In this post, we share our thoughts on some of the key trends we’ve seen over the last 12 months in the world of machinima and virtual production. It’s been quite a ride this year, and what’s been fascinating to witness is how we are each trying to keep up with all the things going on. For example, two years ago when we started the Completely Machinima podcast, we weren’t really sure that machinima was still a thing… but, as Ricky says so eloquently: “Machinima is alive and well. Two years ago, when I was asked to be part of this podcast, I said, No machinima is dead. And I am very happy to be proven profoundly wrong.” Yup! So here are this year’s TOP observations.
Indie vs Pro
Machinima has been on the cusp of mainstream filmmaking for 25 years. In Tracy & Ben’s Pioneers in Machinima book, there are frequent mentions of big budget Hollywood productions having dabbled with real-time techniques for primarily previz. But not exclusively, as Tracy discovered in her interview in February with John Gaeta (aka Dalt Wisney), founder of ILMxLAB and best known as the creator of The Matrix bullet-time shot. Of course, The Mando stood out as a marker in the sand in the adoption of virtual production and real-time techniques and, ever since COVID, its evolving practices have come to the fore, time and again.
Beyond the large-scale use of virtual production with LED walls and stages, this year we’ve noticed more professionals are playing with the real-time, 3D virtual production processes at the desk. These are individuals wanting to explore a concept, tell a story that perhaps they wouldn’t otherwise be able to or, as studios, explore the technologies as part of their pipeline. Many of these folks work in the film industry already in areas such as special effects, post production or some other role. Some great examples we’ve reviewed on the podcast are –
Prazinburk Ridge by Martin Bell (S2 E45, Sept 2022)
The Eye: Calanthek by Aaron Sims (S3 E48, Oct 2022)
And whilst pros have been dabbling with the ‘new’ toolsets, the indies have stolen a march on them and are producing some truly astonishing high-quality work. It doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, but certainly these are leading the way and some are now breaking into industry too. We review a selection every month, but a few we’ll draw attention to are –
Heroes of Bronze ‘Journeys’ Teaser by Martin Klekner (S2 E35 Apr 2022)
MOVING OUT || Somewhere In Space || A No Man’s Sky Cinematic Series by Geeks Actively Making Entertainment (S2 E39 June 2022)
Tiny Elden Ring | Tilt Shift by Flurdeh (S2 E43 Aug 2022)
It’s been fascinating to watch the beginnings of convergence of the pro and indie worlds and we’re excited to see more new projects emerge in 2023, as well as more indies getting the recognition they deserve with at least some chance of generating an income from their creative endeavour. Needless to say, as mainstream catches up, the indies are going to be much in demand although let’s hope that doesn’t then result in the devastation of creative ideas as it did in 2008-9 when many of the original machinima folks were absorbed by games developers (notably to work on EA’s Mass Effect).
In part, the opportunities for indies mentioned are because Epic Games, Unreal Engine’s creator, has had the foresight to devise a generous freemium model. It is free to use for projects netting below $1M, thereafter taking 5% profit. It has a vast marketplace of assets that can be used at low or no cost in productions. In turn, this enables creators to circumvent one of the most wicked problems faced when making game-based machinima: how best to deal with game-related intellectual property rights. Very few machinima, real-time virtual production short projects we’ve seen are ever going to come close to $1M. Most don’t even crack $100. And that is despite many games developers having in the past directly benefitted from the increased visibility of fan created content and the ideas included in them… but that’s not a discussion point for now. It is the freemium model for UE that will massively grow the skillset of creatives which, in turn, will enable all sorts of applications to emerge as real-time and virtual production proliferates across industries. This is a win-win for creatives and techs alike.
Alongside this, a number of other engines which have traditionally been used for machinima, real-time and virtual production, have made it progressively more difficult and convoluted to create new works for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, quite simply the finished product just does not look so good in comparison to UE. For example, we were disappointed to hear that despite the potentially comparable quality in Warhammer 40K, Erasmus Brosdau’s The Lord Inquisitor never received the publisher’s backing even though many of those involved were associated with the game (we reviewed this in S2 E45 Sept 2022 but the film dated back to 2016). Rockstar hasn’t supported the release of an editor for Red Dead Redemption 2. GTAV and Blizzard’s World of Warcraft are showing their age and despite a few leaks nothing concrete about updates has emerged. Roberts Space Industries (Star Citizen) appears to have shot itself in the foot in its attempt to protect actor assets (eg., Gary Oldman, Mark Hamill, Mark Strong, Gillian Anderson, Andy Serkis and others) in its upcoming Squadron 42. The latter in particular is such a pity because we were very much looking forward to seeing episode 2 of Adrift by Barely Not Monkeys, a highlight of our annual review last year.
