In 1996, a gamer sat down to play the PC game Quake. And with it, he jumpstarted a filmmaking revolution.
On this one particular day, the gamer typed the command "demorecord" at the command line of Quake. By typing this, he would begin to record all of the actions taking place inside the multiplayer game. His intention in typing this command wasn't to make a recording of one of his games. It was done to create a film — a visual narrative made inside the virtual space of "DM6," a favorite death-match map amongst Quake players.
This effort became Diary of a Camper, a 1 minute and 30 second, one-take silent film centered around an entrenched lone gunman who is rooted out by a team of equally lonely gunmen. When the director finally messaged "Cut!" to his actors, they had completed the first Quake movie, and hence, the very first Machinima film.
And while they were most likely happy with this cool little short they created, they probably didn't realize what they had started.
During these early days of Quake, it was hard to see what was in store. One of Hollywood's non-human legends once said, "Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future." That quote, by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, reflects my personal beliefs in how the future unfolds. However, as time marches on, the Machinima path becomes easier to see, based on past experiences and expectations (destiny, anyone?).
For those just coming across Machinima, it is filmmaking redefined -- a merging of three creative mediums: filmmaking, animation, and 3D game technology. To put it in a sentence: Machinima is animated filmmaking within a real-time 3D virtual environment. It utilizes the real-time capture of performance, actions, and events (filmmaking), the creation of artistically created elements moved over time (animation), within an interactive virtual 3D environment (3D game development).
While there's still considerable development to fulfill on its promise, the path of Machinima follows the footsteps of its gaming brother pretty closely. Beginning with the release of Quake in 1996, Machinima made use of Quake's advanced real-time 3D graphics to create a visual immersion that hadn't been experienced before (even by its revolutionary predecessor, DOOM).
Following Quake was Quake II, which added dynamic colored lighting and more sophisticated physics, and then Quake III Arena, upping the ante yet one more time with 32-bit textures, shader implementation, and curved-surface rendering. The recent release of DOOM 3 just raised the bar yet higher. With real-time stencil shadows plus environments and characters of unprecedented detail, DOOM 3 represents yet another watermark for Machinima development.
Of course, this is an obvious pattern of 3D games -- the visual quality of 3D game technology is consistently progressing every year. Between the 3D game engines and the 3D hardware developed by companies like NVIDIA, one only needs to browse through demos and screenshots from over the years to see this steady progress. Continuing on this path will yield equally impressive results — within the next year, the level of real-time 3D graphics will equal or surpass offline rendered 3D of about 5 years ago.
We're also seeing this same progress mirrored on the distribution end. As game consoles, media-center PCs, and set-top boxes become more integrated along with the rising proliferation of broadband connectivity, entertainment is now delivered to our homes in ways that never existed just 10 years ago.
In light of this pace, Machinima can be rendered directly to the console hardware with assets sent to the console via the DSL/cable connection, eliminating the need to stream large (even highly compressed) video files. Furthermore, as a result of the hardware rendering, Machinima films are inherently resolution independent, allowing the Machinima film be rendered to whatever resolution the display hardware can accommodate. Again, there are no mental leaps of faith here, only the strong beliefs based on history and progress -- and thus, an inevitable collaboration of creative and technology.
While gamers using gaming tech for storytelling is innovative in its own right, the real innovation comes from the people pushing these boundaries. From the start of Dr. Uwe Girlich's work in Quake demos and David Wright's creation of the Quake demo editing software, Keygrip, Machinima had its share of pioneers right out of the gate. Thankfully, innovation of this type continues.
One exceptional group is Dr. Ken Perlin and Andrew Gerngross. Ken and Andrew have been implementing Dr. Perlin's work in emotive actors within the Unreal Tournament 2004 engine. As part of Gerngross' sci-fi soap opera, GAME, these virtual characters simulate real-world behaviors and movements without the need to traditionally animate the characters themselves. (An example of Dr. Perlin's emotive actor work can be found at http://mrl.nyu.edu/~perlin/experiments/emotive-actors/.)
While this represents features for future Machinima software, it speaks directly to the creative flexibilities that Machinima affords. Characters can be capable of interaction -- not only with their environment, but also among themselves.
Software developers are definitely on the forefront of innovation. But what about the filmmakers themselves? The History Channel recently teamed up with game developer Creative Assembly to work on the new broadcast series, Decisive Battles. Within the show, the Decisive Battles producers use Creative Assembly's game Rome: Total War to stage recreations of Rome's historical battles. While the game's graphics are decidedly "game-like," they prove to be sophisticated enough to illustrate the program's intent.
What makes this example particularly relevant is that it presents Machinima as it is defined. The battle segments are developed using the virtual environment employed by the game, which in turn is populated with characters that are programmatically driven to combat with one another. Once the battle is put into motion, the segments are captured to either hard disk or tape, for editing into the larger broadcast program. (Note: You may notice that this approach is similar to Massive software that was used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- however, it was high-end animation software that used game-like features, whereas Creative Assembly's game was used in a reverse approach.)
