I'm finishing the Long Tail Producers chapter and spending more time researching machinima as an example of what can happen when the tools of film production are really democratized. The promise of machinima is to put a Pixar in every home, just like GarageBand and its kin put a recording studio on every desktop. We're not quite there yet, but it's getting closer.
The problem with standard machinima based on first-person-shooter game engines is that you're painting with an incredibly limited palette, both in terms of the characters and settings and in what you can do with them. There's a reason why all the Halo 2 movies are about space marines fighting aliens or each other. The Sims 2 was the first effort to make a game based on a more realistic setting machinima-friendly, and the result was The Strangerhood. But even that's hard to control, and prepping for a scene can take hours.
Which is why my kids and I were really looking forward to The Movies, a new game/machinima studio from Peter Molyneux, the legendary games designer of Black & White fame. We've now had a few weeks to play with it, and it's really quite wonderful.
At its core, it's a SimStudio game, where you have to build a Hollywood studio, operate it, make movies and the rest of the usual Sim-style resource management stuff. That's fun enough, but the really interesting bit is the "Sandbox" mode, where you can make your own movies, pretty much from scratch.
You choose from a wide variety of sets, costumes and, best of all,
pre-animated micro-scenes ("Walk in with ax", "Discover body"; "Slip
on banana peel") many of which can be tweaked with more or less
tension, humor, or whatever makes sense in context. You pick
pre-created actors or create your own with the usual facial modeling
tools. Then you string all these together in a storyboard with some
gentle plot and pacing assistance, and when you're done "filming" you
can type in your dialog as subtitles or record a voice-over in a
sophisticated post-production studio.
We're having a great time with this, mostly trying to replicate the kids' favorite The Movies movie, Attack of the Space Chickens (but minus the kissing part). The only hitch is that you've got to play the main studio sim game from the 1920s to the current era to unlock all the costumes and sets and that's way too much trouble for us. So far we're in the mid 1930s, and have unlocked a Gorilla and Robot costume to go with the usual array of outfits less amusing to small children. I have no idea when the Chicken costume will appear, although I hope it's soon for domestic harmony's sake.
I wish Lionhead would release a stand-alone Sandbox version that has all the assets available from the start. Perhaps there's some cheat code that does this, but the one I found doesn't do the trick. Anybody know a better way?
Meanwhile, we're not the only ones to see The Movies as a machinima breakthrough. Loads of people are uploading their own films, ranging from light comedies to politics. Speaking of which, check out Clive Thompson's post on the French machinimists who used The Movies to create a commentary on the recent riots. As Clive notes, "The raw DIY feel of this project is more punk rock than anything anyone's done with music in about 20 years." I agree: there's something really interesting going on here.