Hippo Manchester
January 5, 2006

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Techie: Making movies

Release your inner Spielberg with software

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Ask any movie star what aspirations they have, and you’ll probably get this answer:

“I’d like to direct.”

New software has made it cheaper and easier than ever to leapfrog the whole “actor” stage of your career and get right into directing your own movies. You don’t need lights, cameras or even any action more than mousing and typing. Sets, props and characters are all available in your magic computer once you install the software. All you need to supply is the imagination.

Well, and a lot of time. Movie directors can take days to film a single scene, and while machine animation — “machinima” for short — lets you cut a lot out of that schedule, you’ll still be rewarded for taking your time.

The Movies, from Activision, is the consumer-friendly game that’s driving this machinima revolution. It’s helped along some by Machinimation from Fountainhead Entertainment, a product more focused on the end result than the fun in getting there. The Movies, reminiscent of The Sims, has you running a virtual movie studio, dealing with egotistical actors and box office numbers in a quest to become a Hollywood mogul. It does have a pure movie-making mode, though, so you can bypass the shenanigans and get right to the filming. You can output to Windows Media, but since all the sets, people and props are owned by Activision, you can’t distribute the movie for profit. Machinimation is all business, and can output more formats.

Both products use software engines originally developed for designing games. The Movies offers a limited number of sets and characters — extensive, to be sure, and somewhat customizable, but limited. Expansion packs may be available in the future, and new items can be downloaded for a small fee. Machinimation likewise includes some stock assets, but anyone skilled in professional 3D rendering software can create and import new people, places and things.

These limitations haven’t prevented some impressive movies from being made. The French Democracy, created with The Movies, was a landmark release for the genre. It chronicled several fictional characters leading up to the riots that enveloped France a few months ago. Rather than a mere hobby project, it attempted to make a cogent political statement. Whether it succeeded is debatable, but it did definitely try.

Making movies on a computer didn’t start with these programs. First-person shooters in the 1990s allowed players to use the game environment as a stage, and the characters as actors. Red vs. Blue (www.redvsblue.com), for example, has more than 70 episodes online, created with the game engine of Halo on an Xbox game console. Creating the animation is then a matter of controlling the characters as if in a game and overlaying a voice track.

For those with a bit more ambition and patience, 3D animation programs like Maia and Blender allow the creation of environments and actors from scratch. It’s very difficult to create living characters, but objects like spaceships are quite doable. In fact, a site called Space Battles (www.spacebattles.com) serves as an archive of short battle scenes from the late ’90s. They range from sensible fan fiction to ludicrous fan fiction — Star Trek vs. Babylon 5 vs. Battlestar Galactica vs. Star Wars, anyone?