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    FreePixel looks at video games as part of the moving image culture. Games are not movies. But games use moving image tradition in their presentation. That is why FreePixel offers a critical look at games and their expressive qualities that grow from the use of the moving image.


    [July 22nd, 2011]

    The Pixar Dream of Machinima

    Posted by Michael

    From the times when machinima flourished and folks saw it as a new possible form of commercial filmmaking, there was one myth of machinima, a kind of holy grail: to catch up with Pixar and do a kind of Toy Story x in real-time. After all, who would not like to swap with John Lasseter? The man turned himself into an CGI animation myth, like Disney did for traditional animation.

    Now we have Cars 2 and the myth has cracks.

    After watching Cars 2 I had to see Wall-E and Toy Story 3 again – just to remind me of what Pixar stands for. You cannot blame my lack of interest in all things automobile alone. The timing was off, the characters were lost, and worst of all the story was fragmented and garbled up to sheer nonsense. The result was a mediocre tale polished up by render virtuosity. What went wrong and is there a lesson to learn for machinima?

    One has to admit, the film still looks great, with more detail than ever. The Guardian points to one of the film’s designers:

    For one scene involving a chase around London, Pixar created nearly 20 miles of “landscape and environment”. Apurva Shah, supervising technical designer, said: “We started with the actual map and layout of London. Even though our world is very caricatured, we wanted it to be as true as possible.”

    It sounds like the debate around the Getaway video game of 2002 vs the altered cities of GTA III – shall we meticulously recreate existing urban landscape or re-interpret it? The autofied cities in Cars 2 go the second way and it sure works out nicely. In fact, the cityscapes were the visual high points I finally kept focusing on in all this mess.

    The whole production design is impressive (here is an interesting but somehow unrelated statement by Cars 2’s production designer Harley Jessup on production design in general). And Lasseter himself really likes the cars and the Cars franchise and he points back to his dad working in the car business – for Chevy to be precise. All that does not help but mainly highlights the shortcomings.

    If Shah’s numbers are accurate and the rendering really took so much more time than in the original, then it is even more frustrating that the story does not hold together. This is a movie where the main message seems to be that good friends should not change but the world around them should. This is already simplified and dubious. However, the final showdown stages Mater as super agent, with a bomb ticking away on his hood standing next to the Queen of England, solving the case in the most unlikely way within a couple of minutes of Hercule Poirot-like monologuing on speed. So which part of that character has not changed? And that is only one of the numerous internal problems at hand.

    If one points fingers they have to point to the script. Cars 2 is based on a story by Lasseter, Brad Lewis, and Dan Fogelman. The screenplay’s sole credit goes to Ben Queen, who worked on the Fox¬† TV show Drive, which was canned pretty fast. From that he went on to write Cars 2. Here is some interview with him – and here more from the Nantucket Film Festival, which is particularly dedicated to screenwriters.

    These films take years to make and cost a lot of money ($ 200 million for Cars 2) so the pre-production should be flawless, one suspects. At least in the house that Luxo Jr. built. The story production in Cars 2 just failed, not in the visual sense but the story production.

    And that reminded me of machinima production. We just did some research on the production methods of machinima artists and overall this is more of a Robert Rodriguez territory than Alfred Hitchcock turf. The full paper will be presented at the Creativity & Cognition Conference early November and goes a far more cognitive route. Machinima, as Hugh has pointed out, is fast and dirty. Knowing that, we watch machinima films differently. They are a kind of happy free-for-all. As Katie Salen mentioned in The Machinima Reader: in a form of arrested development. But a Pixar movie? Machinima might be the bubbling underground and underbelly of CGI, but Pixar is supposed to be the “Beatles vs the Stones” kind of creative genius.

    Instead Cars 2 morphed into something different. Great technology, outstanding locations and heart-pumping set pieces of action, but sub-standard storytelling … Cars 2 quality list reads like that of a video game. But as a game it lacks something, as the New York Times critique also mentions, referencing the above included Tokyo sequence:

    That city, and everywhere else on the globe where this busy, swift-moving picture touches down, turns into a video-game backdrop once the wheels start spinning. There is some ingenuity in this, but the visceral immediacy of arcade-style racing games does not come through, in spite of the skillful application of 3-D.

    Given that it was the 3D engine behind Quake that helped to launch machinima at large, the Times might have a point here. Like the abysmal Wachowski Brother’s Speed Racer that fails to deliver on the thrills that WipeOut has in spades, Cars 2 ends up trying to be something it is not. Its car versions of existing cities are beautiful but fall short of the experiences that Liberty City provide. If the landscapes become the main fix points, then they should become places for experiences and not just for racing thrills.

    In my humble opinion, this is the cardinal sin of Cars 2. Pixar proved to the world that CGI movies are an art form in themselves within the animation family. They are not spin offs from live action movies or video games and they bring something new to the table for animation at large. Cars 2 is going the wrong way here as the “new” part is the part that games do better.

    In comparison, a lot of machinima works just the other way around: it comes from the game, takes all its amazing scenery, action, and render glory, and tries to turn them into a film. Again, look at the machinima coming out of GTA III. For some reason, this feels like a step up, an artistic new interpretation of the wonders provided by technology and design. If the technology, including 3D, becomes too much of a camouflage, then the historic development and the underlying ambition of machinima to build onto these technologies to create their story universes is the much more noble direction. So in some ways the failure of Cars 2 is a pad on the back for machinima makers, who know where they come from and how to utilize the tools at their hand. It also questions the use of 3D in movies vs that in games – something, I have been wondering about for a while.


    Comment from Nelson Zagalo
    Time: July 23, 2011, 3:26 am

    Totally agree with the perspectives on machinima route and pixar route, and the possible problems of mixing both.
    However and even admiring Pixar, i must say that people working in both sides must be admired not only by their technological competences, but also by their creativity. And here i’m talking about some great storytelling creativity we’ve seen in some machinima examples in the recent years. This is not a unique territory belonging to Pixar :)

    Comment from Russell
    Time: July 23, 2011, 3:30 am

    Guess I’ll give it a pass then. Another disappointing lack of story in a visually stunning animation. Ed Catmull, (President of Disney and Pixar) “to say that story is the most important thing in a movie is a tautology” (at 7:14)

    Comment from Michael
    Time: July 23, 2011, 7:05 pm

    Nelson: I agree, there is some very strong storytelling out there. The challenge that Toy Story and Wall-E and Finding Nemo really answered was the balance of tech and “content.” Cars 2 just fails here. And yes it is sad.
    Russell: thanks for the link!

    Comment from Mayur
    Time: August 24, 2011, 11:57 pm

    I studied PIXAR case in my innovation and entrepreneurship class. It turned out that they started pretty good at the beginning but lost focus recently. Its not too far when new companies like ZonoPact InfoTech will takeover Pixar soon.

    Comment from Michael
    Time: September 1, 2011, 9:08 pm

    I looked briefly at ZonoPact but it looks like a pure technological endeavor with little own content.

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