Hey Kids, Let’s Make a Movie: Machinima

“It had never occurred to me that a fan could just up and make a video,” Mike “Spiff” Booth makes machinima videos of Jonathan Coulton songs (the guy who wrote “Still Alive” from Portal) using World of Warcraft. ILL Clan’s “Code Monkey” was “the spark that got me going.” After that, Booth became a machinima … machine, making a video almost every month for a year and a half.

“Over the next couple of days,” he says, “little ideas for shots would pop into my head while driving to work or doing the dishes for how I could possibly do “Re: Your Brains” in World of Warcraft. At some point, enough ideas had piled up that I thought I could make a good video out of it, and I sat down to do it. It was so much fun and the response was so positive to it that I decided to make another, and then another, etc.”


Machinima, a combination of “machine” and “animation,” are videos made using clips of game animation recorded by players, rather than created with professional animation software. Some machinima feature music or comedy, while others focus on an ongoing narrative. They’re wide spread enough to merit their own YouTube channel, as well as the inevitable Machinima for Dummies book. They range from sublimely funny to heart-wrenching, amateurish home-movies of gameplay to complex, sophisticated productions. They appropriate game content to new, unexpected purposes and intriguing narratives capable of commenting on the nature of the virtual world.

They didn’t start very complicated. In the early 1990s, Doom allowed users to record their play sessions. At first players swapped clips to compare and study matches and speed runs, and when Quake followed with more advanced recording tools, player clans began to do it wholesale.

The Quake community produced the first widely viewed machinima in 1996, the Rangers’ clan’s “Diary of a Camper,” which took a normal piece of recorded gameplay and attached a narrative to it. Other pieces quickly followed, including the first feature-length machinima, Devil’s Covenant by Clan Phantasm. The videos were known as “Quake movies” at first, and it would be a few years until machinima earned its proper name.

As the form became more popular, more and more production tools appeared, such as KeyGrip and Little Movie Processing Centre (LMPC). And as more developers began to understand the medium’s potential, as well as the demand for it, more and more games began to include built-in ways for players to record their content.

In 2000, Machinima.com appeared, featuring tutorials, examples of machinima, interviews and articles about the form. It also hosted the first film created with Quake III Arena, Quad God. As its profile increased, machinima attained mainstream notice. Roger Ebert hailed it as a promising new art form, and “Hardly Workin’” won several awards at the Showtime Network’s Alternative Media Festival in 2001.

In 2002, machinima makers Anthony Bailey, Hugh Hancock, Katherine Anna Kang, Paul Marino and Matthew Ross formed the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences, which produced the first official definition of machinima: “animated film-making within a real-time virtual 3-D environment.” The first Machinima Film Festival was held at QuakeCon that year, and in its second year produced the first machinima music video to air on MTV, “In the Waiting Line” by Tommy Pallotta, created using Quake 3. The Academy sponsors the Festival each year, presenting awards informally known as “Mackies” in 10 different categories.

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As machinima has gotten bigger, so has the business around it. Both Toyota and Coke have produced commercials that merge game animation with real life advertisement. The ILL Clan, a leading producer of machinima, has become a production studio whose clients include SpikeTV and MTV, and was recently purchased by the Electric Sheep Company.

But despite professionals getting in the game, machinima remains a medium in which almost anyone can play. Drawing on resources gamers easily have at hand, making machinima requires no major investment in equipment. So where should you start if you want to use this machinima to channel your inner-director?

Machinima.com is the best place to survey the field. The site’s founder, Philip DeBevoise, compares the advent of machinima to that of digital video recorders, allowing a wave of new talent to emerge as the cost of creating films dropped. Other sites of use to the aspiring machinima maker include the Academy of Machinima Arts of Sciences, Machinima Premiere and Machinimag.


One rule of thumb to keep in mind when choosing the setting for your machinima is to pick a game you love – preferably a love other people share – as well as one you know well. Mike Booth said about his World of Warcraft machinima, “By using WoW, I get a built-in enormous fan base of millions of other people who already love the WoW world, which no other game gives me. In addition, the WoW world and characters have so much character that it’s kind of like I get to use a kind of shorthand – if I have a character be a dwarf male, the viewer can instantly understand that he’s a likeable, loyal, but not-too-smart hero. If I use a night elf female, the viewer understands that she’s a hot, slightly self-absorbed foil. WoW does such a great job of tapping into archetypes that it makes my videos richer without me having to do anything extra.”

Recording gameplay will depend on the game engine; some have recording capability built into them, while others will require an add-in. Depending on how complicated you want to get, you may need to learn the art of “recamming” – decompiling, editing and recompiling game files in order to change the camera view.

Perhaps most importantly, consider how you want to control the characters within the video. Will you rely on game-supplied actions, using socials such as /shrug, /sob and /lost to convey nuances of emotions? Or will you recruit actors, each directing their own game character, a technique that is more complex and time-consuming but allows for greater control?

Or perhaps you want the most complicated but precise form of machinima, one controlled by scripting. Scripting, which game companies use to create cut-scenes, allows a machinima creator to specify precise actions for everything in the film.

No matter what you opt for technically, you’ll want to figure out your storyline before you start shooting, and for this task, you may want to glance at a screenwriting site beforehand or borrow from an existing story. Booth uses folksinger Jonathan Coulton’s music as inspiration for his videos: “I try hard not to just re-tell the story that Coulton’s lyrics already tell. That would be boring. I try to find the story lurking right behind the lyrics. When I do a good job, people tell me that it’s as if my story was there alongside Coulton’s story the whole time.”

That is, perhaps, what makes machinima so exciting: discovering the stories that were there all along, the ones that could only be told within the game itself. The stories created by the very act of play.

Cat Rambo is a freelance writer based in Redmond, Washington who devotes an obsessive amount of time to Armageddon MUD. Her recent collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, THE SURGEON’S TALE AND OTHER STORIES, is available from Amazon or her website, http://www.kittywumpus.net.

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