Machinima for Dummies
“Machinima is a very simple concept. It's the moment when anyone – and this has happened over and over again – looks at a modern 3d computer game and says, “We could make a film in that!”
Similar to the advent of digital video a decade ago, Machinima, “the technique of making films inside virtual realities”, is poised to become a mainstream art form. Beginning a little over ten years ago in the game mod community as a way to record player duels, it is today a more sophisticated technique that thousands of filmmakers embrace and game companies support.
Major animation festivals are including Machinima as a category for competition, there are two major Machinima festivals, one in the USA and another in Europe, The Electric Sheep Company, a professional Machinima film company, is creating a Machinima segment for an episode of the television series CSI:New York, HBO has recently purchased a Machinima film created in the virtual world of Second Life and a major new Machinima tool, Moviestorm, will be released to the public this fall. There is certainly no more opportune time to publish a complete guide to Machinima than the present. “Machinima for Dummies”, published in September by Wiley Publishing, is immediately the essential book for learning about this nascent art form.
Written with obvious pleasure and wit by two well-known and important members of the Machinima community, Hugh Hancock and Johnnie Ingram, Machinima for Dummies contains a wealth of practical information , much of it learned from a decade of practice making films via their own professional Machinima film company, Strange Company. The authors great enthusiasm and love for Machinima make this book a pleasure to read. And Wiley Publishing should be commended for commissioning this book and for seeing it to print.
Machinima for Dummies is written in five parts: Introducing Machinima, Getting Serious, Advanced Machinima, Pro Machinima and the Part of Tens. The basic pattern of the book is to start at the most basic level and then advance to more complicated topics at the end. An incredibly smart idea was to have the reader create their own Machinima from software included on the DVD, as the first activity in the book. So, by page 32 you've placed characters on a set, animated them, added voices, set up shots on a timeline and rendered the final scene. Not only does this give the new filmmaker confidence that Machinima is something he/she can create, the short scene nicely sets up the next chapter on the basics of filmmaking.
“Story techniques are tools, nothing more. You can use them if they help your work; you can ignore them if you feel you need to”
After getting your feet wet as a director, the book outlines the entire filmmaking process in “filmmaking 101”. You'll learn the basics of blocking, camera positioning, aspect ratios, shot types and the extremely important concept of “the line” and other important filmmaking essentials. This chapter is followed by one on the basics of storytelling and scriptwriting (Hugh talks about this section in the audio interview accompanying this review). Written primarily from the conceptual framework of Robert McKee's book Story, Hugh does a masterful job of condensing what is difficult to understand in Mckee's somewhat dogmatic (but extremely popular) book. This chapter is worth the price of the book by itself and should be read and re-read by new and established Machinima filmmakers as the story element in most Machinima films leaves much to be desired.
Chapter 5:Engines, Engines Everywhere is an excellent (and much needed) overview of the most useful game engines for Machinima film creation. The authors rate 16 major game engines using criteria like “diversity of content”, “ease of use”, and “community” to mention a few. The accompanying breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of each engine is spot-on and extremely helpful not only for the new Machinima filmmaker, but for established ones looking to branch out into a new style. Game engines like the Sims2, Grand Theft Auto, Halo 2 and Half Life 2 are examined in depth. And most engines are given an entire page on the pros and cons of using it as a Machinima platform.
“Modern-day game engines rock, but they're also constructed from a limited palette. At some point your imagination will outstrip the available characters, sets, or props, and you'll be forced to do one of two things: change your story to fit the game or change the game to fit the story”
The middle section of the book is devoted to a very thorough step by step account of how to create a film in Sims2 and in the extremely popular World of Warcraft. These sections provide a balanced, easy to follow introduction to working in these excellent game engines. Chapter 10: Distributing Your Movie, covers the entire process of rendering your film and distributing it (primarily on the internet). A comparison of various video formats (AVI, Quicktime, WMV) and the methods used to encode them provides invaluable information and should be read by all Machinima filmmakers. I've been struggling with this encoding issue myself and the chapter answered many questions. This is one of the best chapters in the book. Chapter 13: Sound Design is good basic introduction to sound editing for Machinima. The addition of a sound “tips” section by well-regarded Machinima filmmaker, Phil Rice, is much appreciated. As is an earlier “top tips for Sims2 filmmaking” with Kheri Batal and Michelle Pettit-Lee (whose film “Snow Witch” is included on the DVD).
Chapter 15: Machinima and the Law, is in-depth coverage of the legal aspects of creating Machinima (a chapter I've read several times now). Not only do the authors cover the current legal status of Machinima and the facts you need to know in order to understand the law concerning Machinima , but they present very specific examples of what could happen if you create a film that infringes on copyright. I was very impressed with the section devoted to “making legal Machinima” and how to use “Creative Commons” art or music. And while the authors claim that the chapter is not legal advice (they have to do this), it certainly sounds like good advice to me, legal or otherwise.
