Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Blood and Guts of Going Mainstream

Reporting From the New Office of Sonicity Fitzroy!

Let's talk nuts and bolts of machinima economics vs. creativity this week. Machinima can be a tough business, extremely competitive, and downright violent. Okay, so I am being sensational. But I have your attention. So what is a producer to do?! Let's consider the state of the practice.

In May 2010, Microsoft acknowledged the power of using machinima to market their products, and offer filmmakers the personal freedom to distribute their works using various game platforms like Halo, Age of Empires, Rise of Nations, and some simulator-type games. The catch is that the work must be intended for non-commercial use. This works great for the hobbyist , educator, or perhaps some artists with no intent of turning a profit.

In 2009, Shelf Life by Pixel Eyes Production stirred quite a buzz with its use of the graphics engine Source when storytelling through machinima. The platform, however, was developed as tool for 3D game development by the Valve Corporation in 2004. End results like Counterstrike and Half-Life are early examples of games with hi-end graphics. But Valve has repeatedly stated that its interest resides in game development not in machinima production. That left filmmakers like Pixel Eyes, namely James Spencer and Jon Sortland, in the lurch. Their series Shelf Life was an exciting example of engaging machinima.

They could make all the machinima they wanted, but they would never own the intellectual rights. Valve missed the mark, in the estimate of many who appreciate the value of machinima as a promotional tool and storytelling outlet. One of the qualities of creating successful consumer games is the developer's ability to conceptualize a basic premise or plot, and players are typically assigned a mission - and the paths toward that goal may vary for the participants.

Game development requires good storytelling skills, among the obvious technical expertise. Machinima allows writers and producers to use these same platforms to present a particular perspective; but in the end, it is all storytelling. iClone definitely has embraced the machinima maker market, and has elevated the craft through sensational props and graphics. Machinima makers need not reside within a game platform. Game players, when also machinima makers, bring added value to a game. As the two paths toward virtual filmmaking diverge, so do the respective types of machinima makers. Some see machinima creation as an extension of their game play. In the other case, we see filmmakers create work that is unrelated to any sort of game play. There is no right or wrong to such motivations, but you can anticipate these different paths will likely surface regarding questions of best practice.

As machinima tools advance the practice, the emotions conveyed through images and motion graphics will become increasingly intense and realistic - and perhaps simpler to achieve provided one can afford the appropriate software and technology. In a recent article by Ramin Zhed (2010), the author cited Allen DeBevoise, chairman and CEO of, who envisions a continuation of "DIY" filmmaking in 2010. He points out, it is no longer about creating your own environment but rather machinima can serve as a way to "express your ideas. You don’t have to recreate Venice or Afghanistan. It’s already there for you."

Honestly, such props have always been there. Machinima makers, from early on, used the existing platforms of ready-made games. On a professional level, the first question might be what is the best platform that will allow filmmakers to own the intellectual rights on their creations. As machinima becomes more competitive, such rights might become cost-prohibitive for some beginning filmmakers who might want to exhibit their work at a scale beyond YouTube.

I recommend that you read Zhed's article, for it does remind us that machinima is already a serious business these days. The issues are becoming less about having to prove the value of machinima now, and more about how to get into the major leagues if that is your professional goal as a machinimatopher. But keep in mind, it is the storytellers that win out. Making great machinima ultimately is based on making a good story. All the tools in the world, with all the special effects, fall flat without a magnum story - the kind that makes you forget about the technology and immerses you into the plot.

The second question, as machinima moves into the commercial market - and away from game play, is how content might shift toward mainstream ideas - and what might be lost along the way. Perhaps nothing, or perhaps that quest for originality among some machinimatophers - you know, the art and practice that made machinima unique in its method and presentation of ideas. Although I do enjoy a horror story as much as the next morbid person, what value is there to recreating the film, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as a machinima. I did find it fascinating. And, alas, Jason and Freddie genre films have done quite well in the mainstream. If you haven't not seen Dave Thomas's Disturbing Experience (2008), you won't understand what I mean. It definitely proves machinima has the power to impact our emotions. No laughing about technique in this already horror classic! This film has a plethora of violent content!

To be fair, it was made for Halloween. But as machinima becomes increasingly accepted by the mainstream, you can anticipate that economic incentives will likely move attention away from the DIY market. Where would we be without those crazy You Tube films that make us laugh because we know the people making them were just having fun. Sometimes those moments become the brilliant seeds for professional productions. We might also see a growing separation between mainstream machinimatophers and artists, and that would likely be a shame - given that machimima is both art and practice.

I am all for advancement, and for the great MAGNUM goals, but let's embrace the purely fun and experimental as well. Some of the most compelling films were made by independent companies, and by those just playing around. Let's keep tools accessible and fees low for the DIY filmmaker, who may have a great story to tell but few resources. I leave you with a film by the Purchase Brothers who made a powerful mixed reality film, Escape from City 17, with Valve and Half-Life for a budget of less $500 dollars. They needed something for their spec reel. The film has violent content.

Zhed, Ramin. (2010, April 5). Machinima Moves to the Next Level. Animation Magazine.
Machinima News
Recent Machinima Coverage
Check out this image gallery:
Disturbing Experience
Shelf Life
Escape from City 17

BTW, Congratulations on the new digs for Lowe Runo Productions, LLC! I am honored to be part of the team. See pics above. Sonicity & Lowe, with friend Kara.

- Soni!