From AI to sci-fi to dystopian world stories, this week’s selection demonstrates creative tools and processes being used to realize these shorts.
Our first selection this week is a beautifully rendered morphing AI film called The High Seas, made using 60fps/4K by Drew Medina (released 9 Apr 2023) – one of the few we’ve seen so far. Embedding has been disabled, but please do follow the link here.
Constelar is by Oskar Alvardo (score by Lee Daish), released 4 Feb 2023. This has been made using Blender and an interesting approach to storytelling, with an almost 1970s noir feel to it –
The next film is a cinematic tribute to the makers of StarCraft, called Judgment Cinematic by Nakma, released 23 Mar 2023. The music (which we note is uncredited) adds much to the story telling but it also needs some understanding of the StarCraft world to fully appreciate the nuances in the plot which is vaguely Star Wars-ish. Nonetheless, a great effort, especially since it took just three months to make this machinima – there are some great shots and editing is well done –
The dystopian world of Valve’s Half Life, made using Source Filmmaker, has been used in our next two film selections. The first is called Combined and draws on the lore in the game. It is quite violent but does well to ‘humanise’ the characters. The animation looks surprisingly old-style, even if it is only 2021 – a reflection on just how quickly the cinematic aesthetic has changed in such a short period of time. In Perimeter (our feature image for this post), which also portrays the Combine, there is quite a different aesthetic finish to it. What’s interesting about this film is the inspiration it drew from: concept art by Vyacheslav Gluhov. Both these films are great examples of how a game inspires creators to take one aspect, in this case the Combine character in HL, and extend the narrative into new and interesting directions.
This week we share with you a couple of notable RTs (of the UnTwitter kind) and a Dynamo Dream or two. Enjoy!
Who can believe it but Rooster Teeth is now 20 years old. Its come a very long way from its RVB days, not all of it good, but its still rolling. Indeed, RT is now also in the same stable as the final remains of Machinima.com (RIP). Ben Grussi and I dedicated a chapter to the RT story in our book Pioneers in Machinima (2021) and one thing we noted was its resilience to change over the years, so here’s wishing them all the best for the next turn on their roundabout too –
Another long-time favorite on our podcast is the RT Music (formerly RT Machinima) team. This month, I’d like to share their Elden Ring Rap with you (released 12 Mar 2022). Its definitely worth watching the video, not only are these guys great at writing some toe-tappers but they also do a pretty good job of showing off their machinima skills too –
Finally this week, Ian Hubert has released two episodes of his Dynamo Dream live action/VFX series (our feature image for this post). We covered the first episode of this stunning series on the podcast back in August 2021 (audio only) but what’s quite incredible about the release of Eps 2 and 3 in such quick succession is frankly the speed at which he’s been able to release them… and of course they’re very good if ever so slightly absurdist.
A Single Point in Space – Dynamo Dream, Ep 2 (released 23 Mar 2023) –
A Pete Episode – Dynamo Dream, Ep 3 (released 6 Apr 2023) –
Next week, we have some more selections to share with you too but if you find something you’d like us to do a full review of on the podcast, do share it.
This week, our review is a roundup of new releases, some tools and tuts that add realism to productions and some interesting new tools announced for moviemakers everywhere, irrespective of creative engine preference.
Blender has released version 3.5, with an astonishing hair toolset. See the overview here –
UE5 editor for Fortnite has been released – UEFN is a PC application for designing, developing, and publishing games and experiences directly into Fortnite. You can see the release launch at GDC here –
Reallusion has released an astonishing range of 3D motions and characters for Actorcore, called Run For Your Life. Its not cheap but then again it may well be the only action set you ever need. Here’s a a demo reel –
Facegood’s Avatary (made in China) has released a desktop facial mocap system with some basic functionality for free. Here’s a nice little overview of what this version of it can do –
The quality of modelling continues to astound – I’m still blown away by Unreal’s Substrate materials system, although you need an epic system to render no doubt –
However, there are a few other releases that we’ll share with you this month too. Firstly, the UE Crashes course – not just any ole course, of course, but one where you can see how to animate ‘epic’ car crashes in UE5 (is that too many puns… sure it is) –
Secondly, Taichi Kobayashi has developed a stunning Cliffwood Village – a large-scale and beautifully detailed 3D model for UE5 –
Finally, William Faucher’s use of Reality Captures’ tech to create an arctic environment for UE5 is also something stunning to see. Check out his overview of the creative process here –
An interesting development is the release of what’s being badged as The Movies mark II, called Blockbuster Inc in which “You will take total control of your very own movie studio. You will be able to construct all the facilities, hire and manage all sorts of employees and stars with the aim to produce the most prolific films and TV” (Super Sly Fox, developer). Its not yet been released, but you can find the holding page on Steam here.
