In November 2005, days after France burned, a 27-year-old French industrial designer named Alex Chan created a media sensation with his machinima film “The French Democracy.”

Made in about five days for zero cost (except the price of the engine, Activision’s game The Movies), “Democracy” depicts three dark-skinned young men who endure daily discrimination in the Paris ghettos. When they hear about two teenagers who, while hiding from police, were electrocuted in a transformer station – the real-life flashpoint for the 2005 riots – the men join the violence in the streets. As told by the Associated Press – and The Washington Post – and MTV.com – and Business Week – the 13-minute film was Chan’s attempt to correct what he saw as biased press coverage of three weeks of civil unrest in ghettos across France. “The main intention of this movie is to bring people to think about what really happened in my country,” Chan told the Post, “by trying to show the starting point and some causes of these riots.”

“The French Democracy” marked the popular news media’s belated discovery of machinima. And, significantly, the film highlighted the issue that has troubled the young medium from its start.

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The media’s acceptance of “The French Democracy,” contrasted with their widespread hysteria about videogames, confirms a gaping cultural divide. Reporters treated machinima with automatic respect, because society has accepted film as a meaningful art form. But in the public mind, games are by definition frivolous; a game with a serious instructional or artistic purpose faces skepticism, even hostility. After the scandal at the Slamdance indie film festival’s 2006 Guerrila Gamemaking Competition, Slamdance organizer Peter Baxter told The New York Times, “Absolutely, games should be judged by different criteria than film. I just don’t accept a direct comparison.”

The double standard has benefited “The French Democracy,” because its impact is more conceptual than artistic. Quite roughly made, the film carries the passionate sincerity of a hand-lettered broadside. Its widespread recognition proves you don’t need high-powered graphics cards and a team of hundreds to join the world’s ongoing conversation. Ideas are not only cheap; they run on low-end hardware.

It’s encouraging that everyone automatically treats “Democracy” as a film. In a way, it’s also surprising, because, considered strictly as film, machinima can make you squirm in your seat. See, for instance, “A Few Good G-Men,” award-winning machinima by Randall Glass that uses Valve’s Half-Life 2 Source engine to render the climactic scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men. Glass’ work is polished, even artful, yet it points up the painfully limited range of facial expressions available in this state-of-the-art engine. We are years away from game engines that offer figure models as rubber-faced as Jim Carrey, not that anyone looks forward to that exact possibility.

Fortunately, machinima has inherent virtues that film is hard-pressed to match. Aside from its uniquely fast production time and low cost, machinima also shares the advantages of other computer animation, such as visionary design and fluid camera work impossible on a practical set.

Even its artistic limitations are hardly deal-breakers. Like machinima, several other forms of drama permit little or no facial expression, yet have nonetheless produced major masterpieces. For instance, the actors in ancient Greek plays wore masks, as did the performers in Japanese Noh drama. And from the 1920s through the ’40s, America’s most popular dramatic form was not film, but radio.

In terms of the skills required and the effects produced, machinima somewhat resembles puppetry. Though puppet theater in the West has a reputation hardly more elevated than games, in Asia it’s a respected art-form with a long and prestigious history. In Indonesia, puppeteers called dalang enjoy high status as masters of wayang drama. And the leading work of Japanese theater, the Chushingura (The 47 Ronin) – as revered there as we revere Shakespeare and Ibsen – was written for bunraku puppets.

No, the main issue facing machinima is neither technical nor artistic. As any machinima maker can tell you, the main issue is copyright.

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If you shoot a high-def film with a Canon camera, Canon doesn’t own your movie. If you publish a book or magazine that uses fonts owned by Microsoft and images corrected in Adobe Photoshop, neither Microsoft nor Adobe owns your publication, because their licenses specifically grant you ownership. But if you make a machinima film using The Movies, Activision (the publisher) controls it. Activision controls everything.

Artist and media maven Tony Walsh, on his blog Clickable Culture, analyzed the End User License Agreement for The Movies:

“While users retain ownership of movies they create, Activision exclusively owns ‘any and all content within [users’] Game Movies that was either supplied with the Program or otherwise made available to [users] by Activision or its licensors…’ This means that any movie containing anything less than 100% user-created content (an impossible feat, as far as I can tell) is under Activision’s control. … ‘The French Democracy’ might be a milestone in machinima history, but since Activision owns the content of the movie (the character models, environments and other material), the publisher could order the movie removed from internet sites.”

What’s more, if you upload your film to the official Movies site, Lionhead Studios can do anything they want with it.

The same restriction holds true for machinima made using other game engines – or, more accurately, there’s no case law to disprove the publisher’s claim on derivative works. If you make a commercial DVD of your Sims 2 videos, maybe you can sell it on Amazon, maybe not. To find out for sure, pay your lawyer a million bucks and sit in a courtroom for three years.