Of course, the trade-off in using UE is that creating projects isn’t anywhere near as speedily done as purely game-based machinima used to be, which could be captured on any game playing computer with a few tools or mods such as video capture and editor. During the year, we’ve seen the release of UE5 and 5.1, each a step change on its predecessor. Access is a challenge because the phenomenal compute power that’s needed to run all the different tools to create real-time 3D virtual sets and characters, render films, etc., is growing exponentially. Nonetheless, Epic has given the process impetus. It has put a lot of effort into making the UE toolset easy to use, relative to other platforms such as Unity and iClone. This, coupled with the huge number of tutorials created by a vast and growing community of users, alongside investment in short courses and guides most of which are free, has positioned it as a medium of choice. As Kim Libreri, Chief Technology Officer at Epic since 2014, is quoted as saying in the Pioneers in Machinima book: “The main challenge is how to tell a great story. Now that the tools aren’t a barrier, it is about understanding human comprehension, understanding the light-depth field, writing, and placing things so that people can understand the story you are trying to tell.”
At the end of last year, we felt that Nvidia’s Omniverse would become the driving platform and were waiting with baited breath for the release of updates to its Machinima toolset, especially following Ricky’s interview with Dane Johnston. So far, we have been disappointed. One challenge with the Nvidia toolset is the lock-in to their hardware which is required to run Omniverse. With the squeeze on chip access and high price of kit, along with its astonishingly rapid advancements in all things AI and consequential new spec releases, it has probably lost ground in the creator filmmaking world – who can afford to replace their kit every 6 months? We are, however, very interested to see Nividia’s cloud-based subscription model emerging which is surely going to help by improving access to high compute tools at least for as long as folks can afford the sub. Omniverse has amazing potential but all these challenges have resulted in us seeing only one notable film made entirely using the toolset to date, compared to UE5 in which we are seeing many more –
Most Precious Gift by Shangyu Wang (S3 E49 Oct 2022)
Unreal along with other amazing toolsets, platforms and hardware developers such as Reallusion, Blender, Nvidia, Autodesk and numerous others, has invested in Universal Scene Description. This is an open-source format originally developed by Pixar that allows for the interchange of assets between toolsets. USD is a game-changer and through its wide adoption, indies and pros alike can align and build their preferred pipelines which allows them to integrate content using a range of methods according to the skills they have in capture techniques such as photogrammetry, 360, mocap, etc. The tools and platforms, collectively, are touted as being the foundation of future metaverse applications but hitherto it has been UE that has been the backbone of this year’s most exciting creative works, often integrating mocap with Reallusion’s Character Creator. Examples are –
Metaverse Music Video by JSFilmz (S3 E52 Nov 2022)
Blu x @Teflon Sega meta-saga!! Ep4 by Xanadu (S2 E37 May 2022)
And check out also the range of other types of projects reviewed in our October blog post, such as SnoopDogg’s web3 Crip Ya Enthusiasm, Rick Pearce’s 2D/3D Roborovski and The Walker by AFK – The Webseries
We’ve witnessed the mass adoption of mocap for developing body and facial animation using all sorts of different mocap suits including markerless. The ability to integrate content easily into the virtual production pipeline has resulted in a plethora of works that attempt to illustrate more realistic movement. This has enabled creators to customize assets by adding detail to characters which results in greater depth to the process of characterization, building more empathy and better storytelling capability. As technologies have advanced from body to hand, face, mouth and eyes over the year, creators have become less reliant on traditional approaches to storytelling, such as narration and voice acting, and instead used more nuanced human-like behaviour that can be interpreted only subliminally. Examples are –
ALONE by Playard Studios (S3 E54 Nov 2022)
The Cloud Racer by Impossible Objects (S2 E45 Sept 2022)
Of course, capture alone would be pointless without high quality models (bones and rigs) to which the movement can be mapped. UE’s Metahumans and Reallusion’s Character Creator have therefore rapidly become key tools in this part of the pipeline. Both provide a high bar output at even the most basic level of mapping and advanced users are leaving contrails in their wake. Check out the mouth movement detail in this –
The Talky Orcs by AFK – The Webseries (S3 E58 Dec 2022)
Challenges vs Festivals
In the tradition of the filmmaking and animation industries, there are many festivals that provide opportunities for creators to showcase their best work, get feedback from reviewers and have a chance to connect and reflect, through which new collaborations may be formed. There are actually very few festivals that celebrate machinima and virtual production these days. This year, however, we’ve noticed a growing number of contests through which creators are able to test and showcase aspects of their skillsets, most of which are incentivised by prizes of latest kit and some of which may lead to new opportunities, such as John MacInnes’ Mood Scenes challenge. What’s particularly interesting is that last year Tracy said, “We need more contests to promote the new toolsets” whereas this year, she says “We need a different type of promotion than contests”!
