Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Machinima Application Design Requirements, Take One

Examples of Machinima have finally gone viral, such as Overman's Male Restroom Etiquette, which got over a million downloads from YouTube the other day. It was created mostly using the engine and assets of Will Wright's The Sims 2.

There has been much talk of "Hey, this will forever change how we make film!" but before we get carried away, let's think about some of the challenges and requirements of an ideal platform for making movies inexpensively.

* Assets

A primary problem of Machinima is the limited number of existing rigged characters (actors), props, costumes, and environments available in any given engine. The easiest are Sims 2, Second Life, and a few others with communities making things in their spare time. The most flexible are engines where one can model using any available tools, such as Unreal, Panda3D, Blender), but require a lot of skill, time and large teams to produce decent work.

A problem with prefabricated assets is that they follow a particular aesthetic. Sure, you've got a lot of objects to play with in The Sims, but they all look Sims-y. What if you want a dark, noir look? What if you want black & white? Or you want it to look and feel like a movie or video, with gorgeous lighting? You'll end up needing to fix things in post, which can be done, but that adds a lot to the cost. A director has limited choices in any pre-existing game engine.

Currently, low-cost modeling software programs are too primitive. They do not help a 3-D artist (much less a Machinima director) be an artist at a high, conceptual level. Photographers now have means (to some extent) to alter their works far above the level of pixels of color -- they can use adverbs and similes via Photoshop filters. High end (expensive) software is beginning to use genetic algorithms, advanced auto-rigging, computational geometry techniques, and novel painting techniques (like Zbrush) but it will be a few years before these are available in low-end or free software. (Though from what I've seen, many of the techniques being incorporated into Will Wright's next game, Spore could be adopted into inexpensive content creation tools even sooner. Something along the lines of this.)

* Control

As a puppeteer, my biggest gripe with typical game engines is the lack of decent control. Even Susanne Vega commented (via her Avatar) in Second Life, that the experience of performing in SL was like playing with puppets at home with her kids, only that she couldn't move hers how she wanted. Traditional gamepads and joysticks are good for position and for triggering canned poses, but software has not been made that lets them become a means of performance beyond simple humorous videogame-y moves.

Sims offers a large number of "canned" behaviors, which I believe is one reason why Male Restroom Ettiquette did so well. Sure, it could have been done in Halo with expressionless soldiers. But how much funnier to see characters holding themselves in agony as they wait for a toilet, a behavior all-too-familiar in the Sims?

* Puppeteering / Live Action, vs. Animation and Layered Editing

In music, there are sequencer software programs meant for explicitly laying down tracks, and editing them. This is akin to the Beatles doing take after take per song on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band, then painstakingly crafting it with effects, filters, sound effects, overdubs, and other production techniques until it worked.

Then there are programs like Ableton Live, meant for triggering musical events or playing in real-time. This can be a lot more spontaneous, like improvisational jazz or improvisational theatre.

Right now, with most game engines, the tools are more akin to puppeteering / live Action then they are full fledged animation and video editing platforms. Most machinima is edited after the fact, the end result being a video. (Would it be possible to do a LIVE Machinima piece? I think so.)

* Content / Storytelling

So what kinds of stories and content can be made with machinima? Over the last hundred years, film has evolved to cover the gamut of topics - romance, horror, drama, comedy, history, sex, religion, documentary, science, you name it. Videogames, so far at least, are largely limited to people, monsters and robots running around with guns, battle-axes or cars.

For machinima to really be significant, we're going to need more assets, and far better control over the characters if they are to be compelling. The democratization of tools for editing video and sound have already made filmmaking easier. The same for tools that make assets will help tremendously.

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posted by Brian at 12:56 PM


Blogger Booklad said...

No one in the machinima community I'm a part of is saying that MRE is the second coming. More apt is the notion that it will inspire many non-gamers to start making their own films. Overman has told me via email that the great majority of responses to his film have come from outside the machinima community.

As for the limitations of machinima at the present, you make some very good points. Both lack of assets and poor animation control have always been issues in machinima. I'd add lip-sync to that list. A relatively recent program for machinimators is helping to overcome these limitations: IClone by Reallusion. In addition to having lots of original assets the entire Poser community (which is huge) has content that can be imported into IClone. A motion editor (simplified) is included. I believe other software companies will be creating machinima tools that will go a long way towards overcome these obstacles you mention. It's only a matter of time before someone like Adobe or Microsoft gets into the act.

But I don't think the real problem with machinima is with assets or animations. It's a lack of imagination. Too many films are simply fan boy flicks or copies of other popular media. There's really only a handful of people taking the medium seriously. And literally one or two people in machinima are actually creating experimental or avant garde works (something I think machinima can do very well).

Machinima is really a very young art form and needs time to develop. Your call for better tools is well taken. I hope filmmakers will also consider how the medium can be used to create something unique.


October 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tangent to the topic, but: so what do you think of Panda 3D? I'm trying to decide whether or not to buy it, and am mostly on the side of "yes".

October 06, 2006  
Blogger Overman said...

Nice article, Brian. You are right on for what machinima needs right now. Thanks for the mention.

October 08, 2006  

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