How Machinima Works

The "Sims 2" game engine is a popular machinima platform.
The "Sims 2" game engine is a popular machinima platform.
Image courtesy Consumer Guide Products

A space marine stares through his sniper rifle's display as two of his enemies have a philosophical discussion about life and box canyons. A group of spandex-clad superheroes dance in unison to a 1950s rock song. Two lumberjacks explore their new impenetrable fortress. All of these people have something in common -- each started out as a video game character before becoming an actor.

­Gamers and designers have found ways to push the boundaries of what video games can do for years. In the mid '90s, some gamers began to use video games to create original films. This kind of filmmaking is called machinima. Before long, filmmakers used machinima to tell stories that had nothing to do with the games themselves.


Machinima takes its name from the combination of the words machine and cinema -- technically, the word is misspelled, but that's how it was first written and it has stuck. Machinima filmmakers are called machinimists or machinimators (the two terms are used interchangeably). Machinima films use virtual environments and actors to tell stories. Most of the time, a video game is used to provide the setting, props, costumes and even actors. Machinima can be as simple as an in-game recorded video of a player racing through a level or as complex as a feature film with plot twists and extensive character development.

At first glance, a machinima film looks like a computer-animated movie, but the actual filmmaking process is more like a live action movie than computer animation. In computer animation, programmers must create every environment, texture, character and object. They also must create a physics model and dictate the range of motion that objects and characters have. In machinima, the game's programmers have done all of this for you. Objects, characters and environments are rendered in real time, meaning that they appear as solid objects and can move in any way the game's creators have programmed.

Making a computer-animated film requires hours to render a single frame of animation, but in machinima, it is instantaneous. By using a video game, machinimists leave nearly all of the most difficult parts of computer animation to game developers. Machinimists work in virtual worlds that artists and programmers have designed and created. Most machinima relies exclusively on the respective video game's library of animations. Some machinima artists will tweak existing animation or even create new animation using separate software, but for the most part the video game developers have already provided all the animation a machinimist will need to tell a story.

Machinima is also significantly cheaper than computer animation. A basic "Quake" movie could cost as little as the price of the game. Even if you splurge and buy top notch software and hardware to produce your machinima, you're likely to spend less than $10,000. A computer-animated motion picture may have a budget of $100,000,000 or more.

In this article, we'll talk about how machinima is made, why it's so popular with filmmakers and audiences, some legal issues machinimists face and some popular machinima movies and series.

In the next section, we'll go over some basics of machinima.


Machinima Basics

"Quake" is the grandfather of machinima game engines
"Quake" is the grandfather of machinima game engines
Image courtesy Consumer Guide Products

Other game engines aren't designed with independent cameras in mind, and filmmakers have to find innovative ways to capture footage. Production company Rooster Teeth's series "Red vs. Blue," which uses the "Halo" game engine, relies on a game character's point of view as the camera. Because of this, the same physics and rules that you would experience if you were playing "Halo" restrict your camera options. Rooster Teeth explored ways to approximate standard film techniques using the game engine. In order to mimic a crane shot, the player acting as the camera would perch on the end of a tank's cannon. Another player would control the tank, moving the cannon to the right level for the shot.

Some machinima uses video game characters as they appear in the game with little or no modification. Other filmmakers modify character appearances with game mods or in post-production. Humans can control the characters and treat them as if they are digital puppets. Alternatively, the game engine itself might control characters or the machinimist might program a series of actions called a script for automaton-like characters to follow. Using virtual actors frees you up to film stories that would be too dangerous for live action - there's no need for stunt doubles.


The first consideration a machinimist needs to focus on is which game engine to use. Game engines dictate what your film looks like, your options in capturing footage, the additional tools you'll need to produce films and the physics and limitations you'll experience while working within that virtual world. Machinimists have used dozens of game engines to create films. Here are a few of the most popular:

Game Cam
Game Cam is a free resource machinimists can use to capture video.
Image courtesy Game Cam

Games like "Quake" have in-game recording options, allowing you to capture footage with no additional software. Some games don't have video capture features, so you will need additional software such as Game Cam to grab video footage. Console video games are trickier -- you'll need a video capture card for your computer and you'll need to feed the video signal from your console into the card. Video cards vary, but you'll need to connect your console to your computer using cables like an S-video cord or an RCA cable.

Once you know which game engine you'll be using, you'll have an idea of your options and restrictions. Some machinimists base their game engine decision on the requirements of the story they have in mind, while others may first want to stick with game engines with which they are familiar (and with video games they already own), then worry about how to bring a story to life. Either way, the process of making any film can be divided into the phases of pre-production, production and post-production.

