IT started as a goof -- an easy way for gamers to share their latest tricks online. An option in the first-person shooter “Quake” allowed players to record and save “Quake Movies” for later viewing. Soon, players were recording other games, dubbing in dialogue, creating characters and story lines, setting up impressive-looking shots and actually doing a bit of editing.
Thus a running and driving game like “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” becomes the basis of a haunting science fiction film in which a deadly virus forces the handful of survivors to live on the roofs of L.A.'s high-rises. And the “true story” of American troops battling a giant toddler on the streets of Baghdad is created from the gritty action game “Battlefield 2.”
At first, this new form of creative expression -- using video games to create short films -- didn’t have a name. Now it’s called machinima (a combination of “machine” and “cinema”) and as the genre turns a decade old, it is attaining new heights of artistry even as it bumps up against copyright ceilings.
Wherever there’s cinema, awards, academies and some combination thereof are never far away. For machinimators, the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences has, in just four years, become a figurehead for the scattered community working all over the world. The Machinima Festival, hosted by the academy this year at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City on Nov. 4 and 5 and simultaneously in the virtual online environment Second Life (www.secondlife.com), celebrates the giants of the genre and unites collaborators who would never meet face to face otherwise. It also has its own version of the Academy Awards, the Mackies, which can catapult an amateur machinimator from relative obscurity to a high-profile job in the video game industry.
This year’s festival even stole a page from the Academy Awards’ playbook, opening with the machinima talk show host Ill Will traveling through scenes from the nominated films, like an animated Billy Crystal, while 400 people in the brick and mortar theater and an additional 40 in the virtual theater looked on.
That’s not to say the Mackies are about to take on the self-importance of the Oscars. For one thing, you won’t see anyone at the Mackies wearing Vera Wang or Armani. And for another, the kinds of stories that send one academy’s members into fits of excitement can put another academy’s members to sleep. The vast majority of machinima are slapstick comedies and action flicks. This year’s big Mackie winner, taking home four statues, including best picture, is “The Adventures of Bill and John, Episode 2: The Danger Attacks at Dawn” (https://billetjohn.free.fr), a French-language action-comedy about a pair of hot-dogging American fighter pilots that parodies “Top Gun” and other American action films.
Paul Marino, one of the academy’s founders and its executive director, said the prize choice is in line with the taste of most machinima creators. “The person who’s interested in Merchant-Ivory,” he said, “isn’t going to sit down and play ‘Unreal Tournament 2004.’ ”
Most machinima shorts are glorified fan films, never venturing outside the preexisting game universes of “World of Warcraft” or “Star Trek,” but Marino points to a growing number of creators using the “outside-in” approach, in which the game technology is used to create something that has little to do with what the developers originally intended. At this year’s Mackies, especially, it was clear that the trend has become more pronounced.
Bertrand Le Cabec and Frederic Servant, the 36-year-old Paris-based creators of “Bill and John,” said they are aviation buffs and fans of the flight simulator “Lock On: Modern Air Combat,” but what prompted them to use it as the engine for their first foray into this kind of storytelling was not undying devotion to the game itself but its easy-to-use in-game camera, which allowed them to set up shots of the various flying planes. “It’s by accident that we learned to tell stories through games,” Servant said.
There are no human figures to control in the game. As a result, “Bill and John” stars two unseen pilots who do not exist outside of their jets. Seeing how machinimators incorporate the limitations of what they’re using is part of machinima’s charm.
The short “Male Restroom Etiquette” (www.z-studios.com), a parody of 1950s educational films and this year’s Mackie-winner for best writing, could have been shot on a shoestring budget with live actors, but its use of characters and sets from “The Sims 2" gave it enough extra appeal to land it on the front page of YouTube, where it appeared for a day in the first week of October. Overnight, the video went from 250,000 views to more than a million. The short’s creator, Phil Rice, an executive in a Southwest Florida home construction company, thinks the kind of crossover appeal his film showed is key to machinima’s future. “We’re not going to convert the world to lovers of video games,” he says. “But if you have an idea that transcends that, it will draw viewers.”
Rice has had interest from a couple of TV networks to air “Male Restroom Etiquette.” Perhaps it will give “South Park’s” partly machinima-created episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” the most-seen machinima to date, a run for its money.
But that’s where Rice bumps up against U.S. copyright law.
“I don’t own 100% of [‘Male Restroom Etiquette’],” he said. “So if I were to show it on TV, Electronic Arts [the game’s publisher] has to give their approval.” So far, the company has not.
According to Marino, current end-user agreements for game software forbid the player from using the game for anything other than just playing it. While the characters created for these shorts, such as Bill and John, are the intellectual property of the machinimators, the films they appear in will never make a cent for the creators so long as they are created with copyrighted software.
“The game producers tolerate machinima,” Rice said. “But as far as officially signing off on it, they’re hesitant. You never know what someone’s going to make with it.” Despite having been seen by 2.7 million viewers, Rice has yet to hear from EA. Marino hopes for a change in the end-user agreement language. Game developers, he said, “are realizing machinima is an important part of the marketing of a game. It’s a rough road, and we’re a small organization, but we hope the value of machinima will be seen by the game developers with just some gentle pushing.”