Machinima Film Festival 2002 Review

Although you don’t realise it, I would bet that 99.9% of you reading this review have seen at least one example of machinima in your life. You just didn’t know that’s what it was called when you saw it. Every time you’ve ever played a video game and seen a cut scene in it which have been filmed in the game’s own engine (ie a sequence that’s not FMV) you’ve actually been watching a example of this new art form. For as long as there have been video games their makers have used the gaps between levels as an opportunity to fill in vital story points in as filmic a manner as possible, given the technological limitations they’re working with, while simultaneously getting the characters from one section to another. As technology and techniques have improved, more and more frequently the game’s own engine have been employed to do this, to keep up visual continuity and ensure the flow is not broken by an actor suddenly popping up and temporarily replacing a computer sprite. Machinima (pronounced Ma-sheen-EH-ma) is the name given to such cut scenes, and indeed any film made using a game’s (usually three-dimensional) engine.

And, starting with Quake (the granddaddy of truly three-dimensional games engines) it’s not just professional games makers who have been creating them either. Amateurs have increasingly taken advantage of the near endless customability modern game engines have to create their own films, having the ability to control the actors, sets and cameras to a degree that would be the envy of most real-life film makers. The trick is that the films are rendered in real-time – that is, the game’s engine films them each time someone plays them, which ensures that the viewer sees exactly what the film maker intended. Although in the beginning the films were mostly silent with subtitles and characters with no moving lips, the expertise of people involved in this burgeoning art form is such that nowadays they are able to manipulate the engines to an amazing degree, with lip synching, real voiceover artists and special effects all adding to the illusion. Today the central hub for the community,, lists some thirty six groups, all dedicated to telling their stories in this new way, mainly using FPS (first-person shooters) like the various incarnations of Quake and Unreal Tournament as their tools of choice. In 2002 the first Machinima Film Festival was held in Mesquite, Texas (the home of id Software, the company who made Quake) and now some of the award winners of that day are presented on this DVD. Acting as a showcase for the very best of what the community has produced so far, the five pieces on offer are all wildly different, showing the flexibility of the format and what exactly can be achieved. Because they are all different, and all comes from different film makers using different game engines I have reviewed each separately.

Rick Jones 2 With optional Director’s Commentary
Rick Jones 2 is a fifteen minute spoof of blaxploitation films, filmed in Quake 2. It is the oldest film on the disk and it shows, with dull scenery and unexciting models. Having said that, the effects were good for the time – characters move objects around, shoot guns and so on, all of which is standard now but was very innovative when this film was released.

The problem is the script, which is just dire. They certainly got it right when they post at the beginning that the film has “immature content,” relying on jokes about porno mags and blaxploitation clichés to get the laughs. It’s just not very funny, the only two gags raising a smile being 2LF, a small bizarre character, and the use of the Batman theme (60s version). That said, the actors involved are pretty good and give it their all.

This is the worst film on the disk. Part of the problem is that it’s dated badly – the sets are just too boring and old-fashioned looking to be entertaining now. Coupled with a rubbish script it’s a bit of a waste of space on the disk – it might have been historically an important film in the development of machinima, but really has no place on a 2002 showcase of the best the genre has to offer. 3/10

The commentary is not very good either. It would have been interesting to hear how the makers developed the techniques on display, how they modified the Quake engine to do what they wanted it, but the majority of the time is taken up with the two commentators just sounding bored about the whole thing. It’s not very enlightening and is a missed opportunity to fill in some history. Disappointing.

Hardly Workin’
Lenny and Larry Lumberjack have just been fired. Searching for work, they see a “Help Wanted” notice in a diner window and sign up, thinking they’ll be able to slack off and eat food all day. It soon becomes clear they're going to have to think again, not having counted on the odd Italian chef who runs the place, a bus load of demanding customers and the fearsome machine known only as the Grind-o-Matic.

Made by the Ill clan, one of the pioneers of machinima, this is easily the highlight of the disk. The script is first rate, full of laugh-out-loud moments that it would be churlish to spoil here, helped along by a cast that sound that they were making it up as they went along and having a blast doing it. The colourful design of the main sets and the comical appearances of the characters who inhabit them add to the fun, and have the Quake 2 engine doing things it surely never knew it could before. The only slight problem is the transfer to a movie format has caused a bit of discolouration in some of the scenes, but which fortunately is not distracting. Constantly inventive and directed with a sure touch, this is an excellent advertisement of what machinima can be. 9/10

Hardly Workin’ Extra – Interview with Frank Dellario
A five and a half minute interview with one of the founders of Ill clan. Although an apologetic caption at the beginning explains that it is taken from raw footage for a documentary on machinima and as such might be a bit rough, it’s all very acceptable, the lower picture quality not really being an issue. Dellario comes across as a nice, sensible guy with interesting things to say, the only problem being that he doesn’t actually say anything about Hardly Workin’. Instead, he talks about the founding of the clan and their first project before expanding on where he thinks the future for machinima lies. Not bad though.

