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Introducing ... Death Knight Love Story, evolution of Machinima

I mentioned on Sunday that I had been in the middle of a death march - and here's the reason why.

Five years ago, I decided to move my film-making to using motion capture technology.

At the time, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft, and Blizzard had just made the unique, brave move to release an official license allowing users to make Machinima without sitting in a legal quagmire. And wanting to support that, I decided to set my test mocap movie in the WoW universe.


So I came up with the idea of a love story between a character who could be a WoW hero, and one of the raid bosses of the game. It's rather a "Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are dead"-ing of the game's plot - a separate epic love story neatly slotted into the cracks of the official game narrative.

At the time, I was chatting to Chris Jones, a friend of mine who had just managed to get his short film onto the Oscar shortlist. Chris suggested that I - and indeed Machinima creators at large - should be trying to cast famous actors in our movies - and given his success, I thought "why not give it a go?"

So, I started at the top, and gave Gail Stevens a call - the casting director behind Slumdog Millionaire, Narnia, Zero Dark Thirty, and dozens of other famous movies.

I was, naturally, expecting the firm but polite equivalent of the phrase "WTF? Lol." after I explained my crazy gollum-mocap-suit, based-on-a-game idea - and so was somewhat startled when she was instead very keen on the film. And suddenly, I had moved from "funky little test film" to "Do you see Joanna Lumley in this role?"

I did, in fact, see Joanna in the role - and so did she.


A few months later, we'd cast Brian Blessed as Arthas, the Lich King. Joanna Lumley and Jack Davenport were playing Lady Blaumeaux and Sir Zeliek, two characters from the WoW Naxxramas raid who play leading roles in the DKLS story. And Anna Chancellor plays Miria, the resurrected heroine of the piece.

Needless to say, this meant I had to rather raise my sights as far as intended quality went. And so, my little test film became what I hoped would be my breakout work - and over the next five (!) years, I worked to refine and improve it. We found amazing animators to complement our motion capture. We asked a BAFTA-nominated composer to compose the Kurosawa-influenced score. And we worked with historical martial arts experts to develop our action scenes.

And today, it's finally finished.

You can watch Death Knight Love Story for free online at . It's available both to stream and to torrent - since I'd rather take advantage of amazing new technology than try and get it banned.

Enjoy, and I'd love to hear what you think! If you fancy sharing the film, suggesting press we should get in touch with, or indeed writing a piece yourself, that would be awesome - and please do get in touch at in that case, as I'm very happy to assist with images, interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and so on.

Thanks to Charlie for letting me share this on his blog, btw!



Ok, I can't watch it on my work machine, but I can at least say that I'm impressed by your main cast.


Wow. Congratulations. And if there's ever a case of being potentially too successful, then this sounds like a candidate.

(And like Paws I will have to wait till I get home before actually watching even your trailer.)


Is it necessarily to be familiar with World of Warcraft in order to watch the movie?


We tried very hard to make sure that it was possible to understand Death Knight Love Story without knowing the WoW universe, so hopefully you should be able to enjoy it without having played the game.


Not bad. A bit cheesy, but great voices.

Not sure about the (thankfully brief) death knight sex, probably doesn't help that I really don't like anything to do with death knights, and WoW graphics are really starting to show their age now.

Anyway, since no-one else has, I'll just leave this here:

Maybe my rogue bias is showing, but nothing has come close to that machinima-wise yet.

If the J-pop annoys you then turn music off, but I think it really fits.


As one half of a (former) pair of married Death Knights1, I'm now wondering how it would have played had the pair in the film been Gnomes as we were.

Should you wish to do comedy …

More seriously, I'd agree with steve35 that the Warcraft graphics engine does look rather lacking next to the current crop. Elder Scrolls Online (and Skyrim before it) actually manages to convey story through body language and expression in a way that is presumably pretty difficult with the Blizzard engine. Are you pretty locked in to a particular engine, or if ES/Zenimax allowed could you migrate?

1 My actual wife I'll have you know.


Shilling for our guest blogger here, he's got another guest post on another blog which talks about how his experiences in making this movie have shed light on how videogame budgets go crazy:


Hugh, are you familiar with the EVE Online set machinima series called Clear Skies?

Exteriors were shot in EVE, I think on the test server, and interiors were done using Half Life. The last and third film in the series had a couple of pros involved and wound up with an IMDB entry.


I read the post you linked to about spiraling budgets.

