Issue 16 : Spring 2009






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Deus Ex Machinima

by Peggy Nelson

14 Mar 2009

The Snow Witch

Machinima, animated films created within virtual environments or video games, represent DIY filmmaking taken to the next level. Combining aspects of filmmaking, animation, game play and fan fiction, not only are you shooting the film yourself, you are constructing the sets, moving the avatars, doing the voices, and adding in all the effects, allowing the creation of 3D animations in much less time than it would take to do stop-motion or CGI, and for much less money than it would cost to invest in Maya, or art school. The question is, is machinima interesting for more than just its process?

Machinima derive from "Quake games" created within the eponymous video game in the 1990s, which themselves derive in part from the demoscene of the 1980s, which featured visual sequences appended to hacked or altered software, where the hackers would advertise their skills with an animated introduction, or "demo." Some programmers began to focus on the demos independent of hacking, and the animations became a goal in themselves.

Diary of a Camper

The first machinima is considered to be "Diary of a Camper" (1996), which pioneered an independent, user-created storyline for in-game action. The word machinima came later, coined in 2000 as a blend of "machine" and "cinema" (and then misspelled) to describe films made within any game, with the debut of the website

World of Workcraft

Watch more videos of WoW

Today machinima are made within many games, including World of Warcraft, Halo 3, The Sims, and even Spore. They are also created within other virtual environments that are not, strictly speaking, games, such as Second Life. And there are of course machinima created to explain what machinima is:

"What is Machinima?" (Counter-Strike: Source)

"What is Machinima?" (Grand Theft Auto)

"What is Machinima?" (Half-Life)

There's no avoiding it, the animation in machinima is clunky compared to the sophisticated techniques we've become used to from Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Especially in online virtual environments, but in many games as well, the polygons used to calculate 3D surfaces in real-time are clearly visible in the characters and environments, the movements are jerky, and the lip-synching is poor to nonexistent. The "uncanny valley" paradox, wherein the closer an image gets to reality, the more fake it seems, is much in evidence with any close-ups.

The Second Life Shakespeare Company

The eyes are generally too big for the faces, sometimes almost positioned at the sides of the head like killdeer, probably in an attempt to emphasize their importance. But without the correct movement or proportion the effect can be oddly taxidermic.

A few machinima use this artificiality to their advantage, such these scenes from Macbeth in Second Life created by students at NYU. In-world editing tools were exposed to the video capture, so that the menus and arrows and other interface elements used to manipulate objects and the environment in general, were visible. Exposing the mechanics at the same time as enacting the performance alternately undermines and enhances the suspension of disbelief, setting up an oscillation of projection states in the viewer, which they need to navigate as best they can. This Brechtian approach is, I think, effective, as it gives viewers something else to look at and do and think about other than the fact that the avatars look almost realistic, but not quite.

Macbeth at Virtual NYU

In additional to the technical challenges, machinima are prone to the narrative weaknesses of short films everywhere: animations especially are susceptible to the one-liner syndrome, where there is a big build-up to the single, often gothic, point. Or, at the other extreme, they can be pretty and ambient with no narrative arc whatever.

However, the best machinima avoid the pitfalls. Red vs. Blue, a machinima series made within the Halo series of games, became extremely popular because of the strengths of its character development and narrative, which hold their own in a comparison with non-machinima comedy series.

Red vs. Blue

And the story of Molotov Alva, while gothic, is not glibly so. It investigates with a measure of seriousness the existential dilemmas common to all avatars (and people): who am I? How did I get here? What's it all about?

Molotov Alva

Filmmaking within a game, and filmmaking within a virtual world, both involve moving avatars, playing out a scene, scripting and positioning the camera angles, and capturing the resulting action as animated screenshots with either in-game or 3rd-party software. In some cases the in-game video functions are sophisticated enough to complete the process, but often the clips are imported into another editing program, like Premiere or Final Cut Pro, where they are further manipulated much like any other digital film. The final animation is then exported as a Quicktime or mp4 file, and often uploaded to sites like YouTube and Vimeo, or targeted to more specific sites like or an online festival.

But in-game and in-world machinima differ in that the creation process can be more far-reaching within virtual worlds. A video game will come with an extensive but finite world of interiors and exteriors, avatars, wardrobes, and accessories; whereas a virtual world like Second Life, while now considerably built up by its user base, requires construction of the entire environment, polygon by polygon, skin by skin, and script by script. It is more labor-intensive but also more open-ended in terms of creative possibilities.

Building in Second Life

But even in-game machinima goes beyond mere customization. After all, the machinima auteur is not just playing the game, he or she is constructing an alternative narrative using the material at hand; in this case, the game elements. All machinima enables a move from spectator to actor, much in the way that fan fiction, fan films, and reenactment communities do. In all of these cases the fans become so enthusiastic that they start making their own versions of the stories, transitioning in the process from passive to active, from fan to author, from consumer to creator. With these techniques at hand, if you want it badly enough, you can create it in reality - at least the reality of the screen.

The Dumb Man, Second Life

But there is something more at work here, especially so with virtual world machinima. Building a world, by film or other means, seems to be not only about individual or group expression, but about this strange impulse we have to copy everything. Our art so often involves duplicating aspects of our world: novels, realistic painting, photography, film, virtual worlds, video games. An enormous amount of time and energy is spent on making things more realistic; visually, physically and psychologically. What is the impulse for these ever more elaborate copies? What do we get out of them? And where might they be leading?

Well, what if we could duplicate the world so perfectly that experiencing the latest artwork felt like - actually being there? Would it be more interesting, more realistic, better, The Best? Would it be worth it (considered obsessively on the big screen by Charlie Kaufman in Synecdoche)? Why might we want an artwork to exactly duplicate the world; is it just the technical challenge? Or is it something more, some kind of problematic impulse to play God? Because of course we already do have the experience of really being there, every day.

Instead of cinema in the machine, perhaps what we're really after is God in the machine. And in that case, it's a good thing that the technical challenges are significant.

Related links:

Internet Archive
Ozymandius , early machinima, 1999
Civil Protection, machinima comedy series
Mirror's Edge
Wizard of Os, or, Tesla's "Fish Incident"
Dwight Schrute on Second Life
Second Life How-To's
Machinima Festival
BitFilm Festival
Ivy Film Festival
Online Machinima Film Festival
Experimental Machinima, exhibition