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The Ghost in the Machinima

Will the use of video game technology to make movies result in art or kitsch?
Roger Ebert

Somewhere right now, in a basement or bedroom, a kid is making an animated movie that will play in a theater near you. It's been possible for years to create animation on home computers, but a new movement named Machinima plans to make those movies more sophisticated -- of commercial quality. Machinimists don't use high-priced software programs but the "rendering engines" used by games like Quake and Unreal. n This was only a matter of time.

Software gets cheaper and wants to be free. Home computers are more powerful than the mainframes of a few years ago. Sony's new PlayStation 2 is both a toy and a supercomputer. In March, the digital media practitioners' collective, Conduit, held the first U.S. gathering of Machinima filmmakers at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

The key elements in Machinima are low cost and artistic freedom. These movies do not require actors, set designers, cinematographers, caterers, best boys, or key grips. They can be made by one person sitting at a computer. This is revolutionary. But my guess is that the films themselves will not be as revolutionary as the techniques used to make them -- that out of those basements and bedrooms will come not cinematic art but elaborations on the themes of video games.

One day in 1967 I was having lunch with Francis Ford Coppola, then about the age of a lot of today's Machinimists. We were talking about his film Finian's Rainbow, but then he opened a bulging briefcase. "Look at this," he said, spilling glossy brochures on the table. "These are video cameras that can actually be carried by one person. One day they'll be better, cheaper, and smaller. And a filmmaker will be able to carry a movie studio in his hands."

With the advent of digital video, that day has come. Nevertheless, films shot on digital require lots of collaborators. The director Bernard Rose, at Sundance this year, was exulting about his new film, made with eight actors who doubled as the production staff. But it had a sizable budget by Machinima standards, and if you want big stars you have to pay for them in one way or another.

Animation doesn't need stars. All it needs is imagination and technical skill. It's at this frontier that Coppola's vision comes true: An individual animator, working alone like a painter, a novelist, or a poet, makes a work of art.

Intrigued, I looked at some examples online, starting at One film, Ozymandias, is a visualization of a Shelley poem about the ruined statue of a once great king. It involves simply rendered desert landscapes and a sketchy human figure that traverses them. Very basic, but curiously effective, and the music establishes the mood. Another film is The Kick, which is essentially a video game demo.

These films represent two choices. One has an idea, but the other just recycles the exhausted clichés of games. Neither one is realistic in appearance, but here's an important point: Animation does not need realism. Although Disney and other mainstream Hollywood shops seek the ideal of full-motion animation, some of the best animated films have been much simpler.

Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988) may provide the most powerful emotional experience ever created by animation. It isn't realistic at all. The characters follow the anime conventions of big saucer eyes and simplified figures. The backgrounds, beautifully drawn, aren't intended to depict real life. Animation suggests, and the imagination supplies; our eyes fill in the gaps. Grave of the Fireflies uses pauses, silence, moments of regard and meditation to tell its story.

I'm afraid those kids in basements will gravitate toward ideas based on games; their work will be visually impressive but empty. We'll get aliens, laser rays, space cadets, tomb raiders. The Machinima movement will produce the ability to make feature-length animated films at home. But it will not automatically realize Coppola's dream of putting the means of production into the hands of the artists. The means of production are here. It's the artist part that's tricky.

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