Machinimatograph: Making the Machine Cinema

Amateur filmmaking is a popular form of expression. However, it naturally has its limitations. Though great for many genres, amateur filmmaking often is lacking in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and action. Amateur filmmakers are faced with a problem. Polished approaches to these genres are prohibitively expensive for the amateur, but producing them at an affordable cost sacrifices quality. Animation can alleviate the issue of quality as it provides a stylistically consistent, if not realistic, image. However, animation, if quality is the aim, is labor intensive and requires a fairly large set of additional skills. This no doubt encouraged creative solutions to limitations, but in 1996 a movement began that allowed amateur filmmakers an alternate option that avoided some of these limitations.

Machinima, a combination of the words “machine” and “cinema,” is a form of film made “in real time with the software that is used to develop and play computer games.”[i] The final product resembles an animated film, but the process is far more akin to shooting live actors.[ii] Furthermore, like animation, the final product is stylistically consistent, which allows for more fantastical subject matter than a live action amateur film can attain both easily and cheaply. Because the rendering software used in videogames operates in real time, the machinima creator can set up a scene and then capture it as it is acted out. In fact, especially in the early days of machinima, the actions of the video game characters often were performed by other players. The connection between these players and actors is not difficult to see. However, this is getting ahead of the issue. To understand how machinima came about, we must look back to 1996 and a game called Quake.

As a first person shooter, Quake, released in 1996 by id Software, “must render the virtual environment as a three-dimensional space seen from the player’s point of view, constantly re-rendering at high frame rates as the player ‘moves’ through that space.”[iii] Not only did Quake have this capability, but it also included an in-game recording option, allowing players to capture their game play for later viewing. They could then share these recordings with one another over the web “either in the original game replay files or in an encoded movie format.”[iv] This was likely a key element in the development of machinima.

Initially, Quake movies were focused primarily on actual game play, displaying particularly skillful play, impressive feats, or completions of levels in record time.[v] An example can be seen below with music and visual transitions added at a later date:

This video, as it is primarily a recording of game play, really only appeals to Quake players and is more about spectacle than storytelling. However, in the same year Quake was released, a group of gamers/programmers known as The Rangers made a film that incorporated narrative and began the machinima movement.[vi]

“Diary of A Camper.” The Rangers’ influential video:

There are several key aspects of “Diary of A Camper” that aid in transforming the real time rendering engine from game platform to filmmaking technique. The first is the inclusion of the narrative. Though the film’s narrative is very simple, it demonstrates the possibility of the game engine being used as a storytelling platform. It is worth noting the similarity to the early days of film as a medium. Just as the Lumiere brothers captured events solely for the purpose of watching them and focused on spectacle with films like “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,”[vii] early Quake recordings were purely demonstrations and were in fact called “demos” as a result of the in-game recording function being called “demo function.”[viii] George Melies’ early films then, like “A Voyage to the Moon,”[ix] can be thought of as analogous to The Rangers’ early work in that they injected narrative into the use of the technology.

The ranger’s early work also mimics the early days of film in that it uses subtitles, analogous to early silent film intertitles. Later machinima makes use of voice dubbing much in the way sound eventually became a key element of filmmaking.

Another important element that can be seen in “Diary of A Camper” is the use of a distinct “camera.” While earlier Quake gameplay movies were viewed from the expert player’s point of view, often with user interface information displayed, “Diary of a Camper” does not treat the “camera” as a character. Although the limitations of the game engine necessitate a character acting as the camera, by not treating this character as a character in the narrative machinima is able to avoid shooting solely in first person perspective.

Though “Diary of A Camper” contains many important steps in appropriating the game engine for a new use, it was only an elementary push into the world of narrative expression. While it does use narrative, that narrative is very closely tied to the game and the community of gamers surrounding it. “Camper” is a term that refers to a person performing a specific, and negative, behavior in the game. Furthermore, the narrative is largely an in-joke as the camper’s identity is revealed at the end to be John Romero, the lead developer for Quake.

Even as machinima matured as a form, many projects remained connected, as one might expect, to the games whose engines they appropriated. Even Red vs Blue, a popular series regarded as “expanding audiences’ awareness of machinima” and appealing even to “those who had never played ‘Halo,’” makes subtle references to game conventions in its first episode:[x]

The first half of this episode refers to the oversimplifying nature of many multiplayer modes in games, and specifically in Halo. This is a reference that non-gamers may not get. However, though the episode does contain this element it is employed subtly and is only one layer of the humor presented. That is, though gamers may get the extra reference, the humor of the scene does not come entirely from the reference and, more importantly, the narrative of the episode and the series does not depend on viewer knowledge of the game. Essentially, this machinima series, hailed as expanding awareness of the form, pushes its connections to the game it uses as a platform to the background and focuses on the narrative. This fact, combined with its popularity, marks Red vs Blue as an important step toward solidifying machinima as a narrative form first and a part of the video game community second, if at all.

