Machinima: Shelf Life
The machinima Shelf Life really stands out as a prime example of what can be done in this media form. Shelf Life is a Half Life 2 machinima created by a small group of talented individuals based in San Francisco, California. This group came together to form Pixel Eyes Productions. Starting in early 2007 they tried their hands at recording content from the popular game Half Life 2 and the popular modification known as Garry's Mod. Their first published creation is Shelf Life: Chapter One. This machinima stands out for its professional quality.
Shelf Life is superior to many machinima in it's production by four main ways. First, excellent use of in game assets. Second, camera angles and special effects. Third, movement and mannerisms of character models in the machinima rival the quality of movement and mannerisms that the game makers themselves created. Fourth, extraordinary use of mod tools and third party software.
Shelf Life used a large amount of in game assets in an adaptable way. Most machinima use in game assets without altering them. Some just grab the characters and basically green screen the characters into other areas. Shelf Life did something different.
They took maps, vehicles, and models and altered almost all of them. For example: the main character (Charles) is giving a presentation in what is the very first level of the regular Half Life 2 game. Pixel Eyes productions took the room, added a bunch of chairs, a raised podium, and added a bunch of props. The result was that the room was only barely recognizable from it's in game version. Just after the presentation finishes Charles leaves and he meets another character while standing at the entrance to a large mansion or university building of some sort. The building is clean, bright and shiny, old looking, but well taken care of in a welcoming way. The in game version is darker, dirty, and imposing in a hostile way. Pixel Eyes Productions did a masterful job of cleaning up this existing model and adapting it to their uses.
I contacted Pixel Eyes Productions with questions about their techniques and their response is as follows. " Using the post processing option in Garry's Mod we adjusted the lighting to make things look more inviting and pleasant. We then used a lot of props to create a more alive setting. We put up trees, street lamps, shrubs, benches, planters, etc. That brings a lot of life to a set and makes it feel alive. Finally, we used a console command that actually removes some of the details of the original map. It removes only certain things like graffiti, dead leaves on the ground and some other small details that make a place look run down."
Shelf Life really showed off their skill with their camera angles and their lighting techniques. I questioned James Spencer from Pixels Eyes Productions and he informed me that most of their lighting effects were actually done in game when they were shooting. Garry's Mod offers several post processing options along with the ability to create different light sources wherever they need them. It really is like working on a real set. You need lights, cameras, and action. Sorry, I couldn't resist. The interesting thing that I found was that Shelf Life really was created more like a TV show or a movie then I ever imaged machinima being. Sure, all of this is in a digital world, but the same issues apply. Further more, I found it really fascinating that the fade to white and black when Charles(main character) wakes up at the end was all done in game while they were shooting. Very few lighting effects were added during editing. Pixel Eyes Productions also used Adobe Premier for their work.
While researching Shelf Life I read at www.pixeleyesproductions.com that they used the same tools that Valve(The creators of Half Life2) uses to create facial animations. The exact program is called "Faceposer" and it allowed Pixel Eyes Productions to apply animations and lip sync the dialogue. It even provides ways for subtle facial movements so that they can really bring the characters to life.
Shelf Life also used very recognizable character models that fans would have strong, but mixed, emotions towards. Shelf Life masterfully crafted these in game characters into their story in such a way that it honestly feels like Shelf Life could easily be an alternate reality to the Half Life series. The characters have different names and different voices, but they still feel like old acquaintances, but in a great way. I would chalk this up to the writers, but the editors and special effects guys did a marvelous job of adapting these character models and their movements/mannerisms to this story. Pixel Eyes Productions used scripts and "Faceposer" to get the character movement down just right. According to James Spencer of Pixel Eyes Productions, all the animation work was very tedious, but it paid off since their characters really came to life in the final product.
I really have to commend Pixel Eyes Productions for its alteration and adaptation of in game assets, especially the characters. Most of the machinima I have watched do a decent job with character movement, but most of it is just regular movement of the in game characters with adding the slightest bits of quirks so that they appear to be different then other characters. Pixel Eyes Productions went well past the extra mile with their work. The movement of the characters and especially the fight scene are all masterfully done. There is none of the stutter movement that goes along with normally player controlled characters. I was and still am amazed at how natural the animations look. It truly is good enough to rival that of Valve's work with NPC movement in their own games.
I have already hit upon my last point a few times, but Shelf Life should also be examined for its use of user created content, sets, and use of third party software. Pixel Eyes Productions repurposed a lot of the in game maps, but they also used a number of user created maps for their filming. According to James a lot of time and effort was spent with setting up and perfecting the sets that they used. Shelf Life might have only been under 20 minutes long, but the shear amount of effort they put into this production is staggering to think about. I already quoted on what they did for one set previously, they had to do that level of work many of the sets. Near as I could tell, there were only about two maybe three sets that were not altered past cleaning the map up of enemies.
In conclusion, Shelf Life may very well be a golden standard machinima for anyone just getting their hands into this young media form. Pixel Eyes Productions is a prime example of what a group of dedicated individuals can accomplish when companies like Valve provide the online community with their own tools. I, for one, am waiting with high anticipation for Shelf Life: Chapter Two.
Christopher Kayser - Game Designer for Toxic Interactive and Columbia College Student