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A Virtual Filmmaking Primer

To conclude my first stint of guest-blogging here at Charlie's blog, I thought I'd assemble a practical list of examples, tools, and things to check out if you're interested in learning more about Machinima, indie performance capture and virtual filmmaking.

Many of these tools are free or cheap (although some of them really aren't), and they can offer an intriguing alternative for anyone interested in creating narratives, comedy, or video in general!

Inspirational Examples

I'll start off with a short list of movies made using various Machinima-ish techniques that demonstrate the range of the medium. All of these were made on lower budgets and timescales than my insanely ambitious Death Knight Love Story, and therefore are more representative of what it's possible to achieve without a fifteen-year immersion in the artform!

Gentlebot Hell

Futurama fans will recognise the soundtrack behind this one, which was made in Source Filmmaker, Valve Software's filmmaking tool which uses the characters and sets from the game Team Fortress 2.

It's an excellent example of the quality it's possible to reach using Machinima techniques combined with conventional keyframed animation (a theme we'll be returning to a couple of times in this roundup). This is also the most recent video I'm linking here, having been posted about 9 months ago.

Male Restroom Etiquette

One of the most famous and most accomplished pieces of pure game-based animation, this is a lot less purile and a whole lot funnier than you might initially expect - stick with it.

It's made using a combination of video editing and in-game Machinima techniques using The Sims 2. Unlike other videos on this list it doesn't use any conventional animation, just cleverly-utilised in-game animation.

The Demise

Much of the most successful drama made using Machinima techniques is wordless, and this one's a prime example of the genre. It cleverly combines limited hand-drawn animation with stylised in-game figures from World of Warcraft to tell a beautiful, simple love story.

Because Machinima made using World of Warcraft mostly uses the "WoW Model Viewer", a tool which only allows recording of a single character at a time to a video file, most WoW Machinima uses clever video compositing and layering techniques to tell its stories, and thus ends up with a surprisingly cel animation-like feel.

The Dumb Man

The virtual world Second Life plays host to some of the most unique Machinima work around. The Dumb Man is a excellent example of what can be done with SL's remarkable creative canvas.

It's a rather Lynchian surrealist movie that plays down Second Life's limitations in terms of animation, and plays up the range and sheer bizarre possibilities of virtual-world filmmaking. Of all the films here, this is the one that pays least homage to other filmic media.

There are dozens of other great examples of Machinima movies from the medium's rich history, too. If you'd like to see more of the range of films out there, you could start with the Source Filmmaker Saxxy Awards (this year's Grand Prize Winner was almost Pixar-quality), or for the more arthouse end of things, the Machinima Expo.

And incidentally, if you're wondering whether anyone makes feature-length Machinima films - yes, they do. My own "punk fantasy" BloodSpell, the EVE Online-based sci-fi series Clear Skies, and the wonderful, startlingly deep, hard SF Stolen Life are some examples of Machinima extended to feature length.

Tools To Make Movies With

If you'd like to experiment with making Machinima movies yourself, there are a number of high-quality tool options out there at the moment.

Undoubted leader of the pack if you're not looking to make commercial work is the Source Filmmaker, the tool that Valve Software developed internally to create their promotional movies, including the famous Meet The Team series of Team Fortress 2 commercials.

Source Filmmaker is a remarkable tool, combining extremely high production value pre-created characters and sets (see my post earlier this week on why that's important) with tools for both conventional keyframed animation and "classic" Machinima techniques using pre-canned animations. It also includes a video editing tool, post-production tools for colour correction, and pretty much everything else you need.

The default Source Filmmaker characters and sets are from the game Team Fortress 2, but are surprisingly versatile for all sorts of storytelling, as the Source Filmmaker Saxxy Awards demonstrate.

Importing new 3D assets is its weak point - the import process is infamously a complete PITA - but it's doable. And remarkably, not only is it thoroughly licensed for non-commercial use, avoiding the legal landmines that await a lot of Machinima creators, but if you DO go through the pain of creating all your own 3D assets, it's free to use for commercial work too.

