Machinima Unplugged
By Carey Chico
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 4: (Jul/Aug 2014)

Machinima Unplugged

Kevin Margo moves about the mocap floor during a capture session for his short film called "Construct." Only, in this case, Margo doesn't have a single marker on his body. That's because his movements are not being captured. What is being captured is the OptiTrack hardware that he's carrying.

Within Margo's hands is a marker-tracked housing that includes an LCD screen and a set of buttons on a panel. On the screen, he can see his actors - except, on screen, they are robots, and in place of a spongy blue floor is the inside of a house that's being constructed. This house is a completely digital fabrication within a real-time render done with Chaos Group's V-Ray and a host of hardware, including Nvidia K6000s. With barely a two- to three-frame lag, Margo can see his entire digital set, along with the captured actors driving their robot counter­parts. It is both real and digital - cinema and machinima.

Is this the future state of the art or just a hard-core technology demonstration? Most declare that this is the future of motion-picture production. Those who work within the realm of machinima? It's just another day at work.

The first glimpse at the concept of "machinima" was for a movie called "Diary of a Camper." This was an in-game demo using the Quake engine from Id Software and was produced by a group of players who called themselves "The Rangers." This very short movie, which can still be found on YouTube, pits soldiers against a lone camper as they recon a weapon spawn point. In the end, the team takes out the camper, and when they examine his body, one of them asks, "Is that who I think it is?" Another replies, "Yeah, it's John Romero," a joke referring to one of the founders of Id Software.

This little, no-budget movie is heralded as giving birth to an underground industry of self-defined movie directors creating narrative content based solely on the use of real-time engines and assets of the game industry. To many, including Hugh Hancock and Paul Marino - longtime makers of machinima - it was to be an epiphany that would steer their futures indefinitely.

The history of machinima has been paved with the hard work of artists such as them, and the obstacles have been many - everything from limitations in the technology to legal issues related to asset ownership. But, out of all this confusion and unknown has arisen the birth of a truly new genre of film that has grown in force to finally reach the mainstream for anyone who is digitally connected. 

Defining Machinima

The term "machinima" is best described by its creator, Hancock, a pioneer in the world of real-time cinematic narratives and founder of Strange Company. He says he adopted the name from a friend, Anthony Bailey, who had first suggested "machinema" - a combination of "machine" and "cinema" for this new art form.

Kevin Margo's short film "construct" is one example of the growing genre of machinima, which uses real-time cinematic narratives captured from a 3d game engine. The film was a passion project that margo worked on in his spare time. software and hardware vendors took interest in the project and donated various products.

"I adopted that [but] misspelled it," explains Hancock, "and in doing so, also incorporated 'anima,' meaning 'life' - resulting in "machinima."

In terms of the "art of machinima," it would be best described as the creation of narrative stories through the use of real-time 3D game engines. Engines, such as Id's Quake, Epic's Unreal engine, Monolith's Lithtech, or the Source engine from Valve Software, create the underpinnings of countless machinima authored over the years.

Technical Limitations

In most cases, the creation of machinima has leveraged countless assets from video games to tell their stories. Avid gamers can easily point out assets from machinima that were actually used in games. This game "DNA" is what helps drive the unique community of followers that watches these films.

The embryo of machinima comes from the game developers that build these game engines and tools from scratch to support their own production needs. These tools include worldbuilding, scripting, and cinematic tools to allow for camera control - similar to what a director needs to make a film. So, before a machinima artist has even been involved, a wealth of technology has already been developed. More often than not, these tools are not designed for commercial use and can be fraught with bugs and other technical limitations that make the art of machinima hard work.

"Each engine usually has its hurdles, and you discover ways to overcome them in order produce your vision," explains Marino. "However, sometimes those limitations are the things that bring about the most creative parts of the work."

Marino's first project was a comedy short titled "Apartment Huntin'." Working within a group called the ILL Clan, the artists used the Quake engine to create their movie. The project had its share of difficulty. "We wanted to do simple things, like a hard edit between two cameras, which at the time with Quake wasn't supported."

Machinima creators would also have to tell their stories using whatever assets were available to do so. This often meant stringing together generic sets of animation in order to push the story forward. It was also difficult to add new tools and Gaming . Cinemas to these game editors - functions such as lip-sync support to help connect voice to the characters on screen. Yet, what becomes noticeable through all these hurdles is the passion and will of the artists to pursue their art in defiance of the technology.

