Friday, August 7, 2009

The Experience of Fiction vs. the Appreciation of Artifacts

By Kate

When you visit Viemo, YouTube, or TMUnderground to watch a much-talked-about machinima piece, what is your primary motivation? What is it that you're seeking?

In Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine, Ed S. Tan (1996) discusses two primary motives for watching a film: 1) the experience of fiction and 2) the appreciation of artifacts. The first is about being transformed to the world pertaining to the narrative. (e.g., being engrossed in the events unfolding, being scared as you watch the character ventures out to the dark). The second is about appreciating the style and formal characteristics of the medium (e.g., appreciating the camera work, acknowledging the way the monster suddenly flashes right in front of the camera after the long and slow building up of a nervous anticipation, or marveling at the way Memento tells its story).

This dichotomy seems particularly interesting in the context of machinima. It is my opinion that the appreciation of artifacts has a much higher priority in machinima watching than in film watching. It would be fair to say we often watch machinima mainly to see what people can do (and have done) with various machinima engines, and to be impressed and inspired by their ingenuity. At least, we do so much more frequently than we approach films with the same motivation.

The heightened status of the artifact appreciation in machinima watching is not surprising since machinima started (by and large) as the showcase of what an impressive artifact you can create out of the game you play. The machinima tools geared for story-telling are still in their infancy, and both the developers and users of these tools are in the process of discovering what can be achieved and how. In the mean time, a drastically high proportion of machinima watchers remain to be what we might call peer viewers (viewers who are involved in the craft and the community around it themselves), and for these people, the technique and style naturally are of particular importance and interest.

The problem is that this seems to brew the culture of 5-minute tech-demos in which the highest esteem and popularity are reserved for brief movies with minimal stories that are primarily to demonstrate the maker’s cinematic techniques or the potential of particular tools. In this environment, I find myself left wondering whether there is a place for story-driven machinima.

Should a story matter? I will not dwell on the point that style without substance is empty. Neither will I spend the virtual ink on my personal motivations for making those little movies. Instead, I would raise the point that machinima’s value as an artifact is bound to greatly depreciate outside the small odd community of the machiniphiles. None of the most superior camera works, lighting works, or cinematic techniques created in a personal computer will sufficiently impress non-game-players and non-machinima-makers. It is only through the story, and its universal appeal, that the people at large can be intrigued. It is through the story that machinima would be able to gain the legitimacy and respect it deserves in the real world.


Norrie said...

Great points made here.
I don't use MS or iClone; and hardly used TM, so I come at it from a different angle. I like a story, simple as that. I'm happier watching a rough, story driven film (LewisQ being a perfect example) than a polished piece of pretty pictures.

I can understand people making five minute "tech demos" – it's much easier learning and improving when you have a goal; and then why wouldn't you want other people's reaction?
What I dislike is when I watch a longer piece where the story obviously takes second place to the visuals. It's why I much prefer Killian's work to Uber's (as an example).

There is definitely a built in Machinima prejudice though - short, vacant eye candy is preferred. You only have to look at, YouTube & Bit Films to see that. Unfortunately, I think this will remain for a long time to come. I just can't see machinima breaking out of its small niche market at all.

Chat Noir said...

“What I dislike is when I watch a longer piece where the story obviously takes second place to the visuals.”

That’s so true. I guess mistrust is also another factor why “short, vacant eye candy is preferred.” We don’t always get enough rewards for spending more minutes watching machinima...

This point makes me realize that S and I should really strive to make every minute the viewer spends watching our movie worth their while... (I emphasize “strive.”)

sisch said...

Great points, Kate and Norrie!

The story should always come first - and we are slowly beginning to see more machinimators become aware of that - though I still think there are too few of them, and the general audience - and especially some of the festivals concerned with machinima, haven't got onto the train yet... which I think is sad.

We can have both - great story and cinematography, that's what I'm personally striving for, and I feel we should all strive for to make machinima 'respectable', or let's just say, more interesting for a viewer who knows nothing about engines or all that stuff.

At the moment, you're literally forced to put in as much eye candy as you can to get a involving, deep story recognised, to keep people interested long enough so that they, in the end, appreciate the story as much as the visuals. That is often not easy, and means that as someone who concentrates on dialogue and writing, you have to be twice as good as the others. There's no going minimal on visuals - you just have to dazzle!

The day for story-driven machinima will come - just not tomorrow.. but we can all try to do our best to make it come soon.

Having said all that, I'm sure that you (the Black Cats) will make every minute of your movies worthwhile watching - you always have! :)

Chat Noir said...

"At the moment, you're literally forced to put in as much eye candy as you can to get a involving, deep story recognised, to keep people interested long enough so that they, in the end, appreciate the story as much as the visuals."

That's exactly how I feel. I also agree visual effects and style help draw people into the story. A good balance between content and style would be ideal...

Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

I agree that the eye/techno /candy vs story dynamic is particularly acute within the machinima viewing community. I feel that there is a barrier to be negotiated, an absence of encouragement to the kind of filmmakers who have the greatest potential to leap out of the geek-stream and into the main-stream. There is also a powerful reward cycle which keeps mach movies hemmed into too narrow a field, and festivals can be a big part of that problem -Kate

Chat Noir said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful and interesting comment, Kate.

"From geek-stream to main-stream." Wouldn't that be great? :)

Lainy Voom said...

I'm a big believer in being able to debate ideas (but not a big fan of arguing) and I offer this as a way of furthering discussion/debate (and not as a way to starting an argument or being argumentative).

The writing art is important, but so is visual art. It's not fair to say that a book is more important than a painting, that Chaucer is more important than Picasso. People come from different backgrounds to machinima, some come from a writing background and have that in mind when they make films, some come from painting backgrounds and want to express that in their work. Human beings are capable of expressing art through verbal or visual means, and both are equally important in human society. There is a big difference between "eye candy" and emotions through visuals, whether it's linear visual storytelling or something more abstract. If we as people have a personal preference for writing or painting, then it is just that, a personal preference (and there is nothing wrong with that).

There is also the difference between cinema and animation, the majority of people creating machinima want to make film, with it's associated rules and culture, but others are more influenced by the animation world, and the 2 are not the same. On top of that you get people filming virtual world performance art and then streaming it into real world art galleries, live or not live (which puts another spin on what machinima is and should be).

I also despair at the amount of throw-a-way mass media pap that is held up as great machinima, I believe many different people creating many different types of machinima reach that same conclusion. But what should great machinima be classed as? That is where I believe it gets more complicated. I don't believe length of film has anything to do with this, a emotive short poem is just as good as an epic book. I believe emotion is the key to a good machinima, a good film, a good animation, and whether that is verbal or visual, whether it be linear or abstract, shouldn't it all be valid?

Lainy Voom said...

Ack sorry, forgot to put my name on the end, it's Trace, Kate.

Richard Grove said...

Intriguing and thoughtful post, Kate. Thank God someone is writing about these kinds of things in the machinima community.

My feelings are very much like Lainy's. Emotion is the key to animation. This was the basic point in the "writing for game" panel at Siggraph. Emotion allows for inclusion of non-realistic/abstract material where 'Story' does not. Plus, it goes to the essentials of why we watch films: to be moved, awed and to learn about human experience. Just watch any Hayao Miyazaki film and you'll see what I mean.

That machinima is trying to be film and is primarily influenced by Hollywood styles/tropes is one of the things I've been saying for years. Why not use anime as a model? Or cutting edge animation like "We are the Strange"? How to be awed or moved by machinima that lacks originality and are not creative?

My hope is that machinima filmmakers can avoid the insularity that some communities bring and, with it, a false sense of what's really great in a machinima film. Of course, some of this is simply encouraging each other, which is a good thing. That's why I prefer not be involved in forum based machinima communities, but with small groups in production.

If filmmakers can look for inspiration in great animation, then perhaps the obsession with technique will be less a factor in creating machinima. The solo filmmaker, in some sense is naturally focused on technical expression, but as you point out so well, Kate, it's not the form, but the content (story/emotion) that matters in drawing the viewer into your film dreams.

sisch said...

Mmmh....I agree with Lainy - visuals are important, of course - and there's a big difference between 'eye candy' (which for me means big explosions and stuff, most of the time) and visual artistry..

But the impression I am getting here is that we should strive for something 'unique', whatever that might be.

Being original... okay, I'm sorry, but I just want to tell stories - complete with dialogue (most of the time) and a storyline. I'm not into the abstract thing, which I do like to watch, but it's not my style. I'm more into the 'conventional' type of film, so you could say I take my inspiration from that.

Does that mean I'm not original? That I should exchange my virtual camera with a real one, and be done with machinima?
And if we just go from making films emulating real films to emulating Anime or Animation, wouldn't that be un-original again?

Chat Noir said...

Thank you, Trace and Richard, for your perspectives and thoughtful comments.

I think art machinima is probably another kind of machinima that is underappreciated by general viewers (just like art films are in the real film world). It is a whole other world that was not discussed in my original blog, but something that deserves more attention in my opinion. I hope to learn more about the kind of endeavors Trace mentioned. (“…people filming virtual world performance art and then streaming it into real world art galleries, live or not live…” How interesting!).

I definitely think visuals and styles are important. (For me, they are important as a vital part of story-telling.)

It is encouraging that both of you mentioned emotion as the key in the machinima experience. Emotion in stories and movies is what I've planed to read, think, and write more about.

Dulci said...

I read a post once where the author indicated that he believed that the only reason people watch machinima is to see what someone has done with a game engine they are familiar with (i.e. oooo look! Darth Vader is doing the moonwalk). I strongly disagreed with this comment, but I had to step back to figure out exactly why. I realized I didn't exactly disagree with the statement, because, obviously, that is exactly what some in the audience ARE watching for; rather, I disagreed with the generality that that is the ONLY audience out there.

