Have you seen 'We Are The Strange'? It's a home-made film selected for the Sundance film festival, created by an obviously talented creator called MDotStrange.
After hearing much about it, and having a final reminder when Ricky Grove mentioned MDot again in the latest Overcast, I considered adding the DVD to my Christmas list.
Just to make sure, I watched the whole film first on youtube.
It's an emotional film, dealing with issues of social exclusion and battles with inner demons. The imagery is powerful, even at youtube resolution.
We are invited to take part, assigned a role, that of an invisible camera.
I know I missed so many of the references, the film turns video game conventions inside out, and I don't have the play experience to feel the double kick of that, I can only see the results.
No machinima used, as far as I could see, but the film is so much in the spirit of anymation, mixing elements from 3d, 2d animation with live film and effects added in post production.
The result is confusing, and is meant to be, the concepts of inside and outside are mixed, turned inside out, as the action moves in games within games.
The sky boils, becomes almost a character in itself, changes composition..at one point the clouds are made from lego bricks.
After following up on Ricky Grove's references to Brakhage in this week's overcast, I seem to be looking at avant garde film making in a new way.
Somehow the mantra 'you can make what you like but then nobody will watch it' seems to have been shaken a little.
MDot found his audience, or found an audience at least, everyone needs that.
I think his film works even for viewers who aren't immersed in games culture.
I wonder if MDot's partly negative experience at Sundance does not represent the taste of the potential world audience. After all, Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas was not well received in his home country either, and the makers of Igor decided against tailoring their movie for the American heartland, in order to break out of the formulaic walls that compromise would have imposed.
In times of economic uncertainty, it is natural to take a conservative course. As machinimators, we don't have to. This is an advantage.
Blue, the female character in WATS, asks imploringly in a rare line of dialogue,
'why was I made this way?'
My son, passing the screen, and without a moment's hesitation answered, 'because it was cheap'.
Bypassing the teen cynisism for a moment, I had to laugh. He was right in a way. We Are The Strange was able to be so unique because it was cheap. There were no nervous investors eager to say nay and yay, or pull the plug if things got too weird.
You can like it, or not like it. MDot has made enough money to fund the next one, and that's all he needed.
Have you seen 'We Are The Strange'? It's a home-made film selected for the Sundance film festival, created by an obviously talented creator called MDotStrange.
So this isn't really news, is it? Any of you that play online games (or visit a forum, or use the internet for anything other than mail and shopping) know that people get involved, leave their partners, in fact do all the things people do when they meet non-virtually. This gets a reaction because,
A) The participants are on benefits (welfare) "I don't spend 47 hours a day in a traffic jam and work myself to the bone to support....." you get the drift? Some readers buttons are easily pressed this way..read the comments.
B) There is a maximum discrepency between the couples' avatars, and the real life photos dug up by the press.
The Beeb meanwhile, attempts to staunch the giggles with a Boy's Book of Knowledge Style description of cyber sex. For some reason I am unable to read this article without substituting the voice of a Smash Martian
So how does this relate to machinima? Maybe some of the public reaction to the Barmy story highlights the newness of our media. I imagine Walt Disney had a few scoffers when he proposed that viewers might identify with the heroine of a full length animated romantic comedy (Snow White)
Jeremy Hardy's remark 'no, I did not cry when they stopped drawing the deer', is only funny because so many people do cry when Bambi's mother is shot.
This emotional reaction to those animated characters is now so accepted, that it is usually not questioned.
I wonder if visitors to the globe theatre would have scoffed at the idea of laughing and weeping at flashing lights on a screen.
"If I can't smell the actors I aint paying".
The emotional involvement of cinema would have been as remote to that Shakespearian audience as virtual life seems to Daily Mail comment writers today.
In machinima, we invite the audience into a virtual world. The conventions of that virtual stage are not yet widely known.
Unless you are planning to make machinima porn, then reproducing convincing genitalia animations isn't going to be high on your agenda.
As a film makers we wish to draw viewers in to a story, create empathy or at least recognition.
Luckily human emotional involvement is not limited to those people we have met.
After all, it is possible to be profoundly influenced by those long dead, whose words are now merely ink and paper.
Often the most intriguing storylines concern longing, betrayal, conflict, separation. All of these can be accomplished without an onscreen depiction of the exchange of bodily fluids.
The reactions to this Barmy affair have reminded me that many lack the imagination to invest persona into a 'cartoon' character. They therefore need to borrow the film maker's vision for a passing hour.
What started as a depressing reaction to tabloid journalism has somehow made me realise the function of the story teller.