Two things occur on this. Firstly, is it the case that more virtual production content is finally being accepted into animation festivals? This is something that we’ve often lamented in the past, where machinima was always seen as the poor relation even though the creativity demonstrated has been innovative. In part, this attitude is what led the community to form its own festival series – the Machinima Film Festival, created by the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, ran between 2002 and 2008; ran with an EU version in the European Machinima Film Festival in 2007; and was then taken over by the Machinima Expo and ran until 2014, including a virtual event held in Second Life. This was hugely popular among the community of creators because it attracted a breadth of talent using a multitude of different toolsets. So, we have been thrilled this year to see Damien’s Star Wars series Heir to the Empire being recognized in a host of festivals that have accepted the work he creates in iClone. Ditto Martin Bell’s Prazinburk Ridge made in UE and various others. Examples are, however, few so far – or maybe we are witnessing a change in the way works are distributed too!
Secondly, is it the case that contests and challenges are an excellent way for tech developers to promote their wares and their uses? This is very evidently the case. This year we have seen contests run in order to generate interest purely in a toolset. We have seen other contests run by creator channels whose goal appears to be simply to drive up their numbers of followers, and these use the same tech dev toolsets as incentives for participation. The outputs we have seen have generally been creatively poor albeit well marketed. Without greater emphasis on well-run independent festivals with prizes for creativity, this is unlikely to change – and that’s a pity, because it doesn’t result in development of good skills but simply drives the creation of content. It is very much a model we saw when Machinima.com incentivized content creation with is partner programme, where eyes equalled a share of the ad revenue. We will be dismayed if this continues. As the year has progressed, however, we have observed a growing range of films being promoted as creative works including through Reallusion’s Pitch and Produce programme –
The Remnants by Stan Petruk (S3 E53 Nov 2022)
We are also mindful that many mainstream festivals will only take content if it hasn’t previously been released to online channels… and that’s fine too but festivals need then to take some greater responsibility for supporting particularly indie creatives to promote their work.
Tutorials vs Creativity
The trends we observed in contests and festivals gives us hope that the tide is beginning to turn away from the hundreds and thousands of tutorials we have seen released over the year, covering every minute aspect of any toolset ever developed. There have been so many that Phil led a discussion on the process of taking online tutorials in this episode –
How I learned Unity without following Tutorials by Mark Brown (S3 E47 Oct 2022)
Of course, many tutorials are well produced and immeasurably useful, to a point. They clearly get thousands of views and, one assumes, help hundreds of followers out of holes in their pipeline. But what is the point unless it results in new creative works? And where are those creative works being shown? We just don’t know!
Part of the problem is the way in which the dominant platforms share content using algorithms that favor numbers of views to serve the most popular work. This mechanism is never going to inspire anyone to create new work – it results in tedious trawls through mountains of trash and consequentially very low engagement levels. The only good thing about it is that the golden nuggets we find are treasured and our podcast is a trove for anyone interested in how machinima and virtual production techniques are evolving. We implore the tech devs to do more to promote creative practice beyond the endless pursuit of the next best tutorial – and we also ask someone, anyone, to figure out a way that folks can find it easily. We explored some potential distribution options in our Nov 2022 blog but this is something we will no doubt revisit in our review of 2023.
This year has witnessed the rise of the AI generator and its use in devising everything from text, image, spoken word, emotion, music, movement and interaction. The speed of advancements being made is truly awe-inspiring. We followed the developments over the course of the year and by October decided we needed to give emerging projects some space in the podcast too. One notable example that stood out for us was The Crow by Glenn Marshall Neural Art (reviewed in our Oct 2022 Projects Update blog post). We then posted a more detailed report, with observations about the implications for machinima and virtual production creators later in the month (Report: Creative AI Generators, Oct 2022) and a follow up in December which highlights three very different ways in which AI generators can be used to animate content. All this has come about in less than 6 months!
Within games, we have witnessed the various roles of AI over many years, particularly in animating non-player characters and generating environments that have formed a good portion of content used in machinima and virtual productions. The current raft of tools present a potentially whole new way of realizing creative works, without the learning curve of understanding the principles of storytelling, filmmaking, animation and acting needed for use in UE and others. This could be liberating, leading to innovative creations, but at this juncture we are concerned that the mountain of work we’ve seen develop will simply be absorbed without due recognition to concept originators. There are some attempts being made to address this, as we discuss in our Dec 2022 AI Generator Tech Update, but authentic creative works where game-based content has been used is clearly not yet on the agenda. This is our one to watch in 2023.
Over to you!
We’d love to hear your thoughts on our year in review, maybe you have other highlights you’d like to share. If so, do please get in touch or post a comment below.
In the meantime, our thanks to you our readers, listeners and watchers for being part of the Completely Machinima podcast this year. Happy Christmas – and is it too early for Happy New Year?!