OGH has talked about the effort that goes into getting good as a writer. There's the old saw about needing 10,000 hours of practice to really get good at something, another famous author said you have to write about a million words before you've gotten good at your craft.

That all being said, the iterative built-it-and-chuck-it model seems fairly wasteful. I've seen behind-the-scenes on some very impressive films and rigorous planning can cut down on the waste. Granted, these are professionals who have already had their learning bumps and bruises on prior projects. Storyboards lay out the flow of the movie, the writers keep going over the dialogue and important scenes, workshopping it until things make sense. JMS of Babylon 5 fame said he was able to deliver a champagne product on a beer budget because they had scripts weeks in advance and had a proper schedule. The usual show tends to be more chaotic with lots of last-minute changes and overtime pay for the crew. Failure to plan, planning to fail, etc. His show had half the budget of the Treks that were airing at the time and I feel the product was generally far more watchable. (DS9 fans can argue with that; Voyager fans, you cannot and you know it.)

Executive meddling seems to be the usual case of having to throw away half a completed movie and start over. The execrable World War Z reshot the entire completed third act because executives felt it was testing poorly. GRR Martin of Game of Thrones fame had to basically chuck half a completed novel and start over because he didn't have his plot straight. Another book bloated until it underwent literary mitosis. This tale just doesn't grow in the telling, it metastasized.

Getting back around to putting this into some form of a question, how much of this waste do you think is the cost of doing business, learning on the job as it were, and how much is down to plain old poor planning and self-inflicted errors?


@gmuir77 - I can only really speak to my own experience on this one, but said experience is that the amount of "throw it away and do it again" depends entirely on the project, and how perfectionist you're planning to be on that project.

For example, on Death Knight Love Story, I had something that I could have released less than a year into the project. It was terrible - as my focus group reluctantly informed me - but I could have released it!

On BloodSpell, my feature film, meanwhile, we threw virtually nothing away. The story worked the first time around, and we just ran with it. On the feature-length version I did some tinkering with the intro, but that was about it.

My understanding is that much the same is true in prose - some stories come out more or less in one long run, whilst others require tinkering, rewrites, and so on. The only difference is that in the film world, one has to spend considerably more money and time making the damn thing before one gets to find out whether it works...

@pilot-moondog - Yes, I know the guys behind Clear Skies, and remember them releasing the first one way back when. Fantastic work.

@bellingman - The issue is less one of technology and more one of legal issues.

Given the appropriate clearances, I could start work on a Skyrim Machinima piece tomorrow. 3D data is 3D data, and I've already done some of the preliminary research on using the Skyrim engine - which I would love to do.

Unfortunately, if I was to do that, I'd be completely unprotected by law, and essentially would be creating a film that would be entirely controlled by Bethesda/Zenimax. Bethesda have never, to my knowledge, released any license allowing fans to make videos from their works, so my film would be a "derivative work" under copyright, granting them full control of it.

That, as many sad examples from Machinima history show, is not a situation likely to produce hugs and puppies.

As a result, I only use games where there is a video license in place. That's getting more and more common, which is nice.

@steve35 - Yes, Blind is great. Some fantastic character animation in particular. I wish the guy behind it had produced more subsequently.


Datum on TIAADIA:

The novel that eventually became "Singularity Sky" went through multiple drafts over 5 years. The finished product is 117,000 words long; I left about 130,000 extra words on the cutting room floor, cutting-and-rewriting the second half twice.

"Iron Sunrise" was a lot better: I had to chuck about 40-50,000 words (final length: 140,000 words).

These days I hold a one-person self-kicking-arse-contest if I have to cut-and-chuck more than two scenes (about 2-3000) words in a 100,000 word novel. However individual scenes may receive iterative through-edits that replace lots of individual words or phrases (maybe 10% is normal?) during the drafting process, and if a scene doesn't fit I usually try to re-work it so it serves some other purpose. For example, the structure of a two-person dialog can remain remarkably similar even if you have to re-write what they're saying and even change the identity of one of the protagonists, because the beat/rhythm of the conversation is still usable even where the specific content isn't.

You can't really do that with film (replace a character in a multi-person scene) without re-shooting the scene from scratch.


The film is good.

Though I think it would be at least 10% better with 50% less gratuitous scenery porn. That is, scenery being shown without showing action or narration. I'm not saying it's bad, rather it's too much. I'd rather leave a film wishing to see just a little more of it than thinking I had rather too much of it. (I'm especially thinking about the camera flight scene before the fight in the duelling pit.)

