Virtual People Watching Virtual Movies In Virtual Space – Recursively Delicious!

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Machinexpo 2011
We need to go deeper: a virtual reality inside a virtual reality inside a virtual reality.

Locating your indie film festival in the real world? Meh, that’s so mainstream. The fourth annual Machinima Expo is coming this November to a virtual world near you. Taking place in the online game Second Life, MachinExpo features movies made by recording events in virtual realities, often dubbing over them with music and original dialogue made by the film’s creators. Real filmmakers recording virtual characters to make virtual movies which are then shown to real people via their virtual characters in a virtual world. It’s like Inception, only more pixelated. Watch trailers and highlight reels for MachinExpo in the videos below. While my mind is blown by the meta-ness of a virtual film festival for a virtual audience, I’m excited by the potential. Not only is this new genre of movie making growing, it’s demonstrating how rich and consuming virtual life can really be.

Machinima (pronounced like ‘Cinema’) is the catch all term for videos made by capturing footage from virtual realities, typically games. Common sources for this raw footage include: Second Life, Unreal, Sims 3, and World of Warcraft. Quite often the virtual characters in these games are recorded (using screen capture software or a graphics engine) doing mundane things like waving their arms, walking around, examining objects, interacting with others, etc. Once a Machinimator collects the clips they need from the virtual reality they can add in layers of their own content. Most common is replacing the audio with your own dialogue – you can make the soldiers, housewives, and dwarves of these games discuss philosophy, sing along to famous songs, or just make asses of themselves. Or, you can try to create a substantial piece of art, which is the goal of many who submit to the MachinExpo. The following is a trailer for MachinExpo featuring clips from some of the best short movies of 2010:

If you really want a taste of what these short films are like, however, here’s the 2010 highlight reel. There are close to a dozen brief Machinima movies included, so feel free to skip around. You can find a list of the sources for these segments here.

To those new to the genre, Machinima can seem pretty freaking weird. Why would I want to watch over-dubbed versions of video game sessions? Well, first off, many of these movies are actually decent pieces of art that stand on their own. Beyond that, I think one of the biggest draws is an attachment to the virtual worlds used as the raw footage for these films. When you spend hours playing Second Life, Sims, or World of Warcraft, you start to become invested in the reality of the game. You give the characters you play back-stories, interests, etc. Watching someone’s Machinima film is kind of like watching someone making a movie with the characters from your imagination. Not only can that be engrossing, it adds a fascinating new level to your virtual experience.

A level which is abundantly evident in MachinExpo. While it can be watched via their main website, the film festival mainly takes place in the virtual reality of Second Life. People log in to the game, take their avatar to a virtual screening, and then watch the movies. Movies which, again, feature characters much like the avatar that’s watching them. Virtual actors and virtual audience members: in the context of Second Life, it’s make a certain sense.

To the real world filmmakers behind these short videos, Machinima can offer some real benefits over traditional formats. While recording standard gameplay is generally considered illegal, recording non-traditional uses for game characters is generally considered fair use. In other words, you can’t make a movie of yourself playing Super Mario Bros all the way through, but you (probably) can make a movie of Mario walking back and forth as if he were searching for his lost keys. That fair use means that Machinima filmmakers need much less money to produce their works. Virtual actors work for free, and the virtual realities have already been built for you. Many of the submissions for MachinExpo were made by individuals or very small groups. If you need a place to break into the movie industry, Machinima isn’t a crazy place to start.

But maybe the point isn’t to go mainstream anyway. Hanging on the fringes of the art scene since the 80s, Machinima is slowly becoming more prevalent, if not exactly more respected by the independent film industry. Machinima.com, a site built around the community of virtual movie makers and their products, is boasting 2.3 billion views a year! Browse through YouTube, and you’ll find that there are many (SO FREAKIN’ MANY) videos made using over-dubbed clips from virtual realities and games. It’s not just an art form, it’s an art form for the virtual masses.

MachinExpo is currently taking submissions for through September. The festival itself will not only feature these short films, but also panel discussions, live filmmaker interviews, and even keynote addresses – all through Second Life. I strongly encourage you to check it out in November. It may be a bit weird, but it’s an interesting window into the art of the future. As virtual technology gets more realistic, and more widely used, these Machinima films are only going to get better. Someday, we may all be watching them…in our virtual houses…with our virtual avatars…in our virtual lives…

…my brain is starting to hurt. Here, let’s end things with one of the most popular (ongoing!) Machinima series ever made: Red vs Blue Season 1 Episode 1. Enjoy the Halo-larious hijinks.

[screen capture credit: Phil Rice]

[sources: Machinima Expo]