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Straight From Video

Machinima is digital filmmaking that uses scenery and characters culled from computer games. Its roughness is 'part of the charm.'

October 11, 2005|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

On a recent foray to scout movie locations, Noah Eichen found a cozy log cabin nestled in a lush grove and surrounded by gentle hills.

"It's a good house, and the light's OK," he said, snapping a picture for future reference. "It's dawn right now, and the hills will be a good place to put the cameras. It's got nice vantage points."

The vista Eichen surveyed exists only on the computer servers of Sony Computer Entertainment, maker of the popular "EverQuest II" online game. Over the last month, Eichen, a production coordinator for G-Net Media, has scouted 20,000 spots in "EverQuest II" for a new kind of moviemaking that relies on the guts of video games to produce animated -- often humorous -- shorts.

Called machinima -- a portmanteau of machine and cinema -- the movies use the backdrops and characters from video games. The game characters are virtual marionettes in the hands of directors who manipulate them with a keyboard or game controller, record the action and dub the voices later.

Long an underground pursuit, machinima has made its way into music videos, TV shows and commercials. Creating a film using video game components not only is cheap, it appeals to both movie buffs and computer game enthusiasts.

"We're broadening the demographic with machinima," said Evan Shapiro, general manager of the Independent Film Channel, which is airing short machinima segments between feature films. "We're taking film purists and introducing them to a new form of entertainment. We're also drawing in a gaming audience."

For a generation raised on video games, machinima is a familiar visual vernacular.

"We're seeing a great deal more interest from more mainstream media," said Paul Marino, co-founder of the Machinima Academy of Arts & Sciences and author of "The Art of Machinima." "Filmmakers are starting to look at machinima as a legitimate outlet for creative expression."

The Sundance Film Festival this year had a workshop on machinima. The Museum of the Moving Image in New York will host the third annual Machinima Film Festival on Nov. 12. And the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York has held machinima premieres, the last one in August for the third season of the cult hit series "Red vs. Blue: Director's Cut."

For the creators of "Red vs. Blue," Lincoln Center was an unexpected destination.

Mike "Burnie" Burns and Matt Hullum met in college at the University of Texas when Hullum was a film student and Burns was a computer science major. The two spent $9,000 to make a movie in 1997 that they submitted to film festivals and got nowhere. After graduating from college in 2001, Burns wrote game reviews for a site called DrunkGamer.com. One of his reviews was for "Halo," Microsoft Corp.'s popular game franchise. To make his reviews funnier, Burns would sometimes do tricks inside the game and upload the images alongside his reviews.

"One day, I was trying to set up a funny situation for the review," Burns said, "so I inserted my voice and had these characters talk to each other. I ... realized it looked a lot like a [computer-generated] movie. That's when it hit me -- I could use this to shoot a movie."

He and Hullum teamed up again and shot a 10-minute skit.

Within weeks, it was being downloaded a million times a month. Now, the weekly series has more than 64 episodes and is seen by a million viewers on the Internet. "Red vs. Blue" -- so named for the color of the characters' futuristic armor -- features faceless soldiers who trade ironic quips and insults in a desert called Blood Gulch. "It's smartly written, edited and directed," said Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society and former communications director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which has held three sold-out screenings of "Red vs. Blue." "It's just really good absurdist sketch comedy."

Early machinima was not always focused on entertainment. The movement has its roots in "Doom," a breakout game released in 1994 that allowed players to record snippets of game action. Most of these recordings were used either to show off feats or demonstrate nifty tricks within the game, a sort of how-to video for other players.

The first machinima narrative was produced in 1996. Called "Diary of a Camper," the movie told the tale of a lone player taking on a group of fighters.

Machinima's aesthetics reflect its amateur roots. In "Red vs. Blue," the characters' feet don't quite touch the ground. Because the characters are encased in armor, viewers don't see their lips moving. Instead, their helmets bob up and down when they speak. And their movements make them seem more like cardboard cutouts than interplanetary soldiers.

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