It's about leaping the gap, the magic of illusion, but an illusion which reaches into the everyday lives of those around us.
There are a lot of people who are tethered to their everyday realities. We can call them...customers :)
I am realising, that in our so called pre-visualisation work, the question that arises is not..is that the right look? More..is that the right feel?
Second life has become a place for us to move about in a 3d previsualisation of our work, not a literal set build, but a 'feel-build'. I believe the amount of data that contributes to how something feels is beyond our conscious awareness, and maybe a feeling of richness comes from the impression of those things which we do not consciously perceive.
Which leads to the question, when we've done it, how do we know what we've done? (in order to reproduce that feel in a set, or on screen) or to put it another way, how do we do it again?
This is before we even begin to consider if what feels a certain way to either of us, would feel that way to somebody else.
What seems to be happening, is that we are building a vocabulary, a library of atmospheres and thoughts which we can then draw on and adapt later.
I am amazed at how much this process has altered since I (Kate) made movies by myself. I used to feel my way though, using the the rendered footage as feedback, and altering sets and animations as I went along.
Producing work regularly allowed me to interact with other film makers, getting new ideas in the process.
Now I seek out those individual interactions more actively, and the need to 'show and tell' is maybe taken over by the blog, by our office in second life and in various forum posts.
Pre-vis, for us, is part of the creative process. We are not creating a pitch for funding, or demonstrating a work pattern for a huge film crew. So called pre-vis can be shopping in second life, or walking down the street, an overheard conversation or bird song, the feel of wet grass, a cool breeze, laughter. Pre-vis makes it sound as if it's all about the image, we're finding it to be so much more than that.
I am still feeling the effects of the MachinExpo of a couple of weeks ago. I found the discussions, presentations and general mood so positive. It makes the reality of Machinima/Anymation more and more sure.
What I did miss at the event was more of a "hands on" or informative talks on just how to achieve some of the more daunting areas of Machinima. Kate and Michelle hosted a "fireside" chat at the smoldering remains of Antics 3D, and the talk turned to how filmmakers were using the primary tools. That was just the tip of the iceberg.
At Pineapple Pictures we follow two mandates: 1) the machinimation engine or supplemental software tools must allow us to own our work. 2) if a program starts to hurt our heads - we quit it and move on to another tool. (I'm an old guy, who learned the live film trade from studio people who worked with Ford, DeMille and Capra - and those guys were both silent and sound filmmakers - talk about 6 degrees of separation)
So I'm now toying with the idea of setting up one (or more - Kate will let me) casual sessions at our offices in Second Life. I would love to bring some "how to" discussions to the table and also get an insight into the tools others use - especially if they are simple enough to use. In this vein, I find, for example, the tutorials of James Martin http://iclonecertifiedtraining.wordpress.com/ or Angribuddist on the Moviestorm forum http://www.moviestorm.co.uk/forum/posts/list/2307.page are able to lead me step by step through the pitfalls and successes of those programs. Scattered throughout the forums are more very informative tutorials and the exciting thing is that they are done by members of the machinima community. Our community! I know Kate and I continually discover new ways to work and would like to share those ideas in a general arena and not across forum board after forum board.
So my question to our readers is, would you like to attend one or more "How To" sessions to share new ways to work and help solve problems others may have. This would be open to all the disciplines of machinima. I also propose that a the time to hold it would be around 11:00am Second Life time (or 11:00am Pacific Coast Time) - hopefully being able to accessible by everyone from Europe to the Pacific Rim.
Looking forward to more of these "firside chats"
Ok 'wars' is a considerable overstatement, poly 'differences of approach' may cover the issue more accurately.What are polys, you ask, and why are you having a, ahem, difference of approach?
Well, we're building a sample set for the feature film, and the 'poly count' is one of the ways of expressing the complexity of the build in terms of its processing load. In simple terms, the higher the poly count, the more laggy any 3d program gets.
Mike is much more tolerant of lag than I, and take the approach that a six hour render is a reasonable price to pay for having more detail within a set. I tend to work in a 'tweak it and look' fashion, changing walk paths, lighting, even the script, watching the real time run through over and over as I work. Once a set becomes complex enough that the preview starts skipping frames, I feel somewhat lost. I can no longer sense what is going on.
This tension, Mike's pushing for the overall richness, and my pulling for a unifying smoothness and flow of story is one of the most dynamic parts of our creative partnership. He wants the impossible, and I want a different impossible. Mike inspires me to reach beyond what I think I can do.
I guess the reason it works as well as it does, is that any differences of opinion we have are focused on method. We both share a vision for what we want to achieve as the end result.