"We managed to solve [lip-syncing] in a variety of ways, including intercepting the OpenGL stream and altering it in real time," says Hancock.

Of course, this was the past. Now, in part due to the ever-­advancing nature of technology, the future looks bright for makers of machinima. Thanks to films such as Avatar, the tools that machinima artists have used are now being integrated into the Hollywood filmmaking process. James Cameron has announced that in the next series of Avatar sequels, he will be integrating digital assets within their live on-set production so that his crew can shoot and see the final digital scenery as if the imagery were there.

"We're already seeing movies like Avatar using essentially machinima techniques for large parts of their production," says Hancock, "and the rise in VR has resulted in renewed interest in machinima as a production technique."

Bridging the Gap

Margo's "Construct" is an effort to prove the concept works and to push the industry forward - to democratize the technology. "The idea and content of the film was engineered anticipating real-time path tracing. My goal was to get this live in the motion-capture room."

In the film preview, the audience bears witness to a robot mafia-like burial of a human corpse into the foundation of a new building. One innocent robot witnesses the activity and soon becomes the focus of the robot thugs that then turn on him.

"My goal was to find ways to make it present itself fast enough," says Margo. "If we can make things look pretty good and the same algorithm can be used for final production - then that's the Holy Grail."

Hugh Hancock and Paul Marino have been longtime Machinima makers. and both are familiar with the legal wranglings that can result from the genre, as was the case with bloodspell due to the derivative work of the game on which the film is based.

Working at Blur Studios as VFX/CG supervisor, Margo under­stands the process from the interactive side. Blur is a digital production house renowned for making high-quality cinematics for interactive game projects. The studio counts League of Legends, Batman: Arkham Origins, The Elder Scrolls Online, and Halo 4: Scanned as some of its better-known projects. As is typical with game development related work, the assets come straight from the game team and are made for the real-time engine. Then, the cinematics studio has to convert all them so they can be rendered using more traditional methods. This one step alone factors heavily into the timelines for studios when producing high-end cinematics.

"I feel like the lines between film and interactive are going to blur heavily," states Margo. "The idea is we are enabling the same algorithms to be used in real-time and off-line solutions."

In the case of "Construct," Margo had a lot of helping hands in the mix. Since he had no budget and was working nights and weekends to make this project a reality, he received interest and donations from Nvidia, Boxx, and OptiTrack, which donated considerable hardware to the process. Nvidia gave several Quadro K6000 cards, while Boxx provided the computers. The linchpin in all this was Chaos Group - creators of V-Ray, a real-time path-tracing renderer. This collective hardware and software, along with OptiTrack's Insight Virtual Camera System (VCS), allowed Margo's team to visualize its set design and characters in real time during the mocap session.

"The final frames were rendered on the GPU and took four to 15 minutes with minimal grain. But that wasn't interactive," says Margo. "The thing I did with 'Construct' was real-time path tracing in a motion-capture context. That was the real-time portion."

Margo has heard of machinima and sees how the technology he used for his project connects to the goals of both film and interactive for viewing content faster. But, his real aim is to get this technology out of the hands of the high-end studios and into those of the independent developers, and to democratize this technology for the masses.

"Typically, this technology is so specialized and so costly that it's reserved for the people who have money," says Margo. As a result, this content has to be geared toward the widest audience.

"If you can democratize the cost and access these tools - out of this can come a ton of unique entertainment opportunities," Margo adds.

Interestingly, the goals for Margo dovetail nicely with the tribulations of the machinima artists. They are all seeking better ways to make unique content outside of the typical and more costly process that drives the mainstream.

However, not everyone has such a rosy view of the adoption of these animation techniques for traditional filmmaking. "We're seeing more animation tools that utilize real-time systems, which embrace the philosophical approach of machinima, yet remain firmly rooted in the 'animation' camp," Marino points out. "In this way, this usage could be seen as a threat to the basic tenets of what machinima is, and the adoption of these methods could limit [machinima's] maturation as a specific way of producing stories."

Legal Limitations

Ask any machinima artist and he or she will have a story or two to tell from the legal world. Due to the nature of the machinima process, the potential for legal copyright and licensing issues abound - both with the usage of host game assets as well as the license usage for the host games' tool set. Nowadays, many companies have set forth end-user license agreements in relation to user-created videos. One such company is Blizzard, whose end-user license agreement for machinima can be found online.

