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Book Review: The Art of Machinima


October 20, 2004
 

Welcome to the World of Machinima

Machinima, according to machinima pioneer and The Art of Machinima author Paul Marino, is the art of creating animated movies in real-time by using 3D game engine technology. Developed in the 1990s by clans of Doom and Quake players looking to capture and dramatize their in-game exploits, machinima has since evolved into a filmmaking genre in its own right, and has received mainstream attention at film festivals, on MTV, and the Wall Street Journal.

Filmmaking via machinima combines the principles of live action filmmaking with the flexibility of computer animation. Typically, a machinima movie is created by working in a given 3D space (for instance, a Quake III level map), defining the actions of a user-controlled character, using a real-time camera to record the action, and then throwing it all together in a non-linear editing tool to create a finished movie. The result is a form of moviemaking that lies somewhere between live action and animation, allowing directors the freedom of a virtual production environment while preserving the real-time flavor of live action.

Verdict

3D Game-Based Filmmaking:
The Art of Machinima

5.0 out of 5 stars

On Game Design cover

Author: Paul Marino
Publisher: Paraglyph Press
ISBN: 1-932111-85-9
Published: July 2004
Pages: 470

Pros

  1. Book provides a thorough introduction to the tools and techniques of machinima movie making.
  2. Step-by-step tutorials provide clear instructions for learning how to make a machinima production, start to finish.
  3. Bundled CD-ROM contains demo applications that allow readers to make their own machinima films at home.

Cons

  1. Machinima itself is limited to the capabilities of 3D game engines.
  2. 3D navigation might prove tricky for people unfamiliar with 3D gaming.
  3. Although the author explores two machinima creation tools in depth, only one of these is included on the CD-ROM.

The Art of Machinima is essentially an A-to-Z tutorial on creating machinima, one step at a time. Marino's tutorials are very thorough, with page after page of example and instruction on every step in the machinima-making process, from navigating software packages to animating characters, all the way to recording, editing, and outputting a completed film. The book also recaps the history of machinima and explores various machinima filmmaking techniques, rounding out the book's predominantly pragmatic emphasis.

Since Marino's purpose is to guide the reader through the process of creating a complete machinima movie via specific software applications, readers will need a Windows PC on which to run the CD-ROM that comes with the book. (The CD-ROM contains a demo version of only one of the two machinima apps covered in the tutorials, though. To complete the second set of tutorials, you'll need a copy of Unreal Tournament 2004.) From there, anyone with a basic understanding of 3D animation should be able to follow along with Marino's instructions and emerge with at least one completed machinima film.

3D Gaming Turned 3D Movie-Making

The core of the book is a pragmatic introduction to the two most popular software apps in which to create machinima. First among these is Machinimation, an application based on id's Quake III: Arena game engine. Second are the companion tools of UnrealEd and Matinee - both of which are bundled with the off-the-shelf version of Unreal Tournament 2004. Both applications provide a complete set of tools for setting up, animating, and recording machinima films.

Since the tutorials are intended to be used independently of each other, Marino provides readers with a point-for-point comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of the two platforms, from which the reader can decide which app might be better suited to a given concept. What emerges is a picture of two applications that share the same basic functionality - for instance, interactive lighting controls, animated characters, user-controlled cameras, and definable audio events - but which bear some key paradigmatic differences.

Most notable among these differences are the approaches that the two apps take toward character animation and camera control. Machinimation, being a direct descendant of early machinima creation tools, relies primarily on real-time control of both camera and character. (According to Marino, this gives the application a live-action feel that he ultimately prefers.) The Unreal Tournament tools, on the other hand, are primarily script-based, relying on sequenced commands and a click-and-drag camera interface for controlling character action and shot timing.

Booting up these two programs, you'll also notice that the Unreal Tournament tools are Windows applications, complete with the multi-viewport interface of a traditional 3D animation tool, while Machinimation is built directly over the Quake III engine and operates within a game-type framework. Assuming some familiarity with the respective engines - which, given the increasing popularity of machinima, might be a bold assumption - both interfaces are accessible.

The Machinima Movie Making Pipeline

Regardless of which application you use, the basic pipeline that Marino presents for creating Machinima is essentially as follows. Note the general resemblance to a live-action pipeline - a point that Marino comes back to time and again as he makes his case for the unique capabilities of machinima.

Lighting. After a brief introduction to pre-production and virtual location scouting, Marino begins his exploration of the two software suites with an introduction to lighting set up. Included in this are instructions for creating multiple light sources, adjusting the properties of a light (e.g. color and brightness), and animating lights over time.

Character Animation. Next up in Marino's pipeline is character animation, an area in which the two applications differ considerably. In Machinimation, character animation involves the iterative recording of multiple in-game characters, layering one recording over another such that a given character's actions can be based on the animation of other recorded characters. By contrast, UnrealEd's character animation system involves laying path nodes over a location map to build a scripted animation sequence.

Cinematography. Marino next takes us through the process of controlling cameras and recording shots. In Machinimation, this involves the real-time control of an in-game camera during the playback of layered character animations, creating a cinematographic experience bearing similarities to a live action film set. In Matinee (the camera control counterpart to UnrealEd), users define camera paths via interpolation points, and - similar to a live television broadcast - switch back and forth between cameras as the recording progresses.

Post-Production Effects. Audio and visual capabilities of the two programs include musical scoring, triggered sound effects, fade ins, fade outs, and other effects such as film grain. Effects can either be added globally across a sequence (e.g. a soundtrack) or installed as triggered events (e.g. footsteps). Marino notes that the two applications are similar in that they both provide a strong array of post-production tools.

Editing, Exporting, and Distribution. Lastly, Marino takes us through the processes of exporting scenes from a machinima application, editing them in a non-linear editing suite, and outputting the finished movies to various file formats, including DivX and DVD. Marino's tutorials use Windows Movie Maker for editing and Adobe Encore for output. Additionally, Marino touches upon the use of simple video capture as an alternative for creating machinima content.


Marino's Larry & Lenny, showing machinima in action.

Machinima, Then and Now

By and large, The Art of Machinima is a tutorial-driven book. However, Marino does balance the book's technical weight with several academic discussions. These include a thorough history of machinima - a history in which Marino himself has been a key player - and a general overview of basic filmmaking techniques. These latter discussions, which include basic treatments of cinematography, character development, and set design, are useful for the beginning filmmaker who might need an aesthetic foundation on which to create his or her first machinima production.

Overall, Marino does a very good job of presenting the why and how of modern machinima filmmaking. The book is intended as a hands-on introduction to a relatively new medium, and given the scope and depth of Marino's tutorials, it is in that regard a success.

Of course, machinima will still need to prove itself to the world as a viable medium for visual storytelling, and the underlying technology will need to undergo some radical growth before machinima can achieve successes that come close to those of the mainstream entertainment media. But if you're looking for a simple yet thorough introduction to making machinima as it exists in the here-and-now, The Art of Machinima is a first-class overview.

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