Machinima: The Reappropriation of Computer Games for Filmmaking


“Carnage Software”

Ego-shooters are digital, 3-D worlds full of terrorists and monsters in which the player only survives by killing as many opponents as possible. Depending on the default settings of the game and the player’s keyboard input and/or mouse control, the conditions of the virtual world are continually recomputed and changed in real-time and without pause. “Shoot’em-up” games like these still have a bad reputation amongst the general public and, on occasion, serve as the scapegoat for the players’ apparently increasing readiness to use violence. “Carnage Software”-this is how the ego-shooter Counter-Strike was grimly referred to by scholars, teachers and journalists following the killing spree of Robert Steinhäuser in Erfurt in 2002.

But the genre is also being put to the test for very creative goals as well: a lively cross-continental subculture is producing 3-D animation films with the help of computer games. The community describes its creations as “machinima”, a portmanteau word that plays upon the convergence of the words “machine”, “cinema” und “animation”. Some adherents of this quick-producing computer game film movement have been euphorically prognosticating since the turn of the century that one can, with virtually no budget and relatively little time expenditure and complete artistic freedom, produce films of comparable quality to, for example “Toy Story” or “The Matrix”, on the home computer. Hitherto the sphere of 3-D animation was out of (legal) reach for amateurs due to costs and hardware-technical reasons: The production of such films requires enormous computer capacities, and because of this the films are not made on one computer, but rather on expensive networked supercomputers (also known as computer farms).

For filmmaking utilizing computer games, the makers use their game engines-the heart of a computer game, so to speak. The game engine is the underlying software of a game. It provides the physics of the virtual world and also steers the possible actions and movements of the player and also presents the virtual events on the screen. It regulates the placement of objects and entities, the performance of the machine guns, the expressions of the zombies as well as the driving performance of the vehicles and the different reactions of the materials in the game (like, for example, how a bullet hits wood or metal). Even the quick actions of the user’s moving images are calculated and shown-without shaky transitions-in real time.

In the middle of the 1990s, the first-person shooter Quake created the conditions for making films with computer games. Quake could be played online, which abetted the establishment of networked “šclans’ (or teams) on the Internet. The code of the game were in-part open to modification, and the game possessed a built-in recording function with which the player could store spectacular actions and wild chases on their hard disc drive for later video playback on demand. This way, the player could optimize their training or impress their friends later with the created films.

Further possibilities were opened when the physicist Uwe Girlich, himself an enthusiastic player of Quake, developed a software that could decode the Quake source code, convert them into editable text files and, in turn, make them modifiable. Thus, as of the summer of 1997, the first machinima films were created. Across the world groups gradually formed and began networking over the internet. In 2000 the Briton Hugh Hancock created the website and gave the scene a platform from which henceforth countless films could be downloaded and feedback and evaluation made available. In the USA in 2002, the Academy of Machinima Science & Arts was founded with the goal of promoting machinima within the industry and to help support the projects of independent filmmakers. Once a year, the academy organizes the Machinima Film Festival.

Festivals – in Germany, amongst others, Bitfilm – introduced categories and awards for machinima films. Game publishers organized in-part highly endowed competitions on the Internet (the prize moneys of which could make some short film festival envious) so as to advance the quality of the film productions and, en passant, naturally also create attention for their games. Established art institutions and exhibitions grappled with the new art form, and even the renowned Internet Archive explored and archived machinima films in cooperation with Stanford University.


Production in Real Time

To create a machinima, the filmmaker has to decide which game and game engine is to be used. Game engines differentiate themselves from each other in regard to their functions and possibilities (the scripts, for example) and, in turn, their programmability, their user friendliness, their user hardware requirements and their prevalence.

Once the script, storyboard, figures and objects have been set, “shooting” starts. The figures are moved by those involved in the production via the keyboard and mouse or steered by scripts that are then played back. If several players are involved in a film, then several computers are hooked-up together as a network. Then, using redefined keyboard keys, each player steers a figure-like a puppeteer-and witnesses the events from their own subjective perspective. Complex motion sequences are difficult to realize, so it is highly advisable that the filmmakers use only minimal movement and/or only animate the body part that is actually visible in the shot position.

The computer with the highest performance functions as the server, and the person serving it as the director and cameraman who decides from which camera perspective the events are to be recorded. It is, however, not absolutely necessary that all those involved are present in the same room at the same time. Some production teams only know each other from online communities or newsgroups, finish their tasks independently from each other, and communicate only by telephone and e-mail.

An advantage and decisive defining characteristic of machinima in comparison to conventional 3-D animation is the real-time production. Unlike 3-D animation for cinema and television – in which the films, dependent on the available hardware capacities, are generated for days or even weeks on networked supercomputers (so-called rendering farms) – machinima productions are immediately viewable and noticeably more spontaneous, and are thus, at least in these aspects, far easier for the filmmaker to control since mistakes or dissatisfying results can immediately be corrected.

