Machinima- Digital Films

For as much as they’re capable of expressing complex concepts in ways no other medium can, videogames as a form have a long history of telling their narratives using techniques and styles found in traditional film.  A rough portmanteau of ‘machine’ and ‘cinema’, machinima is a branch of film built in virtual worlds, often consisting of digital art and engine assets, greatly reducing cost in two mediums that are often defined by it.  With close ties to animated works, machinima started with humble beginnings but deserves to be critiqued among the standards of the medium.

Developers build models that players control and interact with.  Those models are designated animation routines that create a sense of movement, emotion and personality.  They become characters, and they exist in reality.  That reality is given boundaries and forms space, given geometry to become a world.  The space is populated with more models and fills out.

Machinima’s ties to traditional film are fundamental but profound.  The concept of the camera had existed in videogames since Pong; the player was provided a static view of the playing field, but when technology had advanced to create a fully three-dimensional world, one where the player could shift their perspective within, the concept of the camera evolved.  Now players could choose what they were looking at, giving them a powerful tool to create their own films.  Acting consists of individual models being controlled by players to create a scene that can be edited and enhanced using traditional post-production techniques.

The first documented instance of a machinima film was ‘Diary of a Camper’.

Created in 1996 using id Software’s Quake for the PC, the minute and a half short was produced by United Ranger Films, a small group consisting of members from Quake Clan The Rangers and released online for free.  Their initial success led them to produce several more shorts and again pushed the medum forward with Torn Apart 2: Ranger down, which was the first machinima product to feature recorded spoken dialogue.

Despite the fact that ‘Diary of a Camper’ is very much connected to The Ranger’s love for Quake, it’s no accident that the first machinima was produced in a multiplayer deathmatch game.  One of the biggest limitations that machinima filmmakers have is their level of control to provide a narrative.

Because these early films were created within the framework of pre-existing games, the scope of the project was dependent on the programming engine and art assets created for it by its developer; a character can’t jump unless there is a mechanic for it, a scene can’t be set on a beach unless one has been constructed.  With single player games, this control is even more diminished; the filmmakers story has to either remove, edit or integrate into the one the developers have built themselves and the AI on non-playable characters are impossible to direct.  Multiplayer games avoid much of these issues because they allow more players to add to the production and usually offer a wide number of maps with different themes and expand the sense of scope for the narrative.  Because they were using the tools of a first-person shooter, one player was literally able to become a cinematographer whose camera can zoom, pan and sweep around the action.

The success of United Ranger Film’s production’s led to an underground community for new filmmakers to experiment within the medium and as machinima rose, that community began to coalesce.  In 2003, Hugh Hancock of Strange Company, who coined the term ‘machinima’, Anthony Bailey, Katherine Anna Kang, Paul Marino and Matthew Ross formed the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, a non-profit organization that offers tutorials on the fundamentals and held the Machinima Film Festival, which awards standout films produced each year.

Because a machinima’s success is so closely entwined to the game and community it’s inspired from, it would take a title of incredible cultural significance to push the form across the gulf separating underground and mainstream.  That game was Halo: Combat Evolved, the film was ‘Red vs. Blue: The Bloodgulch Chronicles’.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that each of the series’ minutes-long episodes were incredibly well written and genuinely funny.  ‘Burnie’ Burns applied his experience as a filmmaker to create Red vs Blue, and he and Rooster Teeth Productions became internet celebrities soon after the series premiered on 1 April 2003.  Red vs. Blue’s impact on machinima must not be underestimated.  Not only has its impact been recognized by the AMAS, but was selected in the New York Video Festival and Sundance Film Festival, the series entire run can be purchased on DVD and iTunes and has become so beloved by both Halo fans and Bungie, that its characters have homages in several Halo multiplayer modes.

As much as the community has done for the medium, the various developers whose hard work was the springboard for the films deserve a lot of credit for their efforts to help make production easier.  Seeing the success of ‘Diary of a Camper’ id Software built basic functionality into 1997’s Quake 2, including the ability to create user-generated models and providing various editing programs to the game post-launch.  Epic games did similar when they built a Matinee Mode into Unreal Tournament 2003 as did Bungie for Halo 3 in 2007 with their incredibly robust Forge and Theater modes that allowed players to rearrange entire maps in real time then record, edit and upload their final movies to their official website

By then, machinima didn’t exist purely within the realm of first-person shooters.  Maxis Software’s The Sims had become incredibly popular with its entire virtual worlds and characters that live, die and go about their everyday in front of the players eyes.  It was a resource full of personality and activity to be exploited by machinimists.  In the same vein, Lionhead Studio’s published ‘The Movies’, a PC movie-making simulator where players could script, shoot and edit movies and upload it to its official site.  Programs such as Fraps enabled users to directly record from windows applications that run on DirectX and OpenGL and is responsible for saving thousands of hours of footage from games like World of Warcraft.

And as YouTube began to overflow with gameplay videos, the mainstream started to take notice.  While The Simpson’s had included references to Myst in its Treehouse of Horror 7 segment ‘Homer³’, it was nothing compared to South Park’s season 10 episode ‘Make Love, Not Warcraft’ which was produced in cooperation with Blizzard Entertainment, who provided new assets, animations and a server exclusively for it.

Machinima had long ago established itself as a medium for entertainment- there were comedies, action and adventure, all legitimate expressions for the medium, but one capable of so much more.

‘The French Democracy’ was made by Alex Chen using the tools Lionhead provided in The Movies and based on his eye-witness accounts of the race riots that hit France in 2005. Those events, as they were in the film, were started when two teenagers were electrocuted to death while running from the police.  ‘Democracy’ was instantly recognized by major media outlets, introducing many to the form in the process.

What’s interesting about the growth of machinima is how it’s embraced by those who own the rights to the various assets.  Blizzard Entertainment, whose games are supported by a massive fanbase, has done their best to foster the creative outputs of its community, going so far as writing workarounds to its End User License Agreement (EULA), giving people new rights to their IP’s that they hadn’t before anticipated.  This is in stark contrast to Activision, who published The Movies.  In their EULA, they reserve all rights of ownership over anything that’s created with their product and uploaded to Lionhead’s site.

There is a lot about machinima that’s exciting- as technology develops, so too will the scope and ambition of the films that are created using the techniques.  Models will become more intricate, their emotions more expressive.  The ability to render worlds, to edit their contents and increasingly distribute them to the public have changed in ways that will end up making machinima an increasingly important and easily accessible art form.  But, in the end, technology will only carry it so far- the future of machinima rests in the hands of creative minds that can create experiences that challenge and entertain its audience.


– Red vs. Blue- absolutely should not be missed; a funny saga of stupidity that blasts culture, film and videogames.

– Splinter Cell Co-Op Theater- G4TV’s hilarious escapades of Special Agent Bob and Secret Agent Steve based on Ubisoft’s ‘Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory’.

SITES -Official page of the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences

The Escapist– Allen Varney has a great article about The French Democracy and its impact.

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