It's very difficult as a writer/director/producer/whathaveyou to know that your movies will be appreciated by some only if has that type of element in it. Many times our movies can feel like our children being sent out into the world and it's hard to watch our kids try to stand on their own two feet without us running behind them shouting to the world..."Be nice to my baby!"

However, we can't as creators dictate to our audience what they should notice, appreciate, enjoy, etc. about our work. That's the gamble we are taking when we put it out there - people might just not "get" it. The real question is, is mainstream acceptance or the desire for more views, film festival wins, etc. going to make any of us compromise our own visions? That's the same question paid, professional filmmakers have to ask themselves - do they "sell out" and write for the masses to get that big deal, or do they stick strictly to their own vision and fund their own work with blood, sweat, and tears?

In the end, it depends on each of our individual goals and self-expectations.

I don't know if this is entirely on point, but that's where my mind took me after reading the post and comments.

Chat Noir said...

How exciting we’re having such an active discussion here! I write a response and find that another comment has already been posted.

I am with Sisch that traditional story-telling is not a lesser vehicle for creativity and originality. (But as to the possibility of Sisch’s reaching for a real camera, I'd be in fact thrill to see it, just because I do like the medium very much and experienced its potential first hand. I think digital filming would be an even greater option for abstract art-oriented movie makers.)

Lainy Voom said...

Ooops, I didn't mean to imply that I was only talking about art machinima, I was including film/animation that does not have verbal narrative, Pixar or Disney also make some non-verbal but visual storytelling films/animations that are traditional. This would be an example I was including, and in my eyes it is very traditional storytelling

I also believe everyone who has replied here strives to be unique and to have their own voice, I've never seen in anyone's work, anything that emulated anything else. Being inspired by something and emulating I think are different things, film emulated machinima I think of as War of the Worlds or Independence Day type films, movies that clearly copy others. I believe it was a more general comment towards the less original or less emotive films out there, and not a comment on whether people use film for inspiration.

Chat Noir said...

Oh, I always considered non-verbal story-telling as story telling. I thin people tend to equate writing with writing dialogs when it comes to screenwriting. I see writing as something that encompasses creating characters, constructing the story, designing a way to tell the story, mentally building scene, as well as writing down the dialog. Visualizing and conceiving visual and non-visual metaphors are also part of it!

Richard Grove said...

I'm not suggesting that conventional film/storytelling is inferior, it's just more mainstream. My encouragement to look to anime/animation is not meant to slavishly follow, but as a form of influence and inspiration for your own ORIGINAL work. My complaint is that too much machinima looks like cut scenes, popular movies and/or TV. That's fine if this is what the creator wants to make, but it's not why I make machinima. I'm suggesting that there are other forms of animation that we can look to for ideas. Look at Lainy Vooms recent "9" film which found it's source in the modernist experimental film movement.

Make any kind of film you want and have fun doing it. But the films that mean anything to me and that move me are the ones with original ideas and original forms. And creating a visual story that suspends my disbelief and produces an emotional reaction are the ones I'll talk about and come back to again and again (Day's After, Male Restroom Ettiquette, the Dumb Man, Saving Grace, Clear Skies, et al).

Richard Grove said...

I mistakenly attributed the film "9" to Lainy Voom, but the actual director is Claus-Dieter Schulz. Lainy did the equally interesting abstract film "Push". My apologies to them for the mix up.

Killian said...

I myself firmly come down in the "story is the most important thing" camp. It doesn't matter to me if a film is played out against a black screen with two talking heads, if the story and performances are compelling and believable.

I really do think that (as has been mentioned before by my esteemed colleagues to a greater or lesser degree) the trend in certain quarters is "cram in as much eye candy as possible and overload the senses with bangs, explosions, 'wow shots' and so forth... sometimes to the expense of the core of the story.

One only has to look at something like Transformers; is there a deep meaning behind the film? No. Is it an examination of the human condition? Definately not. Is it 2 hours of mindless entertainment, where the depth of character, story, background, intelligence and meaning is thrown out of the window for a bag of popcorn and a ton of explosions?

Most definately.

And, I think, that the "goldfish mentality" does tend to bleed into the machinima field, as well. As has been mentioned here and elsewhere, sometimes I feel that it's difficult to attract an audience unless the movie is 5 minutes long, crammed with quick fire comedy or slapstick and about as deep as a puddle.

Some of this can be attributed to time constraints (i.e. if people are going to watch a machinima movie, are they more likely to watch something 5 minutes long or 30 minutes long? 9 times out of 10 it will be the former, I'd put money on it), but also some of it can only be attributed to the attitude of the viewer. Whether this is down to the "Youff Tube" mentality or a general lack of attention to anything with more substance than a cobweb, I don't know. I wish I did, because there are a ton of great movies out there, long AND short, that get overlooked because the average Joe at the Keyboard isn't interested in using their brain when watching something; they just want to be force-fed booms, bangs, big stunning setpiece shots and finickity "techy" stuff (which can sometimes come off more like "look how clever I am; it has naff all to do with the story, but look at this cool shot") rather than having to strain the brain and have to think about the movie, in whatever depth that thought needs.