Big news of the month is that Moviestorm‘s long awaited previsualisation software, FirstStage (although they need a new intro vid on their YouTube channel asap), is finally out of beta with ver 32 (our cover image for this post) –
This will surely be a useful tool for all those major creative projects, whatever the final engine used may be including film, TV and video as well as 3D environment engine-based, and it is very reasonably priced at $10/month per user (non-commercial). For those with short memories, Moviestorm (its creator channel is here fyi) launched originally in 2007 at the First European Machinima Festival as I recall and became a platform that many used to create content long before the likes of Reallusion’s iClone and Source Filmmaker got a wider foothold. One of my all-time favourites made in Moviestorm was IceAxe’s (aka Iain Friar) Clockwork (2008), a retelling of that classic tale by Anthony Burgess –
What will be interesting, however, is how it will compete with the in-engine toolsets being developed along similar lines, for example, Matt Workman’s UE Cine Tracer which delivers a similar experience. Of course, there are also individual tools, such as this camera crane by Cinematography Database for UE5 –
I was privileged to have been invited to Oberhausen International Short Film Festival (Germany, 26 April to 1 May) by Dr Lars Henrik Gass, Festival Director, Katharina Schroder, Theme Coordinator and the programme curators, Dmitry Frolov and Vladimir Nadein for the first programme of avant-garde and experimental machinima films at a major European film festival to take place. I was also delighted to see machinima work, created by Alice Bucknell, featured on the programme magazine’s front cover too! I was there, primarily, to participate in a panel discussion with Gemma Fantacci, one of the organisers of the Milan Machinima Film Festival, and two artist-curators from the US and Hong Kong respectively, Alice Bucknell and Ip Yuk-Yiu.
The programme, entitled Against Gravity, was themed to loosely represent a video-game/machinima creative experience, from Starting the Game, Holding the Controller, Crack the Code, Don’t Forget to Save, Opening the Map, Unlock the Real, Cosplay As…, and a retrospective of Phil Solomon’s work, called Interplay, a filmmaker whose turn to machinima in later life was the inspiration for the festival theme. As one might expect, the organizers dive into each sub-theme to tease out their narrative through a selection of works across a span of 27 years of machinima practice. Unfortunately, I didn’t arrive in time to see all the selections, but the ones I did see were very interesting.
Image: Programme Cover (link to Festival programme here)
Many of the films were ones I had not previously seen – experimental films tend to be distributed in a different way to traditional machinima, using mostly artistic channels, and so often make their way directly to independent film theatres and galleries as a consequence. This of course diverges from the traditional approach to machinima-making of community-shared content, through which debate and practices are openly discussed. What was interesting with the presentation was the mix of older work with more recent pieces, effectively positioning machinima in a narrative of avant-garde practice and demonstrating experimental applications by artists/filmmakers for an audience that clearly had interest in the work if little experience of machinima or games specifically. I got the distinct sense of the emergence of a new generation of machinima fans – both creators and audience – and also the sense there is demand for a new way to experience machinima on larger screens from this audience, especially with technological advancements that make quality of content higher resolution and approaches employed by artists accessible in the experimental tradition of film viewership.
It was also interesting that the foundation of machinima was considered relevant to the presentation of avant-garde works both because its origins lie within 3D real-time games engines and also because the use of game as a creative matrix for storytelling beyond gameplay conveys subversion, virtuality and transcendence – all themes that resonate well with the experimental arts movement. Drawing on Solomon, however, the rationale for including machinima was the transformation from analogue forms of film to digital, with all the nuances that brings – relating to the breadth of creative practices, methods of transferring work for exhibition, storage and also presentation to audiences. What was interesting in this is that many at the festival seem to have little conception of either the term machinima, the game communities from which it emanates or its impacts on popular online culture. Filmmakers selected appear to have forged their own practices, sometimes as multimedia artists, using games as found tools and environments. Some were clearly also a little reticent about being associated with its background and origins, the taint of the M.com years, and probably alongside that the many issues the community has collectively faced in relation to the recognition of originality, ownership and authorship of works created.
