I love the idea of making movies, but actually doing it can be so … taxing. Last year, I heard about machinima —a catchall term for 3-D animated movies made with video games and consumer PCs. Bedroom auteurs repurpose games like Halo and The Sims 2 to make movies that have little or nothing to do with the games themselves. The moviemaking techniques differ widely from game to game. For example, the makers of Red vs. Blue, the most successful machinima series around, devise a storyline, record dialogue and sound effects, then connect four Xboxes and start playing Halo 2. They then save their characters' moves as digital video and edit the footage on their computers using Adobe Premiere. In a few hours, they've got a finished product. (You can read more about the techniques used to make machinima here.)
Sundance, IFC, and MTV2 have all dabbled in machinima. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and George Lucas have supposedly experimented with it, too. If it's good enough for them, I thought, it's good enough for an easily discouraged DIY visionary like me.
I started my first machinima experiment by buying The Sims 2. It's an open-ended game that allows you to manage the lives of many different characters, down to choosing their personalities, wardrobe, and looks. Once you've created your characters, you can influence their actions by clicking on a little bubble that floats above them. Best of all, you have access to multiple controllable cameras, and recording your footage to a file on your hard drive is as easy as pushing a button.
There's only one problem: Making machinima with The Sims is often less like directing than running a day care center. Directors can tell actors what to do; in The Sims, I had trouble keeping them in the room. I started by creating three characters: an old man, a young woman, and a baby. I wanted the old man to be the dad, but for some reason the game forced me to make him the baby's roommate. Soon, I lost track of my "actors." (Whirling through the sets with the freely moving camera made me so dizzy that I almost threw up.) When I found them again, the baby was bawling on the bathroom floor. The woman was ignoring the baby and playing slap-hands with his roommate—while dying of hunger. Not only did my movie suck, I was close to murdering my cast.
I discovered later that I could have solved a lot of my problems by turning off my Sims' "free will." (That would have at least stopped the game of slap-hands.) But even if I could transform the characters into my zombie slaves, The Sims still wouldn't have been for me. The game's sitcom-like aesthetic and bland contemporary interiors just aren't inspiring.
At this point, I pushed away my virtual director's chair. I was ready to give up on machinima for good. But in January, I heard about The Movies, a new game from legendary designer Peter Molyneux. The object is to build your own movie studio—you hire actors, directors, and crew, and shoot and edit animated movies while watching the action on simulated sets. Actors are temperamental and tend toward obesity and alcoholism; you can keep them happy with a plush trailer or rehabilitate them with detox and liposuction (the disturbing process leaves them covered in bandages). Running a studio is difficult. Buildings deteriorate, paparazzi proliferate, and dollar bills burn up and waft into the air when you spend money.
Don't care about any of that studio-building stuff? Enter "sandbox" mode, which allows you to sidestep the game and focus on movie-making. Unlike The Sims and other video games employed by machinima hackers, The Movies gives you all the tools you need to make films inside the game world. It's easy to record voice actors, and there are built-in sound effects and music. You can also use a variety of prefabricated costumes, settings, actions, facial expressions, and camera angles. Unlike in The Sims, you have access to an in-game editing tool. When you're done with your movie, just click on a button, and voilà—your movie is ready for posting on The Movies' Web site, along with thousands of others.
Kiss Goodbye Inspired by gems such as Alex Chan's The French Democracy and atomasmelendo's Earth Visit, I set to work. The Movies' list of suggested titles is evocative—someday I hope to make The Fen Tiger, Dude, I Got My Head Stuck!, and Gary Maugan, Anagram Guy—but, sadly, there are no tigers or fens in the game. With no particular plan in mind, I started fine-tuning costumes, choosing sets, and selecting scenes from the game's library. Before I knew it, I had spent five hours happily spooking myself with Kiss Goodbye, a three-minute ghost story.
The Movies makes it easy for anyone to become a computer-game filmmaker. The tradeoff for this ease of use is that the game isn't as flexible as I'd hoped. Instead of framing camera angles and pressing "record," I had to select from a variety of prerecorded scenes—like "campfire chat" and "admire baby." Once I settled on a scene, I dragged in my characters in place of the game's faceless mannequins. By moving a slider, I could control their expressions (often restricted to happy, sad, or angry), how fast the action unfolded, and whether the camera was close or far away. Certain things like gestures and sounds changed every time I played my movie in "post-production" mode, which made the process like playing roulette—I got the exact laugh I wanted perhaps one out of three times. Most annoying of all, once I started the frequently frustrating editing process, I couldn't go back and reshoot without losing the edits I had already made.
Sure, I got annoyed when I couldn't make the main character pick up a baby—the closest I could get was "pick up weapon." The game also wouldn't allow me to cast children or people over 65, set a scene in a school, or have a sex scene. But I learned to accept these limitations. Besides, where else could I have made an actor wear a medieval ghost costume, turn translucent, escape a bombed-out city, kiss a skeleton, and then vanish?