Friday, December 5, 2008

Using Machinima to teach film

Using machinima to teach film
Machinima has the potential to be a powerful tool for teaching film-making techniques. It has several advantages over existing 3D animation technologies such as Max or Maya. The film-maker doesn’t need any knowledge of 3D animation techniques – controlling the characters is as easy as playing a computer game. The virtual world is “live” - in other words, everything takes place in real time, and so it feels more like directing on a real set.

The disadvantage of using machinima is ......................
(article continued in comments section)
Thanks go to
Matt Kelland, Short Fuze, for writing this article.


previz said...

that the visual quality doesn’t match true 3D animation; machinima isn’t – and possibly never will be – a way to make professional quality film. However, as a way to practice film techniques, machinima is perfectly adequate.
How does it work?
There are two main techniques used in machinima: puppeteering and scripting. The puppeteering technique, which involves “live” performances by one or more actors in a shared virtual world, such as Second Life, is not particularly useful for most students' needs. The scripting technique – used by software such as Moviestorm or Antics3D, is of much more use.

A scripted machinima film is created piece by piece. The user creates a virtual set and some virtual actors. The actors are controlled by a simple “point and click” system. The user chooses an actor, and directs them what to do from a library of animations, for example, “smile”, “sit on that chair”, “go out of that door and slam it behind you”, “stand by the window”, “pull out a gun”, “kiss Jane”, or “speak the following line”. The software then uses AI to interpret the instruction, so the character “knows” that they have to walk across the set to get to the chair. Depending on the software, the user may be able to add more detail, so they may require the actor to walk, run, or crawl across the room. Choreography is gradually built up with the user giving each actor directions. The scene can be scrubbed backwards and forwards, so the user can go back and add in or change choreography at any point in the scene at any time.

The scene is filmed using one or more virtual cameras, which allow the action to be filmed from many angles simultaneously. Cameras can be positioned at any point in virtual space, and are able to move freely, giving the user maximum freedom. The footage recorded by each camera can be output as a video file and edited in a standard third party editing suite, or the software may allow the user to edit within the machinima tool.

Most readers are probably fully aware of this, but I’ve gone over it to make an important point. The process is not linear. The user could start by building a bit of the set, start off with some stock characters, do the basic choreography, set up the cameras, then return to the set and alter it or complete only the parts of the set that will be on camera, set up the final costumes and characters, and then finalise the performance of the actors only for the sections when they are actually in shot.

Implications for learning film

“Why not just take a digital video camera down the local park?”
Film teacher

Machinima offers students several advantages over filming live action with a real camera.

Machinima is cheap and easy to use

Compared to the cost of “real” filming tools (i.e. cameras, dollies, cranes, lights, edit suites etc) and studio time, machinima is dirt cheap. Given a reasonable quality computer, and under $500 worth of software, users get unlimited access on demand to a huge range of facilities that they otherwise couldn’t have.

Machinima is also easy to learn, compared to either other animation tools or real filming. Mastering 3D animation tools typically takes years. In real world filming, the student has to learn to range a number of pieces of specialised equipment. By contrast, machinima tools take only a few hours to learn.

Machinima offers the student more creative freedom

Filming in software allows students to film in environments that they otherwise could not easily access. They can create elaborate and exotic sets; this allows them to create scenes that cannot easily be shot on a student budget in a studio set or on location; this expands their film-making capabilities. Filming a jungle scene? A Hong Kong market? Inside a space station? No problem in machinima.

Machinima also allows students to have a wider variety of props, costumes and actors than they would otherwise have access to. They are not limited to what’s in the prop or costume department. They could, for example, use non-human characters, ranging from animals to monsters, or could create a period piece just as easily as creating a realistic contemporary piece. They can also film crowd scenes that would be impractical without a large number of extras.

Furthermore, machinima allows students to do action scenes that would be impractical without a significant special effects budget and trained stunt personnel. In a virtual world, you can easily create explosions or car crashes, and you can put your actors into highly dangerous situations without risk. In machinima, you can do what you like.

Machinima allows the student to experience all roles within the film-making process

Most machinima is created by a single user. Consequently, machinimators get to experience directing the actors, blocking and placing the cameras, editing, and sound. Although they will later probably choose to specialise in just one area of film production, they will have the practical understanding of what is involved in all these roles.

Machinima is not about capturing a live performance

When a machinima piece is created, the student builds up a performance, including the choreography, camerawork, and sound. This performance is not lost when filming is complete – the student can go back to it and refine it. It is straightforward to try out different camera shots of the same action, without the need to get actors to repeat the performance. It is also easy to go back to a piece later and make changes without the need to assemble everything again.

This has two huge benefits. When a student presents a machinima piece, the teacher can critique it and suggest areas of improvement. The student can then adjust the piece in line with those suggestions and see the effect: for example, if the teacher suggests putting the camera closer on a character, the student can quickly put in that new camera position without needing to re-assemble the cast and crew for the new shot.

This also lends itself to a range of interesting exercises. You could give a student a scene to film, and provide them with characters, a set, and pre-recorded dialogue. You can then ask them to shoot that scene several times, with different numbers of cameras, or aiming for a different mood, or specifying certain durations for the scene. By re-using some aspects of performance, students can quickly film the same scene many times and see the effects of each change.

Machinima as storyboard

And then, of course, there’s pre-vis, which readers of this blog will be very familiar with. Using machinima in pre-vis helps students understand pre-production, and also makes their live shoots more efficient and cost-effective.

Does it work?
The simple answer is yes. Amateur machinimators are teaching themselves to become good film-makers, simply because they make so many films and get so much experience in their craft. I’ve watched many self-taught machinimators develop their skills and go on to get jobs in the industry. Their early films were often dreadful, but you can see them getting better and better, sometimes week by week.

And if they can do that just by watching movies and copying the techniques obsessively, how much better could a film school, working in a structured environment, do it?

Martin Leaf said...

"possibly never will be professional quality", I highly doubt that.

CD said...

Excellent post Matt, telling this story right out of my heart.

Buddy_DoQ said...

At SummerTech, a few years before the likes of Moviestorm or Antics3D, we let our students pick their favorite PC game and go to town. First year I was there, in '05 we were sponsored by Fountain Head and their Machinimation tool. The ones that really used it, loved it.

Anyway, aside from getting me all teary-eyed and nostalgic, this article sums up our process very well. Kids had a blast, and their parents loved the idea of them doing something artistic and constructive with the games that would have otherwise sucked away their summer hours, with nothing but a high-score to show for it.

previz said...

sounds cool