Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Two new articles out

Colin and I have a free-to-download article each in the latest issue of E-Learning.

Colin Lankshear (2006). Freedom and Sharing in the Global Network Society. E-Learning. 3(3): 396-410.

Michele Knobel (2006). Memes and Affinity Spaces: some implications for policy and digital divides in education. E-Learning. 3(3): 411-427

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Ever had one of those experiences where you feel like your mind has been expanded to the size of a planet, spun around 15 times, and then reduced back to normal size? That's getting close to how I felt at the end of this year's Machinima Festival in New York earlier this month. Machinima (pron. mash + een-i-muh) refers to both a process and product. In terms of process, it comprises using video game resources to create a movie that may or may not have anything to do with the storyline from the original game. In terms of product, machinima movies comprise a distinct, instantly recognisable genre of visual narrative. While the process of machinima has been around almost as long as 2D video games have been, it's only been relatively recently that machinima production has started to become something of an industry itself, and has begun to have widespread effects in the pop culture world (e.g., can you spot the machinima in the not-safe-to-watch-at-work "Make Love Not Warcraft" episode of South Park?).

Although not the first machinima to have been created, Red vs. Blue by Rooster Teeth Productions, LLC, is perhaps the most famous to date.

(Image source: Rooster Teeth Productions)

A full and complete first-person history of the creation of Red vs. Blue can be found here. But basically, to create this series of machinima, the producers first had to get real good at playing the Halo games. Then they developed an audio track by recording themselves speaking lines of dialogue that weren't mapped out precisely prior to recording, but developed as they went along. Using the resulting audiotrack as their guide, the producers "puppeteered" their Halo characters using multi-player options within the same game setting or scene in synch with the audiotrack. Now, I might have this next bit wrong, but my understanding is that while the puppeteering is taking place, the producers are recording the action using either separate software (e.g., Fraps), or onscreen recording software built into the Halo game itself. This recorded action and the audio soundtrack are then spliced together and edited using video editing software. In terms of genre, the series (now into its fifth season and over 80 individual videos) is a sci-fi soap opera spoof, with plenty of satisfying existential angst and humorous wordplay. Halo itself, on the other hand, is an archetypal first-person shooter game (and as such, would never ever be classified as a scifi soap opera).

For more introductory material on machinima go here and here. For more detailed information on how to create a particular Lord of the Rings themed machinima using the fantasy role-play game Neverwinter Nights, go here.

Okay, back to the Festival.

So there I am, walking into the theatre where the presentations are taking place and experiencing my very first displacement rush from having real and virtual worlds viscerally collide. The night before I'd watched a screening of clips from the shortlisted films inside Second Life. This involved me--as my Second Life avatar, Nell Aquacade--teleporting to Laguna Beach and walking inside the theatre there (set up by the Electric Sheep Company). The screenings included live voice-overs--using Skype--to comment on the content and makers of each clip. How was I to know that the theatre I sat in within Second Life was eerily, spookily, disconcertingly-at-first very much like the very theatre I'd be sitting in the next day!!

The first day of the 2-day festival opened with a marvellously informative overview of the history of machinima by Paul Marino and Hugh Hancock. Both are key movers and shakers in the field; Hugh founded the web archive/showcase and Paul heads up the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences. Hugh gave a particularly hilarious account of how the term (and spelling of) "machinima" came to be coined. According to Hugh, a friend of his--Anthony Bailey--was the first to use the term, which he created by blending "machine" plus "cinema" to create the term "machenima" to describe this new form of storytelling/movie making. Hugh explained that he himself is a shocking speller and actually spelled the term incorrectly in subsequent written references to it. Of course, as with all great stories of happenstance and accident, his mis-spelling stuck and is now the accepted form.

Hugh defined machinima in terms of "puppeteering in virtual space", while Paul defined it as "animated film making using 3D videogame technologies". Interestingly, these two different definitions neatly summarise two distinct paths to making machinima. The notion of puppeteering maps onto avid gamers who create movies, and the "animated film making" orientation maps onto people with film backgrounds making use of machinima in their movies. The latter orientation seems to be gaining the most ground in the commercial world. Anecdotal evidence heard at the festival and found online suggests that this trend is troubling to some who are concerned that the practice of machinima risks losing much of its DIY and hobbyist game-based ethos as machinima makers aim for ever more realism in their animation sequences.

Paul and Hugh also talked about two approaches or orientations towards creating machinima: (1) "inside out", where the game itself creates the context for the film (e.g., fan machinima, Bloodspell (Thanks, Hugh!) ), and (2) "outside in" where the machinima producer brings ideas to the game resource and uses the affordances of the resource to tell stories that may have little to do with the actual game context itself (e.g., Bloodspell, Tra5hta1k, Deviation).