We respect and listen to each other's opinions, and allow each other the freedom to experiment. Very often what seemed out of reach becomes possible, as technology, and our knowledge, both move on. Diversions and dead-ends are revisited, with new experience we can see further.
It is uncomfortable spending time trying something which is beyond my current skills, but somehow, I seem to return to the same point, via a strange and circuitous route, and edge forward some more.
Frustration and tension appear to be drivers in that process, as we sense our way towards something we don't yet recognise.
..grime, wear and tear. In real life, if you drop a glass of red wine on your best carpet, the stain does not copy itself to every corner of the room. Tears in the wallpaper, cracks in the ceiling, these phenomena tend to be unique and non repeating.
However, visiting a virtual room, there's a definite sense of deja-vu.
"Miranda, you know that blot on the carpet, in the shape of a polar bear attacking Sarah Palin?"
"Yes , what about it Steviepoos?"
"Well it's very odd, I just looked under the sofa and there's the exact same stain, and here, and here, and look here in the hall too"
"Yes that is odd my dwarling, we must have dropped an identical stack of badly stacked mustard sandwiches over and over again, and simply forgotten about it"
"You must be right Miranda my pet, what other explanation could there be?"
The problem of course, is that cunning getaround that all 3d designers use, tiling. Make one texture, and slap it down everywhere. Now this works fine for naturally repeating patterns like fabrics and paving, or for finely textured effects, such a concrete and snow. Try to get a more random effect though, and the dreaded repeating blotch effect rears it ugly head. A texture which looks reasonably evenly coloured in a small thumbnail, can become very obviously 'tiled' when placed in large quantities on a unbroken surface.
Even well made textures can look wrong if they have a distressed affect built in. Dirt is naturally chaotic and the human visual system is skewed towards detecting repeating patterns.
What do we do about it, paint everything from scratch?
We could, and for some objects we might have to, but most virtual set designers try to break up any expanse of tiled texture to disguise repeats, using props and distractions. Sometimes shifting the texture rotation can help, so only one blob is obviously on view. Changing the scale of the texture is another option if this is possible.
Using a set which has a repeated structure is the games designers weapon of choice, spaceship coridors with endless supporting ribs, panelled stonework and metal sheeting, all these help create the illusion of natural texture and can be utilised in machinima set building.
There are lots of other ways of dealing with the problem, but the first step is to notice it as an issue..pull back and look at your set...can you see those repeating blobs? If you can your viewers certainly will.
It's been fabulous to see so many positive comments around the blogospere, especially from SL veterans who are used to attending large events in virtual reality.
The women in machinima panel in particular seems to have attracted a huge amount of interest, I'm really glad that a recording has been made for those who were unable to attend in person.
As an event which needed to be so radically altered due to the Montreal venue falling through, I believe from feedback so far that the day went incredibly smoothly.
I was so glad and proud to have been involved, even in a relatively minor way, with the pre-expo organisation.
What could be improved if the event were to be repeated?
Well one biggy for me.
I missed out on nearly all of the main events.
The Women's panel was scheduled at 11pm, the live overcast, the screening of clear skies..all these went on later into early Monday morning from a UK time perspective.
I know some intrepid Europeans stayed up very late to catch these events, but for various reasons this just wasn't practical for me (or some others) to do.
No schedule can suit everyone, and events which only last a couple of hours can usually be planned to hit the peak timezone crossover of around 7-9pm GMT , (11-12 noon slt) at weekends, usually Sunday. This still leaves our friends from New Zealand getting up rather early.
The machiniplex crew were already hosting 12 hours of activities, but once the difficulties were known, they were able to add two more informal earlier sessions. This turns out to be one of the joys of secondlife, that last minute changes can be made, and kudos to the M'Plex team for adapting so quickly. (one of the lasting images of the festival for me will be that of Lainy Voom flinging out more and more extra seating as early attendees outnumbered expectations)
This festival was aiming for inclusivity, all were welcome to attend, all could afford to attend. The timezone issue is still a puzzler to me, but even the inexhaustable Phil Rice cannot be expected to stay awake for 24 hours after weeks and weeks of preparations.
The Machiniplex crew are extremely accommodating, and very sensitive to feedback from the community. This certainly is not intended as critisism, more as opening up a discussion on whether there needs to be some more input from the European members of our community in terms of organising virtual events.
The Expo Billboard outside the Pineapple office in second life.
Plenty of machinima screenings to see.
Always time for a chat though.
Awards and prize giving, followed by the women's panel and live overcast.
So much to do, need a lie down afterwards.