Machinima mints fresh film talent

Kudos simulcast in a virtual theater in Second Life

Machinima — the growing filmmaking movement that takes place entirely within the real-time 3D virtual environment of a videogame — celebrated its best recently at the fourth annual Machinima Festival in New York City. Another machinima fest, Machinimasia, was held in Singapore Nov. 24-26.

The events provided a glimpse into a future in which creative scenarios and characters are endlessly refashioned by fans and hobbyists, working independently all around the globe. While Hollywood grapples to harness the opportunities presented by MySpace and YouTube, its next generation of filmmakers may well come from self-made talent working in their basements to adapt vidgame worlds into their own films.

As a nominee in this year’s Machinima Festival, I participated in a Q&A session moderated by Paul Marino, director of the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences. The theater was packed with machinimators, machinima enthusiasts and press. But it took place entirely within the virtual world of Second Life, the 3-D online community that now has some 2 million “residents.”More than 800 people physically attended the fest, which culminates in the presentation of the “Mackies,” the Oscars of the machinima com-munity. The kudos, simulcast in a virtual theater in Second Life so those who could not attend could watch from their home computers, featured 33 nominated films.

Seminars included a presentation by Real Illusion’s John C. Martin on iClone, a program that is essentially an entire computer animation studio; with only a facial photograph, users can quickly create a 3-D model of a real person and place it in a virtual environment. The technique was used by Scintilla Films in its “Reich and Roll,” which depicts the Beatles as virtual characters. Bio-ware’s Ken Thain spoke about “Mass Effect,” an upcoming videogame that features advancements in cinematics that will effectively result in an interactive movie.

“The machinima festival is not merely a poor imitation of a film festival. It is a new type of festival that will, in the future, be imitated,” says Carl Goodman, director of digital media at the Museum of the Moving Image, site of this year’s event. “As more and more media becomes bottom-up and of the user-generated variety, there will be more and more (such) gatherings.”

As the medium grows, the inevitable question of art vs. commerce grows, too.

Filmmaker Terran Gregory, a 2005 Mackie award winner who started out as a technical support rep for Atari, says he and his team create their work for its own sake.

“We loved filmmaking, and we loved the lore and beauty of the World of Warcraft, and the fusion of the two is what drew us headlong into machinima production,” he says. “It was never a conscious thought in our minds when producing the film that it would ultimately lead to profound professional possibilities.”

But several of the award-winning machinimators at the event have been offered jobs by the videogame industry. Blizzard Entertainment hired Gregory and fellow World of Warcraft machinimator Tristan Pope, and Shiney Entertainment recently hired ma-chinimator Jason Choi, a two-time winner at this year’s fest.

Curiously, some machinima filmmakers may consider such jobs too restricting.

“Of course, talented cinematic artists get jobs at developers, but then they’re working on someone else’s stuff, not their own”, says community member Ingrid Moon. “And the bottom line is, everyone is a Tarantino. Everyone wants to be telling their own stories, not someone else’s.”

Machinima is thriving and its impact is yet to be fully seen. But the relationship with Hollywood is still developing, and the possibilities are wide open.

“Although some machinima creators are pushing to create Hollywood-style entertainment … the best work subverts Hollywood-style entertainment, ignores it entirely or takes it to a new place. ” says the Museum of the Moving Image’s Goodman. “It is this new thinking, not the aping of existing work, that will in the end attract Hollywood the most.”

(Harrison Heller is an 18-year-old high school student and a creator of machinima.)