According to Paul and Hugh, one of the earliest examples of machinima is Diary of a Camper by The Rangers. This one-minute film was made using Quake resources. There is no spoken dialogue--characters' lines appear as sub-titles instead. Diary of a Camper was an enormous hit within the Quake community, and sparked a rash of "brag films" in response, where teams of players produced short films about how powerful they were and how nobody stood a chance against them. Making these films at the time required a good deal of expertise because the games themselves were not designed to be user-manipulated in any way. As such, to make these early machinima, producers needed to know a lot about hex editing in order to be able to edit the machine code that drove the game. Both Paul and Hugh spoke about the quantum leaps in gaming technology and the inclusion now of resources in many games (e.g., Neverwinter Nights) of resources that enable users to create additional material without having to master complex 3D animation program. Video capture programs also mean that machinima makers are freed from the constraints of physical-world live-action film-making.

Random machinima screen grab. Source: Visiting Scrooge

Paul and Hugh emphasised that machinima making has artistic significance in terms of machinima film narratives and animations becoming more and more sophisticated, and in terms of being able to film action sequences not always possible or affordable in the physical world (e.g., blowing up an entire city). For both speakers, machinima also has cultural significance: "As games further become vital parts of our culture, creative exploration will extend and connect around these experiences". As an aside, one of the nominated machinima included over 100 puppeteers from across the U.S. working inside the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, World of Warcraft, to create Illegal Danish Super Snacks. This kind of massively distributed collaboration is surely a sign of things to come.

Both speakers provided a useful map of the machinima terrain by way of a typology of machinima films. This typology included five categories, as follows:

Game as Character
This type of machinima exploits the physics or affordances of the game itself to create a film. That is, the nature of the game universe itself shapes what can be filmed and how. Perhaps the most classic example of this, according to Paul and Hugh, is Warthog Jump. In 2002, Randall Glass exploited how grenades worked within the Halo game universe and used the grenade action to blow vehicles (and uhm people-analogues) 100s and 100s of metres into the air. This is a move not typically executed by players, but when set to music, makes for an almost poetic take on blowing things literally sky-high. Jim Munroe's My Trip to Liberty City uses the Grand Theft Auto III game universe to create a travelogue film that plays on the paradox between the typically bland voice-overs of travelogues and the violent actions on the GTA streets. For Paul and Hugh, "game as character" machinima are all about "hobbyists making big-scale movies" without the need for big-scale budgets.

Episodic Machinima
This type of machinima tends to be short films (e.g., 5 minutes in length) released at intervals that over time create a larger narrative than that contained within each episode. Red vs. Blue is the archetype of episodic machinima. Another now-classic episodic machinima is The Return.

This is the remix version of machinima types. For example, Randall Glass remixes the movie soundtrack from A Few Good Men and the game, Half Life 2, to create A Few Good G-Men. His machinima movie comprises a re-enactment of a court scene from the original movie. Another example by Snoken remixes the popular Super Mario game play of hopping, bounding and jumping on things with settings and characters from the very serious first-person shooter game, Battlefield 2, to create an hilarious mashup called Battlefield vs. Nintendo. Snoken has produced a range of spoof mash-ups--many of which "re-create" television ads in hilarious ways.

Random machinima screen grab. Source: Halo Couchpotato

Machinima Music Videos
This is a hugely popular machinima type among a wide range of popular culture fans. Hugh and Paul identified Chris Brandt's Dance, Voldo, Dance as a premier example of this type. In this machinima clip, two characters in the fighting game, Soul Caliber II, dance synchronously to the song, "It's Getting Hot In here". The entire sequence is shot "live" in one sitting and is a real testament to the puppeteers' game-playing skills in terms of what they get those characters to do! Paul Marino himself has produced an extremely successful example of a machinima music video. I'm Still Seeing Breen is the first machinima music video to include a game character who completely lip-synchs the entire song. Paul used characters and settings from Half Life 2 to produce an animation music clip for the song, "So Cold". The resulting machinima was so successful it was picked up by MTV, and machinima music videos are fast becoming popular mediums for showcasing songs.

Original Works
A steadily growing body of machinima includes completely original works, where the creators develop their own animated characters and "worlds" and use these to create narrative films and so on. Fredrick Kirschner's The Photographer is an excellent example of an original work machinima.

The subsequent sessions were equally as informative and covered a wide range of topics. Ken Perlin from NYU presented software he's developing that foregrounds emotion in its approach to animating characters. The software enables the user to "direct" action, rather than having to painstakingly program each and every movement on a frame-by-frame basis. For example, a character can be instructed to "act confused" and a pre-programmed sequence will launch (this sequence itself can be edited by the user, too). Michael Nitsche and colleagues from Georgia Tech presented work they've been doing on a puppet-human animation interface, where a puppet is wired to the computer and as the user manipulates the puppet in meatspace, the animated figure on screen is "animated", too. This group plans to release the animation interface code online for free, and have focussed on using affordable componentry. This was a really interesting session and showed additional "cuts" that can be made in the ongoing development of machinima between a focus on film-like animation, and a focus on the puppeteering angle.

