Saturday, January 4, 2014

Musings on Machinima, Part 1: Do we need “Machinima”?

By K.

When S and I started making our little movies using The Movies game at the tail end of 2005, the term “machinima” was something we considered irrelevant to us. The word sounded geeky, rather esoteric, and even snooty for some reason. Neither did what we were doing seem similar enough to machinima exemplars--like Red vs. Blue. I liked the sound of the word though—a series of easy bilabial and nasal sounds (/m/ and /n/), interjected with a splinter of the cool and harsh palato-alveolar consonant (/sh/) for an added burst of energy. The sound seemed to have an aerodynamic shape.

After a one-and-a-half year break, we returned to making desktop-produced animated movies in 2009. By the time, “machinima,” the term originally reserved for movies shot in video games, had become a common, albeit somewhat controversial, name for the kind of moviemaking we engaged in. More and more, “machinima” was being defined as moviemaking using 3D “realtime” environments or “realtime” rendering technology, as opposed to moviemaking in video games.

The game machinima purists rejected this broadening of term. Some insisted that machinima should be limited to realtime capturing of ongoing game play, rather than being extended to include usage of realtime rendering technology.

Those who considered themselves as low-budget desktop-produced moviemakers—excuse me, I mean “film makers”—took offense as well. I guess they didn’t care for being lumped together with those kids in basements recording video game plays. Well, I have to admit I didn’t. 

Whether people liked it or not, “machinima” seemed to be establishing itself as a common word for various types of desktop movie-making including those done in video games, virtual worlds, and consumer-level animation software offering 3D environments. S and I started to embrace the term as well, not without some resistance and doubts. 

In a sense it was ironic that we finally started calling what we did machinima at this point, because by this time we were using Moviestorm, which was a software dedicated to producing animated movies. Back when we were using The Movies game—a real video game simulating movie studio—we didn’t called ourselves machinima makers.

All said and done, tagging along with those gamers in basements had its benefit for non-game-based machinima makers. In addition to having a relatively well-established word as a name for what they were doing—which is not an insignificant need for the members of the symbolic species called Homo Sapiens—and having a convenient term to refer to their activity and products, non-game-based machinima makers, through the linguistic and conceptual affiliation, got to share the attention of the academics in media studies and the curators from art communities with those ingenious and subversive hacker-moviemakers. What would have remained nameless gestures, destined never to see the light of the day outside their own small community, now had an exposure in academic papers and legitimate art festivals like Atopic Festival in Paris or FILE in Brazil. So who cares if people misled by the term expected to see something crazy in your work and spread insults when they saw something else?

Maybe this is too cynical a view. Maybe non-game-based machinima, regardless of what it is called, deserves an attention as an emerging means of low-budget storytelling and artistic endeavor. And maybe what I wrote four-and-a-half years ago on this blog has a point: “[i]t 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. ... 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.”

On the other hand, I do often wonder if all these different kinds of machinima—including game-based machinima, Second Life machinima, and machinima made with animation software—have enough in common to justify the nomenclature. Does this terminology actually help more than confuse?

More interestingly, Sheldon Brown (2013) asks the following question:

Naming this set of cultural activities demonstrates that there is enough commonality in forms of expression and enough uniqueness from pre-existing forms ... that expressive intent can take advantage of cumulative practices to create an increasingly sophisticated syntax. ... So what is the use of concocting the neologism ‘machinima’ right now? Can there be a productive tension in having some common, recognizable forms of its practice, along with an imaginative and expansive application of its underlying methods? (Brown, S., 2013, p.43).

Indeed, is there a creative benefit in grouping all these different kinds of activities in one category?

(To be continued.)


Brown, S. (2013). Be(ing)dazzled: Living in machinima. In J. Ng (Ed.), Understanding machinima: Essays on filmmaking in virtual worlds (p. 41- 62). London: Bloomsbury.


Ricky Grove said...

I avoid the issue by simply ignoring it, Kate. My use of machinima in the Machinima Expo is purely promotional, although we do focus on live-rendered animation exclusively. But I'm even wondering if that distinction is really useful anymore. What it comes down to for me is something like tom jantol's "anymation" where you use whatever tools you need to create your world/vision/story. I'd rather create something and let those who are philosophically inclined name and categorize it.

Chat Noir Studios said...

Thank you, Ricky, for your comments!

This is only an opener for a series of blog entries. My main purpose is to find a way to get something useful for me out of all the ongoing discussion about machinima out there. (I was doing some reading recently after I got that book as a prize from the Expo. :) )

I think Machinima Expo is one of the strong forces that pull people involved in various kinds of desk-top animation/moviemaking together under one broad term, “machinima.” I’m glad for it because I do cherish all the encounters we have at the Expo with people doing cool things in Second Life and with video game engines.

Like you, I feel "realtime rendering" is almost irrelevant from my own point of view. I can only guess it is something important from the point of view of those involved in technology and software development, etc...