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Old art form bitten by new technology

Continuing from the "recommended reading" thing, I'd like to mention a project my friend Hugh Hancock has just completed. Hugh specializes in Machinima — making movies in virtual reality. He's just released the full-length feature cut of Bloodspell, an epic swords'n'sorcery movie — originally released in 5-10 minute episodes, now watchable as a 90 minute feature film.

(How does machinima work, you ask? Well, in conventional computer animations such as Shrek, the animators use 3D modeling software to pose the figures, then generate a sequence of still frames, one by one. In machinima, using a multi-user VR system — either a game engine such as Neverwinter Nights, or a more specialized tool — the animators prepare scenery, design in-environment avatars, then film the thing in continuous shoots, much as you'd film real actors on a stage set.)

Bloodspell's good fun, but it's also worth looking at as the first full-length example of a new medium. It's got some rough edges: but then again, if you produce a feature movie on a budget of under £10,000 you expect rough edges. (Most of them are down to the animation toolkit Strange Company used — the Neverwinter Nights 1.0 engine, which was state of the art circa 2001, and is now well-understood but some way behind the state of the art.) The important thing to note is that this sort of movie would have been flat-out impossible on that sort of budget, using traditional CGI techniques. It's a triumph of guerilla cinematography, and it points out something really interesting: that the cost of entry to CGI movie-making has dropped way down.

Back in the old days of CGI movies from the likes of Pixar, you'd need 130-300 animators working for 2-3 years on a budget of £20-30M to produce a 90-120 minute feature. Today, you could produce something to the same standard as Shrek using a dozen animators in twelve months, on a budget of £1-2M. And with machinima, the budget floor drops even lower — falling into the high end of graphic novel/comic productions.

Charlie says: go have a look at Bloodspell — it's only a 900-1000Mb download. And remember: this isn't about to replace Hollywood tomorrow, but if Marvell and DC Comics aren't feeling the chill wind down the back of their neck, they're asleep at the switch. Because as streaming internet media players become ubiquitous, this sort of thing — cheap, fast and out of control — could very well be the future of mobile entertainment.




Hmm, Marvell Comics sounds like an interesting crossover. "But at my back I always hear, the Silver Surfer hurrying near"


For the record, Bloodspell isn't even close to the first full-length machinima production. That was probably Mindcrime's four-hour The Seal of Nehahra (2000), made entirely in the original Quake engine.


This is a project I've been working on, and for which I started to teach myself 3d animation.


The new programs are so capable, the only thing really stopping one person from being able to make a high quality feature by themselves is render time, and if Moore's Law continues its course that will be a non-issue very soon.


@2: The whole thing is completely 3d animated ? Including the characters ? Not bad ...


That's a fair point. We're not the first feature in Machinima - actually, I think the first feature-length piece was Devil's Covenant in 1999.

There was a thread on all the feature-length work in Machinima on one of the sites - I think that there were still less than 10, though, counting BloodSpell.


The tech is getting close to my being able to make a movie
by myself, while still working a full time job.

BTW, I just finished "The Atrocity Archives."

Bravo, Charlie. Fucking awesome! Has anybody ever
approached you about the TV or movie rights?

It would make a great movie or series.


I wonder how long it will be before we have machinima fan movies based on popular books or comics? I could see some authors thinking it was cool, and good advertising, and others being pissed if it diluted their control and reduced the value of the movie rights.

Or on a similar note, machinima fan fiction versions of movies and TV shows. Star Wars and Star Trek are the obvious first targets here, but any show or movie is game really.


Interesting--are you speculating/postulating that Machinima shorts will be the (online) form of serial entertainment supplanting comic books? It certainly makes sense, watching serialized comic-type stories in this form would certainly be more compelling than viewing the static panels on the screen. Something to chew over.


Jon: not instead-of but as-well-as.

Current commercial-grade animation costs run to $0.5-1M/hour. That Cartoon Network content is expensive. But if you can slice a zero off the end of the cost of making cartoons -- or rather, animated content -- then all sorts of niche projects suddenly become viable.


Andrew G: It's happening already. I recommend Borg War (one of the other ten or so Machinima feature films) and Consanguinity, a great Buffy fan-series by one of Machinima's rising stars.


On that subject, I wrote a couple of Escapist articles about commercial machinima production: "Red vs. Blue Makes Green" (about the low cost of producing the hit comedy series) and "The French Democracy" (about machinima's complex issues of copyright).


Interesting stuff. Charlie, you have done great things with releasing works on-line; exposure to them has prompted me to buy everything you've written that I can find in a shop. I'd love to watch the movie/series of any of your books, and see you paid handsomely for it too.

But how would you feel if some fans went off and produced, say, Glasshouse or Atrocity Archives as a feature length Machinima movie? Assuming they didn't tell you or pay you for the rights and the first you knew of it was it popping up online? Would it anger you, fill you with joy, make you reach for the bat/lawyer phone?

Would the same principal 'if they can watch it for free they will buy the original' principle work I wonder?


Great movie! I always dreamt about doing something like that with Neverwinter Nights, back when i played it, though i lacked time, scripting skills and endurance to do it. Nice to see some people did.


Phil Foglio-Girl Genius, Zap Godot
Aaron Williams-PS238, Nodwick
Rich and Wendy Pini-Elfquest
Piers Anthony-Xanth
I can't wait to see them!


I remember when Lionhead released its game The Movies, and within a fortnight two French guys had used it to produce a 15-minute film about the then-ongoing race riots in Paris.

Let me run through that again: a fifteen-minute film; made in a fortnight, including the time needed to learn how to use the software; a crew of two; a cost of £30 for the game.

That was two years ago.

This revolution's turning too slowly for my taste.


