Hugh Hancock: January 2014 Archives

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!

So, one question that a number of people have asked about Death Knight Love Story (DKLS) can be paraphrased as "Why Machinima?"

In other words, "Why make a film using a computer game? Isn't that, you know, a bit crazy?"

Now, when it comes to the decision to set the film in the storyline of World of Warcraft, I might in hindsight agree. Previous films of mine have used game assets without touching the game's storyline, and whilst I was attracted to the idea of Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead-ifying the World of Warcraft, in hindsight we'd probably have been better writing an independent, non-WoW-associated plotline.

But as for using the game itself - no, that was a spectacularly good move. A move which enabled the film to be made at all, in fact.

What IS Machinima?

For those who are unaware: I'm best known as a pioneer of a subgenre of animation called "Machinima".

The definition of "Machinima" has teetered back and forth over the years, between "filmmaking in a 3D environment rendered in real-time" and "filmmaking using computer games". The debate has raged fiercely in the Machinima world over the years, and many Machinima purists, including me, have at one point or another gotten very irritated at the way our artform is so strongly linked to gaming.

However, I have come to realise Machinima was and is the result of the remarkable potential of video game worlds to enable a live-action filmmaking style within a virtual world.

The Astonishing Cost Of CGI Animation

Conventional CGI animated moviemaking is infamously slow and expensive. In fact, it's arguably the slowest, most expensive narrative medium in existence, challenged only by stop-motion animation. And one of the key reasons why that's the case is that for each movie, the entire world in which it's set must be created from scratch.

That sounds pretty intimidating as a task. It's actually far more intimidating than it may appear.

Take the characters of the film, for example. Obviously, each protagonist, antagonist and other speaking role needs to be sculpted from scratch. That's a task with multiple stages (concept art, rough sculpt, texture painting, fine sculpt, facial expressions, and matching the character's skeleton to the body in such a way that it doesn't deform unnaturally), and it's not cheap: $3,000 - $5,000 at an indie level to produce characters like our two protagonists in Death Knight Love Story.

So, it's possible to look at a pared-down script and say that, assuming two protagonists and two antagonists, we'll need to spend minimum $12,000 on the task.

Oh, but wait - we also have incidental characters. Any story not set in a deliberately extremely confined location will need quite a lot of these characters: read through any of Charlie's books and notice how many incidental characters have actual or implied lines within a few scenes.

In the case of Death Knight Love Story, the characters mount up quickly. The two traders at the start of the film, the Captain of the Guard, the head of the cannoneers, the other Death Knights in Naxxramas, the adventurers (4 of them) - and that's all within the first five minutes. There are at least another 15 of these incidental characters through the 20 minutes of the film. They need somewhat less attention to detail than the main characters, but if we were creating Death Knight Love Story in a conventional manner, that's still another $30,000 or so needed in the budget.

Well, at least we're done now. Except we're not - because this is a visual medium, and that means we need to consider the background characters needed to make our world feel like a world, not an empty set. And those guys and girls mount up fast: 20+ within the first scene of Death Knight Love Story, far more subsequently. Some of them can be copied and pasted with minor details changed, but there's still a lot of work to do: if you were to assume another $60,000 minimum devoted toward background characters on a film the scale of DKLS, you'd probably be well on the low side.

Now, *looks at smoking chequebook meaningfully* shall we talk about sets? Or props? Skies, backdrops, plants and animals?

The summary of all this: creating worlds ab initio is absolutely standard for 3D animation, and is also really, really goddamn expensive. And so, even if you've got access to motion capture and all the clever tech tweaks that we used on Death Knight Love Story, the cost of hammering together the world in which you will eventually create your film makes animation completely inaccessible for anyone with less than a mainstream TV budget.

Unless - as we did - you have access to a virtual world, such as those created for modern-day computer games. In which case, all those costs go away.

Making Films In A Virtual World

If you have access to a virtual world like Azeroth (the world of World of Warcraft), you can suddenly take a live-action filmmaker's approach. Rather than creating sets, you can simple location-scout. You can choose a landscape, a castle, a house suitable for your project from hundreds of those locations all over these virtual worlds. The process becomes very similar to that of a conventional cameras-and-real-actors film: shortlisting possible locations ("How about this house at the back of Stormwind?" "No, too dingy - how about this one in Goldshire?"), picking one, then moving the cast and crew there.

The only difference is that in real life most directors don't have access to a "/teleport" command.

Rather than creating characters, you can use the existing population of the world, too - most of whom are very happy to take instruction, thanks to being run by an AI script rather than an actual person.

(More or less, anyway - some Machinima makers, particularly those using The Sims, spend good long while wrestling with the problem of persuading their actors to actually cooperate.)

Furthermore, rather than sculpting your lead characters from scratch, you can use the character creation tools provided in the game. Virtually all RPG- or MMO-style games offer a massive range of "casting" choices in the name of making your character unique.

Creating a tool for desiging well-sculpted, appealing protagonists who fit into the same consistent art style is surprisingly complex. However, the number of people out there who want to play an AAA computer game is massive - easily enough to justify the investment in a tool capable of churning out almost infinite numbers of beautifully sculpted, world-consistent protagonists.

And so, suddenly, for an independent storyteller, the projected costs of any independent animated project plummet if they're willing to use a "Machinima" approach.

Of course, their story has to fit within the locations and characters offered by a game's world; but there are so many games out there, and each of them have such vast, sprawling worlds that it's comparatively easy to find a good prospect.

It would be possible to tell almost any low to mid-fantasy story using Skyrim or World of Warcraft, with some minor modifications. The genre of science fiction, at least in its mainstream film-friendly incarnation, is similarly well-covered by EVE Online, Half-Life 2, Dead Space and dozens of other games. (It would take some thinking, but I could probably make a fair stab at adapting any of Charlie's SF works using one, another, or a combination of game engines.) And of course, modern-day stories are thoroughly covered by everything from The Sims to Call of Duty.

Now, the chances are that you're wondering about the legal aspects of this usage - and that's an entirely different kettle of fish, and a rapidly-evolving one at that. ( A situation I can assure you isn't particularly comfortable if you're one of the fish. )

But in principle, this is why Machinima is so attractive: because it allows animators, rather than having to create their worlds, simply to become live-action filmmakers and take their cameras into worlds that don't exist.

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!

I suspect that everyone reading this has worked truly insane hours at one time or another. And you've probably suffered the consequences.

So as my first post for Charlie's blog, here's something slightly different: a survival guide to working insane hours, based on many years in the film industry watching dawn break from my chair in the edit suite.

Whilst I've been thinking about topics for guest-posting, I've spent some time considering what writers like Charlie and moviemakers like me have in common. And one thing that sprang to mind immediately was the ubiquitous death march. I've seen Charlie go through more than a few 10,000 word a day writing sprints, and I've pulled some pretty manic stunts on that line myself.

I'd say I recall staying up for more than 72 hours to finish the trailer for my first film. However, that would be a lie, because by the end I was so exhausted all that's left in my memory is a rather Hunter S. Thompson-esque dream sequence.

The trailer was bloody terrible, too.

Since then, I've ended up in the hundred-hour work week club at least once a year for various things. It's not necessarily a very good idea (although death marches, used judiciously, do work) but it's a situation a lot of us end up in.

And right at the moment, I personally know at least three readers of this blog who are doing massive death marches on individual projects. That includes me, as I rush to finish the biggest project of my career. (More on that in a day or so.)

So I thought I'd share some tips I've picked up over the years of injudicious working hours...

Should You Death March In The First Place?

Long term, death marches don't give you more productive time.



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Hugh Hancock in January 2014.

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