Monday, January 18, 2010

The Great Machinima Debate

Lately there have been numerous blogs that are attempting to find an acceptable definition of what machinima is. This attempt is nothing new, as it has been occurring ever since "machinima" has expanded beyond the use of game engines.

It's a daunting task, to be sure, and I am not going to try to devise this definition. In fact, I have to wonder if, by current standards, an acceptable definition is possible.

See, it was a lot simpler in the past. Machinima was simply video capture of game footage, often directed and edited in a manner which results in the telling of a story. The key component was the fact that it used footage from video games.

Things obviously have changed since then, with several apps that allow the creation of movies in a 3d environment. This certainly falls under a recent attempt by Michel Nitsche to define machinima, which states:

"Machinima is digital performance that controls procedurally animated moving images in real time."

Although I think how he concluded this was very intelligent and well thought out, it's not really correct, is it?

Those of you who are familiar with how the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings (or any other movie with very large crowds of people or creatures made over the last 10 here to see some familiar movies) were made should also be familiar with the software that was created to do it. The software is called "Massive" .

This software takes several different motion capture files and uses it to generate large groups that respond in a desired way. Here are some quotes from the software's web site to help get across what I am trying to say:

"The intuitive node-based interface of Massive Prime™ allows artists to interactively create AI-enabled agents. The Brain Editor AI toolset gives artists the freedom to build custom responses for the specific behavior they want to simulate, without any programming."    

"Massive's digital stunts are controlled by dynamics that pull from real motion capture data. Filmmakers can direct the motions and reactions they want with real stunt actors and then import these actions into a Massive agent to give direction and character to the agent's performance."
Now I am well aware that there are some differences in the approach of this software in comparison to the tools used to create machinima, but to the layman, Massive, in effect, is "digital performance that controls procedurally animated moving images in real time", and no one is ever going to honestly suggest that what Massive produces is machinima, at least not in the context we understand it., and not because it's "professionally" produced. It is because of the visual divide between what we see in these movies and what we see in machinima. Machinima as we know it does not have the visual polish, realism, or control that something made with Massive does.

I do understand that the intent of Micheal's definition was more about control of a character acting on an individual level, something that Massive does not do or is intended for, but as-is the definition allows Massive to fit in rather neatly.

So, unfortunately, Micheal's definition does not provide an adequate and unambiguous definition of machinima. Any definition that is eventually settled on has to be able to not only satisfy machinimators, but ultimately the public at large. The definition needs to be able to clearly explain to the layman what machinima is. It is for them, not machinimators, that this definition needs to exist. After all, we already understand, at least on a fundamental level, what machinima is.

Don't we?

I wouldn't be too sure. I remember when I first started making machinima, purists always said that machinima was "making movies with video games". Imagine my surprise when I started making machinima with The Sims, which is beyond any doubt a video game, and having these same people writing sims2machinima off, saying it wasn't machinima! These are generally the same people who refuse to count Moviestorm or iClone as machinima, and generally will only accept as machinima movies made with Half-Life, Quake, Halo, etc.

I know that doesn't reflect the general machinima population, but it does illustrate how daunting the task is of defining machinima. If machinimators can't universally agree on at least a basic definition of what machinima was, how can you ever expect to agree on what it is now?

A recent term to crop up is "Anymation", which is meant to be a catch-all to include machinima made with non-traditional methods (such as Moviestorm and the like). But this term isn't entirely adequate, is it? After all, the term Anymation would include anything Pixar makes, flash animation, clay animation, stop-motion animation, traditional drawn animation, etc.

None of these are what we are thinking about when we talk about machinima.

I think one of the ultimate problem starts at the source of this whole debate....machinima itself. See, machinima was never a proper term for what was being done.

Machinima is derived from machine cinema, and no one can doubt it is clever. But even on it's own terms it can't reconcile itself. Cinema made by machines covers just about any 3D animated movie ever made by Pixar, Dreamworks, and the like. 

So even since the very beginning, saying machinima was making movies with video games was not entirely true, and even if it were, in the current environment the term machinima is at best antiquated.

So that is where we stand. We have a general unconscious consensus of what machinima is and what it is not, even if we aren't sure how to say it. But how do we hope to find the true definition? 
Hell if I know. But what I do know is that the first thing we need to do is toss old conventions and terminology aside so that we can focus solely and what we are truly trying to communicate.

We're not re-inventing the wheel, but essentially, we are. At least, we're re-inventing how we look at it. We have to. At least that way we can hope to understand it enough to define it.


thebiz said...