If you'd like to make commercial work and have a library of content ready to use, or if you'd prefer not to be making movies with the Team Fortress characters, there are several more dedicated tools available. iClone and Moviestorm have spent several years vying for the title of "top independent Machinima tool", and they're still pretty much tied for the prize.

The two tools have radically different core philosophies.

iClone is much more of an animation-centric tool, featuring integration with the Kinect for home motion capture. That's a powerful feature, although it's worth noting that Kinect motion capture tends not to be supremely high-quality. It's also well-integrated with other 3D tools from Daz3D (a character creation tool) to Hollywood 3D tools like Maya and 3DS Max.

Moviestorm, meanwhile, can best be described as "Sims Moviemaker". It's focused on providing a game-like interface, a large library of characters, sets and props, and a rapid production pipeline. I've used Moviestorm more than iClone, notably to adapt "When We Two Parted" by Lord Byron. If you're not already a 3D pro, Moviestorm is a good way to start producing films very quickly.

What about making movies in *INSERT GAME HERE*

It's possible to make movies using almost any 3D game on the PC, although there will be various different levels of challenge involved.

In general, games with official modding capability are easiest to use to make Machinima. Any game based on the Unreal engine that has released game mod tools will probably also allow access to the Unreal Matinee tool, which is a powerful if somewhat hard-to-use Machinima toolset. Likewise, Cryengine games may offer access to the Cryengine Machinima toolkit, although I don't know how many Cryengine games are open for modding.

Popular games tend to sprout their own Machinima tools and communities, although the sophistication of those tools varies. As I mentioned above, World of Warcraft has the WoW Model Viewer, which allows users to customise characters and record their movements as video files. Sims 3 not only has in-game Machinima support to a certain extent, but also a community of mod-makers producing tools for Machinima creation.

And if all else fails, it's possible to create some amazing Machinima just by recording your in-game viewpoint using a tool like FRAPS. That's how Machinima started, it's how the best-known Machinima series of all, Red vs Blue, was created, and it's still a primary technique for everything from the blocky cartoon world of Minecraft to the graphically-sophisticated mayhem of Battlefield 3.

Be aware that much game-based Machinima is stuck in the middle of a legal minefield. Whilst in theory the creation of game-based Machinima is protected in the US under the "transformative works" section of the Fair Use defence, the fact is that's never been tested in court, and it would be extremely risky and expensive to be the first person to try it. In practise, unless a game has an explicit license allowing Machinima creation - which more and more games do offer - your work exists at the pleasure of the game developer who created the original game.

What about the way that I created Death Knight Love Story?

Death Knight Love Story was created in an extremely non-standard way for Machinima creation, as part of my ongoing effort to develop a better way to make dramatic Machinima.

We actually exported the 3D landscape models from World of Warcraft, using a program called Machinima Studio into the same professional-level 3D tool, Motionbuilder, that was used to make much of James Cameron's "Avatar" pipeline possible. We created WoW characters using the WoW Model Viewer program that I mentioned above, but then exported them through the "FBX" format into Motionbuilder, again.

From there, we applied motion capture created using either our Optitrack Arena optical motion capture system or our MVN inertial motion capture system to animate the characters. Both these systems are a great deal faster and more accurate than something like Kinect-based motion capture, and that's important when you're filming scenes with 20+ active characters in them!

From there, we exported AGAIN to 3D Studio Max, another commercial 3D tool, where our animators created the non-motion-captured and facial animation for the film. And from there, everything came into Mach Studio Pro, a real-time 3D rendering tool that sadly went out of business about half way through Death Knight Love Story's creation. (One of the perils of living on the cutting edge.) We set up lights and cameras in that, before rendering individual video shots, which were edited in Adobe Premiere Pro, with 2D effects (everything from snow to magical lightning) in Adobe After Effects.

Overall, it's a bear of a pipeline, and whilst it allowed us to do things that just wouldn't have been possible with WoW any other way, it's certainly not an approach I'd recommend for anyone who doesn't already have a controlling interest in a 3D production company!

