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Animation Using Game Engines

Ever since computers became personal, a strange kind of ethic has evolved in those who push the limits of what their machines and applications can do. A number of sub-cultures have evolved around computers, where hardware and software are used for purposes that they were not designed for. The scope of such experimentation is wide, ranging from bending pins on a circuit board for creating music to writing haiku in languages meant for coding. The internet allowed for such efforts to spread, eventually allowing a wide range of technology related art forms to emerge. Most of these communities require extensive knowledge and experience in one, or more fields of computing. Consequently, it is difficult for outsiders to appreciate the brilliance of the community's efforts. It takes a lot of time and effort before newcomers are accepted. The community around Machinima is one notable exception. Machinima is easy to grasp, but tough to master. However, anyone with a computer and a decent graphics solution can jump right in.

Some of the early games that were released had an option to record gameplay. This was a feature in the game engine itself, that tracked the movement of the player through the game, and recorded sequence of movements. Such a recording was called a “demo”. A demo file consisted basically of a sequence of keypresses with a time map, that could be played back on the same engine used to create it. Demo files were shared around to display extra ordinary skill, show secret areas or as walkthroughs for particular games and levels. Such demos are still shared around the internet, particularly for Warcraft 3 and games derived from the Quake series. Parallel to this development, was the emergence of speedruns. This was a community that thrived on completing games and particular levels in the lowest time possible, and sharing their achievements. Now, speedruns were accomplished on a variety of platforms, and even if saving demos was an option on these platforms, sharing them over the internet was not an option as those who wished to play back the speedruns had to have the same platform. This was a problem with some demos as well, as games with a particular patch could not play back demos of versions that did not have the particular patch. The increase in bandwidth, and developments in video compression technology, considerably reduced the advantage that demos had over video recordings of gameplay.

At this crucial juncture in 1996, the Rangers clan created waves in the Quake community with a new kind of demo. Demos usually had players jumping around and rocketing the guts out of other players, the Diary of a Camper had the same things – but with a storyline to it. This was the first film to embrace Machinima techniques, but back then there were not too many game engines that allowed people to modify the game environments with the same degree of control as the Quake engine, so most early machnima works were on the Quake engine only. These were called Quake movies, and grew so much that there were even Quake movie Oscar awards. Tools were written for recording and non-linear editing of these films, paving the way for Machinima.

By the year 2000, the community had started experimenting with other game engines and machinima.com was launched. Machinima is a portmanteau of “Machine” and “Cinema”, which means machine generated cinema. The word sounds a lot like animation too, and those who practice Machinima are called Machinimators. At the heart of Machinima is a brilliant idea that fundamentally changed the approach for animation production. Computer generated images were in themselves a difficult operation. Lights, environments and characters had to be rendered, which was a time consuming process. Game environments on the other hand, rendered all these in real time, drastically reducing the amount of system resources used in creating animated sequences.

A traditional animation production process involved a lot of steps. First, characters had to be designed, with internal and external touches added. This ranged from creating skeletons for the characters, and cosmetic touches such as costume, hair and skin texture. After this, an environment had to be modeled. Then, the characters would be key framed, which meant that actions had to be programmed in, keeping in mind realistic movement and the physics of the animated universe. Then the lighting specialists would add in sources of light to illuminate the scene. All of this was handed on a platter to animators who used game engines for animation. Machinimators now only had to control the characters, co-ordinate their movements, and record the entire sequence using any one of the various video capturing options available.

Some game engines allowed Machinimators to program the key events for multiple characters, animate the camera in whatever way they chose, and then record the sequence. Another, more popular approach was simply to connect a Machinimating clan over LAN, then play-act the storyline, while recording it. Of course, such approaches had their limitations. In game engines that did not have a spectator view, the biggest limitation was the flexibility of the movement of the camera. But machinimators had come this far with the punk philosophy of working wonders with what you have, and that gave them the impetus over such puny hurdles. The players simply moved their characters in innovative ways, say one player driving a jeep, acting as a mobile platform for the “camera”, and another standing on the top of the jeep looking around and zooming in where necessary, and recording the sequence of events being played out. The community developed camera tools, specific to different engines, which allowed unprecedented control over animations.

Another major limitation was the amount of expression the game engine allowed to the characters. Some of the characters in popular Machinima engines such as the Halo series had faces that were covered by helmets, with no faces showing at all. To compensate for such a lack of expression, Machinimators focused heavily on characterization, making sure that all the dialogues were carefully crafted, had some consistency across episodes, and grew with the number of episodes. Innovative devices of engaging the audience included adding voices to weapons, vehicles and other objects in the gameplay environment. The movement grew with MTV airing a section called “Video Mods”, essentially Machinima music videos for popular songs, and a memorable South Park episode called Make Love not Warcraft which had a huge Machinima section.

Rooster Teeth Production's deadpan humor series Red Vs Blue is the most famous Machinima work so far. The series used the Halo: Combat Evolved engine, to tell the story of two factions stuck in a desolate canyon that no one really cared about, including the Red and Blue factions fighting over it. This Spartan Life is another machinima worth mentioning – for combining machinima techniques with the traditional talk show format. This Spartan Life was hosted in the multiplayer environments of Halo 2, by a character called Damian Lacedaemion, who had a guest in every episode. A unique talk show where the attendees could fire at the host for asking a stupid question, but then the host could point his gun at any attendee too. The recordings were then vidcast, and received considerable acclaim. Another unique approach was by the machinimating clan known as ILL. The ILL clan played out humorous skits in front of a live audience, often interacting with them. A video stream from the server that hosted the gameplay was projected in real time on a large screen, for the viewing pleasure of an attending audience.

Skeptical about how all of this matches up to something that rolls out of major animation studios? Most of the machinima community agrees that there is a lot of ground left to cover. Hardware and gaming engines will have to improve considerably before the current quality standards of animation studios can be matched. However, this does not mean that you haven't seen machinima techniques on the large screen, or broadcast over your television. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dark Knight, Speed Racer and the upcoming 2012 have all used machinima techniques in their production.

In traditional animation techniques, it was difficult to visualize or create a large number of entities together, behaving in different ways, and reacting to the environment around them. When Peter Jackson was filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he wanted some kind of software that could visualize incredibly large armies at once, and make it look realistic with individual characters in the hoards behaving like unique specimens. The breakthrough came with a software known as MASSIVE (Multiple Agent Simulation System In Virtual Environment), which combined artificial intelligence and a virtual environment with programmed physics to animate a large number of thinking entities at once. The engine has since then been used for many television commercials, movies and even some architecture and design applications where simulations of large crowds are necessary – such as stadiums and public transport systems.

Since a majority of machinima is made by small, independent clans, torrents are the best way to get and distribute machinima. A great site to download good quality machinima is www.machinima.com. The Red Vs Blue series is available at redvsblue.com. Rooster Teeth Production's homepage, roosterteeth.com has a lot of their other works, including Strangerhood, a Sims 2 based situational comedy machinima. The Spartan Life is available at www.thisspartanlife.com. The ILL clan's web site www.illclan.com hosts their movies, and hunt around on YouTube for “Video Mods” for the MTV machinima music videos. MASSIVE is available for purchase at www.massivesoftware.com, animation studios should have a look at the MASSIVE Jet version. Archive.org has both a machinima section and speedrun section, that allows you to download the videos.