Monday, August 27, 2007

Will Machinima filmmakers scout locations in Second Life?

Today, I was catching up on some of my reading and came across an article about a class at the University of Kansas called "New Media and Cyber Culture". Film students in this class are using software to shoot films inside computer games using the game engine's assets to provide scenary, characters, animation sequences, sound and visual effects. This activity is called Machinima and, although initially used by hard core gamers to expand their gaming experience, is rapidly becoming a popular art form that has gained international attention and has potential for the production of educational applications and documentaries.

I had watched the History Channel's presentations about famous ancient battles called "Decisive Battles" and knew that they had used the game Rome: Total War to create the visuals. But, things have progressed quite a ways beyond that, now. I went up to Machinima.com to see what's happening.

At first I was a bit confused because I thought someone had developed a software package that would allow you to manipulate game assets within just about any game. That would be a great idea but would require standards for object types, file formats, etc. What I learned was that people were using built-in game editors with video capture software and audio editing tools to create short films based on a user-created script. Further digging revealed that such films could also be produced in Second Life. I found a post from Linden Labs whose author recommended a capture utility called Fraps to record action within Second Life. They also recommended a camera control object developed by Alt-Zoom Studios although I shot a test sequence just using the regular Second Life camera control tool and it works too. I requested the tool from Alt-Zoom Studios so it will be interesting to test the output from each one.

I also discovered that the Fraps utility does little compression to the captured video to enable it to capture full screen, high frame rates so you can devour a hard drive in pretty short order. I launched Second Life and turned on the video capture and walked my avatar through a couple of rooms of the Dresden Museum of Art and zoomed in on a painting or two then stopped the capture and just that couple of minutes of capture produced a file over 248 Mb in size! I browsed the FAQs on the Frap online help page and saw that the Frap developers recommend a free tool called VirtualDub to compress your video after capture is complete. Then you can work with smaller files in Windows Movie Maker or any other video editing package you may have.

Machinima.com had an interesting article on story and script development using the CQABN technique. An excerpt:

"Step 1 Get a Story Question (Introducing CQABN)

Look at your notes and try to set out the Story Question - the most pressing question posed by your story’s main conflict (sometimes people call this the story arc). It should be as simple and as stark as possible, and should also incorporate an answer. If there isn’t enough material to build a Story Question, make some up!

I use a particular syntax for Story Questions. I call this the CQABN (pronounced "Cabin").

Context, Question, Answer, But, Now... CQANB

Context: ["In"/"When"/"While"/"During"/"After"] [setting/life event/historical movement/etc]
Question: Can [Protagonist] defeat [antagonist*] in order to achieve [goal]? *need not be human.
Answer: ["Yes"/ "No"], [Optional Explanation].
But: ["But"/"However"/"Worse"] [twist].
Now: Now, [consequences].

Here’s an example:

After being abandoned by her husband of 20 years, can Beatrice overcome her inhibitions and find true love in a sleepy New England fishing port? Yes, but it’s with another woman! Now she and her lover must abandon the security of her new home.

Or, since this is Machinma:

In a post-apocalyptic 25th century, can medieval swordmaster Sigmund Ringek rescue his new true love from Crimelord? Yes, but his pragmatic brutality alienates her. Now he is adrift in a new world.

You’ll notice that the Now elements are fairly vague. That’s because they’re looking to the future after the story. We’ll get onto more pressing versions of Now when we get onto Acts and Scenes. But first, some more on the elements of CQABN:

More on CQABN elements

Context

Stories don’t take place in a vacuum (except in SciFi). The setting affects the action. It’s also part of the flavour. It may even be the main interest - perhaps the story exists entirely to enable you to show off the world you’ve created. Also, we’re not playing Snakes & Ladders. We don’t usually join characters on the first square. Sometimes they’re in the middle of something, or reacting to their immediate past – their back story.

Question

This is what keeps the viewer hooked. It has to have a protagonist (the person trying to do something) and an antagonist (the person trying to stop them). The protagonist must have agency, which is a short way of saying "They must be able to do stuff". The protagonist can’t just observe the action, nor can they spend the entire story having things done to them. Actually, they can, but then your story will be somewhat dull. The antagonist doesn’t have to be human, or even animate. But she/he/it absolutely must be named. Typical antagonists include: the Bad Guy; Inner Fears; Angst; Society; the System; the Mountain; the Shark; and Writers Block. The protagonist must have a goal, otherwise the struggle is as meaningless as a drunken bar fight. It must be as tangible as possible; something which we can see them achieve or fail to achieve.

Answer

The Story Question needs a clear answer: a Yes or a No. Leaving things hanging may be smart, but - like the end of The Italian Job - it’s ultimately annoying. It’s OK for the answer to be predictable. Let’s face it, in a heroic tale, the bad guy pretty much has to lose. However, the explanation may well be unexpected. An unpredictable answer is also good, as long as you have an effective But and Now.

But

The answer to the Story Question might be predictable, but serve it with an unexpected twist; something which makes sense in hindsight. A twist can be almost anything: e.g. a change of perspective making the original goal seem pointless, or an unexpected result, such as the protagonist being mortally wounded.

Now

So, we know what happened, including the twist. Now we need to know how the story ends– the consequences. Does the hero ride off into the sunset, older and wiser? Do the couple discard their illusions and renew their love? Does Uzi Girl renounce violence? It’s your story."

The website also contains many posts about producing films using particular game engines. I also discovered that there is commercial machinima software available with its own built in collections of characters, costumes, props, and sets if you want to venture outside specific game environments. One such package is called iClone 2 from Reallusion.

"iClone 2.0 advances the technology of storytelling, introducing entirely new features designed to enhance both film creation and viewing. G2 (Second Generation) characters with 'Clone Cloth' provide natural character movement and creative custom actor clothing and fashions. Command control of Particle SFX with over 40 presets and Special EFX editor provides custom special effects. LivePlants add natural movement for forests and trees, grass, and flowers, providing natural movement, providing professional level productivity tools for iClone users, and a fresh filmmaking experience.

Filmmakers can now direct dynamic films in real-time, allowing anyone to 'cast a movie' with customized avatars, build custom sets, arrange prop placement, control lighting, camera animation, and more. iClone 2.0 lets you film your scenes inside a fully functioning video studio that evolves with the needs of your production.

Simplified timeline control gives users easy access to scene composition and directing with a 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get' real-time camera view and key-frame assignment."

The possibilities for this technology are truly infinite, especially in combination with Second Life. You could have students work as a group to script, film, and act out a drama (or comedy) using the beautifully rendered environments in Second Life and each actor controlling an avatar. You could also produce an online virtual tour where your avatar navigates an environment and discusses the art, history, science, etc. behind a particular painting, statue, plant, building, etc. I suppose someone will create a virtual "back lot" in Second Life and start charging machinima producers to enter their area for filming!
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