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!
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!
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.
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.
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!