Anachronox: the Movie
Anachronox the game was published by the troubled Ion Storm in 2001 and bombed on its release. The cinematics were created by Jake “Strider” Hughes and, not wishing the work he had spent so long in making to go entirely to waste, he decided to cut them together, using in-game footage to link the scenes up. The result is Anachronox: the Movie, a two and a half hour production that tells the entire story of the game without the need to play it. This DVD contains two sequences from it, one totalling eight minutes and the other just over one.

The first scene depicts the destruction of an entire solar system due to some experiment mishap, and follows a group of characters who are able to get away. Although there is way too much zooming camera work, the general direction is excellent, the pacing of the scenes fast paced with good dialogue (bar an excess of technobabble in the first couple of minutes) and contains an extremely amusing sequence that depicts how the travellers spend their time while adrift in space. The second scene deals with a car chase. Significantly shorter than the first, it’s slightly weaker as well but once again direction is exemplary.

Both sequences look very good, making the most of the game’s engine to produce striking scenes. No one would ever be fooled into thinking it was created from anything other than a video game, but there is enough entertaining stuff here to make that not a big problem. The only let down is when in-game footage is clearly used – although used extremely sparsely, it is still jarring to see, and is easy to spot by anyone who has ever played a third person game before. The voice acting is okay, let down only by the bored-sounding lead female character – there’s nothing striking here, but the actors certainly do enough.

I don’t know if I could stomach sitting down for pure enjoyment to watch the whole two and a half hour movie in one go, but these two clips are certainly entertaining enough to make me want to see more. It would have been a shame indeed if this had gone to waste. 8/10

Picture Show
Four quirky shots, all “Written, directed and produced “, as the credits say, by the same guy, Mike Beery, a one man production company who also did the voices and designed the characters and sets. The first three are similar in construction. Stomp, Smart Gun and Thin Ice are all under two minutes and all conclude in the same way. The design is very good, making the Quake 2 engine look far better than I remember it, and the character designs are quirky and individual enough to be enjoyable. The actual ideas (saying that films these short have plots is a bit of an exaggeration) are simple and not especially original, but amusing enough, and all are shot with a fair degree of style.

The fourth is, on first glance, more ambitious, a five minute film featuring a race of blob-like beings. However, it turns out to be made up of four vignettes featuring the buck toothed creatures, who get around using robotic suits and spend their time trying to avoid death. The quirky humour remains, and there is some good use of sound effects, but the sets are duller, betraying their Quake 2 origins. The first three parts all have the same punchline, as well, which makes it a little repetitive.

Overall, these reminded me of one of those web cartoonists the net is full of these days, featuring an offbeat style of humour, funny looking characters and simple gags. Stylishly done but you get the feeling that Beery is flexing his muscles, and will go on to do better things. 6/10

Six minute film about two satellites meeting in deep space and falling in love. Nice idea, but in execution it’s really very dull. The setting is bland, the character design not especially exciting visually, and the script itself is very uninspired, while the two actors employed to read the dialogue just go through the motions. Coupled with mediocre direction, this is the second weakest film on the disk and has little to recommend it. It’s still better than Rick Jones 2 though. 4/10

Rendezvous Extra – Interview with Peter Rasmussen
Rasmussen is the guy responsible for Rendezvous and here gives a lengthy interview, taken from the same source as the Dellario interview. He explains how he got into machinima and seems a nice, gentle guy. Nothing earth shattering here but interesting enough. (Rasmussen has since gone on to produce a feature length Machinima movie called Killer Robot, the second machinima release, which Kev G will be reviewing shortly).

The Disk
A bit of a temperamental thing. It wouldn’t play on my Toshiba player at all, and on my PC drive it looped the films constantly until I manually clicked to return to the menu. The menus are static and have a nice design, the only problem being the font used makes the words Rick Jones 2 look unclear.

Although Machinima films started off being simple demo files that you played directly in the appropriate game's engines, more and more these days they are being pre-rendered to make them accessible to all. Of the films here, the only one that really suffers from this process is Hardly Workin', with the afore-mentioned discolouration occuring at intervals. The others look exactly as you imagine they would in the game engines.

Naturally variable. As these productions are all made by amateurs (relatively speaking), the audio tracks rely totally on what equipment they had to hand to record voices. Of the films, only Anachronox really sounds professional, but none suffer so much to make them unlistenable to.

A few years ago myself and a friend stumbled on the world of Machinima and spent a week downloading and watching some of the films on offer. At a time when the art was still in its infancy, with only the Quake and Unreal engines to play with, the films were nearly universally dreadful, ghastly concoctions with titles such as Killer Bug and Zombie Does the Macarena. Fortunately the community has come a long way since then and produced some really decent work. Although I find it difficult to imagine people with no knowledge of games actually choosing to sit down and watch a feature length movie made in Doom 3’s engine, there is the feeling that the world is a veritable breeding ground for new talent. The examples on this DVD have a full range of genres and styles and are a good advertisement for what there is on offer. I can’t recommend a purchase of the DVD simply because these films are available to download free of charge from the website and the extras alone are not worth the money, but I do suggest you go and have a look for yourselves if you have the slightest interest in the gaming world. You never know, you might just find the next Spielberg somewhere there…

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