05 January 2010

Seriously, What is Machinima Now?

I am often thinking about it because people always ask what machinima is and I always fumble through an explanation that usually ends with them thinking it is basically recording yourself playing a video game.

The other day I read Michael Nitsche's post attempting to tackle a refined machinima definition and it got me thinking again. Michael's post is great and you should go read it but I would be surprised if it left you thinking you can confidently define machinima.

Here is Michael's work-in-progress definition:
Machinima is digital performance that controls procedurally animated moving images in real time.

Make sense? I imagine for a lot of people that will not help them understand machinima.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with the definition. In fact I think it is great and if you take the time to read his excellent description on how he gets to that definition it may indeed make perfect sense to you. However, at least for me, the people I am most interested in convincing about machinima are the people who are not gamers, or animators or even very computer savvy. The general public that simply like animated films and want to be able to make a clear distinction in their mind about what they are watching.

This may turn some people off since a lot of machinima is still by gamers and for gamers but the reality is times are changing and the term machinima is getting watered down by new comers like us and new tools using machinima makers as their intended audience.

The fundamental comparison for the general public will be the difference between machinima and the animated films companies like Pixar make. While Michael's post attempts to make this distinction clear, it is definitely buried in the details that many people will not have the patience or experience to understand.

I went to the Pixar site and looked under their "How We Do It" link and found this interesting section under the title "The Shots Are Animated":
Pixar’s animators neither draw nor paint the shots, as is required in traditional animation. Because the character, models, layout, dialog and sound are already set up, animators are like actors or puppeteers. Using Pixar’s animation software, they choreograph the movements and facial expressions in each scene. They do this by using computer controls and the character’s avars to define key poses. The computer then creates the “in-between” frames, which the animator adjusts as necessary.

Anything sound familiar in there? How about, "animators are like actors or puppeteers" or "they choreograph the movements and facial expressions in each scene" or "The computer then creates the “in-between” frames".

Pretty much describes how Shelf Life was made using Faceposer. It even more closely resembles how iClone works from what I have seen so far.

Also, the step directly before "The Shots Are Animated" is called "The Shots Are Laid Out" and is described this way:
Translating the story into three-dimensional scenes, the layout crew choreographs the characters in the set and uses a virtual camera to create shots that capture the emotion and story point or each scene. Layout often produces multiple versions of shots to provide the editorial department with choices for cutting the scene for maximum storytelling effect. Once the scene has been cut, the final version is released to animation.

Now it is not clear if these scenes are animated, it sounds like they are not, but I can't imagine that it would be hard to add simple animation at this stage for testing. But let's just say they don't or can't, in the next step they do animate and test the scenes.

Of course before we see anything from Pixar it goes to their render farm and comes out shiny and amazing. However, what if we were to see the film at the "The Shots Are Animated" or "The Shots Are Laid Out" stage? They must test these shots before they send them off to the farm to be rendered for 6 to 90 hours. Would it not then look much more like something we find in the machinima community?

It begins to sound like machinima is turning into a simple home user version of a much more powerful production process. Could Pixar start a machinima division and create lower quality films in much less time and take the machinima community by storm?

What changes would they need to make in their production process for us to consider it machinima?

Why all the comparisons to Pixar? Since they are the leaders in computer animated films and most people recognize Pixar animation as what computer animation is, anybody who wants to know about machinima will have some Pixar film bouncing around in their head as you try to explain machinima and use the words "computer animated film".

So this to me is the fundamental comparison that needs to be made for there to be any real distinction between machinima and other animated films.

The confusion to me is in the types of tools used for machinima today. In three generalized categories we have:
- Games with no interface that aids in the creation of an animated film
- Games with many options that help users create animated films such as cameras and face posing etc.
- Software meant specifically for creating animated films with no game aspect

How can machinima describe all of these things? Either machinima needs a new, easy to understand definition or what falls under the term machinima needs to be restricted.

If we move toward iClone after our confirmation from Valve that they have no interest in machinima I will feel even more like we simply make animated films using consumer level products rather than some thing called machinima.


  1. I guess Machinima real sense Is transforming. The real time sense is lacking (if I am writing well) through the new tendencies. Watch over this new (machinimas?) captured in the real time, edited, redited filtered etc. I understand the comment from Michael about pixar, and makes sense we he makes a comparison with Iclone and other relative software to generate computer animated graphics.

    But let me add one thing, those "Software meant specifically for creating animated films with no game aspect" that u mentioned they still have the aspect of a game or not? maybe it will be much more confusing when the technology rise up the graphics into something more realistic and the public can't define if it is real or 3d computer generated graphics (something closer to avatar graphics) my thought.

