Machinima? Don't be embarrassed if you've never heard of it. A month ago, Alex Chan hadn't either. But that was before Chan, a 27-year-old French designer, made a hot underground film that's introducing mass audiences to machinima -- a technique that involves using video game software to make movies (see BW, 12/19/05, "France: Thousands of Young Spielbergs").
Working on his laptop with a $70 video game, Chan produced a powerful 12-minute animated film about the recent riots in French suburbs in less than a week. The film, The French Democracy, is winning plaudits from critics who say it could finally push machinima into the mainstream.
WHAT IS MACHINIMA? Broadly speaking, machinima means using characters, scenery, and sequences from a video game to create a film. The earliest machinima films, which date from almost a decade ago, were made by gamers who simply planned and recorded sequences from their games. One such creation, made in 1996, was a silent film called Diary of a Camper. It was a produced by a group of gamers calling themselves The Rangers, who captured a 90-second sequence from the popular game Quake.
Since then, many others have tried their hand at machinima, and the length and quality of the films have improved dramatically. That's partly because video games themselves have become far more complex and sophisticated. In addition, gamers have become more skilled at the technique -- learning, for example, to add soundtracks. Still, until recently machinima was largely relegated to the cultural fringe.
"Machinima has been sort of in-jokey -- riffs on scenes inside games, stuff that is incredibly clever but wouldn't make any sense to people who don't play games," says Clive Thompson, a New York-based journalist who has written extensively about the phenomenon.
GET SERIOUS. Chan's film changed that. "No piece of machinima has ever tried to tackle a serious political subject and then gotten so much buzz," Thompson says. The French Democracy first attracted attention when Chan posted it on the Web site of Lionhead Studios, a game developer in Surrey, England, that created a game called The Movies. The game is intended to encourage machinima: Its premise is that players are studio moguls who create their own movies, and the game includes a variety of characters and settings that can be used in filmmaking.
Players can post their creations on Lionhead's Web site. After Chan posted The French Democracy, it was chosen as one of Lionhead's "hot picks." From there, it passed quickly around the Internet to machinima-oriented Web sites, soon attracting the attention of mainstream outlets including MTV (VIA) and BusinessWeek.
Chan says he's been amazed by the reaction. He's neither a gamer nor a film buff, and had never considered making a movie before. It wasn't until he posted the film on the Lionhead site that someone told him what machinima was.
MAKING A STATEMENT. All Chan wanted to do was make a public statement to counteract what he saw as inaccurate news coverage linking the French riots to Islamic fundamentalism. In his view, racism and mistreatment of minorities were the key reasons for the violence. Born in Paris to Chinese immigrant parents, Chan felt he brought an unusual perspective to the situation.
He has suffered discrimination -- for example, landlords have refused to rent apartments to him. But he also empathizes with people who were horrified by the violence. About two years ago, he was seriously injured during a mugging in La Courneuve, the heavily immigrant Paris suburb in which he lives. And he knows several people whose cars were torched during the rioting. The idea of making a film struck him in early November, after he noticed a promotion in a store for The Movies.
The French Democracy weaves together the experiences of three characters, all dark-skinned French citizens. One is randomly stopped by police and thrown in jail because he isn't carrying his identity documents. Another is a drug dealer who is beaten up by police officers. The third is a well-dressed business school graduate who is repeatedly rejected when he tries to find a job and rent an apartment. Eventually all three vent their anger by rioting.
UNPOLISHED PRODUCTION. As Chan is the first to admit, the film is rough around the edges. Since he doesn't own a microphone, there are no voices -- only subtitles. Chan decided to write the subtitles in English to gain a wider audience, but he's not fluent, so the subtitles are stilted and ungrammatical.
The background scenery provided in the video game was set in Manhattan, so that Chan's French characters are seen against backdrops such as the Empire State Building and the New York subway. Still, the combination of amateurish technique and a strong emotional message is oddly moving.
Chan has no plans to make another movie. But other machinima enthusiasts are producing more ambitious films -- though they're still ridiculously modest by Hollywood standards. Strange Company, a machinima production house in Scotland, is set to release a feature-length fantasy-adventure film called Bloodspell in early 2006. Strange Company Chief Executive Hugh Hancock says it will be the most ambitious machinima film ever but cost less than $3,000 to make.
HITTING HOLLYWOOD. Although big-time directors such as George Lucas have dabbled in machinima to create special effects, Hollywood hasn't yet embraced the technique. But that could be coming. "One day someone like a Spielberg or a [King Kong director] Peter Jackson will use machinima to make a film," says Evan Shapiro, the general manager of the Independent Film Channel, a Cablevision (CVC) unit that has commissioned and aired machinima films.
Want to stay ahead of the curve on this fast-spreading movie-making trend? Probably the most complete source of information is machinima.com, maintained by Hugh Hancock of Strange Company. The site contains links to the latest machinima releases, as well as discussion boards and a trove of articles and background information. It also has a link to The French Democracy.
Another good source is the New York City-based Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, a nonprofit that promotes machinima and sponsors a machinima film festival. The Academy's executive director, Paul Marino, also has a blog.
Journalist Thompson, who maintains a blog on technology and culture, also keeps close watch on machinima.
And to see the very latest in machinima, visit Lionhead Studios. The company says an average of one new film is posted on the site every minute.