Of the themed selections I saw, in Open the Map, the idea that games whet the appetite for utopian experiences was demonstrated through the selection of two films. The first was a documentary about a group of queer teenagers living through the challenges of Covid by escaping into Minecraft to connect with each other in a virtual safe space they made their own. The film, Tracing Utopia (2021), was directed by Nick Tyson and Catarina de Sousa, and was based on their observations of working with the teenagers over an extended period of time. It highlighted well the essence of community and collaboration, something that has always been the heart of machinima. The second was Alice Bucknell’s three-channel installation converted for the festival to a single channel, called The Martian Word for World is Mother (2022). This film was made in Unreal Engine and showed three different visualisations of Mars (the Green, the Blue and the Red), each being a post-human perspective on the future colonisation of the planet, drawing inspiration from popular sci-fi tropes on the interplay between ecological, economic and political ideologies. These include Elon Musk (terraforming), Donna Harraway (Cyborg Manifesto), Ursula K Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2009 Mars trilogy, among others. It is Bucknell’s Blue Mars that is shown on the front cover on the Oberhausen Film Festival programme, illustrating how multinational organizations convert permafrost into water for sale back to Earth – something she presents as a speculative near future. Not exactly a vision of utopia per se but her Green Mars was an interesting approach to reflecting on how the technologies used to exploit Mars in her Red and Blue versions may help Mars bring back to life its former natural habitat for its own end. She includes a mystical (textual and aural) language that was created using Scottish Gaelic, Helene Smith’s invented Martian language and sounds of Arctic wind, created using a text-to-speech AI and the assistance of OpenAI’s GPT-3. A fascinating creative process and captivating to watch and listen to.
image: Tracing Utopia
In Unlock the Real, older films were used to position machinima through documentaries, for example Harun Farocki’s Parallel I (2014) showed how games have advanced in their representation of assets such as trees, clouds, water and fire from the earliest machine dashes in the 1980s, to squares of the early 1990s, to more modern mesh representations such as in GTA in the 2000s. That reflective process of course, with recent developments in the representation of fluid, skin and movement dynamics integrated now into so many tools that creators use, whilst incomplete in Farocki’s work perfectly illustrated how games have focussed on advancing realism. This was then followed by works that demonstrated aspects of even greater realism, from shape and form, to speed of movement (Benoit Paillé’s Hyper Timelapse GTAV, see below), to representation of human experiences and the interplay between virtual and real, and even the way that in-game corruptions of brands really don’t hide what they represent any more (Jacky Connolly’s Decent into Hell, 2021). Indeed, Connolly’s clever interweaving of photographs and real film into the GTAV landscape was quite a trippy experience. It is not often one sees that trajectory so clearly but Vladimir and Dmitry’s curation made it easy for less experienced machinima followers to make the connections between virtual game worlds, film and real-life experiences.
Benoit Paillé’s HYPER TIMELAPSE GTAV (CROSSROAD OF REALITIES) (available on Les Nuits Photo Festival Vimeo channel, released 30 Nov 2015) –
The Phil Solomon retrospective, themed Interplay, was equally fascinating, with introductory comments by Ip Yuk-Yiu and Lynne Sachs who both knew him personally. Solomon was a key influencer in the US avant-garde film scene, and one of his early works had previously won an award at the Oberhausen Film Festival (Remains to be Seen, 1990 – a clip of which you can see on this Vimeo channel). Vladimir and Dmitry selected two of his early photochemical 16mm films: The Secret Garden (1988) and Twilight Psalm II: ‘Walking Distance’ (1999). These had a mesmerising depth to them apparently achieved by applying an emulsion to each frame and then transferring it using an optical reader. They were juxtaposed with the subsequent selection of Solomon’s tribute following the passing of his lifelong friend, Mark LaPore, in a trilogy of machinima films made using GTA (San Andreas). The trilogy was called In Memoriam: Rehearsals for Retirement (2007), Last Days in a Lonely Place (2007) and Still Raining, Still Dreaming (2008). Interestingly, Yuk-Yiu commented that he never fully appreciated Solomon’s machinima work when it was released. This was primarily because he could not see a connection to his previous work yet the interplay was evidently between chemistry and code (analogue and digital) techniques as well as presence/absence represented by the virtual world. However, the rather melancholic scenes in the machinimas, which seemed to somehow represent Solomon’s search for his friend through the glitches in the game world, may also have been connected through another film that Solomon made with LaPore in GTA, released just a few days before he died, called Crossroad (2005).
