The scene was a familiar one: Tom Cruise using his Matt Lauer-lecturing tone to question Jack Nicholson about events on his military base. Jack, clearly not happy with having to explain his actions, boldly stating that Tom Cruise was probably not ready to accept the veracity of his testimony. Except that Tom wasn't Tom, and Jack wasn't Jack. The stars of A Few Good Men had been replaced by characters from the videogame Half-Life 2. And while "A Few Good G-men" by Randall Glass was not the first machinima I'd seen, it was certainly one of the best.
While computer animated films are not new, the distinctive art form known as machinima has been gaining popularity over the last couple of years. Traditional computer animated films have always required high-end pre-rendered graphics, the same stuff that powers Warcraft intro movies and Final Fantasy trailers. Machinima was created when amateur and independent film-makers started using real-time renderings from 3D graphics engines - the same stuff that powers gameplay - to produce movies. With the ever-increasing quality of real-time graphics, the produced videos have skyrocketed in quality. And this has played a large part in the rising interest in machinima outside of the normal core audience.
Most of the machinima being produced today is built using level designer's tools from first-person shooter titles. Almost from the genre's beginning, Software Development Kits have been included with shooters in order to allow players to make new levels and maps. The latest, Half-Life Source, was used to make "A Few Good G-men."
That's not to say that other methods of machinima can't reach the same quality. Red vs. Blue, from Rooster Teeth Productions, the current flagship in the machinima armada, uses retail Xbox consoles playing Halo and a video capture card to make their weekly episodes and it hasn't affected their quality of work.
Unfortunately, the majority of game-based videos you see on the internet are not done nearly so well. Truly bad voice acting is a common trait. Less than stellar action and footage is standard. A seeming inability to hit the key that hides the game interface is endemic. But perhaps what's most lacking is story-telling. Too often, lackluster gameplay footage of some MMORPG PvP battle is set to a spectacularly bad Emo-metal soundtrack and called machinima, as if the label can somehow make the awful spectacle more artistic. Even worse offenses come from what can only be called FPS "fraggerbation:" Getting your friends to all sandbag a deathmatch so that you can seem to posses godlike skills capable of taking out Fatal1ty is not machinima. It just gives machinima a bad name.
Surprisingly, machinima's use of game engines and licensed or copyrighted characters has not, so far, been treated as a copyright violation by game companies. Microsoft has gone so far as to embrace the use of Halo by Rooster Teeth, hiring them to make appearances and to custom produce advertisement content.
A bigger copyright threat to the art of machinima lies in its producers' habit of borrowing popular soundtracks. Last week, RPGFilms.net, a popular website that hosts many of these videos, was sent an email that was originally believed to be from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The email took the ominous tone of a cease and desist letter, using the dreaded term "copyright infringement." RPGFilms took themselves offline until it was discovered that the email was a hoax. The RIAA denies sending the letter, but still holds the option of sending a real one.