Pre-production includes writing the screenplay, storyboarding the film and making any modifications to the game engine or graphics you feel are necessary to tell your story. In this stage, you plot out your film, develop characters, plan out your sequence of shots and determine what you'll need for each scene. If you choose to program a script for a scene (instead of relying on humans to control characters and camera angles), this is when you code your programs. Most filmmakers will tell you that being careful in pre-production will prevent a lot of frustration further down the road.

Production for a machinima film may include recording voice acting, sound effects and music and capturing video game footage. Not all machinima uses voice actors or additional sound effects. In fact, many machinima films are used as music videos and don't have any dialogue at all. Early "Quake" films relied on an in-game text messenger for character dialogue and only used in-game sound effects.

Once you have your video and audio recorded, you can move on to post-production. At this stage, you edit your footage and audio track, including syncing the two together. With the right software, you can also create special effects that normally would not be part of the video game engine.

Depending on the software you've used, the finished film will be in one of several formats. Early "Quake" films were saved as "Quake" demo files and could only be viewed by someone with "Quake" installed on his computer. Most video capture software records in Windows Media Video (WMV), QuickTime (MOV) or Audio Video Interleave (AVI). You may want to use another program to convert these into other formats such as MPEG or DIVX.

Once a project is finished, the machinimist faces a new concern. By using a pre-existing game engine, the filmmaker is using the intellectual property of another person or organization for his own project.

In the next section, we'll look at legal issues with machinima.


Legal Issues With Machinima

Assuming the game engine is not in the public domain, machinimists should be aware that their work could cause them major headaches down the road if they aren't careful. Because machinima almost always relies on the intellectual property of another entity (most often a game development company), the films produced are derivative works. In some ways, machinima is similar to fan fiction. In both cases, the creator of the derivative work is normally safe if his creation doesn't attract a lot of attention.

What if your machinima becomes really popular or you want to burn your films to DVD and sell them? In that case, it's wise to approach the entity that holds the rights to the game engine you are using and ask permission. Right now, most game companies think of machinima as an outlet for marketing. Some companies actively encourage players to create films using their products. Good machinima films not only entertain, but also entice viewers to purchase their own copy of the game used in the film's creation.


Of course, if a company feels that its intellectual property is being abused or diluted, it might pursue legal action against the machinimist. A company takes a calculated risk when it does not pursue people who create derivative works without permission. By not protecting its intellectual property, a company can create a precedent that makes future actions more difficult. For example, assume that you publish a game that becomes a very popular medium for machinima and you decide not to hassle filmmakers in the belief that it's good publicity for your game. Someone eventually films some machinima that becomes very popular and begins to charge money for DVD copies of it. You decide to enforce your rights as the owner of the intellectual property and sue the filmmaker. The court may ask you why you didn't act earlier when people first began to create derivative works with your game engine, and your position is weakened.

It's always a good idea to ask permission before creating machinima, particularly if you believe it's going to take off and become popular. You may have to pay a license fee to use the game engine. If you plan on using someone else's music, you'll need to pay a license fee for that as well. Such fees aren't cheap and it's complicated to calculate them due to all the variables involved, including how many times people view the machinima in question.

To date, very few machinimists pay license fees. Some believe that their work won't attract enough attention to get them in trouble, some don't know how much trouble they could get into, some have received permission from the respective game company and some believe that their creative endeavor is protected under the concept of fair use. Only a few machinimists have sold films to the public, and in those cases the filmmakers secured permission from the respective game company before going forward. Most machinimists seem content to upload their work to sites like YouTube and seek no profit in their work beyond knowing they've entertained an audience.

In the next section, we'll look at how machinima has evolved.


Machinima Then and Now

South Park episode that used machinima
An episode of South Park titled "Make Love, Not Warcraft" used machinima extensively
Image courtesy Machinima

Machinima traces its history back to 1996, when a group of gamers called The Rangers created a short film titled, "Diary of a Camper." The Rangers used a demo function in "Quake" to record their film. Developers designed the demo function to allow players to record gaming events to share with friends, and up to that point most gamers used it to record particularly impressive kills or speedy level completions. The Rangers' film went a step beyond, using the demo function to tell a story. While the film is primitive compared to machinima produced today, it is important in that it was the first to use video games as a film medium.

Other films followed and were commonly called "'Quake' films." Before long, gamers made movies using other gaming engines. In January 2000, two machinima filmmakers named Hugh Hancock and Anthony Bailey decided they needed a new term to describe all video game films, and the term machinima was born.