image: Vladimir Nadein and Dmitry Frolov introduce Interplay with Lynne Sachs (right) and Ip Yuk-Yiu (left)
I really enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the panel discussion as well as the various follow-up chats with others visiting the event. On the panel, each of us had very different experiences and perspectives of machinima, and we were asked some great questions about how we came to machinima, how we see it evolving and what its future will be. A question that emerged was at what point is the term machinima no longer relevant. From an avant-garde perspective, some questioned whether machinima’s history got in the way of framing their work. Well, of course, many of us long-timers have had those discussions over the years but it was interesting to hear others discuss this too. I really liked how the critical reflection suggested that it is its adaptability in reflecting latest technological and game advancements as ‘machine cinema’ that keep it apart from other creative practices – an observation I like to think the pioneering Hugh Hancock would have been supportive of.
Machinima is also clearly a good fit with the avant-garde scene, which of course is well reflected in Matteo Bittanti et al’s VRAL Patreon project, where you can find monthly film selections and interviews with creators. Matteo is also one of the founders of the Milan Machinima Film Festival, along with Gemma Fantacci, a student of game-related counter-culture, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person for the first time in Oberhausen (although earlier this year we also chatted for the Digra Italia talks series). Indeed, a number of the directors included in the machinima theme at Oberhausen were ones the Milan team have featured, as indeed have we on the CM podcast.
Another interesting audience question was also about the nature of 3D and its continual re-emergence in film, and how it differs in games. It was clear that with a primarily film-based audience, some struggled to appreciate the nature of 3D and realtime concepts that are so well understood in game worlds. Of course, anything rendered for a 2D screen immediately makes it difficult to imagine depth dimensions, or indeed the methods used to capture and edit scenes, for example using mod tools within 3D environments. Part of the reason is the different uses of the term 3D: in-game experiences are a 2D illusion of a 3D representation rendered through a screen. 3D films in contrast are a fixed view perspective generated by overlaying stereoscopic views. I’m sure they exist but, thinking about this, I don’t recall ever having seen a 3D stereoscopic machinima. Nonetheless, the nature of machinima remains a challenging aspect to communicate and convey – as indeed do the differences in the experience one has when viewing the work in a publicly shared environment such as a cinema, gallery or arcade compared to desk-based screens, handheld or even hyper-personal VR screens. For example, most machinimas we review on the CM podcast have never been intended for consumption on the ‘big’ screen and it certainly isn’t made using large format screens. This is something I recall thinking about at great length for the 2007 European Machinima Festival as well as the various showcases of works I’ve made over the intervening years, not least because detail is emphasized in ways that is never really experienced in a 3D game environment. And even though many avant-garde works are intended for larger format screens, this aspect does not seem to be a particular focus of directors. Thus, the 3D/2D transformation highlights another important yet completely unexplored and unappreciated aspect of machinima as avant-garde or experimental film, perhaps related to the closed distribution methods and consumption experience design strategies used as previously highlighted.
In sum, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival was a fascinating in-depth review of different avant-garde perspectives on machinima. It was a real pleasure to have time to talk to some of the participants in the programme who made the journey from across the world to attend. I was especially thrilled to see the baton for the development of a new appreciative community being picked up by Dmitry and Vladimir – the huge effort they had made in devising the programme, engaging with creators and connecting the dots across the generations of machinima and filmmaking traditions was outstanding, and evidenced in most of the theme sessions selling out. I was really pleased to hear they are potentially going to be doing more of this in future and I’m certainly looking forward to catching up with them soon to hear their reflections and future plans too.
And finally, something I haven’t experienced since I was a teenager was the beautiful plush setting of the cinema in which the programme took place, complete with red velvet curtains and projectors (when required) at the Lichtburg (meaning ‘fortress of light’) Filmpalast Gloria auditorium (see above). Oberhausen is the oldest German short film festival, founded in 1954, and one of the most significant for the development of production conditions in Germany. In 1962, the Oberhausen Manifesto declaration by 26 filmmakers at the eighth festival is attributed with having created the basis for the success of New German Cinema worldwide. I therefore thoroughly recommend finding the time to visit and support a future festival.