So, that's it from me for now! I hope you've enjoyed the introduction to the world of Machinima, and I'd love to hear if anyone reading this does decide to experiment with some virtual filmmaking of their own - let me know in the comments! (Also, please feel free to let me know if you hit any problems, and I'll do my best to help.)

I'll be back with a few more posts early next month, talking about data-driven storytelling, the far future of filmmaking, and other fun stuff.

See you then!



I don't have the talent or inclination to try this, but I do occasionally create illustrations for the RPGs I publish.

One resource I've found particularly useful for anything involving space or space travel is the freeware program Celestia, which has a license which explicitly permits derivative works such as screen shots and movies (with a few exceptions where add-ins from other creators are used); for example, the illustration of Phobos in this picture is from Celestia:

I've just added the ship and some not incredibly convincing stars, which Celestia could have probably added more convincingly if I'd fiddled around with its settings.

I think that the license for the open-source game Oolite is similar, and could be used for space combat etc. quite easily, but I haven't looked into it because it wouldn't be suitable for my current projects.


Great stuff, useful info from an experienced point of view.

I actually "invented" Machinima in my own mind roundabout 2004 before I'd even heard of it, and was chagrined to discover it was already a "thing" :)

My version had the additional twist of using VR so that actors could actually act "in" the game environment (i.e. seem to themselves to be in the game environment). Needless to say I was disappointed to see that the tech hadn't evolved at that time, or was too expensive. I was pleased when King Kong came out though (showing that face capture was getting better).

I wonder if developments re. Oculus Rift would make VR-based Machinima possible in combination with motion capture suits and a nice big space? The problem with Machinima for me is animation, I'm scared of it. Yeah, it can be great and it has its own character, but I'm more interested in the possibility of getting actors to act in a cheap virtual space.

(OTOH, I'm aware that even motion capture has to be extensively fiddled with to get it to work. You cant' win.)


VR-based Machinima: yes, that's definitely a possibility. That's actually the original reason I have a couple of Oculus Rifts here - one of my projects for early this year is to combine them with the MVN inertial suits we're using for fully-immersive, actable-in VR.

(Side-note: VR sickness is likely to be a major challenge for dramatic work in VR, at least initially. Most people can't spend more than 10 minutes in the Rift the first time they use one or risk feeling ill for days.)

Also - you may be interested to learn that not all forms of motion capture need a lot of fiddling with to work. That's primarily an artifact of optical (camera-based) motion capture systems: the inertial mocap systems we're using nowadays need almost no cleanup. That's actually the reason we switched to them: WYSIWYG mocap is a powerful tool.

Here's an example of completely unprocessed data from a single live take in one of the suits:


That's great!

There's an odd uncanny valley effect when you have naturalistic motion with blocky models though.

Hmm, that reminds me, re x games, what about Skyrim, has anyone done anything in that? In terms of looks, with hirez models, things can look absolutely amazing in that game.

Thinking: I guess what's possible for VR machinima is limited by what's possible with the way models are animated? It seems to me that models in games are between two stools of having a structure that's convenient for whatever the game designers want to do, and being models that could be "lived in" as avatars, where the structure of the model has more of a 1-1 correspondence with the structure of the body? (Think of those weird limb distortions one sometimes gets, etc.)

I have a bit of a theory about that, mainly that, although of course you don't need to virtualize the body to the nth degree, I think the "tensegrity" structure of the body (not just bones and muscles, but also fascia) and the way the body holds itself up against gravity has to be modelled, so it has a natural bounce and elasticity. That "tensegrity" structure should be handled by physics, to form a neutral "base" for animation, and then you overlay specialized motion capture on top of it, blend it somehow. This is what would avoid the "stiff bucking bronco" effect you get with CGI so often - that weightless, disconnected feel, which still hasn't disappeared even in the most expensive CGI.

(And then of course there needs to be some sort of collision physics for the body in relation to its own limbs, etc. Interestingly, there's been a recent development in Skyrim modding. A Chinese guy has put a Havok physics layer underneath the Skyrim engine. At the moment, it's a few experimental things like the inevitable bouncing boobies and a flowing geisha dress and a Tomb Raider type ponytail, but the possibilities for this seem huge for the future. It's called "HDT".)