Nonetheless, as of yet machinima films can still in no way come close to the realism of the computer images one is used to in the current feature film productions of Pixar or Dreamworks, for the visual level of the computer game graphics of these cineastic animations-due to the real time aspect-are always quite a few years behind. Likewise, the visual style is frequently also rather cartoony, as the polygonal characteristics of the figures, expressions, movements as well as the scenery are usually clearly to be seen.


Machinima Film Aesthetics

Many of the machinima films, most of which are produced by amateurs, are fan films that either recreate cult films or computer games one-to-one, summarize, remix, or satirize them, or tell the story further. Usually the main focus of such films is one of visual perfection-but some of the corkscrew cameras movements are surely less helpful than disorienting for the viewer. Sound and dramaturgy, on the other hand, are often neglected. The films frequently suffer dialogue that is both amateurish and hard to understand, and often they are inspired by “šborrowed’ soundtracks. As a result, the valid criticism that often arises is that fan films removed from the work that they satirize have no value of their own and are only of interest to a limited target group-namely, only to those who share the same preferences. But there are an increasing number of notable exceptions that attempt to feel out and fathom the nature and form of the medium.

The in-total 100 episodes of the series “Red vs. Blue: The Bloodgulch Chronicles” (2003-2007), for example, which was produced by Rooster Teeth using Halo, is convincing on the one hand as a persiflage of all facets of the successful mastering of first-person shooters and, on the other, can be understood as a general criticism of social over-bureaucratization. The series functions on the latter level for a non-gaming public due to its narrative, but above and beyond that also contains a second level of meaning for game fans. The game has a cult following on the Internet and has itself already repeatedly been the object of fan art. The series was created in close cooperation between Rooster Teeth and the fans of the series, who kept track of the series’ progress on a well-visited forum with more than 700,000 registered members.


Digital Puppet Theatre

A continually advancement and perfection of technique combined with ironic self-reflexivity in relation to the computer game medium can be observed in ILL Clan, a New Yorker group of five ardent computer players with experience in improvisational street theatre. In 1998 they established a series about two woodcutters in New York, Larry and Lenny Lumberjack and then sent them searching for an apartment in New York. One could naturally ask themselves, why a series about lumberjacks in New York? The engine of Quake did not permit people to walk around without weapons. In each episode, ILL Clan attempted to delve deeper into the specific peculiarities of machinima and finally landed upon an interesting sub-genre: Live machinimas. These were produced live, in front and with the participation of the audience present at, for example, the 2003 Machinima Film Festival in New York where, in “On the Campaign Trail”, Larry and Lenny stepped up as quasi-live candidates for the American presidency on a political talk show. The team even conceptualized a regular campaign for the two so as to be prepared for audience questions on the US American school system, unemployment, the war in Iran and the drug problem.

Other machinima artists attempt to take the artistic potential of machinima further by endeavouring to separate themselves from the look of the games so that ego-shooter origins of the films are no longer noticeable. This is the case, for example, with Fountainhead Entertainment’s music video “In the Waiting Line” that featured a lonely robot (and enjoyed great success on MTV), and the very abstract productions made in Unreal Tournament by Friedrich Kirschner.


Legal Aspects

Depending on the artistic demands, machinima filmmakers used copyright-protected materials such as figures, backgrounds or at least the software of commercial computer games as the basic raw material for the creation of their films. They do not conceive their actions as in the wrong, but rather as acts of appreciation. Game manufacturers tolerate the filmic modifications of their games mostly because they know that fans, without any consideration of the legal aspects, are primarily giving expression to their enthusiasm when they play around and satirize the game worlds. It is this very involvement with the games that, in the end, confers the games with a cult status and thus guarantees them a longer shelf-life in the department stores.

Many machinima filmmakers stress the point that they are not following any economic interests but simply practise filmmaking as a hobby. If they were to aim at a commercial application, however, they would be stumbling onto thin ice. Copyrights can prove to be a powder keg at any time, and are dependent on the benevolence of the game manufacturers who have protected themselves against all eventualities in their end-user agreements.

Some game manufacturers attempt to channelize fan activities through competitions where, at regular intervals, the best fan film are awarded a prize-a subtle and clever strategy for avoiding conflicts of interest: The fans feel as if they are being taken seriously by their idols while, at the same time, the industry can both retain a certain amount of control over what happens with their brands and, in addition, skim off the young talent.


