Out of Character
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 11 (November 2005)

Out of Character

Whoever said you can’t mix business and pleasure never met the guys from Rooster Teeth Productions: They produce Webisodes, or Web-based episodic shows, using content from their favorite computer game, Halo.

The weekly episodic CG series, called “Red vs Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles,” comprises five minutes of animated gameplay video set within the game’s world. However, it places the Halo characters in a unique situational comedy that, unlike the game, is not interactive. This process is accomplished using the new genre machinima, or 3D game-based filmmaking (see “Making Machinima,” pg. 26), whereby segments from a computer game are captured on video and editing together for a uniquely scripted mini-movie. And, it appears that the series is taking the Internet by storm, just like Halo did in the gaming space.

“The way we create the illusion of an actual story taking place in ‘Red vs Blue’ is through editing, sound effects, dialog, and so forth,” says Mike “Burnie” Burns, who founded Rooster Teeth more than two years ago with Geoff Ramsey, Gus Sorola, and Matt Hullum.

For the self-proclaimed gamers at Rooster Teeth, playing the Microsoft Xbox flagship title-about the futuristic super-soldier Master Chief and his battle against an alien race known as the Covenant-has dominated their pastime. Introduced by Bungie Studios in 2001, the story-driven first-person shooter became a megahit, and late last year, legions of fans rushed to the stores to buy the follow-up, Halo 2, which smashed first-day sales records that even outshined the box office’s best (see “The Halo Effect,” January 2005, pg. 16).

In the case of “Red vs Blue,” Rooster Teeth uses Halo to act out the science-fiction comedy, which is also about a group of marines stationed in a desolate canyon somewhere in the universe. “There is a Red Team and a Blue Team (just as there are in Halo), and they have no idea why they are fighting each other,” notes Burns. “They just know they are situated somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and have to protect their base at all costs.”

As Burns points out, you don’t have to be a hard-core gamer or Halo player to enjoy the Web movies. Yet, it was Burns’s admitted obsession with the game that actually spawned the series, which began in April 2003 and is now in its fourth season. “I was playing the game all the time, and the inspiration for ‘Red vs Blue’ came from the game itself; I had spent so much time in the virtual world that it naturally sparked some creative thoughts which involved telling a story using the characters,” recalls Burns. “It is fun giving life to something that I enjoy so much.”

The crew’s initial entry into filmmaking actually occurred while Burns and Hullum attended college at the University of Texas at Austin, where they wrote, directed, and starred in their live-action indie film called “The Schedule,” about a regular guy named Jake (portrayed by Joel Heyman, now playing the character Caboose in “Red vs Blue”) who collects souls for Death. With high hopes, the men also created a few live-action shorts and toured the film-festival circuit.

Achieving only limited filmmaking success, they were forced into various segments of the entertainment and technical job markets. And, like so many others, they were lured to the Internet. This was particularly true of Burns, who satisfied his quasi-filmmaking urges by making gameplay videos and posting them, along with reviews, on a computer gaming Web site, despite the fact that, of his own admission, no one watched them.

“From capturing the footage, though, I discovered that I could show a cool sequence if I edited the segments together,” says Burns.

Rooster Teeth Productions has created an Internet series set within the world of the popular video game Halo. Although it features the game’s characters, the story-driven series contains unique scripts.

One day, Burns says, he decided to make a video showing how great he was at playing Halo, his favorite hobby. As inconsequential questions about the game began to pop into his head-such as why a certain military vehicle is called a Warthog when it looks more like a puma-a novel idea surfaced. Why not create a movie from a video game that would address those issues. At first, Burns’s friends were not ready to embrace this concept, but a call from a gaming publication requesting some of the old gameplay videos reignited the idea. And, eventually, Rooster Teeth was formed, and “Red vs Blue” was born.

Creating five minutes of animation a week on a continual basis is no easy task for a five-person studio like Rooster Teeth, or one much larger for that matter. According to Burns, the only way his group is able to accomplish that ambitious task is through machinima. To this end, the team uses Halo as a kind of stage set, albeit virtual, where each mini-movie is “filmed.”

Before shooting begins, however, the team formulates a game plan. So on Sundays and Mondays, the Austin-based filmmakers assume the roles of scriptwriters, creating a story and crafting comedic, often absurd lines for the series’ quirky, sarcastic cast of characters. Burns describes the series as an existential comedy, as the characters constantly analyze their predicament. As Burns notes: “These are not the greatest military minds of the future. Yet, the characters express the feelings of many real battle-weary soldiers.”