Damned interesting, all this :)


The basic Second Life technology can be afflicted by Network traffic. One possible way of avoiding this is to run your own OpenSim server, though some of the current Second Life technology can be awkward. The systems diverge somewhat.

One relatively easy way of trying out the tech on a local server is Sim-on-a-stick

I'm not sure of the long-term future of this package. The company behind one of the key components seems to be defunct, though it's pretty reliable.

There are certain advantages to running OpenSim in environments such as education. You can keep the students on a network you control, and it may cost less than the equivalent space in Second Life. You do miss out on the social side, but there is a useful amount of free content available for OpenSim.

In the last few months, while Second Life has the ability to import 3D objects, a change in their TOS has led to some 3D-object retail sites to withdraw permission for the content they sell to be used in Second Life. This should not affect a personal OpenSim instance, though I am not sure if 3D imports are possible yet. Some of these sites also deal in textures and other components for content creation.

OpenSim content is usually downloaded in IAR or OAR format, also used as the backup format. One site for this stuff is Zadaroo which has a stack of free and ready-to-install scenery and avatar components.

What I have found is that Second Life has a pretty simple way of making basic scenery objects, without getting tangled in full 3d modelling. Primitive Objects, such as cubes, spheres, and cylinders, can be sized, somewhat warped, and assembled into useful objects. Texturing them to look good is a little more difficult. That relative simplicity got a lot of people involved in the early years.


@gurugeorge - Sadly, Skyrim's one of those games that doesn't have a usage license. That issue plus the fact that the animation system is decidedly opaque has really slowed down movie-making in the game.

There are a number of amazing stills photographers working within the engine, though - as you may already be aware!

As for your thoughts about semi-physics-based rigging for increased realism - that's something I'll be talking about in a week or so. In the meantime, I'll just leave this here.

@Antonia T Tiger - thanks for those links! I haven't looked into the state of private servers for SL for some time: those will be very useful.

Incidentally, another excellent package for creating basic 3D models is Google's SketchUp, for many of the same reasons as Second Life. And for more organic stuff there's also Sculptris, from the makers of ZBrush. (There's also ZBrush, but that's kinda pricey.)


I find the lack of mentions of blender, the main open source 3d package, puzzling. It's an amazingly powerful suite, with full modelling, sculpting, rigging, rendering and animating capabilities and including some impressive features such as camera matching, a game engine or 3d printing export.

Furthermore, there are open source filmmaking projects related to the blender foundation such as sintel where all movie assets are open source by design.

Using a game engine when blender is available just seems like an odd choice, like picking a trycicle when a harley davidson is available.


argh, preview, always preview.

[[ if you'd held on a moment I'd have fixed your URLs anyway - mod ]]


Yes, well, I didn't want to presume. Also the urge to self-flagellate is strong. Catholic upbringing, you know. Thanks.


Blender's great, although as mentioned, I prefer the commercial equivalent package 3D Studio Max where conventional 3D modelling / animation /rigging is required.

However, rendering using Blender's default (CPU-based) renderer for Death Knight Love Story would have increased our render times approximately 100-fold.

The major advantage to using real-time techniques is just that - they're real-time.

Conventional CGI is very powerful. Obviously: there's a reason Pixar uses it. But it's also very, very slow. I can state with some confidence, having worked on conventional CGI projects in the past, that if we'd decided to use a conventional CGI workflow within Blender for Death Knight Love Story, it would never come close to being completed.


You can render realtime with blender too, been toying with it myself, because as you say rendertimes are a big bottleneck. There's also other renderers that can be used, and commercial renderfarms that can be hired, just typing out loud at this point.

I guess I just think, long term, stuff like pooled open source productions and places like blendswap (A repository of models and other assets) make a better springboard than commercial closed source game assets, machinima license or no. But whatever gets the job done!



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This page contains a single entry by Hugh Hancock published on January 26, 2014 3:34 PM.

Why Make A Movie Within A Computer Game? was the previous entry in this blog.

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