a film using video game components not only is cheap, it appeals to both movie buffs and computer game enthusiasts.

“We’re broadening the demographic with machinima,” said Evan Shapiro, general manager of the Independent Film Channel, which is airing short machinima segments between feature films. “We’re taking film purists and introducing them to a new form of entertainment. We’re also drawing in a gaming audience.”

For a generation raised on video games, machinima is a familiar visual vernacular.

“We’re seeing a great deal more interest from more mainstream media,” said Paul Marino, co-founder of the Machinima Academy of Arts & Sciences and author of “The Art of Machinima.” “Filmmakers are starting to look at machinima as a legitimate outlet for creative expression.”


The Sundance Film Festival this year had a workshop on machinima. The Museum of the Moving Image in New York will host the third annual Machinima Film Festival on Nov. 12. And the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York has held machinima premieres, the last one in August for the third season of the cult hit series “Red vs. Blue: Director’s Cut.”

For the creators of “Red vs. Blue,” Lincoln Center was an unexpected destination.

Mike “Burnie” Burns and Matt Hullum met in college at the University of Texas when Hullum was a film student and Burns was a computer science major. The two spent $9,000 to make a movie in 1997 that they submitted to film festivals and got nowhere. After graduating from college in 2001, Burns wrote game reviews for a site called One of his reviews was for “Halo,” Microsoft Corp.'s popular game franchise. To make his reviews funnier, Burns would sometimes do tricks inside the game and upload the images alongside his reviews.

“One day, I was trying to set up a funny situation for the review,” Burns said, “so I inserted my voice and had these characters talk to each other. I ... realized it looked a lot like a [computer-generated] movie. That’s when it hit me -- I could use this to shoot a movie.”


He and Hullum teamed up again and shot a 10-minute skit.

Within weeks, it was being downloaded a million times a month. Now, the weekly series has more than 64 episodes and is seen by a million viewers on the Internet. “Red vs. Blue” -- so named for the color of the characters’ futuristic armor -- features faceless soldiers who trade ironic quips and insults in a desert called Blood Gulch. “It’s smartly written, edited and directed,” said Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society and former communications director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which has held three sold-out screenings of “Red vs. Blue.” “It’s just really good absurdist sketch comedy.”

Early machinima was not always focused on entertainment. The movement has its roots in “Doom,” a breakout game released in 1994 that allowed players to record snippets of game action. Most of these recordings were used either to show off feats or demonstrate nifty tricks within the game, a sort of how-to video for other players.

The first machinima narrative was produced in 1996. Called “Diary of a Camper,” the movie told the tale of a lone player taking on a group of fighters.


Machinima’s aesthetics reflect its amateur roots. In “Red vs. Blue,” the characters’ feet don’t quite touch the ground. Because the characters are encased in armor, viewers don’t see their lips moving. Instead, their helmets bob up and down when they speak. And their movements make them seem more like cardboard cutouts than interplanetary soldiers.

“There’s a dorkiness to it that’s charming,” said Beth Coleman, assistant professor of writing and new media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s comparative media studies program. “It’s not beautiful, fluid animation. There’s a kind of roughness to this animation that’s recognizable to those who play video games. But instead of it being a flaw, it’s part of the joke, part of the charm.”

Coleman and others compare machinima to the music mixes and mash-ups created by disc jockeys. Unlike the music and movie industries, which have been reluctant to let fans appropriate their copyrighted material, the game industry has encouraged fan participation as a way to build customer loyalty.

“The idea of consumer as producer is built into the very DNA of the game industry,” said Carl Goodman, deputy director of the Museum of the Moving Image. “Machinima is at its best when it’s not trying to emulate Hollywood-style action films. When it does that, it will always fall short. Work that is consciously and endearingly amateurish, that doesn’t try to be anything more than it is, is more interesting.”


But producing machinimas also has parallels to traditional filmmaking.

“Creating a film inside a game engine was very much like creating a live action film,” the machinima academy’s Marino said. “There were takes. We would puppeteer the characters into the scene. Then the director yelled, ‘Cut.’ And if it wasn’t good, we did the take again. So it was almost exactly like a film shoot.”

In one movie created as an instructional demo for Sony Online Entertainment, producers at G-Net Media posted a casting call this spring for extras. Instead of showing up in person, they gathered online in the game “EverQuest.”

“More than 50 people showed up,” said G-Net Chief Executive David Getson. “We directed them using microphones, blocking scenes and asking them to do certain things. We were here in the studio, but all these people were somewhere else, in their houses, logged into the game,” controlling their video game characters.


Because “EverQuest” is an online world that mimics an actual world, it has weather conditions. So when Eichen produced another movie, it rained on the first day of production.

“We waited an entire day for it to stop raining,” said Eichen, a graduate of the Los Angeles Film School. “So we basically lost a day of production.”

With traditional filmmakers like Eichen and Getson turning to game engines, machinima is beginning to make its way into the production of mainstream media. Their G-Net Media specializes in producing clips and shows incorporating machinima-generated scenes that air on VH1, Spike TV and MTV.

Others have followed. The History Channel last year used “Rome: Total War,” a strategy game, to re-create 13 scenes in a show called “Decisive Battles.”


Margaret Kim, the History Channel’s director of programming and executive producer of “Decisive Battles,” said she was struck by the lifelike graphics, which could be used to re-create battles at a fraction of the cost of computer-generated scenes. A minute of high-quality computer animation can cost $25,000 to produce, compared with virtually nothing for machinima.

“The cool thing about this game was that it gave you a god’s-eye view of the battlefield,” she said. “So when we re-created the Battle of Cannae by Hannibal, for example, you saw that he was totally outnumbered by the Roman troops. With the game engine, you could see the formation of his troops and how he engulfed the Romans so that the Romans were confused and thought they were completely surrounded. It’s one thing to explain it. The game engine allowed you to see it.”

Not everyone is enamored with machinima.

Game graphics, although rapidly improving, still lag behind the quality of, say, a Pixar Animation Studios film.


“If it’s hard to get a good performance out of a living, breathing human actor, it will be even harder to get one out of a game character,” said Tracy Fullerton, a professor in the interactive media division at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. “When you’re using game art, game assets to make films, suddenly some of the things that aren’t a problem for games, such as the lack of facial expressiveness, become a detriment when you’re trying to make a film.”

Much of machinima, for example, is comedy, because it’s easier to convey humor through clever writing. Creating sympathetic characters for a drama would require facial animations that are beyond the power of any existing game engine.

“Can you ever get serious about using game engines as production tools?” Getson asked. “Eventually, yes. We believe you’ll be able to do anything you can conceive of with a game engine.... Maybe not today, but definitely in a few years. Machinima will continually evolve. It’s still a very young, very wide-open field.”




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