But what of the traditional 3D animation platforms? Is there room for them on the Machinima timeline? Possibly. This is an area where Yoda's clairvoyant powers would possibly fail us.
Clearly companies like Discreet, Softimage, and Alias see the writing on the wall. Alias' purchase of Kaydara (publisher of the Machinima-like tool, Motionbuilder) show that Alias has some insights for Maya that real-time will be the way to develop future works. Additionally, Discreet's 3D Studio Max will support hardware rendering through 3D cards and DirectX 9 shader language.
But in addition to real-time 3D, they need to explore the other facets that make the game technologies alluring to the Machinima filmmaker – easy-to-use tools and accessibility, interactive mechanics, and most importantly, price. Which begs the question: Will game developers become partners or competitors to this 3D-animation industry? A good question and one that definitely bears pondering by all parties involved.
It's something that even DOOM 3's creator, id Software is aware of. In an interview last year with the web site, GameArena (games.bigpond.com), id Software's CEO Todd Hollenshead stated:
Not even from a video game standpoint, but from Machinima or what have you, Doom 3 is a tool for amateur developers to create stuff. Then the game as well; it's really almost unprecedented in terms of the power it provides people to do things. Obviously we're doing a lot of cool stuff with DOOM 3 the game, but now people are going to have something that approaches film quality in the level of visual presentation, on a real-time basis. So if you're in film school and looking to make animated films, this is the cheapest package you're going to get when the game comes out -- a lot cheaper than Maya.
Additionally, some game developers have strong ties with 3D software companies. Valve Software recently worked with Softimage to produce a learning version of Softimage's XSI software in order to ramp up users looking to develop new characters for Valve's much anticipated Half-Life 2. From my vantage point, the tools and developmental maneuvers over the next year or so are going to play out in a very interesting manner.
While worlds are colliding on the technology side, there's another movement happening — this time from creators themselves. Machinima filmmakers are seeing that the need for more powerful tools is a necessity. Speculation of seeing great tools like Fountainhead Entertainment's Machinimation™ combined with DOOM 3 causes most filmmakers to see Machinima's full potential.
In June of 2004, a number of Machinima folks got together in New York City. An informal gathering mostly to talk shop about Machinima -- current releases, productions in progress, upcoming technology -- all the things that gets the Machinima filmmaker going.
During this one meeting, the mention of the Dogma 95 style of filmmaking came about, which adheres to a certain set of practices when creating a film (camera must be handheld, everything must be shot on location, the film must be in color, etc.). As we went further into the discussion, the concept of creating standards for Machinima became the subject and started to gather momentum.
Nathan Moller, director of the Battlefield 1942 Machinima film, Ours Again, brought up crafting a set of Machinima standards -- standards to be used by game developers in order to make their games Machinima-compliant (or -friendly, pick your fave suffix here). While it may be hard to have game developers follow a strict set of guidelines tied to a feature that floats outside their market focus, I feel it's definitely a useful endeavor.
We determined that putting together a white paper around these standards would: 1) identify both what's available and what's missing from current Machinima tools, and 2) ultimately provide the standards to different developers so that Machinima tools could be developed addressing the core needs of the filmmakers.
With input from others in the community, Nathan has since spearheaded the first draft of the standards white paper, with the ultimate objective to present to both the community for additional input and then to the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences (AMAS) for consideration.
Initiatives of this nature bring structure to the movement. Filmmaking relied upon standards to assist in its development (the 35mm format is nearly 115 years old). By constructing standards for creative needs, this helps us match feature sets and creates a foundation for this new medium. A combination of focused efforts from both the software developers and the Machinima community will bring continued promise to this already groundbreaking medium.
Of course, Machinima is still in its infancy, as most of the current Machinima software is just clearing the 1.0 hurdle. The promise of filmmaking within a virtual space still needs to be fully realized. Machinima filmmakers need to continue raising the bar of what's being produced and engage developers for quality tools.
Thankfully, due to the efforts of AMAS and the Machinima Film Festival, developers are already taking notice. With this year's NVIDIA/ Epic Game's Make Something Unreal contest (which includes a Machinima category); Valve Software's inclusion of Machinima tools in Half-Life2; Maxis' The Sims 2 (also with camera tools and AVI export); and Lionhead's The Movies (blurring the line between game and Machinima software), developers are looking pretty serious at Machinima and where it's headed.
My words of advice: keep an eye on these events yourself. The same strategies surfacing in the world of animation software development may soon involve these companies as well. Also, feel free to write to developers of your choice with regards to their support of Machinima. Developers will only know how important it is once their market speaks up.
As Machinima matures, so will its market, its audience, and the tools that define it. However, it's the filmmakers that will ultimately determine its course. Based on the works that have been produced in the last few years (comedies, dramas, music videos, even documentaries), I would say that Machinima is well on the way to becoming its own form of creative expression.
John Gaeta, senior effects supervisor for The Matrix trilogy, wrote in the foreword of my book, "Virtual cinema is inevitable." I doubt that anyone working in traditional filmmaking, animation, and game development would argue this statement. There's enough proof around us to see that this is the direction we're headed in.