New Games Are Taking Up the Machinima Concept

An additional impetus for machinima emanating from the game industry itself is that continually more games of all genres (e.g., fantasy, action adventures, and flight simulators) as well as virtual worlds such as Second Life also supply the players with user friendly tools. As a result, not only did thousands upon thousands of films appear in a short time, but new target groups were introduced to machinima production.

Whether beach fashion, light swords, Victorian home furnishing or a full mid-summer night’s dream backdrop: like many other games, The Sims2 has an enormous modding culture at its disposal. “Mods” are player-developed extensions of a game-new game models, levels or weapons, for example. With loving detail, the modding community creates scenery, furniture or even new, individual Sims and makes them available to the community as downloads. As a result, the visual possibilities constantly increase and the film productions also become an increasingly collective process (see, for instance, the literature adaptations and music videos of Britannica Dreams).

In “The Movies” (2005), filmmaking is the game content and goal and thus the consequent realization of the machinima concept. The player slips into the role of a film producer who must build and manage a studio before he or she can produce an actual film. The game starts off in the 1920s and goes up to the year 2005. Dependent on the socio-cultural climate and the level of technology of the time, the technological possibilities and the film aesthetic varies; specific sets, scenery and costumes are only activated bit by bit.

In regard to machinima production, only the sandbox modus of the game is of interest. Specially tailored stars can be created there which can then be dressed and-as needed-physically lifted. Furthermore, there is a library with an enormous selection of pre-produced animations, the starring, co-starring and background roles of which can then be filled using the self-created celebrities. Some examples of the stereotypical scenarios include, for example, three people talking or fighting amongst themselves, car chases, or the bite of a vampire. Using drag-and-drop, the player can combine the set pieces as desired and even decide between a tragic or happy ending. The editing software integrated into the game enables the cutting and arranging of scenes, the selection of backdrops, the lighting as well as the positioning of the camera. Likewise, the atmosphere, weather, shots of the stars and degree of action and violence can be directed via a control system, and sound effects, dialogue and music can be added. Following the initial release of the game, after only four months the official website had already archived more than 60,000 films.

User-friendly and intuitively understandable film production tools and targeted encouragement from web communities and online archives have not only caused the volume of machinima films to explode, but have also increased the quality and variety of genres, the latter now spanning from comedies and documentaries to personal biographies. The customarily fast production method of machinima films also enables a quick reaction to political crises, as is impressively proven by “The French Democracy”, a machinima made in “The Movies”. Here, the Frenchman Alex Chan particularized his own view of the unrest in the Parisian banlieue (suburbs) in the fall of 2005. The film went around the world in but a few days.

Likewise, in 2006, the Cologne-based media artist Jonas Hielscher produced the film “Baghdad” for a competition held by the Holland Animation Festival 2006. In it, the original commentary of a CBS moderator on the difficult conditions in the city was accompanied with war scenes from the games Battlefield2 and The Sims2.


Television Broadcasters Discover Machinima

The advantages of the quick production and new aesthetic have not remained unnoticed by either television broadcasters or the advertising industry. MTV2, for example, developed a format for game movies with Video Mods. In 2006, the famous British synth-band Depeche Mode produced a video for their song “Suffer Wall” with a playfully “Simlish” visual vocabulary using The Sims2. And in the BBC-produced show “Time Commanders”, players recreate historic battles using the game Rome: Total War. An advertisement contracted by Coca Cola parodies the cult action adventure series “Grand Theft Auto”, and while it was obviously not produced as a machinima, it looks like one and was enthusiastically received in advertising blogs. The South Park episode “Make Love Not Warcraft”, in which Stan, Kyle, Eric and Kenny are underway in the online game World of Warcraft won an Emmy.

At the same time, media artists developed interfaces to other artists and media-which is how, for example, the Dutchman Daniel van Gils produced live visuals for clubs using a converted Quake4 engine. In Leipzig, for years now Dirk Förster and Thomas Achtner have been experimenting to bring machinima onto the theatre stage.

Machinima makes it possible for both future and hobby filmmakers to relax and freely experiment without necessarily having to start at zero, as the film process can be entered anywhere along the production line. Machinima reveals that computer gamers, contrary to all the editorialized assumptions, are capable of an emancipated and thoroughly subversive interaction with computer games.

The graphics of Little Big Planet (released in the fall of 2008 for Sony PlayStation 3) are unlike any ever seen to date in computer games, and they give an indication of what will be possible in the near future. Figures with a crochet-look move about in surreal scenarios and backgrounds that are in parts reminiscent of East European puppet films. Players can not only personalize their avatars (i.e., the graphic representation of themselves), but can also construct totally individual levels and introduce them into other games. One can only be curious about what films will be produced using the so-called next-gen of consoles belonging to Sony Playstation 3.


First published in: “short report”, ed. by AG Kurzfilm, Dresden November 2008

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