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“French Democracy” maker Alex Chan spoke on the “Machinima With Issues” panel at the second annual Machinima Festival, held in November 2006 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. Another, perhaps more arresting panel topic there was “Will I Get Sued?” Gamasutra’s Raina Lee covered it:

“[Fred] Von Lohmann and [the Electronic Frontier Foundation] represented the fourth speaker, Jon Grigg, a filmmaker who had dealt with an unresponsive game company, Valve. Grigg had contacted Valve numerous times to get permission for Counter-Strike machinima for his film ‘Deviation,’ with no response. He needed the permission in order for Atom Films to carry and distribute his work, and for him to be able to make a profit. While Grigg ultimately received permission, Von Lohmann noted that game companies do not have a stance on machinima yet, and it’s up to the machinima community to sway things their way.”

The copyright issue looms large among machinima creators. Paul Marino is Executive Director of the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences and author of 3-D Game-Based Filmmaking: The Art of Machinima (Paraglyph Press, 2004). On his blog, Thinking Machinima, Marino first praised “The French Democracy,” then speculated, “Will a machinima surface that forces a game developer to issue a damage-control press release stating they have nothing to do with the work? … [A]s a supplier of technology, do they get to dictate the how, what and why tech is used? … I believe it is in the interest of the developers to handle the ‘how’ specifically and not become mired in the ‘what’ or ‘why.’ The developers, and technology, are enablers.”

It’s possible to negotiate these obstacles. Rooster Teeth Productions, which makes the popular Red vs. Blue series using Microsoft’s Halo engine, signed an agreement with Microsoft that permits it to sell DVDs and merchandise. (See “Red vs. Blue Makes Green,” The Escapist issue No. 68.)

But in practical terms, these issues will be solved only with successful Photoshop-style dedicated machinima applications. We’re finally starting to see a few, including Reallusion’s iClone and Short Fuze’s Moviestorm. Both offer sensible EULAs that don’t grab ownership of your film.

Looking further out, Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic special-effects house is developing Zviz, an in-house machinima app for pre-visualization. In an interview with trade journal VFX World, ILM R&D Director Steve Sullivan describes Zviz features that make a machinima buff’s thumbs itchy: simultaneous multiple takes and shots in memory, lenses, real-time game-engine lighting and physics, free-floating camera or dollies and cranes, in-world sketching and asset annotation, flipbooks of facial expressions, three-point editing, audio … . “We have an internal system working now,” says Sullivan; Lucasfilm is using it for the new Clone Wars animated series. “We have no plans to market it now, but it needs to be consumer friendly. … The target audience was also 12-year-old kids. George [Lucas] wanted a system that could teach people how to make movies: something that changes how things are done.”

But all these platforms are proprietary and, in some cases, vaporous. Ideally, the world-killer machinima app should be free or open-source – and in the long term, it must be cross-platform, or every generation of machinima will eventually get pushed off the pier of history into the sad sea of abandonware. In linking to a report on the January 2007 “New Media and Social Memory” meeting, futurist and science fiction writer Bruce Sterling remarked, “If you’re not thinking of your art in machine-agnostic terms, you are not an artist and shouldn’t declare yourself to be one; you are a hobbyist and a slave of the hardware.”

Meanwhile, Activision released one much-needed Movies expansion (Stunts & Effects) in mid-2006, and a Macintosh version in January 2007. Otherwise the game is basically dormant and likely to remain so, inasmuch as Microsoft bought Lionhead Studios in April 2006.

Alex Chan has not yet submitted another film to the Movies site. (Under the handle “Koulamata,” he had posted three prior machinima learning projects before “French Democracy,” but he later removed them all.) Other players still upload nearly 100 movies daily. A few are ambitious, such as “Dark September,” about 9/11. But it’s fair to say the community has not grown politically active, let alone radical.

The media perceived “Democracy” as the harbinger of a new, powerful vector for social commentary. This may yet prove true, but if so, it will take time. Today’s diverse machinima communities aren’t notably political; the political class remains ignorant of the form; and as long as the publishers own everything through their grasping EULAs, dangerous legal issues overshadow everything.

Copyright problems aside, it’s hard to envision a machinima movement with political clout. What is the usual fate of a political work produced outside the existing power structure? Such works aren’t inherently, inevitably marginalized, but history shows that’s the way to bet. “The French Democracy” is to machinima as, say, Democracy Now is to American television. They are both commentators in the wilderness, exiled by systemic pressures that have no technical fix.

In the online magazine PopMatters, Josh Lee wrote, “‘The French Democracy’ won’t win any awards at Cannes, but it covers [its] political and psychic territory with an immediacy that’s as moving as it is alarming. It seems a little strange, though, that while ten years is plenty of time for there to be waves of simpler, cheaper filmmaking tools, it is not long enough to have any effect on the issues that filmmakers need to bring to the public’s attention.”

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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