Machinima in 2007, part 1 - Feature Films and Community Breakdown

It’s that time. The time when we reflect, think back, and consider what we have learned. I’m referring, of course, to the 1st January hangover, when I’m sure I personally will be attempting to remember what happened last night, and considering the concept that next year, I should leave some Laphroaig still in the bottle.

However, some mad fools also use this time to reflect on the year gone by. And this has been an interesting year for Machinima. Machinima for Dummies (of course), Moviestorm, the rise and rise of World of Warcraft (WoW) and Second Life, half the Machinima world disappearing into games companies, and the ongoing fragmentation of the Machinima community.

Let’s go.

This article will be in two parts, today and tomorrow, plus a third part later in the week when Johnnie and I reflect on what might be ahead.

There is no Machinima community

The Machinima world has continued its fragmentation, as I predicted a couple of years ago when I left Machinima.com. (To be fair, that was kinda a gimme.)

The Machinima communities - MPrem, Machinima.com - are incredibly silent. Meanwhile, single-engine Machinima communities - Warcraft Movies, Myndflame, Moviestorm, the various flight-sim, Second Life and Halo communities - go from strength to strength.

There are a couple of reasons for that, I think. Firstly, the range of potential Machinima creation engines is broader than ever before, and those engines have less in common than ever before. There’s not a lot of common ground between a hardcore WoW raider and an equally hardcore Second Life “fashionista”, and with more Machinima than ever being decidedly centered on the issues around that particular game, there’s very little reason for one group to be interested in the output of another.

Added to that, we’ve got the sheer difficulty of popularising video on the Internet right now. If you don’t have a clear and obvious audience (like the WoW community), it’s very easy to find yourself with a tiny or nonexistent audience. Phil “Overman” Rice’s “What I Love About XMas”, for example, has so far collected 600 views on YouTube, despite being one of the best and most innovative pieces of Machinima work this year. Compare that with Oxhorn, for example (another excellent filmmaker), whose own Christmas Special collected 60,000 views in three days . The audience is a powerful, powerful appeal for a filmmaker considering what to make, and an equally powerful disincentive for people who make work that isn’t of interest to their game community.

At the same time, as the available engines develop, the tools and techniques used for each have diverged wildly. WoW filmmaking is centered on post-processing, using captures from within the Warcraft Model Viewer composited like traditional cel animation in post production - a technique that turns out to be surprisingly powerful. Meanwhile, Second Life Machinima creators have to be expert location scouts and networkers, buying clothing and costuming for their productions, as well as digital artists themselves, and must also deal with the hassles of a real film shoot as every one of their actors must be directly controlled by a human. Moviestorm users, meanwhile, work on a timeline controlling an entire world at once, programming actions and navigating a still-very-much-beta tool, acting as an entire film crew themselves.

As a result, most Machinima creators are currently more invested in a single community than they are in filmmaking as a whole. Meanwhile, the hardcore filmmakers who used to make up the backbone of the Machinima community (people like me, the Ill Clan, and Phil Rice), fed up with legal limitations, are mostly flocking to Second Life and Moviestorm, creating their own single-engine or limited-engine groups.

There’s just not that much common ground between Machinima creators in different engines any more, and what there is tends to center around either 3D art or post-production and editing - both areas where there are lively existing communities with more expertise than the Machinima community currently posesses. Some of this is down to the maturity of the Machinima process - 2007 was the first year where Machinima became really pick-up-and-play, and where problems like capturing video from games were truly solved right from the get-go.

These days the Machinifeed is probably the closest thing to a Machinima community. Even people who do cross over the various engines of Machinima tend to only cover a couple - I follow WoW Machinima, of course, as well as Moviestorm, Second Life (yes, I’m watching you…) and periodically Source. Are we losing something from this? I’m not sure. Certainly, there are occasional films that bubble up from the various game communities that have cross-over interest - notably Baron Soosdon’s work in WoW, for example, or Robbie Dingo’s work in SL - but it’s increasingly seeming that there’s just not that much need for a person interested in fantasy films, for example, to keep up with the Halo community, or the mysterious work of the flight sim Machinima developers.

And, of course, it has all gotten bigger - 2007 was probably the first year where it was really impossible to keep track of all the Machinima out there. Halomovies.org lists 3-4 new Halo movies a day. Warcraft Movies, likewise, shows 4 or more new “storyline” movies every day.

But will we ever see an overall Machinima site again, covering all engines and all genres? I don’t know. Certainly, one of the big trends of 2007 was the disappearance of anything like.

Feature Filmapalooza

2007 has been the year of the Machinima feature film. With 4 feature-length movies coming out - Tales of the Past III, Stolen Life, War of the Servers and my own BloodSpell - the face of Machinima creation has really changed over the last year.

All of these movies are very visually sophisticated - huge battle scenes, complex camerawork, the works. It looks like Machinima is finally living up to its potential as a way for indie filmmakers and hobbyists to make movies that would have previously been off limits to everyone but Hollywood.

Why? Well, some of it is just co-incidence: BloodSpell just happened to get finished at feature length in the same year as Stolen Life. But the number of these films, and particularly the other two, which had noticably shorter production times than either BloodSpell or Stolen Life, show a definite trend: Machinima production is getting a lot faster.

I was amazed at the speed of production of WoW Machinima myself, back in Feburary, when Johnnie and I produced a piece about Fair Trade in World of Warcraft (which just passed the 100,000 viewer mark - woo!). We managed to produce the piece from start to finish in two days. By comparison, Ozymandias, which is about the same length, took around 3 weeks to make in 1999.

And production isn’t going to slow down. Moviestorm is already showing signs of being the fastest and easiest environment yet - I was able to produce a rough draft of an extremely complex music video, using an early beta, in a single evening. Halo 3 is apparently very fast and user-friendly. Whilst no-one really seems to be using Medieval 2: Total War yet, the tools there allow the creation of huge battles in absolutely tiny timescales.

Will we get to the point where it’s possible to create a feature film using Machinima in less time than it takes to write a novel? Well, we ain’t too far off.

Tomorrow I’ll delve into legal issues, hirings and more.