Subsequently, on Mondays and Tuesdays, the group does the voice acting using a cast of 12 actors, many with main roles on the production team. “Being a small facility and this being a small, independent production, we have a lot of slashes in our job titles, like actor/producer/animator,” says Burns, whose duties include voicing Private Church, one of the leaders of the Blue Team. By using Adobe Systems’ Audition, the group is able to achieve the filtered voice effect that makes the characters sound as if they are speaking through microphones inside their helmets, similar to the tone of the Halo characters in the game.

In “Red vs Blue,” the opposing sides-the Red Team and the Blue Team-are always analyzing their unusual predicament with humorous dialog.

Also on Tuesdays is when the audio editing is done, so that on Wednesdays, the filmmakers have in their possession what is akin to a radio play-a full audio file of the episode but no visuals to accompany it. So, Thursdays and Fridays are spent filming inside Halo.

To acquire the visuals, four Xboxs are linked on a network. One of the Xboxs, though, is routed directly into a homegrown dual-Pentium PC, where the video footage of the gameplay is captured in real time through Adobe’s Premiere, and later, is edited in Premiere as well.

With one Xbox, the group captures the imagery that one of the characters is “seeing,” and on the other three consoles, as many as 12 characters are displayed and captured. According to Burns, the capture process is not that different from actually playing the game. “It’s just that we are not running around shooting one another,” he says. “Instead, we’re running around and yelling crazy dialog at one another.” In fact, exchanging sharpshooting for sharp dialog is the biggest difference between the game and the series: Whereas Halo relies on its extreme action to drive the game’s story, “Red vs Blue” relies on simplistic but engaging conversations to keep its story flowing.

Indeed, action sequences would be easier to film; that is what the game is designed to deliver. Far more difficult, though, is capturing snippets of personal interaction among the characters in order to deliver a performance. “Plus, we have to match eye lines; the characters have to face each other as they talk and express themselves. That’s true of 90 percent of our shots,” Burns points out.

Rooster Teeth uses Adobe’s Premiere software to capture and then edit video footage of gameplay that fulfills the needs of its Webisode script each week.

To deliver these animations, the group maneuvers through the game and performs actions that are needed to fulfill the dialog requirements-a process that, on average, takes about 15 to 20 hours weekly. Burns offers this analogy to describe the task: “We are using the video game characters like puppets that we manipulate and then record in real time. But instead of pulling strings, we use a video game controller to move them through space.”

Because Halo is set within a finite world, Rooster Teeth must write its script to adhere to those limitations, which Burns knows all too well from his untold hours of gameplay. (Starting with Episode 43, the team began using Halo 2 for its video source.) Still, those limitations pressured the Rooster Teeth staff to get creative with some of its shots-for example, placing game characters on top of another’s shoulders so that the “cameraman” character can obtain a high-angle crane shot.

Whenever possible, the filmmakers also acquire background sound, such as explosions, for use in the series. On occasion, they will augment the narrative with unique sound effects created and inserted into the movies with Audition, part of Adobe’s Video Collection suite.

Whenever possible, the filmmakers utilize objects, characters, and animations acquired directly from Halo, including this large turbine, which is from the game’s Zanzibar map.

After the filmmakers assemble the audio and video for an episode within Premiere, they letterbox the video to hide the game information (including the scores and the weapon icon) at the bottom of the screen. “That makes it look more like a movie rather than a game,” Burns notes.

Of course, “Red vs Blue” would not have been possible without the blessings of Microsoft and Bungie, a developer known for supporting its huge gamer community. And, like all things Halo, the series immediately drew a large following, particularly among the game’s loyal fan base. In turn, this presented Rooster Teeth with its biggest technical challenge to date: serving the video files to everyone who wanted to download them.

“Our servers were getting hit hard, and we had to expand quickly,” says Burns. “When you have approximately a half-million viewers downloading a 30mb file, you have to do a lot of calculations to figure out how to serve that much data at once.”

Now, four seasons later, Rooster Teeth is serving up the episodes with little problem. All told, it has produced more than 60 “Red vs Blue” episodes and over a dozen videos of its other Web series, “The Strangerhood,” based on The Sims 2 game. Perhaps because of the synergy between the two series, “Red vs Blue” now has significantly expanded its following beyond the hallowed Halo domain.

The episodes can be downloaded as QuickTime, AVI, or WMV files from www.redvsblue.com. In addition, each season (19 episodes plus many unreleased videos) is available for purchase on a DVD made by Rooster Teeth using Adobe’s Encore during “hiatus” from filming. As Burns points out, by using the Adobe tools, he and his colleagues were able to bypass the distribution obstacle faced by many independent filmmakers. Today’s accessible hardware and software, along with the Internet, has led to a new business model for filmmakers, he says, allowing them to take a concept, produce it, and distribute it on their own.

