Alter Ego
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 1 (Jan. 2009)

Alter Ego

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are just that, games. Yet, for the millions of people who play them, they are a means of escaping from everyday life, offering the ability to become someone—or something—else. 

MMORPG players invest a significant amount of time “living” inside their virtual world of choice, whether it’s World of Warcraft (WoW), Second Life, EverQuest, or some other alternate-reality universe (see Editor’s Note, pg. 2). At times, players’ friendships inside these games are just as strong, or even stronger, than their real-life bonds. This despite the fact that they know almost nothing about their cyber buddies outside the boundaries of the virtual, make-believe worlds in which they live and play.

So, who are some of the real people who inhabit these worlds? Are they anything like their alter egos? And, what happens when reality starts intruding on fantasy, and vice versa? Those are some of the issues that are brought to light in the documentary Second Skin from Pure West Films. The movie, which introduces viewers to some real people who populate online virtual worlds, utilizes in-game sequences to punctuate the information and contrast the real and alternate lives of several gamers who are the subject of the live-action movie. “The documentary focuses on how being an avid gamer has transformed and affected their lives over the course of a few years,” says Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, director and editor of Second Skin.

Welcome to My Life

The documentary is Escoriaza’s first feature film. He, along with a small crew, began working on the project in early 2006 and completed it just in time for its debut at the SXSW film festival in the spring of 2008. Since then, Second Skin has been shown at other festivals and will hit select theaters this spring, followed by a DVD release shortly thereafter.
So what made Escoriaza choose such an unusual subject matter? As the filmmaker tells it, he was introduced to these alternate worlds by two avid players: his brother, Victor (one of the film’s producers), and a mutual friend. “Just going into a virtual setting for the first time and seeing these other people interacting with each other in this alternate world was amazing,” he says. “Our friend had all these responsibilities in the game and was getting married in real life. It took a strange turn because he was so invested in the game that he had difficultly managing his time between the two worlds—the real and the virtual—because both were important to him.”
Second Skin follows the real and virtual lives of several MMORPG players who log countless hours each week playing their favorite online game. The documentary incorporates the players’ avatars into the live action.

As it so happened, Escoriaza had started a documentary company with Second Skin’s other producer, Peter Schieffelin Brauer, a few years earlier, and he thought the yin and yang of real and virtual lives would make for good storytelling.

The 94-minute documentary contains three main story lines. The first focuses on a mini guild from Fort Wayne, Indiana, that includes a seasoned WoW player and his wife, along with three neighbors who each devote 20 to 50 hours a week playing WoW. They are part of a larger group who work together at a cell phone company, live in close proximity to one another, and log untold hours on WoW. The second story follows a couple who met virtually while slaying dragons in EverQuest II, fell in love, afterward traveled many miles to meet in real life, and then moved in together. The third story introduces viewers to an MMO addict who lost just about everything in real life when he neglected reality for fantasy and played MMOs 16 hours a day.

The crew spent a good deal of time filming the subjects at their respective locales. However, Escoriaza wanted to be sure that the concept of a dual existence—the person and the alter ego—was apparent.

“I wanted to mash the real and virtual worlds in a way that you could cohesively understand them. I wanted to show the players literally turning into someone else when they were online, and then turning back when they exited the game,” he explains.
Achieving that visual link required using game footage, mixing the CGI with the live action. For the actual game footage acquisition, the group used Fraps, a free universal Windows application for real-time video and screen capture. The imagery was then imported directly into Adobe After Effects, where Escoriaza and Brauer began adding the various controls, movements, and so forth.

But oftentimes the real game footage was, well, a little “constrictive.” “The movement inside the game is not made for filming; it’s more about moving around inside a 3D environment,” Escoriaza says of the reason behind the alterations.

As a result, the team had to go out of the game to create so-called composites from the game footage, using the WoW Model Viewer to animate a loop of game footage on a bluescreen. First, the editors captured a still image inside the game, and then stitched together the stills using Adobe’s Photoshop. Next, they imported that material into After Effects, where they mapped the composite with a background of another still image and elements of different avatars from the WoW Model Viewer. “After we put a background behind [the image], we’d make camera movements, like a pan, tilt, or dolly, to essentially animate these characters and creatively make sequences that were more vibrant than we would have had from just moving around inside the game world,” Escoriaza says.
Second Skin follows the real and virtual exploits of Matt Elsworth (shown at right), a devoted WoW player from Fort Wayne, Indiana. To the left is his avatar.
According to Escoriaza, three quarters of the game footage was taken from the MMOs, while the remainder was created in the WoW Model Viewer and in After Effects. Yet, even the in-game imagery was manipulated to some extent inside After Effects. “I would go in as an avatar cameraman in the first-person mode and capture a PvP (player versus player) battle, for instance, or an intimate moment between the avatars. Then, later, I added effects to the images to make them feel more real,” explains Escoriaza.
However, for the EverQuest scenes, all the footage was captured in-game (no bluescreening was done). Players would enter the game as their avatars, and Escoriaza captured the footage on his computer using Fraps. Later, the team integrated the in-game imagery into the film, which was edited in Adobe’s Premiere Pro. “My motion graphics animator used After Effects, so he would send me the source files, and we would swap project files back and forth to do any quick changes,” says Escoriaza. “Immediately the new file would pop into my Premiere timeline, and I could just press play to review it.”

Real Challenges

According to Escoriaza, the biggest technical challenge the group faced was bringing the avatars to life in a way that viewers could relate to them. “The difficulty was capturing in-game shots the way we wanted them,” he says. “It’s not easy to do camera movement whereby you are completely in sync with the other avatars. I fell off cliffs quite a bit, and many times a monster would kill me during filming. Sometimes I couldn’t reach the perfect spot for a shot because the avatar just couldn’t get there—it’s not always logistically possible.”

Initially, the team tried to capture all the in-game footage through Fraps. As the work progressed, the filmmakers found themselves using more and more of the bluescreening technique, capturing still images inside the virtual spaces.

To link the real and virtual scenes more tightly, Escoriaza used a shaky-camera style while filming in each. While After Effects offers a number of presets to achieve this look, the crew instead meshed together six to 10 different effects, some of which were generated from scratch.
Filming in the real world at times could be nearly as challenging as doing so inside the virtual worlds.

Despite the dramatic increase in people who play video games, whether single player, multiplayer, or massively multiplayer, there have been few attempts to combine actual game footage with live action to any extent. Yet, the action taken by Pure West to do just that may become commonplace in the near future. “These avatars are becoming so personalized and are ingrained deep into people’s psyche, and they are an important part of them—just as important as their real lives,” says Escoriaza.

Who knows, shortly we may see a trend toward home movies that not only include real-life friends, relatives, and pets, but virtual ones as well.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.