Monday, January 20, 2014

Musings on Machinima, Part 2: Looking at Machinima through the eyes of others

By K.

My last post ended with the question of whether there is a creative benefit in having a distinct category for a variety of moviemaking practices that utilize the 3D realtime rendering technology (Brown, 2013). This question intrigues me as a machinima maker trying to explore her medium and move beyond the way she has been working with it. My intention is to think about machinima’s potential through a series of blog posts. After all, Flannery O’Connor famously said, “I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”

In this post, I try to make sense of what I’ve read about machinima—written largely by its outside observers—and to broaden my perspective.

Preliminary note

When you start reading about machinima, what strikes you immediately is how much weight is given to works done with game engines or in Second Life relative to those done with software applications specifically designed for machinima production (“machinima software” hereafter).

Game-based machinima of course is the “original” machinima, and to many people machinima simply is game-based, period. Second Life machinima fascinates some people as an emerging social and cultural practice due to its unique mode of production and consumption (that involves realtime collaboration in the virtual world and sharing of the end product in the same environment where production took place) as well as its role in recording the life and arts of Second Life (Higley, 2013; Lowood, 2011). Movies made with machinima software, on the other hand, lack the inventive edge of game machinima or the poetic undertone of Second Life machinima, and present much less exciting cases for those who discuss media for a career. As such, this type of machinima, while being acknowledged by many as part of the machinima family, is largely ignored in general discourse around this medium, and thereby remains to be the other machinima.

But I digress.

Machinima as a viable low budget filmmaking option

I seem to remember the days when machinima was heralded as a new production platform that would revolutionize filmmaking.

Back in June 2000, Roger Ebert famously wrote:

“The key elements in Machinima are low cost and artistic freedom. These movies do not require actors, set designers, cinematographers, caterers, best boys, or key grips. They can be made by one person sitting at a computer. This is revolutionary,”

In the mid to late 2000s, with the rising popularity of and the arrival of software products such as The Movies, a stead buzz about the promise of machinima filled the air.

My own personal experience, however, both as a maker and a viewer of machinima made me somewhat skeptical about the potential of machinima as a viable low budget filmmaking option. As a machinima maker, I know how troublesome it often is to achieve something very simple--something one would not think twice about in a live-action shooting situation--in machinima. Custom-animating an avatar can be extremely difficult and time-consuming. Most machinima engines are clumsy in handling it, and frankly, so are most of machinima makers. Same goes to set design. As a result, many machinima movies feature people moving around unnaturally in an awkwardly rendered environment, making it stressful to watch machinima for an extended period of time.

Machinima may have lowered the threshold for production but it didn't make it any easier to make a movie of professional or semi-professional quality. Machinima largely remains an amateur's medium--in every sense of the word, amateur.

Machinima as a movement rather than an art form

Over the years some came to conclude that the role of machinima is enabling casual amateur participation rather than offering a new medium for serious endeavors. Salen (2011) wrote, “In setting our sights on a revolution in production, we might have missed recognizing the one promise machinima has made good on, the promise of participation. This promise may in fact be the one promise that truly matters” (p. 39, emphasis is from the original author).

Perhaps it was with this same sentiment that people started using the term “machinima movement.”

French Democracy by Alex Chan is a machinima piece quickly put together within a few days in the heat of the 2005 French Riot to tell the story of the civil unrest from the point view of a minority youth. An “unpolished” work by the author’s own admission as well as by general consensus, this piece is considered to be a beacon of machinima movement.

Machinima as a “minor” cinema

Some media scholars invoke Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minority in discussing machinima. They compare machinima to “minor” literature produced by the "disempowered and dominated" (Brown & Holtimeier, 2013, p. 6), and claim machinima has its value in deterritorializing (i.e., taking the control away from) the major media of cinema (Brown & Holtimeier, 2013).

Many of those who hold this view see the crass aesthetics often exhibited by machinima not as a short coming to overcome but as a quality to be embraced. Frolunde wrote that “marginal cultural practices and non-canonical forms of language, such as machinima, expand linguistic systems and celebrate the comic, the profane, the absurd, and the carnivalesque” (Frolunde, 2013, p.90, emphasis is mine). Brown and Holtimeier (2013) went further to say that the “‘primitive’ aesthetic values” of machinima are “not so much defects as defining characteristics of machinima, regardless of the machini-maker’s intentions,” and that “[the] ‘minor’ quality (or the subversive power) of machinima is made most clear when the movies are willfully amateurish” (P. 11, emphasis is by the original authors).

As interesting as this view is at first glance, the notion that crudeness contributes to deterritorialization strikes me as a paradox. If machinima is defined as a minor medium that distinguishes itself from the major medium by crude aesthetics and poor execution, then, can we say it truly deterritorializes anything?

Machinima as a revolutionary new medium

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people who seek a groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting new medium of art in machinima.

In a speech delivered in Second Life at the 48Hour Film Project in 2010, the film director Peter Greenaway criticized the ongoing trend in machinima, urging machinima makers to stop “aping” cinema and to use the new medium to break the frame of the cinema. Greenaway’s remark, although not favorably received in general, does express a refreshingly high hope for machinima as an art form.

Although I do not agree we ought to abandon what have been learned from the hundred year’s history of cinema--which is a medium that shares the same primary modalities with machinima (moving images and sounds), I am more than willing to think about ways in which one can approach said ‘frame breaking.’ Unfortunately Greenaway offers very little specific direction. But there are others who offer better developed ideas.