“All the things we tried to make happen on the live-action film side years before are now coming true with ‘Red vs Blue’ in regard to film festivals and other types of successes,” notes Burns. (The Web series has received awards for Best Picture and Best Writing for machinima. It is also being shown in theaters in the US, Australia, Germany, England, and France, and the company was invited to show an episode at the Sundance Film Festival this past January.)

So, after years of playing Halo for pleasure, now followed by at least 20 hours a week of work-related gameplay, has Burns grown tired of the title? Not on your life, or that of Master Chief. “I still play it all the time. In fact, Bungie just recently released a new series of maps,” he says enthusiastically, just like any true-blue (and red) Halo fan would.

What is machinima? By definition, it means machine cinema, or machine animation.

As a film genre, the term refers to animated movies produced with tools (cameras, level editor, game engine) and resources (backgrounds, characters, props, textures) available in a computer game. As an application, it is an example of emergent gameplay-putting game tools to unexpected ends through artistic modification.

Foremost, machinima is a creative tool. Although used to produce 3D animations in real time, the technique is closer in concept to live-action filmmaking than it is to animation. That’s because the “director” utilizes traditional moviemaking techniques, controlling the actors, or characters, in real time, only within a virtual environment. “You make sure they hit a specific mark, deliver a certain line. You even rehearse a scene and do takes, which doesn’t occur in traditional animation,” says Mike “Burnie” Burns, one of the founders of Rooster Teeth Productions, which creates machinima.

As a result of using this technique, productions tend to be less expensive and much faster than if traditional keyframing animations were used.

The earliest roots of machinima formed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when programmers created short segments that were animated in real time. In 1992, the game Stunt Island boosted the concept by allowing players to create movies by placing props and cameras into scenes and splicing together takes. Another push happened a year later, when Doom included support for the recording and playback of gameplay. Soon after, the introduction of true-3D games, such as Quake and MechWarrior 2, with controllable cameras, created another big surge.

Today, makers of machinima tend to use Quake 2, Unreal Tournament, and Battlefield 1942 for their craft. In fact, Epic Games, developers of Unreal Tournament 2003, included a tool called Matinee, and sponsored a machinima film contest for those using the software. Moreover, Electronic Arts supports the capability in many of its newer titles, including The Sims 2, through a built-in moviemaking feature, and the FIFA, NHL, and NFL sports series, through instant replay, customizable camera angles, playback options, and more.

Although most often used for films, machinima extends to other forms of entertainment, including theater. The improvisational comedy group ILL Clan uses the technique to voice and puppet their characters, which are displayed on a large screen to a live audience.

One of the most popular and best-known examples of machinima is the Internet series “Red vs Blue,” made by Rooster Teeth using the Halo games running on an Xbox. The mini-movies even inspired a fan tribute series called “Sponsors vs. Freeloaders,” based in the forums of “Red vs Blue.” - KM
The online encyclopedia “Wikipedia” credits Rooster Teeth Production’s “Red vs Blue” with giving new direction to machinima. Prior to the series, machinima works tended to be lengthy, singular pieces; however, since the beginning of “Red vs Blue,” most new machinima releases have been episodic. In addition, the series has established a commercial market for the art form through DVD sales.

While “Red vs Blue” has been a poster child of sorts for the genre, it was not until the series grew in popularity that the Rooster Teeth discovered its novel filmmaking process actually had a name and others were using the technique as well.

That’s hardly surprising considering machinima’s appeal, particularly its low cost in terms of hardware and software requirements: a leading 3D game title costs approximately $50, whereas professional 3D modeling and animation software can run $3000 or more. Additionally, the genre requires less production time because of its real-time rendering, which doesn’t require a renderfarm.

However, for reasons unknown, the number of machinima artists, or filmmakers, remains relatively small, despite the increase in available tools. Yet, as the next-gen games become that much more photorealistic, the gap will narrow between the quality of the visual effects in Hollywood movies and the real-time graphics that appear in games. This should broaden machinima’s appeal as a filmmaking technique and as a previsualization tool for storyboarding and visual effects planning.

“Machinima is changing the way people think about CG animation and how it’s done,” says Mike “Burnie” Burns, one of the founders of Rooster Teeth. “After we have some models and basic animation routines, we can produce five minutes of animation a week with only five people, whereas five minutes of a Pixar film would take far longer with a much larger staff.” While Burns quickly acknowledges the differences in production quality between a machinima movie and a Pixar release, he points out that the gap is narrowing more each day. - KM

With the filmmaking technique known as machinima-which uses gameplay imagery and animations, such as these acquired from Halo-a small studio can achieve the impossible: five minutes of CG animation on a weekly basis.

Karen Moltenbrey is an executive editor for Computer Graphics World.