Arts The Machinima mushroom 

A DIY guerrilla art form takes the film industry by storm(troopers)

Dick Simmons is trapped in the middle of a box canyon, with no way in or out. Standing guard with his weapon drawn, he wonders out loud about the futility of his struggle. "Why are we out here?" Simmons asks. "The only reason that we set up a Red base here is 'cause they have a Blue base over there. And the only reason they have a Blue base over there is 'cause we have a Red base over here. Even if we were to pull out today, and they were to come to take our base, they would have two bases in the middle of a box canyon. Whoopdee fucking doo."

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Private Simmons from Red vs. Blue: Blood Gulch Chronicles.

Sixty episodes later, Simmons is still stuck in the same canyon. Since he is a recurring character in a popular animated program, it is unlikely that he will ever escape. Created by Texas-based Rooster Teeth Productions, Red vs. Blue: Blood Gulch Chronicles pokes fun at the narrative conventions of first-person war games. Entering its fourth season, the series has received much popular and critical attention. Clive Thompson, a columnist for The New York Times, praises the game as "slacker commentary" on the Iraq War, while the Village Voice dismisses it as an immature hybrid of Star Wars and Clerks.

Though the political subtext is intriguing, the most important aspect of this program is the fact that it is created entirely from moving images generated by a video game. Red vs. Blue: Blood Gulch Chronicles is a textbook example of the emerging art form known as machinima.

Formed by combining the words "machine" and "cinema," the portmanteau machinima is not yet listed in most dictionaries. However, if the explosion of user-created animation is any guide, it is just a matter of time before this creative movement captures the attention of the wider public.

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A music video created to accompany My Chemical Romance's "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)" using the game Death Jr.

The growth of machinima is directly connected to the rapid acceleration of computer-processing power and improved graphics-rendering capabilities. As a result of these developments, the two-dimensional screen space that characterized games such as Asteroids and Tetris has given way to fully immersing three-dimensional environments.

In these spaces, players view virtual worlds through the eyes of digital-game characters. When they explore these spaces, players control both their own character and a camera that can be adjusted to alter their perspective on game events. Using the keyboard and a mouse, gamers can move the camera, panning it horizontally or tilting it vertically. They also can angle the camera upwards or downwards. By standing on tall objects and jumping through the air, they can capture aerial shots of activity on the ground.

It was only a matter of time until someone realized that movements permitted by in-game cameras closely approximate the visual language of film. Even more exciting possibilities opened up when fans combined this cinematic capability with social spaces such as first-person shooters and massively multiplayer games. A group of players can perform as actors while others can use the camera controls to record their interactions. In this way, gamers transformed a $50 video game into a powerful engine for creating animated videos.

If one is willing to tolerate the expressive limitations of contemporary games, the advent of machinima further lowers the costs associated with independent filmmaking. Consider the amount of labor and resources poured into animated Hollywood features. Shrek 2 had a production budget of $70 million, and more than 330 high-end graphics workstations were used to create its visual effects. Amateurs experimenting with machinima have a long way to go before approaching the quality of Shrek, but they can begin creating their own animation with inexpensive desktop systems.

Five years ago, film critic Roger Ebert predicted "the machinima movement will produce the ability to make feature-length animated films at home." This is already happening. When the accelerating graphics capabilities of new consoles are taken into account, one can imagine that these films will feature Toy Story quality graphics within five to 10 years.

Amateur machinima filmmakers constitute a diverse, active community. The site hosts more than 1,000 user-created clips along with discussion forums and DIY tutorials. Next month, the Museum of the Moving Image will host the third annual machinima film festival in New York. The festival is co-sponsored by NVIDIA (a company that manufactures graphics cards) and the Independent Film Channel.

As machinima artists strive for greater legitimacy, industry giants are also investigating this new art form. On MTV 2, a program called Video Mods airs slick machinima videos along with the hits of mainstream musicians. In one video, avatars from the role-playing game Lineage II perform the song "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers. Similar treatments have been applied to songs by Fountains of Wayne, My Chemical Romance, and the Black-Eyed Peas. In a striking example of media convergence, each segment of the program simultaneously promotes both the song and the game used to create the video.

Media conglomerates have every right to embrace new technologies, but we should remember that machinima started as a grassroots phenomenon. In the beginning, game developers had no idea that their creations would be used to make movies. The concept bubbled up organically from the community of computer users who were simply experimenting with creative possibilities. As the science-fiction writer William Gibson once noted, "the street finds its own uses for things - uses the manufacturer never imagined."

By Aaron Delwiche

More by Aaron Delwiche



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