Book Review – Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking

July 29, 2012 11:52 pm

Tags: Book Review, Machinima, Second Life

machinimabook1.jpgBook Review – Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking

Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking
Phylis Johnson and Donald Pettit
Foreword by Persia Bravin

McFarland Publishing
Print ISBN: 978-0-7864-6171-4
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-7864-8838-4
8 photos, notes, bibliographies, index
327pp. Softcover (6 x 9) 2012


Machinima is now approximately 15 years old. It has evolved from a purely gamers "demo scene" to, on one hand, a professional, multimillion dollar industry (see producing a wide variety of popular game-based throw away content, and on the other hand, dozens of amateur satellite communities who support and share machinima films made in game and non-game software programs, like Moviestorm, iClone and Muvizu.

One particular area of machinima creation that has elicited a lot of interest in the last several years is the virtual world of Second Life. Not quite a game, but not quite a typical software program, it's an enormous virtual world which allows users to build any kind of content they like (for a price). The variety of environments, characters and objects created by users in Second Life are, quite literally, staggering. Machinima creation in Second Life has grown rapidly over the last several years. Many machinima groups like the Machinima Artists Guild have helped new users create films of unusual originality.

Phylis Johnson and Donald Pettit in Second Life

"Second Life's true advantage is its ability to provide a plethora of virtual filming locations or, at the other extreme, a blank canvas upon which one can build an environment quite inexpensively."
-Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking

A new book recently published by McFarland, titled Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking, examines the machinima phenomenon, but with a special emphasis on Second Life. The authors are Phylis Johnson and Donald Pettit. Phylis is professor at the Radio-Television Department at Southern Illinois University and Donald is the CEO of a media company, LoweRuno Productions, and the founder of the Machinima Artists Guild.

In the introduction, the authors discuss several different definitions/explanations of machinima before laying out their own particular framework, which is to "concentrate on the storytelling power of machinima." After the point of view of the book is established, the first chapter of the book, titled "Virtual Filmmaking," focuses primarily on the practical aspects of machinima filmmaking such as sound, script and post production. The chapters for this first part are:

  • The Right Stuff: Geared Up to Make Machinima
  • Sounding Out the Story Line
  • Tell Me a Story
  • Characters Come to Life
  • Setting, Lighting and Composition
  • Post-Production: Bing Bang Boom
  • Celebrating Machinima: It's Show Time!
  • The White Pigeon: A Machinima Example
  • The Fine Print (by Todd Herriman)
  • Expression Through Machinima: The Virtual Classroom (by Byran Carter)

Each of these chapters also have smaller sections of "comments" by noted machinima filmmakers and artists like Chantal Harvey, Pooky Amsterdam, Larkworthy Antfarm, 1angelcares Writer, Johathan Pluskota and Jay Jay Jegathesan.

Introduction of book with Dreams of a Geisha film still

"This is the first book-length exploration into the merits of modern machinima filmed in Second Life and other massive multi-player role-playing games like World of Warcraft and The Sims.....the book seeks to share those machinima that move beyond mere a archiving of action footage"
-Dr. Phylis Johnson & Donald Petitt, Machinima Artists Guild

The authors draw on examples from many types of machinima, not just Second Life. They also reference popular films and television shows. I was delighted to see women being acknowledged as powerful creators of machinima stories, especially in Second Life (see Chantal Harvey). Sound was extremely well covered in the "Sounding Out the Story Line" chapter, with excellent advice on recording voices, creating a sound-scape and many other practical tips for creating good sound in a machinma film. Phylis Johnson's short piece in the chapter, "The Soundscape of the American Western," is a great inspiration to me and led me to a remarkable book on sound: R. Murray Schafer's Tuning of the World (1977). "The Soundscape of the American Western" alone is worth the price of the book.

I'd like to mention also the chapter titled "The Fine Print" which is an examination by copyright expert, Todd Herriman, of the legal aspects of creating machinima. This is a subject that the machinima community at large needs to understand better if filmmakers and producers want to own their own content. One of the advantages (as the authors point out) of Second Life machinima is that with conscientious effort in getting permission to film at locations you do not own, Linden Labs, who owns Second Life, has made it very clear that filmmakers own their own works and can do what they like with them. This isn't true of most game-based machinima and the legal issues are still unresolved for filmmakers. Todd Herriman's walk-through of this legal mine-field is the best I've ever read and should be required reading for all machinima filmmakers, no matter what their platform.