An intellectual property roundtable brought together a diverse group of people, including a group from the Intellectual Properties Clinic at the University of Southern California, Fred Von Lohman, a lawyer working with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and Jon Griggs, a machinima filmmaker. The discussion was really interesting and the moderator, Jennifer Urban, did a really good job of playing devil's advocate and spurring the discussion into interesting places. Basically, it seems, game companies have been turning a blind eye to machinima or even actively encouraging it (e.g., Blizzard Entertainment's annual machinima contests), unlike what's happened in the music industry with remixing etc. No machinima-based copyright infringement cases have gone to court yet, and Fred Von Lohman emphasised how now was a good time for the machinima community to mobilise around ensuring that "fair use" remains fair to users. Very sound advice was given to machinima makers: read the EULAs (end-user licence agreements) pertaining to the software they plan to use really carefully (paying attention to statements about the unacceptability of "derivative work" and statements to the effect that should a case go to court that the losing party has to pay all court costs).

The panel session on activist or social commentary machinima was especially interesting. Three creators of machinima that have a high impact in terms of being recognized for their social critique presented and spoke about their work: Eddo Stern, Chris Burke and Alex Chan. Eddo Stern's Sheik Attack was created in 1999-2000 using a range of video game resources--including SimCity, Delta Force, Star Craft, Red Alert, among others. Eddo describes the movie as "a contemporary non/fiction horror film woven from pop nostalgia, computer war games, the sweat of virtual commandos, the blood of Sheiks and a mis-remembrance of a long lost Zionist Utopia." The ending to the movie certainly packs a sobering punch. Eddo explained that a key motivation for his movie was wanting to map the make-believe of war games back on to very real and very violent events in order to emphasise how, for him, war games "sell a fantasy". Chris's movie--Can't Buy the Net--is a wry account of net neutrality issues and what might be some of the ramifications of a massively owned (rather than open) internet. Chris is part of the team that creates the popular machinima series, This Spartan Life. This series regularly includes social commentary and critique (e.g., gun ownership issues, environmental issues). Alex Chan created the machinima, The French Democracy, which told Alex's perspective on the Paris riots earlier in 2006. Alex himself lives in north-east Paris, where much of the rioting took place, and wanted to provide a counter-view to broadcast media accounts of the riots by focussing on the serious social injustice issues that sparked the riots in the first place (rather than Islamic fundamentalists which the broadcast media were claiming were the cause). His movie--much to his surprise--caught worldwide attention via Lionhead's website showcase, MTV and Business Week. All three presentations opened up the potential of machinima for conveying some serious messages and commentaries and underscored how the internet itself can play an important role in propagating social critique.

Screen grab from The French Democracy. Source: Wired

The day ended with two presentations on developments within the world of machinima, including high-end but affordable animation software--iClone by Reallusion--and an overview of animated character development within Bioware's soon-to-be-released game, Mass Effect.

It really was a fantastic day and I learned so much! I only wished I had time to go back on the Sunday for the second day of the Festival. Next year!

Additional coverage of the same Festival can be found here and here (I think these two were the blokes I shared a subway carriage with on the train to Astoria--small world at times) and here.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Now I know what I want for Christmas!

A robot!!!

I grew up watching Lost in Space and ever since have always wanted a robot of my own. Colin sent me the link to this story--I think he might be planning on getting it for me! (laughs) Of course, for Christmas I really want world peace and the end of hunger and poverty, but a robot would be nice, too. Especially one that can answer my phone at work and respond with unfailing patience and courtesy to student emails....

Friday, November 17, 2006

Finding beauty in the mundane

At this time of year it's all too easy to get bogged down in day-to-day drudgeries (marking assignments, grocery shopping, vehicle inspections, filling-in visa application forms, academic performance reports for programs, doing the dishes etc.). Sketch sequences like the following remind us that beauty can be found just about anywhere, if we look hard enough: Dance of the Flight Attendant (via BoingBoing). So what beauty in have you found the mundane lately?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Keep yer hands clean, kidz: aka 'The new terror'

Just when you think the most worrying thing you have heard in a long time is the prospect that the Republicans might not lose their house majority, something truly scary comes along. With perfect timing, as it happens, to steal a little limelight from tonight's 2006 Machinima Awards. Now, if this were anywhere other than squeaky clean and upscale Santa Barbara I'd be truly worried. But being in such a nice place it is probably entirely benign and I might be over-reacting.

It's about fingerprinting those elementary school kidz when they buy lunch at the cafeteria and, consequently, the need for the children to keep their hands clean -- literally as well as metaphorically.

Goodness me. Where will it go next?

Meanwhile, I am living the digital divide for a few days here in Coatepec, int Mexico's tropo state of Veracruz. Dial up most certainly brings one down to earth in a rush. So it's into the shower and down to an internet cafe to try catch the annual Macinima Awards. Michele, on the other side of multiple divides (we are getting a fence, you know -- all along the border), has been at the Machinima Festival in NYC all day. I can't wait to hear all about it, and I am sure it will feature in the next post on this blog. But for now it's to some cafe broadband to see if I can't catch the awards live.

Machinima machinations.

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