  2. "we simply make animated films using consumer level products" - that's one of the simplest definitions yet and probably pretty near the mark.

  3. There are some significant differences in the way Machinima creators produce animation compared to conventional 3D animation. Notably, we're painting in much broader strokes, rather than keyframing each individual movement. Even in the Source engine I believe you're not keyframing every move of every limb - you're still using a lot of procedurally generated animation.

    (And it's worth noting that you can produce keyframed conventional 3D animation with consumer-level tools too. Would you consider Big Buck Bunny (http://www.bigbuckbunny.org/), made with Blender, to be Machinima?)

    There's also the issue that these days, there are so many different ways to make Machinima that they might as well be different artforms. I'm not sure how much live filming in something like Halo has in common with the almost-keyframe-animation approach of Source Engine work.

    Having said all that, from the viewer's point of view, none of this matters. The common definition of "Machinima" in the wider Internet world is "film made with a computer game". So, if the film looks like it was made with a computer game, it'll get called "Machinima" (See "Craft of War: Blind"). If not, it'll be called animation.

    I'm mostly interested in the term "Machinima" to identify artists working in a similar way to me.

  4. Thanks for the feedback everybody.

    @spyvspyaeon iClone does not have any game aspect to it. It is strictly a software package created for one thing, making animated films.

    @Russell I guess that is a simple definition. But it really does not cover the range of techniques used in machinima so I guess it does boil down to needing to pull out what really is machinima.

    @Hugh we definitely do no keyframe every move in Source Engine. However, in iClone you put a keyframe in, then move an arm up to a different position and put another key frame in and when you play it back the arm moves to the new spot. Sounds a lot like the Pixar explanation.

    And just to be honest, no I would not consider Big Buck Bunny machinima. The first reason would be just at first glance, not knowing anything about how it was made, it looks like Pixar to me so my mind immediately says that it is not machinima but actually "real" computer animation.

    But what is the difference? This is exactly the question that is increasingly proving to have a blurry answer.

    For example:
    "The common definition of "Machinima" in the wider Internet world is "film made with a computer game". This means iClone and Moviestorm films are not machinima.

    "if the film looks like it was made with a computer game, it'll get called "Machinima". So by this then iClone and Moviestorm probably would be considered machinima.

    I am not attached to the term machinima in the sense that I feel the need to claim it or weed out people not working the same as me. I just really feel like it is important to clarify when definitions get blurry.

    I think I can sort or relate it to the term "Vegetarian" and how it used to simply mean you did not eat meat. No beef, no fish, no poultry, no seafood. But now people claim vegetarian as soon as they stop eating beef. I have sat down at a table with people who say "Oh well I am vegetarian" and then order fish.

    The issue is that it makes it hard to communicate. Similarly if everything from Craft of War: Blind to Big Buck Bunny is machinima then there really is no way to compare.

    It really starts to sound like new terms are needed for to cover things like iClone movies and machinima is reserved for the traditional "made with a computer game" definition.

    I am not trying to exclude anybody from the machinima world or anything. In fact we are looking into iClone and I would be happy to exclude our work in that program from the machinima term if that were the case. Clarification is the goal. Confusion causes road blocks.

  5. "I am not attached to the term machinima in the sense that I feel the need to claim it or weed out people not working the same as me. I just really feel like it is important to clarify when definitions get blurry."

    That's exactly how I feel. Old machinima veterans often ask, "why do you care?" I guess things can get tiring after years of discussions. On the other hand, as human beings we do care and think about word meanings. (And this tendency has been good for us!)

    "It really starts to sound like new terms are needed for to cover things like iClone movies and machinima is reserved for the traditional 'made with a computer game' definition. "

    I share this sentiment as well, but I don't object to going with "machinima" (better defined) either. It's short and catchy, and is already being used by many for non-game based desktop generated movies.

    "we simply make animated films using consumer level products"

    I agree with Russell that this is an excellent way to put it.


  6. Randomjack:
    In my opinion, machinima goes like this

    A) Games that arent really made for it, halo, grand theft auto, source. These are the core of machinima
    B) Programs that may or may not have game aspects, are mostly animation, iclone, moviestorm. These are pretty gray to me
    C) Traditional animation, not machinima

  7. Thanks for the comments. I just think clear communication makes life easier and more enjoyable.

    I want to confidently say "I make machinima (or whatever else it is) and here is how it is made. This is an example of it, this is not."

    Currently I cannot do that. :p