Summary of Themes and Films
A listing of the films shown for each theme is as follows –
Start the Game
Everyday Daylight by Total Refusal (Austria), performed live with GTAV
Vladimir Nadein (b. 1993, Moscow) is a curator, artist and film producer based in Taipei, Taiwan. His works were presented at the solo exhibition Deep Play, VT Artsalon and Greater Taipei Biennale. He produced an award-winning film Detours, supported by Hubert Bals Fund, received the Eurimages Lab Project Award at Les Arcs Film Festival and was shown at Venice Critics’ Week, Viennale, Thessaloniki IFF, Berlin Critics’ Week, FICUNAM, Jeonju IFF, IndieLisboa, Beldocs, FILMADRID, Camden IFF, TFAI, Barbican Centre among others. In 2016, Nadein co-founded the Moscow International Experimental Film Festival and directed it for five editions. He curated special programmes and screenings for the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, Hamburg Short Film Festival, Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, Garage Museum, University of California, Los Angeles and other venues. Nadein tutored at the Moscow School of New Cinema and is a member of the filmmaking duo together with Dina Karaman.
Dmitry Frolov (b. 1988, Kaliningrad) is an art and film curator and researcher based in Izmir, Turkey. He holds a BA in Сultural Studies from the Russian State University for the Humanities and an MA in Film Programming and Curating from Birkbeck, University of London. He has curated a variety of screenings, panels, performances and exhibitions dedicated to such artists as Maya Deren, Chris Marker, Tony Conrad, Vladimir Kobrin, Yoko Ono, Michael Snow, Annabel Nicholson, James Benning, Alain Cavalier, Aura Satz, Cao Fei, Ana Vaz, Cyprien Gaillard, etc. His texts have been published in Iskusstvo Kino, Spectate, Colta.ru, Syg.ma and other media. Since 2017, he has been working as a curator at the Moscow International Experimental Film Festival (MIEFF). Currently, he is also working as a film curator at Pushkin House, London.
This week, we highlight three excellent Unreal storytelling projects, and some other interesting storymaking development projects we think you’ll find just as intriguing.
Brave Creatures, released on 2 March, is one of the most inventive and magical stories made using Unreal Engine we’ve seen and it’s not been set on an alien planet full of freakish monsters and travellers in space suits. The creative team, Studio Pallanza (none other than Academy award-winning VFX artist, Adam Valdez) was awarded a Mega Grant to bring this project to life, and it has done a truly outstanding job of it. It will surely be the basis of a new children’s series? Here’s the link –
and if you want to hear Adam discuss the work, check out Jae Salina’s interview with him here –
Promise with Dr. (English version), released on 17 Feb by TT Studio, is another magical story, albeit with a completely different aesthetic. Great editing and storytelling, do check this out too –
Miika is an award-winning film by Ugandan director, Nsiimenta Shevon, released on 27 Feb. This is powerful and disturbing, as only tales of African conflict can be. Beautifully animated by Solomon Jagwe, here’s the link –
Storymaking in Other Ways
This is not a film or an animation, but a fascinating insight into the storymaking possibilities of interactive chatbots and animated robots. In this ‘show and tell’ presentation at SXSW 2023 by Disney Parks’ chair of Experiences and Products Josh D’Amaro, Tinker Bell (Peter Pan’s sidekick) is shown as an animated chatbot in a box and a roller-skating child-like robot is emoted using mocap. These are Disney’s ‘greeters’ of the future, embedded with storytelling capabilities through the design process. What is particularly interesting is that, at least for me, the usual uncanny valley effect had somehow disappeared – what do you think?
In our next selection, MidJourney has been used to conflate two very different yet seemingly complementary storyworlds into a series of bizarre images, one being Star Wars and the other being the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. This work, called Star Wars by MidJourney, by AI Visionary Art, was published on 18 Feb and somehow converts the grotesque and nonsensical creatures into a familiar canon (for some, Damien) –
And finally this week, we share an overview of an InWorld AI driven adventure game called Origins (our feature image for this post), animated using Unreal’s Metahuman characters and presented in the style of a film noir (or rather, a neo-noir). This is vaguely reminiscent of some of those very early games that inspired a lot of machinima creators back in the earliest days, Max Payne for those with long memories. InWorld AI has described its approach as the future of NPCs, but its also their DNA too. The chatbot and naturalistic style interface is a really interesting development for storymaking and storytelling and we’re definitely looking forward to seeing what creators do with this kind of creative platform in future. Check this out –
That’s it for this post, thanks for reading and do share with us anything you spot that you think we should be reviewing on the podcast.