The early audiences of machinima films were mainly other gamers, particularly since almost all early machinima required the viewer to have a copy of the respective game engine in order to view it. In 2003, Rooster Teeth helped expand audiences' awareness of machinima when they unveiled "Red vs. Blue." The game's developers and publisher, Bungie Studios and Microsoft, gave their blessing to the group and the series rapidly attracted viewers -- even those who had never played "Halo." "Red vs. Blue" ran for five seasons with 100 episodes and several short films. Rooster Teeth continues to produce machinima using other game engines.

Machinima continues to grow in popularity, and has even been used to storyboard more traditional films. The New Zealand company Regelous created a special-effects program called Massive for Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies. The program generated digital crowds, with each member of the crowd having its own set of behaviors, allowing the character to make their own choices. Steven Spielberg used machinima as a tool in pre-visualization for his movie "A.I." A modified version of the Unreal game engine served as a platform to create animatics in pre-production.You can also see examples of machinima on television. The video for Zero 7's song "In the Waiting Line" used the "Quake" game engine with extensive modifications. MTV2 hosts a show called Video Mods that uses machinima to create music videos. G4TV produces shows that frequently use machinima, such as the Splinter Cell machinima vignettes called "The Adventures of Bob and Steve" on X-Play. In October 2006, an episode of South Park titled "Make Love, Not Warcraft" used machinima extensively to make fun of gamers and griefers - players who only log on to a game to cause grief and frustration.

"TrashTalk" is a popular series produced by Ill Clan
"TrashTalk" is a popular series produced by Ill Clan
Image courtesy Ill Clan
"The Movies" puts gamers in the role of a movie studio executive
"The Movies" puts gamers in the role of a movie studio executive
Image courtesy Consumer Guide Products

Some people have even used machinima in live performances, something that isn't possible with traditional computer animation. ILL Clan Machinima produces improvisational comedy shows where performers control video game characters and the action is projected on a large screen in front of the audience. The performance takes place in real time and no two shows are the same. At Disney's The Living Seas pavilion at Epcot, visitors can watch a show called "Turtle Talk with Crush." Viewers can interact with Crush, a digitally animated turtle from the film "Finding Nemo." Behind the scenes, a puppeteer controls Crush's animation in real time and answers children's' questions using a device similar to a game controller.

Machinima films could even help change the world. A young man named Alex Chan made a film called "The French Democracy" using the game engine in "The Movies" to address the issue of race relations after a string of riots in France. Alex had never produced machinima before, but felt the game gave him the tools to express his beliefs effectively. Critics have praised the short film for its honesty and insight.

As video game graphics improve, we'll see more machinima projects reach mainstream audiences. Games like "The Movies" or the virtual world of "Second Life" are making machinima films more accessible and user friendly than ever before.

To watch some examples of machinima and learn even more about how to make your own, check out the links on that follow.


Lots More Information

Jonathan Strickland, Staff Writer
hsw 2009

Author's Note: How Machinima Works

I first became aware of machinima before I even knew it had a name. I'm a fan of the "Halo" video game series and discovered a comedic Web series called "Red vs. Blue." The series used the "Halo" game engine as a digital puppet theater, with the puppeteers controlling multiplayer characters. Instead of shooting each other, the guys behind "Red vs. Blue" would manipulate their characters to act out scripts. As I was writing this article, our site director, Tracy Wilson, pointed me to a charmingly silly machinima music video for the Jonathan Coulton song "Code Monkey." That's how I became a Jonathan Coulton fan. I still like machinima -- when used correctly, video games are a great vehicle for storytelling. But I think all potential machinima artists need to remember that the story should always come first. The tools are useless unless you have something to say.

  • Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences
  • Georgia Tech Machinima Group
  • Machinima Premiere
  • Methenitis, Mark. "Let's Talk About Machinima." The Law of the Game. April 2007. lets-talk-about-machinima-part-1-of-3.html
  • Museum of the Moving Image
  • Newitz, Annalee. "Machinima for the Masses." Wired Magazine, January 25, 2006.

How Machinima Works: Cheat Sheet

Stuff you need to know:

  • Machinima comes from combining the words "machine" and "cinema." It refers to using a virtual environment -- usually a video game -- in order to create video content. The first examples of machinima involved capturing game footage from first person shooters like "Quake." Eventually, gamers began to capture footage and overdub it with an actual storyline.
  • Capturing video footage can be tricky -- you may need a special video card and computer to hook up to a console or software that lets you record game footage. Several recent games have built-in game capture features, allowing you to make machinima without buying extra equipment or software.
  • Just because you can make machinima doesn't mean you should -- some video game publishers are protective of their intellectual property and may object to you using their product as a storytelling medium. Policies vary among publishers, so it's good to do research before jumping in.