Still from the machinima film Pixelated Truth

"There are no limits for what machinima can be used for, but with any medium you have to think - is this the appropriate medium for this particular audience and project? I think radio/audio drama can be powerful (i.e., Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). All the interviews we did with people for the book – we recorded them via machinima. But really, the audio was the critical element in this case. Always remember what is your intent with your project. The medium can be the message, as McLuhan, told us, but a good story should not be overshadowed by the medium"
-Phylis Johnson, email sent to author

The second half of Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking is composed of extensive interviews with seven well-known machinima filmmakers. The filmmakers are:

There are basically two methods of machinima production: the single director, who primarily uses scripting to animated cameras and characters inside of a video game or standalone machinima software package, and the virtual filmmaker, who directs films using virtual actors that they film inside of a virtual world or multi-player game world. And while the authors of Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking tend to focus on the latter production method, I was very glad to see filmmakers who work in single director mode being interviewed.

Women are an important part of the machinima community, despite the fact that the medium has a history of being dominated by male interests and concerns (translate "guns and violence"). Kate Fosk and Decorgal have both made significant contributions to the machinima community and their interviews were my favorites in this section of the book. Decorgal's discussion of gender and machinima ("...women contribute to machinima by offering a different voice") is among my favorite parts of the book.

Two extensive round-table discussions, conducted by Phylis and Donald, complete this excellent contemporary study of machinima. The first topic of discussion is "Terminology, Technology and Practice" and the participants include Alley McNally, Asil Ares, Evie Fairchild, Cisko Vandeverre, Pooky Amsterdam and Tikaf Viper. The second topic of discussion (and my favorite) is "Collaboration, Commericalization and Content" and the panelists are 1angelcares Writer, Code-Warrior Carling, Evie Fairchild, Clover Fenwitch, Gwenette Writer, Joel Savard, LaPiscean Liberty, Kara Trapdoor, Gene Williams, Pamela Clift and Suzy Yue.

Iain Friar and Kate Fosk, hosts at the Machinima Expo

Final Thoughts

Phylis Johnson and Donald Pettit have put together one of the best and most interesting books on machinima currently available. Their choice to use Second Life as their platform to examine virtual filmmaking might seem somewhat narrow at first, but after finishing this very thoughtful book, I think it was an inspired choice. Virtual filmmaking includes the notion of a modern digital community working together to create art and entertainment that interests/inspires them. No other community in contemporary machinima is as active and creative as that of Second Life.

Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking is an important addition to the growing body of scholarship and writing on machinima as an art form. It is written in such a way that anyone can learn more about this fascinating modern digital art form. And, best of all, I believe the book will inspire readers to seek out the films mentioned and perhaps to start creating machinima of their own.

McFarland, as usual, has designed the book very well. The book has a wonderful cover and the layout/font choices are very good. Probably too few photographs, but adding more would have made the book too expensive. I love actual books, but this title might be just a bit better as an e book, which you can purchase via amazon and other major e book sites. I wish McFarland had created a download space on their website page for this book. With no CD containing film examples and recorded roundtables, the next best thing would have been to direct the reader to McFarland's website for this info. Certainly Focal Press and other publishers are doing this.

Still, McFarland deserves praise for publishing such an interesting and well-written book on a subject that is becoming increasingly more relevant and interesting. Most of our media is focused on the pro animation industry, but often far more challenging and personal work is being done by machinima filmmakers using low-cost tools like Second Life.

I'm so glad that Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking is available to help machinima filmmakers get better and to inspire beginners to start making their own personal machinima.



McFarland's main page for the book is here. You can also check Phylis Johnson's blog here and Donald Petitt's website for more info. The book can be ordered via McFarland or through any good bookstore.

While it was delivered too late for me to include in my review, Henry Lowood and Michael Nitsche's The Machinima Reader is a very good companion piece to Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking. It's a more academic book, but still quite readable. Several essays are foundation level scholarship for machinima studies. 19 essays cover the history, technology, performance and pedagogy of machinima. Highly recommended.

My thanks to McFarland for making Machinima: The Art and Practice of Virtual Filmmaking available. I'd also like to thank Phylis Johnson for her stimulating answers to several of my pesky questions. I hope to publish the full interview with her on my own blog in the near future.

Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff 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.




July 30, 2012

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