I hold that the term "anymation" for me has always been less a description of process and more a statement to those who wish to define that process. And that statement (again my opinion) is "pbbbbst!" or however you spell the sound of someone performing a rasberry on a baby's belly. Or better spoken, "Definitions are for dictionaries, now let me get back to figuring out how to get this idea transmitted to whatever medium I'm working with.".

But then I don't use the term ("anymation") when speaking to the uninitiated (or anyone else really). Generally I say, its "animation made with a bunch of different software" and that gets the point across. And if that person then thinks that my animation isn't as good as whatever the latest animation they have seen, the problem and responsibility to make it better is mine. Or better yet my responsibility is to understand whether the finished product lived up to my vision (and whether my judgement is clouded by my experiences). A lot of different ideas there...sorry.

Definitions put things in boxes. Boxes restrict. Restrictions are good for relating one thing to another (think level playing field, tmo, nascar) but I want my restrictions to be based upon me (ie, budget, ethics, imagination, etc) instead of an "accepted" group definition. Just my 2% of a dollar.

micnit said...

Really, I agree. If one does not have to bother with definition, one should not. An artist should not get hung up because s/he has to explain what is going on or what to call it.
That's what academics do - and for better or worse, that's what I am. Sometimes these kind of definitions are totally detached from practice but sometimes there can be an interesting dialogue between art and science.

However, with all respect, I do not follow the argument in the original post when you argue that Massive is not machinima because "of the visual divide between what we see in these movies and what we see in machinima. Machinima as we know it does not have the visual polish, realism, or control that something made with Massive does." The level of detail at work in Massive will be at our fingertips in very little time and technical polish will be beyond anything we are used today. The level of polish cannot distinguish that from today's machinima, it has to be something different than aesthetics. My approach tries to do go in that direction.

Armanus said...

Thanks everyone for the replies, and thank you Micheal for engaging in this discussion.

Aesthetics. I want to make clear that when I mention aesthetics I'm not talking about production standards or the overall look of machinima films. I have seen several pieces of machinima with production standards that I feel are well on par with anything the large studios can produce.
When I mention aesthetics I'm referring to the look of characters, the sense of realism, etc. in large studio movies as compared to machinima. With a few rare exceptions, machinima films often look, for lack of a better term, video-gamish. Even animated movies by larger studios which adhere to a more traditional character stylization (such as films by Pixar, for example) achieve much more a sense of realism (using particle effects and physics programs to create individual strands of hair that have weight and are affected by wind, gravity, etc.) then is currently available in machinima.

Massive is a very powerful tool, and can create large crowds of photo-realistic people who react in ways controlled by the user of the software. It has many procedural similarities to machinima production, but I doubt anyone would ever classify it as machinima software or what it produces as a machinima work, because it simply produces things in a much better quality then we can currently do with current machinima tools.

Granted, eventually this software will trickle down to where machinima users can readily access and use this software (or a similar program), but by the same token, over time I would think the larger studios will take a page from machinima and design their tools to have the same procedural hallmarks (this has already started to some degree during the production of Avatar).
Would the definition you have proposed still apply then? Where does the border between machinima and non-machinima 3d animation exist?
It's in aesthetics, and moreso in the tools that are used (which is also the reason for aesthetics).

As it stands now the large studios use hardware and software that is incredibly powerful and also incredibly expensive. There is the constant drive to produce more complex work with more realism. I would state that the ultimate goal for 3d animation is to be able to create a film that is photo-realistic to the degree that it is impossible to tell that it is animation (and I feel that goal is not far off). This in turn results in their developing even more powerful tools.
These tools are really out of reach for most machinimators. The cost to acquire the software and hardware necessary is just too exorbitant.

In time the technology will age and become easier to acquire, but until such time that the glass ceiling is reached and general aesthetic quality is equal, machinima will always suffer from at least a slight lack of visual quality on a character level then what can be achieved with the studio tools.

Machinima had it's method of production as a hallmark, but over time I'm sure the large studios will shift towards that same procedural method. It is the tools we use that is at the heart of what machinima is.

Machinima is, at it's most distilled essence, animated films made with consumer-level products, whether it be a video game or a dedicated machinima program such as iClone or Moviestorm.

Studios may take a cue from machinima, and machinimators will eventually get their hands on more powerful tools, but there will always be some difference between what can be achieved with industry-level tools and consumer-level tools.
If and when the time comes when both classes of tools are equal, well, there won't be machinima anymore. What was machinima will simply be independent film.

Anyway, that's my take on it. I hope I made sense! If you have any further comments, I would love to hear them :)

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