June 29, 2007

Machinima : Making Movies in the Virtual World

[ a more refined version of my earlier post on the same topic ]

Movies created without a camera or human actors is nothing new. From animated cartoons by Walt Disney to dinosaurs in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park tools to create artificial characters have played an important role in movie production and of late productions like 300 have demonstrated the versatility of digital technology to transcend the limitations of physical reality.

All this however pales into insignificance when we consider the immense potential of virtual worlds technology – as implemented in environments like Second Life and Active Worlds. Movie making as we know it today is set to change beyond recognition as producers and cinematographers realize the disruptive impact that this is going to have in the future.

Virtual worlds have their origin in interactive computer games of the category that are commonly referred to as Massively MultiUser Online Role Playing Games. Technology that first appeared in games like Everquest and World of Warcraft is now being used to create virtual worlds, or Multiuser Online Collaborative Platforms, like Second Life. Individuals and corporates alike are joining participating in these platforms that form the basis of 3D Internet.

A virtual world is one that exists as a 3D simulation of a familiar physical, or more often than not a fantasy, world to which individuals connect to – in a way that one connects to mundane chat server – and then ‘emerges’ inside it as an avatar : a 3D representation of his or her persona that can interact with the environment or with other avatars that represent other individuals who too have connected to this world at the same time. Controlled by the human being on the keyboard, the avatar can perform a range of activities that include but is not limited to walking, flying, making gestures, talking to other avatars, picking up and manipulating ‘solid’ objects … the list can go on. And capturing all this frantic activity is possible not with a traditional optical camera but with a low cost screen capture device that can store all this for posterity in any of the digital movie formats like mpeg, avi or wmv. That in a nut-shell is machinima, which stands for both (a) the process of creating movies in virtual worlds as well as (b) the actual movie itself. Machinima as a concept is not very new, but the process of creating realistic movies with significant dramatic content throws up some challenges. Let us see how these will be overcome in the very near future.

First : The characters seem rather wooden today. While physical appearances are infinitely customizable – height, body bulk, shape of head, colour of hair, and even ‘skins’ that can create near look-alikes of any real person, and a wide variety of dresses are available for purchase, the behavior is still rather wooden. Avatars move stiffly and have a limited repertoire of gestures – which may be fine for dedicated gamers but would be a put-off for a movie viewer who is more interested in the dramatic content and less in the esoteric technology behind it.

However the evolution of artifacts called ‘animations’ and small bundles of these ‘animations’ arranged in a sequence called ‘gestures’ can create a fairly smooth sequence of movements like [smile] + [wave] + [say ‘hello’] + [handshake]. Using an inventory of animations one can potentially create a virtually infinite collection of gestures, most of which can be unique to an individual avatar and with some deftness on the keyboard, these can be played out in a manner that would be very, very realistic.

Animations can be purchased, but learning to assemble them into personalized gestures is the digital equivalent of going to an Acting School. Just as budding actors are taught how to laugh, cry, show anger or otherwise emote in real life, so would budding digital actors learn how to make their avatars do the same in virtual worlds. Of course some would have a natural flair for this and end up as the Big B while others would fail and end up writing articles like these !! Obviously hiring such competent people would be more expensive and star-ranking system would emerge depending on competence and popularity.

Next is creation of sets. In real life, sets are built of wood, paper, bricks and what not. Or one goes to a film studio where these are already built and the real life actors go through their motions inside these sets. In a virtual world, building sets – houses, rivers, trees, cars, bridges and so on – is simple 3D modeling with some embedded scripted programs that do things like cause doors to open and rivers to ripple and flow and bridges to collapse and fall. In real life, good sets need effort and money. So is it in virtual worlds – except that the cost is far, far less ! Something as big as a huge hotel can be built, down to the last detail, by 4 people in just about 2 – 3 weeks. Building sets needs virtual land, which can be bought or leased at a nominal cost.

With actors, actresses and sets in place, the next piece of the puzzle is the actual recording, which is again very intuitive. The avatar representing the ‘camera-operator’ must be present inside the set where the avatars of the actors are playing their roles and all that is visible to the avatar can be captured in digital file using available screen capture technology. In fact, here virtual worlds are far superior to real worlds since the ‘camera-operator’ can fly in the air or change his viewpoint from a close-up to a long-shot at the roll of a mouse ! Multiple avatars representing multiple camera-operators can be present to capture various angles as is the case in real life cinematography

And all this is possible without anyone – actors, set builders, camera-operators – ever leaving their homes in real life ! All can work from home, or a standard office environment, as long as they have computers, with the free virtual world client and a broadband connection to the internet ! Imagine how convenient all this is to the producers budget !

Movies however need more than actors, sets and camera-operators to be successful – you need a good script, smart direction and tight editing. These requirements continue whether the movie is shot in real world or in the virtual world. But by significantly reducing the cost and the physical effort required to create movies, creativity in the real sense will flourish. Directors would be able to do what they had always dreamt of but were held back by the irritating constraints of the real world.

And may be from 2009 onwards the Filmfare awards will have additional categories for the best film shot in Virtual Worlds, for the best male and female avatar in a lead role, along with the best supporting male and female avatar in a supporting role .. the possibilities are endless. James Cameron, the director of Titanic and other Hollywood blockbusters has announced that his next big project, scheduled for release in 2009, is “Avatar” – a science fiction movie where actors are expected to move between real and virtual worlds. But how soon will it be before the virtual becomes real in Bollywood ?


Clint Johnson said...

You should take a look at Moviestorm (www.moviestorm.co.uk)which is built around the game engine but with the single focus on making machinima. It may be more akin to a realtime animation package than a "real" machinima maker but it has a lot of promise as it stands in beta 2.0

Animize said...

iClone Studio (http://www.reallusion.com/iclone) is a fully real-time virtual studio featuring unique tools for character creation from photos. Machinima movies are created on-the-fly with many options for characters, scenes, props and accessories. Actors speak using Reallusion's automatic lip-synch generated by recorded audio or imported wav files. Recently Reallusion made content more accessible for filmmakers with 3DXchange, (http://www.reallusion.com/iClone/3dx.asp) which allows any 3DS or OBJ file to be imported as a custom movie set asset.