Some have suggested machinima to return to its gaming root. Chris Burke wrote that “... few machinima pieces really take advantage of the paradigm shift from filmic representation to game engine simulation” (Burke, 2013, P.35, the emphasis is mine). After discussing the uniqueness of game space, which is not a mere representation of reality but a simulated reality that stands on its own to be experienced by the user through active participation, Burke asks if machinima makers can “embrace [such space] with a new visual syntax.” (Burke. 2013, p. 36). Interestingly though, Burke’s own suggestion regarding the new syntax comes in the form of examples in cinema, such as certain sequences in Antonioni films where the character (and the camera) wanders around for the sole purpose of exploring the space itself.

Relevant to the discussion of a game-driven visual syntax is Mike Jones’s comparison of “film camera” and “game camera.” Jones observes that, while cinema represents what the audience is meant to see within an artificial frame (mise-en-scène), a video game depends on building an immersive experience of actually being in the environment which he calls “macro-mise-en-scène” (Jones, 2005). He contends that the game camera, which adopts the first-person perspective of the player who actively controls it, presents “new conceptualizations of space and the viewer’s connection to, or immersion in, it” (Jones 2006, as quoted by Higley, 2013, p. 113). Such game-driven aesthetics is influencing cinema according to Jones. He offers Gus Van Sant’s Elephant as an example of “a very effective paired relationship between camera technique and surround sound that can be said derives directly from gaming sensibilities of spatial placement and Macro-mise en scène composition of a larger space that the camera is free to range over and embrace spatially specific but non-visual elements” (Jones, 2005).

Not everyone, however, is enthusiastic about machinima’s tie to video games. Kirschner (2011), for example, urges the machinima community to turn away from machinima’s game past and look at animation for inspiration. He complains that even machinima software programs such as Moviestorm and iClone “never managed to transcend its visual heritage of being made with computer game technology” (P.22). Although Kirschner acknowledges that the visual quality of machinima engines are constantly improving, he still believes that the abstract quality of animation offers the best promise for machinima. He also adds: “people seldom look at the stylistic, narrative and production methods used in both traditional and computer-generated animated stories, and thus they miss out on a heritage of visual variety not found in live-action movies” (P.23).

Ebert (2000) would have agreed with Kirschner. Remarking that a lack of realism is not a real problem of machinima, he wrote, "Animation suggests, and the imagination supplies; our eyes fill in the gaps." His concern was whether machinima would evolve beyond the trend which is "visually impressive but empty," crowded with contents directly derived form video games.

Ebert ended his web article with the following thought: "The means of production are here. It's the artist part that's tricky." I may not be certain about the first statement, but I'm with him on the second one. The artist part, in fact, is very tricky.

(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.

Brown, W. & Holtmeier. M (2013). Machinima: Cinema in minor or multitudinous key? (p. 3 – 22). In J. Ng (Ed.), Understanding machinima: Essays on filmmaking in virtual worlds (p. 41- 62). London: Bloomsbury.

Burke, C. Beyond bullet time: Media in the knowable space (p. 23-40). In J. Ng (Ed.), Understanding machinima: Essays on filmmaking in virtual worlds (p. 41- 62). London: Bloomsbury.

Ebert. R. (2000, June). The ghost in the machinima: Will the use of video game technology to make movies result in art or kitsch? Roger Ebert’s Critical Eye. Retrieved from,9539,2572985,00.html

Frolunde, L. (2013). Facing the audience: A dialogic perspective on the hybrid animated film (p. 85-108). In J. Ng (Ed.), Understanding machinima: Essays on filmmaking in virtual worlds (p. 41- 62). London: Bloomsbury.

Higley, S. (2013). Dangerous sim crossings: Framing the Second Life art machinima (p. 109-126). In J. Ng (Ed.), Understanding machinima: Essays on filmmaking in virtual worlds (p. 41- 62). London: Bloomsbury.

Jones, M. (2005). Composing space: Cinema and computer gaming - The Macro-mise en scene and spatial composition. Paper presented at Imaginary Worlds Symposium, UTS, Sydney, Australia, 2005. Retrieved from

Kirschner, F. (2011). Machinima’s promise. Journal of visual culture, vol. 10(1), 19-24.

Lowood, H. (2011). Video capture: Machinima, documentation, and the history of virtual worlds (p. 3-22). In H. Lowood & M. Nitsche (Eds.), The machinima reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Salen, K. (2011). Arrested Development: Why Machinima Can’t (Shouldn’t) grow up (p. 39-50). In H. Lowood & M. Nitsche (Eds.), The machinima reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


thebiz said...

Excellent piece with a lot of interesting trails of thought. Second life flicks often seem to have a sense of the bizarre world and the process in which they are being created. I was also reminded of one of my own little flicks in which I tried to create the haunted house experience as a an animated film. Kind of unique in its intentions perhaps. Half simulation, half cinematic.

Chat Noir Studios said...

I also thought of TheBiz’s House of Horror! In fact, it was one of machinima pieces I was considering mentioning in my next blog. (But then, I got lazy with blogging. So much for the new year's resolution...)

By the way, is Ptolemy's Blues available anywhere?

thebiz said...

I went looking for Ptolemy and found out that alas, as of nov 2013 Blip kicked out a lot of archived stuff and I do not have a copy of it (at least not easily found). Bummer. I liked that one as well. Kind of dreamy thing that did have a mix of the absurd with the amateur.

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