Even the fact that, in most cases, machinima is distributed freely online does not mean there's an open door policy, as sometimes the content might be behind a pay wall - which is forbidden unless the content is made available for free in some other location.

"Primarily, [the issues] have revolved around the nature of game-based machinima as a derivative work of the game it's based on, which essentially leaves the creator of the machinima in question with no rights at all," exclaims Hancock. "I was prevented from releasing a DVD of my Gaming . Cinema film, BloodSpell, even though all proceeds were to go to charity, and I've seen far too many talented machinima creators' careers stunted by legal troubles."

Marino has a different take and feels that legal issues tend to be far and few. His reasoning is that many publishers view machinima as an extension of their game's marketing. For him, the only legal issue that surfaced was during a video he created using a song by the band Breaking Benjamin. The machinima went viral after being posted on the online site Kotaku - The Gamer's Guide. As a result, a producer from MTV called him, wanting to air it as part of its video show called "Video Mods."

"I was happy to get the recognition," Marino says, "but having worked in machinima for a few years at that point, I knew we had to approach both the record label as well as Valve."

Thankfully, MTV had no problem getting the record label's permission, but Marino also had to speak with Valve's legal team in hopes of securing their permission. "After a few iterations on the contract, we gained permission to air the video," he notes.

The key to averting these issues is to just be smart about how and where you release your art. As machinima matures and becomes mainstream, more companies will establish these types of agreements that take machinima into account.

And the Award Goes to…

No media movement would be complete without an organization created for the purpose of awarding their best and brightest. In the case of machinima, this took shape through the inception of the Mackie Awards. The Academy of Machinima Art and Sciences, which was inaugurated at the Game Developer Conference of 2002, became the organization that would be responsible for producing the first film festival dedicated to machinima and, along with it, the Mackie Awards. Marino and Hancock were both founders of this organization. They then moved quickly to hold the first festival in early August of that same year, in Dallas. It was tied to a QuakeCon being held in the same locale, and with it, the first Mackies were awarded.

The festival and awards continued for several years before fading out. Because the organization was a volunteer effort, it became too difficult to produce the event every year. "We were all sad that we were unable to continue it," Marino laments. The last event and awards show was held in October 2008, and that event was produced by board member Friedrich Kirschner in New York City.

Machinima pioneer Hugh Hancock’s newest animated movie is titled “Death Knight Love Story.” created by artists from throughout the film, TV, and theater realms using World of Warcraft,  the motion-captured project attempts to push the state of Machinima forward.

Onward and upward, machinima continues to be a force in the wilds of the entertainment landscape. Valve's Source filmmaker tool set continues to have a very active Reddit page, with numerous people submitting their narrative cinematics to share with the rest of the community. Even Hancock is still engaged, working on his latest masterpiece, "Death Knight Love Story," and can be found blogging away on his website. Beyond this activity, and in spite of the retirement of the Mackie Awards, many other avenues for the art form exist and continue to transform both the medium and the term itself.

Specifically, the name "machinima" has stretched to the point where it now includes the new wave of gameplay videos shot by tens of thousands of gamers. The actual website titles itself as a "next-generation video entertainment network for the gamer lifestyle and beyond." It's clear from this description that machinima is no longer just narrative real-time cinema, but a growing culture of digital content. With two billion monthly video views and over 12,000 machinima partners worldwide, has become one of the most-watched networks online. In March 2014, the company collected $18 million in venture round funding and is planning to roll that into the expansion of its network of content.

Hancock sees VR as one way forward for machinima. "With the Oculus Rift just having been bought by Facebook, motion capture will become a steadily bigger part of the machinima production methodology, and we'll see more and more machinima techniques embraced - with or without knowledge of the machinima movement - by major Hollywood players, like Lucasfilm," he says.

Marino agrees and thinks that the sophistication of works and platforms will become more widespread and will include more affordable mocap and animation solutions, as well as in-world physics and weather simulation. "This will make machinima even more accessible to artists and story­tellers, and may even supersede traditional filmmaking as a path to personal storytelling," he says.

Margo, on the traditional film side, seems to agree when he says, "If you can democratize the cost and access of these tools, out of this can come a ton of unique entertainment expression." He further adds, "I want to see the PT Anderson of virtual production."