Machinima as an art form is very young. The first machinima film, that is a film made inside a game engine, was released in 1996. Improvements in game engines and video cards have allowed for increasingly realistic-looking games. 3D packages have grown in complexity over this time, but games have not. The average shooter in 2010 is about as complicated as the average shooter in 2000, with the major differences likely being a more sophisticated engine, more realistic graphics, and more fluid animation. All of these advances combined point to one thing: the future of cinema is in virtual films. True, machinima may never replace the low-level control offered by packages like 3ds max or Maya. Those tools were developed to offer professionals a high degree of control and integration with film and TV production pipelines. But the average aspiring filmmaker doesn’t need the power these packages offer, nor could anyone be truly interested in learning the minutiae of industrial filmmaking unless their job depended on it. Machinima bridges the gap between idea and execution and lowers the barrier to entry for filmmakers.
The idea here is to use game engines as platforms for cinema, in the same way that modern filmmaking uses actors, support personnel, sets, props, lights, and post-production. With virtual cinema, a lot of the overhead simply disappears, while new possibilities not available in the real world (or in the traditional CG pipeline) become a reality. Actors can perform from anywhere in the world and any spectator recording a performance effectively becomes a camera operator. With traditional CG, a simple production requires a team of animators, modelers, effects personnel, and camera operators, since one person would be overwhelmed with all of the work required for even a single scene. Machinima, on the other hand, offers atomic control over production. If a director isn’t particularly good at modeling, then game models come in very handy. If animation takes too long, game engines take care of it (especially those that integrate rigid body dynamics). Rendering is taken for granted in machinima, but in traditional CG it is the number one concern when it comes to producing high quality work. Simply put, an artist’s weaknesses are irrelevant in the machinima pipeline since there exists a “safety net” that can greatly augment otherwise deficient skills.
To get started in machinima, all one needs is a realtime 3D engine. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a game engine, but those are generally best suited to animation. A good engine is a fantastic asset to a machinima production, especially if it offers modern features like inverse kinematics and realistic particle systems. There are some engine lists floating around the internet, the most updated and relevant of them being the DevMaster.Net Engines Database. With an engine as a starting point, the rest of a machinima production becomes fairly straightforward, provided the rest of the pipeline is well understood.
Of course, starting from an engine is an optional step. One can start from a game. Typical starting points have been the Quake series, Counter-Strike, Halo, etc. These traditional choices have required some startup capital, however, and with each additional actor/cameraman, the cost for a production increases. Enter open-source games. There are quite a few high-quality games and game assets provided absolutely free of charge on the internet. Some notable examples are Open Arena, Warsow, SuperTuxKart, Urban Terror, and Smokin’ Guns. Open source games span niches from generic shooters to racing simulators to concept games. Once an engine or game is chosen and the mechanism for recording and playback of gameplay is understood, the rest of the machinima process is simple. Given a script, actors, camera operators, a server, and a good internet connection (though a LAN connection works best), machinima can be made. This is a relatively light load, compared to the thousands of dollars needed to organize even an amateur film production.