[December 31st, 2009]
Posted by Michael
This is one of those issues I that can cause only trouble but I am supposed to write a short piece on a related issue and the question I cannot avoid is: How to define machinima?
A caveat upfront, nobody who is too busy doing it should be bothered. This might be one of those self-perpetuating problems academics like. It just so happens that I am such a creature and that I cannot avoid it.
With all due respect, Marino’s definition of machinima as “animated filmmaking within a real-time virtual 3D environment” or Hancock/Ingram’s “Machinima is making films with computer games” and a “technique of taking a viewpoint on a virtual world, and recording that, editing it, and showing it to other people as a film” are both mainly utilitarian. The phenomenon needed some description and these statements provided the necessary descriptions by people who were part of this phenomenon. They offer an initial approach and remain immensely helpful as such. But once you shine any overly critical flashlight on them problems arise. So here are some musings about a work-in-progress machinima definition.
It becomes exceedingly difficult to define machinima based on a technique, which is one reason the term “anymation” has been used as in parallel to machinima by artists such as Tom Jantol. Likewise, the connection to gaming is shrinking, the once dominating term “Quake movies” has become obsolete with increasing diversification of game engines used to create machinima (e.g. across different platforms and away from the dominating PC based systems). Tying it to a game in general has become equally problematic as special machinima creation packages like Moviestorm and iClone launched without any basis in gaming. However, replacing “game” with 3D world does not solve the problem as the definition of a 3D virtual world is equally unclear – is a Maya scene a 3D world? Why does it have to be 3D? And where is “film” in the equation?
So here is a different take on the same question of defining machinima. I will define machinima based on the element of procedurality and will try to bring in the idea of performance. To get there you have to think back to the beginnings of machinima when “movies” were in fact demo files that were re-processed in real-time in the game engine. To a time before YouTube and rendered single versions of game movies. Sure, it runs against the grain, but there you go …
I argue that maintaining a kind of performative control is key for the presevation of machinima’s identity. At its core, machinima is part of the same digital procedural media family as video games but it differs from games in the way that this control is weighted. In one word: Machinima is more flexible than games because it tries to do something different. Machinima can switch between modes of what is producing and controlling easier then games can.
It has been another of those self-inflicted definition squabbles to define what a video game is but we can take it as generally accepted that a game depends on some form of player interaction (yes, once you enter the definition game even the most obvious statements can be dubious). A machinima piece might be game-based but it can completely switch to the machine as performing entity (see the demoscene example or Brody Condon‘s 3 modifications). It can also completely concentrate on the performance of the virtual puppeteer (see the original QuakeDoneQuick demos; Leeroy video; Dance Voldo Dance; or any bragging movie). Finally, a machinima can include customization and adjustment of the piece through the audience (see the biofeedback experiments of Champion; the old News at Seven project; or Kumagames Leaving the Game project – where I mentored during production). A machinima is a form of performance. Thankfully, this has been outlined in other places rather nicely – see Cameron and Carroll. Where I differ from their view is that I would like to extend the performance part beyond the capturing and generation and into the playback.
The procedurality of a video game is dependent on the player doing stuff that affects the action. Machinima with its much stronger focus on the cinematic presentation, the “telling,” looks at a different use of procedurality. Where games play with the changes of the action, machinima plays with the changes in the cinematic narration.
At the same time, the performance exceeds the control of mere rendering. Performance of the game, the player, and even the audience can include rules that go beyond the creation of the image itself and instead can affect the action that is displayed. These rules can be based in the engine and include elements such as collision control, physics simulation, and various AI behaviors. Or they can originate in a player who controls an in-game avatar, a light, a vehicle, or a camera in real-time of the final image rendering. Or they can apply audience elements into the event, like biofeedback, customization, and dependency on the local computer settings. All this is very different from the way 3D modeling packages are set up. Unless you modify a scene in Max or Maya to the extent that it becomes almost a game engine, these systems completely concentrate on the image render and not the inner workings of the rendered world. So here goes my first try to brew this down into a machinima definition as a work-in-progress:
Machinima is digital performance that controls procedurally animated moving images in real time.
With that in mind, its differences to traditional CG animation becomes clear, as does its difference to games and classic film. The downside: this merely touches on the current practices. Because the image should procedurally animated, the distribution of machinima as rendered movies e.g. on YouTube is seen as a step away from the core of what machinima is. On the other side, the advantages of this kind of machinima can be exceptional. Machinima, here, is not described as a technique but as a media format that should not strife to deliver the next Toy Story but might just have the necessary qualities to become a new media form like television or radio.
However, this only works if the performance aspect and its flexibility remain supported. This kind of machinima definition depends on live play back, on engines running on the delivery end, on innovative control mechanisms, on new ideas of how we can manipulate moving images. Which is a lot of work for 2010.