So, in the future, good movies will be possible with no more than a good writer and an artist with a sharp eye?

...I see why you think the comics peeps should be looking to windward. Add some idoru-type synthespians (Gaiman's new Beowulf movie comes to mind) and things could get interesting.

Interesting as in "mass panic strikes Hollywood, actors; lawyers die of terminal grin disease", anyways. Should be fun to watch. ;-)

PS--I know you nearly died of terminal boredom whilst finishing the last vol, but if there's more tricks in the Eschaton's trans-temporal plutonium cat box, maybe they'd provide enough juice for a short story? Aspiring minds want to know! ;-)


It is the mid-sized comic book publishers that face the biggest shakeup from new 'cartoon' media. Media doesn't pose a threat to Marvel or DC. They have long since realized that they are in the entertainment business, not the comics business.

It seems like the most interesting possibilities for machinima are in using Second Life. Still, there are severe limitations. Peep the speech effects on this one that screened at SXSW and Sundance.

I think there is a machinima game coming out for PS3. It's also worth pointing out that animation tools in general seem to be getting cheaper and easier to use.


"So, in the future, good movies will be possible with no more than a good writer and an artist with a sharp eye?"

That's assuming there will be movies in the future. I'm betting fully immersive virtual reality will turn movies into a 20th century curiosity.


Daniel @17: speech is tough. On the other hand, voice acting should be the first part of the profession to go online. Skype is too patchy and has too much latency right now, but my guess is that given current trends in bandwidth, in a few more years you'll be able to hire voice actors on-line to read/lip synch to your script (or machinima production). Tools like GarageBand have brought what used to be professional audio mastering and mixing capabilities within reach of amateurs; and there've got to be a lot of amateur and part-time actors who'd love to supplement their income doing voice work for $200/hour.

That's assuming there will be movies in the future. I'm betting fully immersive virtual reality will turn movies into a 20th century curiosity.
I'm not, any more than paper-and-pencil roleplaying games or choose-your-own-adventure books made novels a 19th-century curiosity. Interactive entertainment is great, but most people want to sit down and have a story fed to them, with a beginning, middle and end. A story with structure and pacing crafted by a professional like Charlie. That's what we pay him for :) Once the viewer can run around upsetting apple-carts, that all tends to go out of the window. "Narrative" and "play" are both important to humans, but they satisfy different needs, so both will continue to exist.

Plus, simulating reality is expensive. not in terms of cpu, but in terms of art resources. it's a lot cheaper to paint a backdrop (whether a canvas one suspended from the ceiling, or a digital one matted in "in post") suggesting a cityscape, than to actually create 3d models of the same. The movie "magic" works because of the control the director and cameraman have over what is presented to you; you can't peek behind that curtain, over that fence or round that corner where the world hasn't been created.

(And, if you mean non-interactive-but-fully-immersive, those two are in direct opposition, the lack of interactivity breaks the immersion, so you're basically talking about "IMAX+Smellovision" at that point, which has never really taken off :) )


Charlie (@19), one probably doesn't need to wait for bandwidth, with some cunning tools. Use Skype as a "rough draft", while doing a local high-quality recording. When the "director" hears a take she likes, the HQ recording for it can be downloaded seperately and dubbed over later. Everything's in place to do this now, it's just extra effort (and besides, consumer-quality headsets and noisy environments are probably more of a limiting factor for hobby creators). Tracking down good voice talent (and finding a budget to pay for it) is the tricky bit -- we can't all break out the dinero for Ellen McLain :)


(@19) Still, that wouldn't solve the ill lip movement problem inherent to Machinima. No matter how high the quality of the audio, machinima characters always seem to be doing something perverse with their mouths and necks. It's neither naturalistic nor credibly stylized. Machinima seems great for sweeping, atmospheric shots of fantastic landscapes but crap for intimate conversations.

(@19 & 21) studio.odeo.com has a free app for recording audio on-line. I haven't tested it with anything more than a built in mic but it seems like a robust tool.

Microsoft and Adobe are in the process of releasing development tools for making rich media runtime apps that work over the net. It's going to allow you to use highly specialized apps in highly generic device environments -- changing just about everything about current over-the-network production.

In todays world I guess you could record directly into Garage Band from any other online machine using a VNC remote desktop.


Canis@21 - exactly. Actually, this is how we recorded some of the scenes in BloodSpell.

Daniel - I recommend checking out Still Seeing Breen or any of the Team Fortress 2 promos. Good lipsynching is possible in Machinima even now - it's just hard.

(We ignored the problem and just did anime-style lipsynch.)

Charlie@19: Why bother going online to record voice actors? If you're in even a medium-sized city, you have access to a lot of *excellent* actors who will work for very little, and who you can work with in your front room.

Directing actors over the Internet is *hard* - there's so much about even voice direction that's about physical presence and non-verbal cues to get the take right. I don't like doing it at all - we did it a couple of times for more minor roles, but I'd really rather work in the same real-world location.


I assume I'm not giving away too much to say that some of the bit parts were voiced by random aquaintances from down the pub?



They may have done a video on the Paris riots in two weeks, but the information content of the video was about a paragraph, and less if you count the implied compression of "geez, they're going to ham-handedly talk about checkpoints next". DO NOT WANT


Check out RustBoy


Brilliant example of low cost, single man, feature quality animation. And from Dundee too!

---* Bill


Jay@25: Proving something can be done and doing it well are two very different things. The technology is in the hands of the people now: the skills will follow.


Hah! In the credits:

"The Spume Barman: Charlie Stross"

I had almost passed it off as a coincidence until I remembered where I had found the link to the movie.


It's still amazing to me that Microsoft had a product to do virtual moviemaking with digital puppets back in the mid-90s but, as usual, squandered an early lead.