Films of the Future
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 4 (April 2003)

Films of the Future

Barbara Robertson is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance journalist specializing in computer graphics, visual effects, and animation. She can be reached at:

A guy, a girl, and a car. Ah, the stories you could tell, the movies you could make, if only...if only you could afford to hire the cast, crew, a director of photography, location scout, costume designer, and, and.... But wait! Maybe you can. Maybe anyone can—anyone, that is, willing to substitute animated characters for live actors.

That's the promise and, for some, already the reality of Machinima. A combination of the words "machine" and "animation," this new genre is frequently defined as filmmaking within a real-time 3D environment, although, in practice, it's usually filmmaking within a game engine.

"Machinima is the convergence of filmmaking, animation, and game development," explains Paul Marino, co-founder of the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences (AMAS) and of the Machinima-making studio, ILL Clan. An outgrowth of game movies and game mods, Machinima has been compared to puppet shows, animated films, improvisational theater and interactive fiction.

In fact, Machinima is all those things. "You can set up a camera and use the models in a game," says Jake Hughes, who made his Machinima movie Anacronox within a Quake 2 game. "It might take a half-hour to set up your first camera, but then it's quick. You can try a close-up or a dolly or a zoom using models in the game. You can access the characters' animations, and after learning the process, you can create an entire scene. The levels are essentially different sets. It's a blast."

Anachronox: The Movie, created by Jake Hughes within a Quake 2 game, won Best Picture at the first Machinima Film Festival.

Hughes made his film from cinematics he created for and within the game Anacronox. "As you play Anacronox, suddenly your character is telling a story in the cinematics," he says. After the game was released, Hughes realized he could create a narrative from the cinematics. So, he output scenes to AVI files, edited them in Adobe System's Premiere and produced the 2-1/2 hour animated film.

"It's a gift to be able to see new media being created; it's like watching Gutenberg as he invented the printing press," says Henry Lowood, curator for the history of science and technology collections at Stanford University Libraries. "One idea is that you can make movies without mortgaging the house, but it's interesting to think about it more as performance. Machinima offers a new production process for what is possibly a new medium."

Lenny and Larry Lumberjack star in ILL Clan's award-winning Machinima short, Hardly Workin'.©2001 The ILL Clan, Inc.

That's exactly what ILL Clan is doing. At press time, the studio was planning a Machinima-based performance for the Florida Film Festival that would feature the animated characters Lenny and Larry Lumberjack from their award-winning short film Hardly Workin'. "We'll have a predetermined idea for a story, but we'll elicit suggestions from the audience," Marino says. "It will be animated improvisational theater."

The stage is Mom's Truckstop, a set (or level) inside a Quake 2 engine, where Larry, Lenny, and Mom's cook will be puppeteered by three members of ILL Clan using computer keyboards. "A camera person will set up the shots, and then he or I will jump from one camera to the next," says Marino. He plans to record the performance so it can be edited later into a short film that could then be distributed on DVDs and released on Web sites.

"It's hard to get the real industry to notice Machinima because the graphics don't look so good and the film industry doesn't understand games and their look, but the graphics are getting better," says Hughes. "Five years from now, we'll have games that look more like Toy Story, and the Machinima tools will be adapted into those games."

Indeed, most Machinima characters look and move like game characters, and facial animation is a far cry from Toy Story. "It's like previz on steroids," says Marino, alluding to studios such as ILM, which used a game engine to give Steven Spielberg a previz playground for A.I. (see "Inside Moves," July, 2001, pg. 43).

But simplicity is not a problem for Machinima aficionados. "One of the things we're doing with our next film is completely abandoning photorealism," says Hugh Hancock, chairman of the Edinburgh-based Machinima studio Strange Company and editor of the Web site. "We're giving it a comic book feel."

Characters will be created in NewTek's LightWave and imported into either a game engine or new Machinima software under development in a secretive Cambridge-based start-up company.

The question is, if the result will be a linear narrative, why work within the limitations of an interactive medium? "Machinima is spontaneous," Hancock says. "You can try things out, play about, and there's no penalty. It's the playfulness of it that's really important."

Tommy Pallotta, producer of the animated feature Waking Life, also finds Machinima fascinating. "I thought that working within the limitations in this world would be interesting," he says. So, when the British band Zero 7 asked him to direct its latest music video, he decided to use Machinima, and enlisted help from Fountainhead Entertainment. "It probably would have been quicker to do the film in a 3D animated program," he says. "But now, we can reuse the assets in an improvisational way."

Zero 7's "In the Waiting Line," by Waking Life producer Tommy Pallotta, was the first music video created with Machinima tools.

"Everything has been done," says Katherine Anna Kang, Fountainhead founder and co-founder of AMAS. "We can take elements from this storytelling music video and apply them to a game." They could also churn out episodes for a TV series.

Like most Machinima studios, Fountainhead has developed tools to help set up lights and cameras for real-time filmmaking. The studio plans to offer AMAS members a "sandbox" version of its Machinimation software to capture animations. "It will be like a consumer camcorder," Kang says.

In addition, although Kang can't imagine doing Machinima in anything other than a game engine, some Machinimists are considering real-time tools such as Kaydara's MotionBuilder, which offers clever animation tools and the possibility of including media such as video within the real-time environments.

Animator Randy Cole, who worked with Pallotta, notes, "Machinima was like doing normal 3D animation, but with lots of limitations." Cole used Caligari's Truespace and Alias|Wavefront's Maya to create models, which were imported into Fountainhead's Machinimation tools in Quake 3. The resulting music video, which has played on, looks more like traditional 3D animation than most Machinima films

So why bother? "I was asking myself that," Cole says. "But you could actually see in real time how everything would look. And you could record the animation as you moved the camera around, so it was like being on a set. When I went back to 3D animation, I missed that."

And that's why Kang prefers working inside game engines. "I want characters that react to the environment and that affect the environment," she says.

"While many of the Machinima people talk about it as a new way to make films, I think there's something very prescient about it," says Carl Goodman, curator of digital media for the American Museum of the Moving Image (Astoria, NY). "It's telling us what films in the future might be like. The camera is reduced to a construct, to one's perspective onscreen rather than a physical object. It's truer to the notion of digital cinema than using digital cameras."

And it's more accessible if people can make films for the price of a game or by using Kaydara's $100 personal limited edition. AMAS hopes to create an asset library for budding filmmakers, says Marino, so they aren't limited to game models.

"That would give people who are not modelers or animators access to a world they otherwise couldn't access," says Cole. "It would be fascinating to see what people would do... they could grab a guy, a girl, and a car, and make a movie."

For his part, Pallotta now plans to use a game engine for his next film. "I'm interested in straddling the line between film and gaming," he says. "Interactive narrative has failed for the last 20 years. That's a challenge I'd like to tackle."