What does the future hold for movies?
That's a topic that has eaten more column inches than Scottish Independence, the Kardashians and Bitcoin combined. But whenever I hear it, I can't help but think that the writer is asking the wrong question.
A better, more illuminating question is "What does the future hold for movie-making?"
Our Gracious Host has written a number of articles explaining how the mechanics of the publishing industry shape the kinds of books that come out of it, from the length of novel that is published to their covers. Film bends in the wind of its production process even more than written fiction. CGI technology opened up entirely new genres to the industry, "video nasties" appeared in the wake of a censorship gap and various distribution and strategy changes led to the rise of the blockbuster.
If you want to predict the shape of the sausage that is film, you've got to look at the mincing machine. And right now, there's something very interesting happening.
People pontificate a lot about computer games rendering film obselete. That's clearly rubbish. Movies aren't going to spontaneously turn into games. They're different experiences.
But movie-making might become a game.
I've been studying - and to a certain extent, catalysing - the intersection of computer games and movies for fifteen years now, since I accidentally tripped and fell into the birth of a new type of movie-making. Over the years, I've used the sets and characters of popular computer games as a virtual backlot to make a well-received feature film and an epic love story starring Brian Blessed and Joanna Lumley amongst other things. Over that time, it's been obvious that games have drawn nearer to movies, with story-based, mini-movie heavy games like Mass Effect and the new Tomb Raider hitting the bigtime.
But at the same time, the techniques used in games have been invading the film world.
CGI has become a huge part of the movie-making process, and the craft of making a CGI character or world for a movie is very similar to the same process for a computer game. Indeed, major studios are now considering using the same 3D assets for both.
One problem that both industries face is the sheer amount of time that it takes to make 3D objects, particularly things like complex landscapes with foliage. In 2009, Minecraft famously solved the problem by procedurally generating surprisingly complex, beautiful worlds - but it's actually not the biggest-grossing procedural-based media product of 2009. That would be Avatar, James Cameron's Pocahontas-with-mocap megahit - which used Minecraft-like procedural content creation:
"Once Bluff's team knew SpeedTree was the tool they would use, they set to work, quickly churning out the trees they needed by the dozens. "Starting in the morning with five models from your library, one of our artists had 40 trees done by lunchtime," Bluff said. "Those 40 trees comprised about 80 percent of the trees we needed for the entire film."
Soon after, Bluff brought his work to Mr. Cameron, presenting a 23-second long flyover of the planet Pandora. "A hush fell over the screening room," Bluff recalled. "The first thing Mr. Cameron wanted to know was 'how are you doing your trees?' He was shocked at the match to his original vision.""
Now here's the thing about procedural content creation: it's fun. I've made movies using Minecraft, and one of the most entertaining parts of the entire process is location-scouting the world, wandering around looking for the perfect cliff and the perfect sunset. In fact, it's so fun that the procedural content frequently becomes a focus rather than a backdrop, whether it's exploring an infinite universe or letting the game evolve a race of aliens for you. And using it for filmmaking is just as much fun, to the point that I have been known to fire up a procedural landscape generator that I'm using for experimental movies right now just to play with it.
Making 3D content for movies is slowly evolving from a painstaking process of wrangling polygons to, well, Populous. And games are emerging - from major publishers - where the entire point is to create near-movie-quality environments and characters.
At the same time, of course, motion capture and CGI characters are becoming a big deal. I use motion capture to create my movies these days - and while it's wonderful, it's not without its flaws.
Creating a short motion-captured film with a single character is spectacularly fast. But if you're creating a scene with 300 characters visible, each character will take just as long to animate as the first, no matter whether they're the hero of the entire piece or Spearman #14. That time mounts up fast, and can make crowd scenes using pure mocap impractical.
The Lord of the Rings series famously solved this using the technology they called "Massive" , which creates a bunch of autonomous agents, gives them simple AI, and some instructions to follow. Yes, it's basically Medieval Total War - The Filmmaker's Edition. (In fact, some gamers have taken it full circle and used a total conversion of Medieval Total War to make their own epic Lord of the Rings battle scenes).
When I moved from using game engines to create my films to a more motion-capture based approach, I found I missed the ability to drop in game-style NPCs - so much, in fact, that my latest movie has been criticised for not having enough background characters. That's definitely not a mistake I'll be making again - very high up my priority list for future films is finding a good game-like tool to add NPCs to my worlds. And I'm far from the only movie-maker thinking like that - in fact, of all the major 3D tools used for movies, both 3D Studio Max and Softimage have recently added game-like "crowd simulation" tools
And these NPC characters are just getting more human-like. We've already got virtual stunt doubles who will generate their own realistic reactions to, for example, being dropped down an elevator shaft or blown sideways by an explosion. (That tool is so fun to use that there's a community treating it as, essentially, a computer game in its own right). The convergence of convincing muscle-based locomotion and research on how emotions affect the body at a musculo-skeletal level offers the possibility that we'll be able to use CGI-based characters who don't need any low-level animation input - instead, they can be directed just like human actors, given cues of mood, marks and intention.
There's a tool which already offers directable CGI actors, albeit using quite simple motion technology. It has an entire movie-making community based around it. Its name? The Sims. Indeed, EA's bestselling computer game series is so appropriate for movie-making that at least one pro movie creation tool took most of its interface cues from The Sims.
And it goes on. The Oculus Rift and other VR tools are amazing games experiences - which will also allow actors to view and react to the CGI worlds their characters inhabit. That's a pretty major step forward from yelling at sticks, and might have prevented Ian Mckellen from bursting into tears at the artificiality of it all whilst filming The Hobbit. Motion capture suffers from problems of having to perfectly adapt a virtual set to a physical set, which is particularly a pain if you're shooting on uneven landscapes - fortunately, games developers have solved that problem some time ago. And even motion capture itself is becoming a part of gameplay as much as of film.
It's a weird time to be in film. It's weird because distribution is changing, it's weird because of changing formats, it's weird for all sorts of reasons.
But beyond all that, it's weird because with every passing year, movie-making is becoming, well, a game.