That said, machinima was, is, and likely will continue to be, intrinsically linked to video games. It is not hard to understand why, given the source imagery. Even the most mainstream and professional use of machinima, the “Make Love, Not Warcraft” episode of South Park, solely uses the technique and technology to refer to the video game it is lampooning. It tells a story, and its use in the episode doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of the game, but the story revolves around the South Park characters playing World of Warcraft:

This continued linking to the video games they are spawned from serves several purposes for machinima. In the case of South Park’s use of machinima, employing the framing device of having the characters play the game was necessary to avoid alienating the audience and for cohesion of the series, given that the machinima style would be such a stark departure from South Park’s usual aesthetic. Beyond the need to ease audiences into the form, the connection of machinima to its source games also serves a categorical purpose.

On the primary site of the machinima community, Machinima.com, there are different “channels” that categorize different machinima projects by which game engine they use. Though this seems like it is stressing the connection between the films and their source game, it ends up acting more the way genre divisions do in the film world. Collecting all the machinima that use Grand Theft Auto as an animation platform does not mean all the projects will be about Grand Theft Auto, but will be quite likely to focus on the crime film or parodies thereof. Similarly, a viewer can expect that many machinima made with the Left 4 Dead engine will have horror elements. Beyond these genre divisions, separating the machinima by game engine also separates them by visual style. Halo and The Sims look very different, and the visual style may be a deciding factor for some viewers.

As machinima took its first small steps into the mainstream with its incorporation into a South Park episode, it also encountered its counterpart, mainstream animation. Although J.J. Franzen, a South Park producer, extolled the flexibility of machinima, he admitted that their use of the technology also required use of their own, more labor intensive, animation techniques to get to a professional finished product.[xi] Where as machinima allows the game engine to do all the work of rendering the characters, South Park’s use of it is more akin to digital animation techniques like those used by Pixar, wherein a digital model is sculpted and placed in key positions before a computer fills in the movement of the model in a three-dimensional environment.[xii]

Pixar’s animation process for Monsters, Inc.

The South Park team made use of some “true” machinima, but also incorporated their own animations and rendering they performed themselves as animators.[xiii] They did this because of limitations on the amount of animations available from the game itself. Franzen even mentions that Trey Parker, one of the creators of South Park, claimed, in reference to machinima techniques, that “this is where animation is headed.”[xiv] Surely, video game rendering engines and digital animation rendering are intertwined. However, the appropriation of video game engines to create narrative will likely primarily remain in the realm of the amateur, as established animators would more likely develop their own engines, or at the least their own models, to suit their specific needs. They would also likely run into copyright issues unless working with the video game company as South Park did, a problem not faced by amateurs as the companies generally see their projects as opportunities for exposure.

Though unable to truly become a mainstream technique, machinima allowed and continues to allow amateur filmmakers to produce films with relative ease and for fractions of the cost of other amateur filmmaking options. Early Quake movies may have cost as little as the price of the game.[xv] Even including the cost of a computer, the machinima film comes in at costs more likely in the hundreds than the thousands common among other avenues of amateur filmmaking, requires little if any special equipment, and is easily accessible by anyone driven to attempt it. Machinima thus made a powerful form of expression more available than it ever had been before, and at a level of quality previously unknown to beginning filmmakers.


[i] Lowood, Henry. “High Performance Play: The Making of Machinima,” in Videogames and Art, ed. by Andy Clarke and Grethe Mitchell. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2007, 59-79.

[ii] Strickland, Jonathan. “How Machinima Works,” accessed Oct. 3, 2010. http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/machinima.htm

[iii] Lowood, High Performance Play, 59-79.

[iv] Lowood, High Performance Play, 59-79.

[v] Strickland, Jonathan. “How Machinima Works,” accessed Oct. 3, 2010. http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/machinima.htm

[vi] Strickland, Jonathan. “How Machinima Works,” accessed Oct. 3, 2010. http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/machinima.htm

[vii] Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: an Introduction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

[viii] Strickland, Jonathan. “How Machinima Works,” accessed Oct. 3, 2010. http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/machinima.htm

[ix] Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: an Introduction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

[x] Strickland, Jonathan. “How Machinima Works,” accessed Oct. 3, 2010. http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/machinima.htm

[xi] “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” interview with Frank Agnone, J.J. Franzen, and Eric Stough, accessed Oct 3, 2010. http://www.machinima.com/article/view&id=459

[xii] “How We Make a Movie: Pixar’s Animation Process,” accessed Oct 3, 2010. http://www.pixar.com/howwedoit/index.html

[xiii] “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” interview with Frank Agnone, J.J. Franzen, and Eric Stough, accessed Oct 3, 2010. http://www.machinima.com/article/view&id=459

[xiv] “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” interview with Frank Agnone, J.J. Franzen, and Eric Stough, accessed Oct 3, 2010. http://www.machinima.com/article/view&id=459

[xv] Strickland, Jonathan. “How Machinima Works,” accessed Oct. 3, 2010. http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/machinima.htm

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