The rest is a matter of engine limitations. Like the breaking of the arm being essentially conveyed entirely by the sound effect, with something quite unintelligable happening on screen. (Or maybe the stream studdered just at wrong moment?)

The fight scenes also suffer from some strange effects that are probably due to the translation of the motion capturing into the engine. What should ideally happen is a physics post-processing after motion capturing. So when swords bang against each other they stop sharply at the point of impact of the polygons and not at the point of impact of whatever implements were used in motion capture. This is probably something the engine can't do. Alternatively, you may add in a visual effect (sparks/flash etc) at the point of impact to obscure this and give the eye of the beholder something else to look at. Similar to how light-sabre duels are handled in Star Wars.

Ok, this was rather a lot more criticism and much less flattery than the film deserves. Sorry. :)


Highly derivative

Litch king fortress closely modelled on Orthanc as seen in LotR film - / Digression: as opposed to "real" Orthance, with divided inot knives & spears of glass & metal, 1000 feet above the plain this image is the least-worst I could find ... but the comparison came to me, standing on, of all places, Waterloo E station, one autumn morning, as rain-clouds were blowing away. The top was part-wreathed in mist & cloud-rags, with a red sunrise. Deeply sinister. [ I have a photo! But I don't think I can upload to here ... ] /END digression Plot seems standard "Evil empire" with undead, etc, but then I have no interest in WoW, or anything at all similar - yet, together with a love/combat trope taken from a well-known mediaval romance/tragedy where the female is disguised & slain at the end of the cycle.


I'd be curious to know about the business side of things, where does the funding for such a project come from, how it will be monetized (Ugly term, I know). A lot of indie animators are making money off their short films on youtube using the partner program, but I'm not aware of vimeo having anything like it.

Ah, "Death Knight Love Story is a labour of love, made on a completely non-profit basis, on a budget that's less than a tenth of even "low-budget" animated TV, let alone animated feature films."

Well that answers part 2 of my question...


That's actually ... pretty good!

Particularly the fight scenes, very well done. Having decent voice-acting helps a lot (Brian is just awesome :) ).

The only thing I'd say is that this kind of low-rez 3-d stuff isn't very conducive to long, lingering looks - a few milliseconds in and you realize you're just looking at a blocky 3-d model.

But other than that, it's watchable and enjoyable, and I want to know what happens next.


Highly derivative

Litch [sic] king fortress closely modelled on Orthanc as seen in LotR film

That's like saying a film made in Manhattan has lots of skyscrapers in it. Or one filmed in Venice has canals. If you're filming in the Warcraft world, what ends up being seen is the scenery and architecture that is there. And when you're doing a film based within the politics of the world (which this is, as far as WoW is concerned), then you show the political situation that exists.

Your criticisms are akin to complaining that a film set during the second World War has those clich├ęd Nazis in it.


Thanks for all the comments, everyone! Both interesting and useful. I've had by far the most detailed, insightful responses, good and bad, here of anywhere on the 'net. Charlie attracts a high class of reader!

@Charlie - exactly so, yes!

Of course, if you're making a CGI film, then it is possible to replace one character with another without redoing the whole scene, but it's still far more work than you'd expect. For example, if I was to replace Miria with Lady Blaumeaux in a scene from Death Knight Love Story, I'd have to:

  • Reshoot all the motion capture for that scene/character, because Miria and LadyB move in a totally different way.
  • Redo the facial animation, because eyelines and expressions will be different, then reapply it to a new character's rig.
  • Redo the facial animation and adjust the body animation for the other character in the scene, because their partner's height would have changed.
  • Rework all the camerawork - different heights, different body language.
  • Redo the voice acting, obviously.
  • Re-edit the scene, because timings would have changed.
  • .

Conservatively, and assuming the scene didn't contain anything complex, that's a month's work.


@Nestor - I self-funded the project, or rather, my production company did. We used a lot of extremely innovative filmmaking techniques that reduced costs, the actors worked for significantly less than their usual fees, and there was a lot of sweat equity invested!

Usually, an animated film of this length and complexity would have a dollar cost somewhere between $500k and $5m. My spend on it, even taking sweat equity into account, was a lot less than that.


Question: Is the 15-minute (or so) slot all of it? Has / have part(s) II, III etc been made yet, or not - or in other words, is that it (so far)?


That's it so far. It was originally conceived as a single short film, but as the scope crept rather we ended up dividing it into two parts, of which the second will be out when I finish it!



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This page contains a single entry by Hugh Hancock published on January 21, 2014 4:41 PM.

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