Deus ex Machinima
Modern-day auteurs make films with a joystick
By Daedalus Howell
Future film historians might look back on the past decade and pinpoint it either as the beginning of the medium's demise or its evolution into something vital, egalitarian and ubiquitous. Of course, the very notion of "film" is already antiquated, seeing as the vast majority of moving pictures are now created digitally (even the term "digital video" sounds quaintly redundant). Where the culture critics of tomorrow may think today's directors jumped the shark is in the realm of "machinima," a video subgenre that emerged in the aughts in which would-be directors realized they didn't need a camera or even actors to put the power of cinema in their hands—literally—by way of a game-controller.
Machinima filmmakers use the realistic 3-D worlds rendered by video-game designers as their mise en scène and operate the inhabitants like digital puppets. Its poster child is the recently wrapped Red vs. Blue series, which uses Halo's first-person-shooter games for its sets, cast and props. The Austin-based company Rooster Teeth Productions supplies the writing, voice talent and deeply sardonic sensibility to depict the opposing colors.
With its absurd bureaucratic run-ins and wry commentary on the futility of war, the satirical series is reminiscent of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H crossed with the picaresque trappings of Monty Python's Holy Grail. It's even been favorably compared to Beckett but with less WTF and more LOL. Further substantiating machinima's claim to legitimate cinema, Rooster Teeth recently released The Recollection Collection, a DVD box set of its Halo-inspired oeuvre, and has rightfully locked its claim on a generation's neural map.
Of course, it's not the first to manipulate animation with a joystick. That distinction could arguably go to 1983's Dragon's Lair, the first arcade game to use laserdisc technology for an enhanced user experience with cinema-quality animated characters.
Players didn't so much control the movement of characters as the flow of the story (rescuing a princess from, uh, the lair of a dragon), in a manner akin to choose-your-own-adventure novels. The animation was hand-drawn by Disney alumnus Don Bluth and was subsequently railed for its sexist depiction of the princess as a boobalicious half-wit. The game, of course, was a hit with adolescent boys who happily ponied up the 50 cents, twice the going arcade rate, to guide Dirk the Daring to his wasp-waisted reward.
Video games are just one of a growing array of options available to aspiring auteurs. As Xtranormal, an online filmmaking site, observes with its tagline, "If you can type, you can make movies," all one needs to go from script to screen is to enter some text, pick an avatar or two and watch the web app do the rest. Nearly 10 million projects have been cranked out on the site to date.
Among them is The Pitch, a depiction of a meeting gone awry when the writer is asked to write a screenplay as a vehicle for a Slinky toy. The Steven Hawking–esque computer character voices only contribute to the deadpan comedy when the writer flatly dismisses the toy: "It's a wire coil."
The executive with whom he's dealing persists and says, "Russell Crowe has shown interest in playing the villain." The writer responds, "What does he do? Trap the Slinky on an escalator?" Overall, the flick is hilarious and perhaps proof that outsourcing all but the writing of one's viral video to a machine is a viable means of making movies.
But is it cinema? Film snobs used to have a semantic hierarchy to distinguish a flick's caliber (in order of descending cultural relevance): cinema, film, movie, video and online video, the latter a mere notch above wedding videos. Given Hollywood's increasing irrelevance and the wholesale migration of audiences to new platforms—particularly those that fit atop one's lap or in the palm of one's hand—is the concept of "cinema" even worth striving toward?
From a career standpoint, perhaps not. Most of the major agencies now have divisions whose mandate is to find and sign upcoming online talent. (Look no further than Saturday Night Live's Adam Samberg, who comfortably bobs between the world of online video from whence he came and ye olde broadcast media.) It's these storytellers who are shaping tomorrow's entertainment and Hollywood evidently doesn't want to be stuck with the wrong end of the joystick.
Daedalus Howell takes on the media-industrial-complex at FMRL.com.
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