The Future of Machinima 2007 - Essay from Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival

I was asked to write a response to Paul Marino’s 2004 summary of the Machinima scene, from our perspective in 2007, for the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival.

Since they’ve been so kind as to let me re-post it online for people who won’t be at the festival, I thought I’d post it here.

BTW - the Fantastic Film Festival’s Machinima section sounds very cool. Attend if you can. Sadly it’s over the last week of writing this book for us, or we’d be there!

Second BTW - I wrote this a few weeks ago, before fixed its spam problem. However, I still don’t think my comments are inaccurate.

As you read this, it’s 2007, not 2004. “Diary of a Camper” was created more than ten years ago. No major Machinima producer has typed “demorecord” into Quake for almost half that time. And in four months, I personally will have been working in Machinima for a solid decade, watching it change from a hack to a minor gaming hobby to an Internet sensation to - what?

Machinima is in a strange place right now. Machinima techniques are diversifying to the point that it’s hard to even define the medium. Over half the Machinima Film Festival awards in 2006 were won by pieces which made enormously extensive use of conventional 2D animation techniques, layering, rendering and keyframing tiny clips of game animation together. “Edge of Remorse”, which won two awards, barely touched a game engine, merely making use of the art assets of “World of Warcraft” and not shooting in the game itself.

There is no one single Machinima community. Debates rage around “outside-in” Machinima versus “inside-out” - films that use Machinima purely for its technical advantages versus films that are based inside the world and community of the games that they exploit., still the largest Machinima site, has aligned itself firmly with the gaming world, showing “frag videos” and game trailers. Much of the Machinima community has deserted it as a result, and you’re more likely to see an advert for “Brittany Spears Spreading” on the forums than a debate over Depth of Field.

Meanwhile, “top-end” Machinima productions now frequently take years to complete - “Bill and John Part 2”, unquestioned winner of the Machinima Film Festival 2006, took over two years to complete, for a twenty-minute film. “BloodSpell”, my own Machinima feature film, took three years, the same development time as a conventional animated feature.

The glass ceiling of Machinima becomes ever more obvious. Rufus Cubed, the creators of “The Return”, were offered the opportunity to develop their award-winning short into an animated series - the dream of every indie producer. But because “The Return” was set in and used art from “World of Warcraft”, the project depended on the goodwill of the game developer, Blizzard. When they decided that they didn’t want to spend time on a non-game project, Rufus Cubed couldn’t work on the animated series any more, even though there was money waiting to develop it. They were left with no way to do anything with “The Return” but to return to the same unpaid, amateur level they started.

The only obvious exit for most successful Machinima creators is into the games industry. And so more and more talented Machinima producers are hired to produce films for computer games, turning their talent at filmmaking in games to improving interstial cutscenes. It’s a way for them to use the skills they’ve learned and get paid - but their work is unlikely to ever enter the professional film world, and their independent Machinima projects suffer as a result.

The debate over Machinima echoes that over mashups, fanfic and found art as a whole. Some people believe that there should be, or already is, a way for producers to make money from the films they create, even though they use art created for another purpose, without the permission of the creator of that art. Others believe that it is inherently wrong to profit from found art, and demand that any professional Machinima production should create all its own art, characters, sets, and special effects - thus removing one of the major attractions of Machinima creation.

Some few people can make money from slipping through the legal cracks, negotiating with games companies, with a light touch on the tiller and a copyright lawyer on speeddial, but the total number of people employed full-time making Machinima as film rather than game adjunct is less than 25 worldwide.

Technology is starting to catch up with the problem of art creation. In-home motion capture continues to slide tantalisingly closer to reality. The Nintendo Wii shows the potential for Machinima creators to act in their own movies, eliminating the need for expensive, time-consuming, highly technical hand animation. But it’s not here yet. Tools for character creation continue to develop apace - but still tied to game engines with restrictive licenses. Professional Machinima packages have started trickling to market. These products promise to offer the same advantages as game engines for Machinima production - available, modifiable art and a real-time 3D engine - but without the legal hassles or game-engine limitations. But they’re still incomplete or in beta-testing, and we won’t know their true effect until one of the several contenders reaches maturity.

Every few years Machinima hits a strange dead-end point, a point where it must change and evolve. It changed from being “Quake Movies” to being “Machinima”. It changed from being entirely first-person-shooter game based to being a wider technique. And now it’s going to change again.

Will Machinima be the medium of the 21st century? Will it democratise film-making, and do all those other wonderful, utopian things that Paul, I, and many others have written and talked about over the last decade? Or will it become nothing more than a reaction to a truly creative medium, that of games design, with game players creating skits or fan-fiction based on their favourite games, and the promised advantages of Machinima for creation on the creator’s own terms vanishing in a cloud of restrictive licensing and alternative technology?

Or will it just be absorbed into the world of film and animation as a whole, its techniques diluted and enhanced, with the most successful creators embracing the mixed-media methods of “Edge of Remorse” - or indeed “300”? Will we even be able to distinguish what is Machinima and what isn’t, in five years’ time, when “Return 2” finally appears with live-action actors, composited frames, hand-animated monsters and a game-engine background? Will we be replacing “Machinimation” with “Anymation”?

It’s going to be an interesting time.