“Machinima is a very gray area legally right now. ...Even the RIAA, busily suing file sharers, has so far stayed clear of Machinima videos made to an RIAA piece of music. And most importantly, the games companies and publishers have, thus far, not aimed any lawsuits at Machinima creators”
The final section of the book (Part IV), Pro Machinima, is a very useful one for more experienced Machinima filmmakers as it covers the new, free Machinima tool, Moviestorm, in great detail. You'll also find out how to use the open source tool, Blender, to create and import simple models into Sims2 (importing models into any engine is fraught with hair-pulling difficulty), with modifying game tools to get a game engine to sit up and bark, and with a very basic lesson in how to create a tool to use in modifying a game engine. I was surprised at how (relatively) simple it was to for Hugh to create a specific tool for the Neverwinter Nights engine which he used in creating the series “Bloodspell”. He walks you through the step-by-step process of coming up with a lip-sync tool for an engine that does not have such a tool. So much of it is common sense detective work that you wonder how many other engines can be hacked in this manner. Another chapter easily worth the price of the book.
I'd also like to mention that the accompanying DVD for the book contains a complete version of the new Machinima creation tool, Moviestorm, along with many other useful freeware programs like Virtualdub, Celtix (a neat script writing tool) and the free audio tool, Audacity. You'll also find 6 high quality Machinima films that are discussed in the text. Too bad rights couldn't be wrangled for more films like “The Journey” and “Hardly Workin”, but they are pretty easily available online.
While I believe that Machinima for Dummies is the best book yet written on Machinima, it does have some flaws. According to Hugh, approximately a fifth of the book was cut by the editors at Wiley. The bulk of the cuts were made to the graphics and illustrations that accompany the text. The reduced graphics and their poor reproduction (many of them are gray and hard to read) often leave the reader with an illustration for the beginning of a lesson, but none at the end to compare his/her work with. And the effectiveness of including a section on script formatting is undercut when you only show 5 lines of a typical script instead of an entire page. Also cut was a final chapter on “Machinima and the Future”. I missed this chapter because by the end of the book the authors voices are so familiar that it's disappointing not to have them “wrap up the show”, so to speak. And while I suppose the top ten lists at the end are standard Dummies tropes, I didn't find them particularly useful. Cut from this section was a list of ten reasons to create Machinima, a much more useful topic than the slightly sarcastic “Ten Ways to Ruin Your Machinima Movie”.
Being an avid reader and researcher myself, I was disappointed that there was no bibliography or list of sources cited at the end of such a technical book, although, thankfully, there is an index. I think it's always better to have information like this listed on one or two pages so the reader can find the information easily. And failing to list the two previous books written on Machinima (3D Game-Based filmmaking: The Art of Machinima by Paul Marino and Machinima by Dave Morris, Matt Kelland and Dave Lloyd) has to be an editorial slip since I know that Hugh and Johnnie both praise and support these books.
A slightly more serious flaw is the omission of an in-depth chapter on Machinima filmmaking in the virtual world Second Life. Second Life is a rapidly maturing environment for creating Machinima. Linden Labs (the creators of Second Life) have made a significant effort to attract Machinima filmmakers and the toolset is growing exponentially. Millions of investment dollars are pouring in to SL. Machinima companies like The Electric Sheep Company are being hired to create content in Second Life for major television studios. It's entirely possible that films made in Second Life could become more commercially viable than those made in other game engines. And while the authors devote several paragraphs in the book to evaluating Second Life as a Machinima engine, many of their criticisms are debatable or no longer valid. Still, choices have to be made in advance for a book like this. Any technology tool can change radically over the course of a year's development. I hope that the authors will offer a second, extended look at Second Life on their Machinima for Dummies blog. I think many Machinima filmmakers would welcome such an effort.
“There's no point using Machinima when you don't need it's unique advantages”
Machinima for Dummies is an important book not only for the Machinima community, but for the new potential filmmaker who is only just hearing about the art form for the first time. If Machinima is going to become the popular art form that it deserves to be, it will be because books like Machinima for Dummies educate new filmmakers not only in the craft of filmmaking, but in how much damn fun it is to make movies like this. I only wish I had more space in this review to remark on all of the interesting subjects covered in this fascinating book. Machinima for Dummies establishes a standard for wellcrafted Machinima films that earns it a place, dog-eared and underlined, on my desktop Machinima workstation for years to come.
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Ricky Grove [gToon], Contributing Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
October 23, 2007
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