Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Machinima?

by Kate

I’m relatively new to “machinima.” Before my two-year break, I mainly stayed inside the tight-knit community of The Movies Online, and hardly ever called what I was doing machinima. Now my partner (and husband) and I make movies with Moviestorm. Here are some of my thoughts after suddenly finding myself being in “machinima.” (I am not discussing “anymation”* here. My focus is on machinima production involving single non-game-based engines.)

Let me begin with some popular definitions of Mahchinima:

“Machinima is making films with computer games” (Hancock & Ingram, 2007, p.14).

“Machinima is the art of making animated films within a real time virtual 3D environment” (Kelland, Morris, & Lloyd, 2005, p. 10).

The second definition is slightly broader and more inclusive than the first, and as of mid 2009 this seems most widely advertised meaning of “machinima” from Wikipedia to Machinima.com, to various machinima festival sites, and to the blogsphere. “3D environment” and “real time” have been established as the defining features of machinima production.

This, in my opinion, excludes movies made with software such as Moviestorm or iClone, as “real-time” is not the filming process in these platforms. The users of Moviestorm and iClone pause time in their virtual set to build the action piece by piece, and move back and forth along the timeline to make corrections and add subtleties. Yet, in practice, many individuals and various organizations/competitions consider Moviestorm and iClone production as machinima.

(EDIT: The term "real time" is a rather ambiguous term. Originally, the traditional machinima makers often used this term to refer to the real-time puppetry conducted inside of ongoing game play. In the filed of animation though, "real-time" has a strong association with the rendering technology rather than puppetry. That is, if you can render the result of animation in near real-time, it would be considered "real-time." In this latter sense, Moviestorm and iClone would be qualified as adopting a real-time technology.)

So here we are with a wide-spread definition of machinima that excludes a particular kind of non-conventional animation on one hand, and the common usage of the term that defies this definition on the other. My question then is: is this the time to redefine machinima? Or do we need another term for non-game-based movies that were created with the animation tools targeted for mass market?

There are some good reasons for keeping the old definition in peace and coin a new term for the instances that do not fit it. The production process in Moviestorm and iCone (and other similar platforms) is significantly different from the traditional machinima production, and there seems to be some existing resistance in the old-school machinima circles to accepting non-game-based animation as machinima. Beside, a new term might actually help us break loose from the old baggage of certain machinima mentality and claim ourselves as -- excuse me if this sounds pompous but this honestly is the best words I can think of --artists, as opposed to, say, ingenuous hackers.

On the other hand, it is convenient to have one handy umbrella term for all the animated movies created with nontraditional techniques. Certain game engines are highly machinima-friendly and offer ample contents and functionality targeted for machinima production, blurring the boundary between game-based and non-game-based engines. In addition, the term machinima has been comfortably accommodating various potentially ambiguous cases such as the movies made in Second Life. The truth is, in spite of the existing sectarian disputes, there seems to be such a thing as a larger machinima community, that shares the same love, enthusiasm and vision, directed to all sorts of alternative method of animation that allows common people like you and me to make movies with micro budget.

But by applying the term machinima to certain movies, aren't we in fact changing its definition? Then, should we try to popularize this more inclusive definition, instead of copying and spreading the traditional narrower definition over and over again? Should we go ahead and edit Wikipedia? Or is the time not ripe yet?


Addendum:

I think the problem is that the term “real time” is used in many different ways. In animation, as I understand, the term “realtime” is often used in relation to “realtime rendering environment” which allows the animators to see their work in the rendered speed in the animating stage. In machinima circles, however, “real time” seems to have been used in various ways. In one extreme, the term requires capturing the action as it unfolds in front of your eyes even without any editing. In the other extreme, the aforementioned animator’s technical definition of “realtime” appears to be adopted. Between these two, there are various grades of “real time.” As such, I think it would be helpful if the term “real time” (preferably “realtime”) is further explicated when used to define machinima.

That said, I wonder if 3D animation in general will one day move to realtime rendering environments and the current definition of machinima (even with the word “realtime” with clarification) will be challenged once more. Or will the boundary be broken completely in the future, leaving only the distinction between high-budget, independent, nano-budget animations?

Work Cited

Handcock, H. & Ingram, J. (2007). Machinima for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc.

Kelland, M, Morris, D., & Lloyd, D. (2005). Machinima. Boston, MA: Thompson.

*For “anymation,” see this page by Phil “Overman” Rice, or this Urban Dictionary entry by Tom Jantol, who coined the term according to Overman’s comment on this web page.