Joystick Cinema

It's man vs. machinima when video games become, ahem, movies

Fountainhead and the Academy are also producing the Machinima Film Festival, which takes place August 17--in, of all places, the Traildust Steak House in Mesquite, where Jerry Hall and the Mesquite Rodeo are about as cultural as that town gets. (As a native Dallasite, I always thought Mesquite was French for "mullet.") Actually, there is a relevant connection, as Mesquite is also home to iD Software, inventors of Quake and, for now, quiet supporters of machinima, at least until its practitioners figure out how to make money by distributing their films outside the confines of the Internet. The film fest is tied, quite loosely, to the annual Quake Con, where gamers from all across the country gather outside Dallas to pay homage to the iconic smorgasbord of shoot and splat.

And the fest promises a handful of offerings that transcend being novelties and demo reels full of potential. Most of what's going on still resides in the domain of the cybergeek toying around in a virtual reality, which is why some of the best examples of machinima either look like The Matrix or quite literally re-create scenes from that film and set them within the Quake dimension. But for every experiment, for every toe dipped into the choppy waters of a new technology, there's a brilliant piece of work waiting to be discovered. Look no further than Hugh Hancock's Ozymandias, a sparse, hypnotic adaptation of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem in which a longhaired stranger (the "traveler from an antique land") wanders the desert and stumbles across a headless statue ("two vast and trunkless legs of stone"). It's a literal adaptation, but also a spellbinding hint of machinima's potential: The film contains barely a hint of its video-game roots, which are buried deep beneath the expanse of computer-generated sand.

Which is why Marino and his mates in the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences believe the medium could one day be taken as seriously as any other form of commercial animation, such as the Pixar technology used in such films as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. After all, machinima has several advantages over most forms of animation: It costs next to nothing to produce, at least once you own the software and hardware, and where it takes the Pixar people months to produce a few seconds' worth of cinema, it takes as long to make a machinima film as it does to alter the code in your own image. Remember: You're just changing existing sets and existing characters, making them over to fit your film--your comedy, your thriller, your bloody action movie. It's cinema-on-the-cheap--a set change, a wardrobe change, but little more.

Machinima isn't Japanese for "soft-core movie," swear: Paul Marino's comedy Hardly Workin' was produced using Quake's code, which is, like, so cool.
Machinima isn't Japanese for "soft-core movie," swear: Paul Marino's comedy Hardly Workin' was produced using Quake's code, which is, like, so cool.

And machinima is garnering some kind of acceptance among mainstream filmmakers: Steven Spielberg and the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic broke the code for the video game Unreal Tournament so they could block out scenes for A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It was far less expensive and far less time-consuming than using computer animation, and far more useful than drawing out sparse storyboards.

"It was a tool for Steven to be able to say, 'Hey, guys, here's the shot I created while I was on the plane; replicate it in the effects work you're doing,'" Marino says. "They didn't call it machinima, of course, but it is, by and far, that medium...We define machinima as filmmaking within a virtual 3-D environment. That's a very broad-stroke definition, but to me it's really a definition between what we do and what animation--what traditional CGI animation--is about."

In the end, what's most fascinating about the machinima community is how much of a community it really is--if not a collective, then at least a group of like-minded pioneers struggling to gain recognition and respectability for this child they're raising. That's why they formed the Academy in March, during the Game Developers' Conference in San Jose, California: to protect machinima while it's still vulnerable to less well-intentioned interlopers who'd seek to shape and name it in their own image. They share common goals, a common language--and common jokes. "You know you're producing machinima," Hancock writes on his Web site, when "you haven't seen daylight in over a month [and] people compare your work with pre-rendered 3D, and you really can't see what they mean." Uh...hmm.

"A lot of people didn't, quote-unquote, get it," Marino says of the medium--and, he knows, they still don't. "Most people are just looking at what they think is animation, but it really is a different message. It is entertainment, of course, but it's not. The production technique in which it's developed is innovative, and we knew that we were all having a hard time by ourselves, trying to get people to notice what we're doing. Part of the reason why we were having this problem is because there's no unified voice. And while we've had some success, we realize there would be a stronger voice if we were all kind of saying it together. The successes therefore could double or triple because we were looking at it from more of a medium standpoint than just one lone gun saying, 'Hey, look at the stuff I'm doing.'"

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