Consumer 3D packages are bulky and hard to learn. CG artists spend many years training in order to become proficient at animation, modeling, and effects. What if there was a shortcut to avoid the steep learning curve of 3D packages? This is where machinima comes in.
Though currently a staple of gaming communities, machinima has potential to become the next big thing for CG artists and content creators. It’s easily accessible, requires none or very little capital to start, and it looks better and better every year. The need for thousand-dollar CG applications becomes obviated when similar quality productions can be done in a tenth of the time for a hundredth of the budget.
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.
Although basic performances can be recorded using machinima methods, they’re often like the dailies of a movie production: rough and missing key elements. This is where a large part of the film producing pipeline comes in, with post-production that includes editing, compositing, scoring, and grading. Creative use of the post-production pipeline allows for effects like combining footage from two different games together seamlessly, a practice that’s yet to become popular in the machinima world, but that is well understood in the rest of cinema.
A machinima production doesn’t have to be limited to short films. It can be adapted to a music video, a documentary, re-enactment, or even a part of a traditional production pipeline. Movies like “Troy” and “Lord of the Rings” have used machinima, yet these uses have had muted acknowledgments. The biggest barrier to adoption of machinima as a legitimate vehicle for content creation has been a lack of awareness and a lack of an ecosystem. If more artists understood the options machinima offers, computer animation would experience massive growth, especially in the DIY/amateur sector.
The art of machinima is still young, but computer graphics and animation technology is raising the bar every year, providing a better and better starting point for filmmakers lacking the resources to realize their ideas. There is a lot of potential, both in marketing the idea of realtime 3D cinema and in leveraging current offerings in game and CG technology to create more involving and sophisticated art.