Machinimators ‘too busy to date’

Have you seen the episode of The Office where Dwight Shrute gets a Second Life? It’s exactly the same as his first life – except that he can fly!

And did you catch that episode of CSI: New York where Mac Taylor has to go inside Second Life to catch a murderer?

Or maybe you saw the recently-released “I’m Too Busy To Date Your Avatar!” by Veronica Borrer – also known in Second Life as Pooky Amsterdam, CEO of the PookyMedia production company.

Or maybe you watched a corporate training video – filmed inside a virtual world.

These are all examples of machinima – a style of film making that uses game avatars instead of real-life actors to play roles. Social worlds like Second Life are good places to film machinima because avatar actions are not limited to the limited set of options available in most video games. In fact, film makers can create custom animations, and even have speaking parts for the avatars – where the speech is automatically linked to lip movements. And of course, sets can be designed completely from scratch – and can even be based on photographs of real-world environments.

OpenSim-based worlds are also become a common filming location, because of the low cost of creating sets and making backups, but currently lack the lip-synching feature of Second Life.

“I looked at the OpenSim grid and I realized that we could get a lot of room to work in,” said Mike Joyce, founder of Pineapple Pictures. Joyce says he gets four regions to work in for about $50 a month – a fraction of what he would pay in Second Life, with no additional fees for uploading textures.

Platforms like Second Life and OpenSim allow for very fast, very cheap creation of animated videos. However, the graphics still leave something to be desired and, so far, there have been no break-out hits in the genre.

But machinimators are making money nonetheless, finding a profitable niche in the area of corporate videos, where speed and price are critical factors.

Pooky Amsterdam, for example, hosts a regular machinima show, “The 1st Question,” which is distributed on treet.tv, which is a weekly live science program which takes place in front of a live studio audience – well, a live avatar audience.

Amsterdam – who now goes by her Second Life name professionally as a result of the success she’s seen with her machinima work – also does corporate videos.

For example, a recent video showed conference attendees how to get around the Las Vegas airport, check in at their hotel, and register at the conference.

“We created all the builds,” she said. They included the airport and the Wynn Hotel sets. With live actors, the video would have cost at least $25,000 to make, she said. With traditional computer animation, it would have cost even more, she added. By comparison, shooting in Second Life the cost was just $5,000.

“We can duplicate any product in three dimensions and show it from any angle,” she said. “You can spend time with the brand and develop a community around the brand on so many different levels.”

She’s keeping an eye on developments in OpenSim, she added, but currently Second Life offers a greater selection of products.

“If I’m working with avatars who need a certain set of clothes, it’s easier to get it on the main grid,” she said. “I need a blue blazer, and I need it now. I need someone to have a corporate hairstyle, and I need it now.”

But when a set is built from scratch, she added, like the Las Vegas airport, then it wouldn’t be a challenge to do it in OpenSim, she added.

Another advantage to working in Second Life is that talent can be available for very low cost. Some companies, with experienced producers and directors and brand-name voice talent, charge top dollar.

Others take advantage of the fact that machinima is a new and exciting medium.

“Second Life is fun,” said Amsterdam. “People want to be there. And because they want to be there, they do really great work, and really altruistic work. And they don’t mind putting in the time.”

PookyMedia company charges a “fair price” for projects, Amsterdam said.

“We are among the best machinimators that are out there,” she said. “And we have prices that reflect the quality of our work.”

But the best known of the Second Life machinimators is Ill Clan Animation Studios, reponsible for the CSI animation, and other high-profile projects for companies like IBM, MTV, and Spike TV.

“At Ill Clan, we’ve been making machinima since 1997, when Quake came out,” said Frank Dellario, the firm’s director of production.

The advantage of using machinima is that a lot of the animation work is done by the platform’s physics engine, he said. In a traditional animation, to film a book falling requires creating every still image individually from the moment the book starts to tip over to when it hits the ground. With machinimation, the book falls inside the virtual world, and all the machinimator has to do is film it as it falls.

The film maker might have to film several takes until the books fall just the right way, said Dellario, but it is still much less time intensive than stop-motion animation, traditional drawn animation, or even computer generated effects.

“With CGI, you can watch the frames generated square by square – it slowly fills it, frame by frame by frame,” he said.

In many respects, machinima is very much like traditional life action film making, he said. There are multiple takes and each scene requires actors to play the roles of the avatars.

But there is one new job on a machinima film set that you won’t find in real life – the animator.

Currently, Second Life doesn’t allow actors to fully control their avatars by moving their bodies. They can’t wave hello, for example, by waving their actual hands and having that duplicated in world. Instead, they have to trigger an animation script that causes the avatar to wave their hands.

If the director needs that waving motion to be slightly different, having an on-site animator to tweak the script makes the filming go faster.

Actors are paid $10 per hour, he said, and are required to come to the set with a variety of bodies and clothes in their inventory.

“And they know to be patient,” he added.

Since anybody can change their appearance at will, there aren’t really brand-name actors as such in this field, he said. But a good animator is critical to the production.

Technology is evolving quickly, however, and soon actors will be able to control their avatars completely, Dellario said – at that point, the value of the actor will increase correspondingly.

Like Amsterdam, Dellario finds that being in Second Life offers a variety of pre-made material with which to work.

When filming live movies, directors can go outside and shoot in the city streets, or inside people’s houses. Some sets – like for science fiction movies – do have to be built from scratch.

But inside Second Life, film makers can find not only city streets but futuristic landscapes.

“The beauty of a virtual world is there’s tons of environments and locations already made,” he said. “We get permission, pay a location fee to the sim or region owner and shoot there.”

If he needs a space ship, they’re for sale in Second Life, he said. “It’s easy to build things in Second Life – though not easy to make it look good.”

Second Life is particularly well suited to training videos that might be too dangerous to film in real life, he said. “For example, fire training safety for fire fighters. How do you make a training video where you show a building burning? But we can do the whole thing, we can make the house burn and have people running around.”

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maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.