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Joystick Cinema

It's man vs. machinima when video games become, ahem, movies

Up to a certain point, Paul Marino's story is a familiar one, especially to any single guy in his 20s who likes playing with his joystick. Four years ago, Marino and his pals would leave their offices on a Friday night and go to another friend's workplace, where they'd play Quake, the enduring first-person shoot-'em-up video game, till the sun came up. (This, incidentally, is way down the list of methods for impressing, make that meeting, women. The only thing lower, actually, is moving into and never leaving a men's locker room.) But there's only so much game-playing a grown man can take. Actually, there's only so much watching another dude playing a video game anyone can stomach.

So, one night, Marino and his pals started talking about this oddball piece of moviemaking they'd heard about, a bit of animation called Operation Bayshield "filmed" entirely within their beloved Quake universe. It kinda looked like Quake, from its characters to its scenery, but sounded very much like a Saturday Night Live sketch, complete with multiple characters spouting dopey pop-culture jokes. OpBay, as it would come to be known, was such a freaky hybrid--"a Quake movie," as it was then called--it captivated Marino and his buddies, all film majors and animators not long out of college. OpBay was little more than the product of a few pals killing time during what was no doubt a lubricated New Year's Eve--"we thought [it] would be fun," explained one of its creators--but, in time, it became The Jazz Singer of a new genre of filmmaking called "machinima," in which aspiring animators unlock video-game code in order to break into the world of moviemaking. Oh, yes, it's as effed-up as it sounds.

Look no further than Marino's 2000 film Hardly Workin', a 16-minute comedy starring two lumberjacks, Lenny and Larry, applying for a job at a cafe. (It's a sequel to an earlier short, 1998's Apartment Huntin', that's far more rudimentary--less a premise than a promise of things to come.) If you didn't know better, you'd swear the thing was run-of-the-mill computer-generated animation--a little rough, maybe, but not so shoddy it detracts from its entertainment value. (Fact is, it almost looks like claymation till the cartoon turns mildly violent, in keeping with its vid-game roots, so you keep wondering when Davey and Goliath will show up spouting Bible verse.) But look closely, and the "sets" and "props" look mildly familiar to anyone who's killed an hour or a week or a lifetime plugged into Quake III, from which Marino and his creative partners--known, collectively, as the ILL Clan--appropriated their virtual surroundings.

Machinima isn't Japanese for "soft-core movie," swear: Paul Marino's comedy Hardly Workin' was produced using Quake's code, which is, like, so cool.
Machinima isn't Japanese for "soft-core movie," swear: Paul Marino's comedy Hardly Workin' was produced using Quake's code, which is, like, so cool.

"We just said, 'This is such a great vehicle, and look what they're doing; you know, maybe it's something we can do,'" Marino says from his offices in New York City. "We all come from different backgrounds that have some creative flair to it; we play Quake often enough, so we created our first film called Apartment Huntin', which was really a kind of 'proof of concept' for us. It was like, 'Can we do this? What can we do to see it work?' The Quake characters initially have axes in their hands, so we just rolled that into making them lumberjacks so we could justify this whole thing. After we finished that, we got such a good response we decided to make another film, Hardly Workin', only this time we decided to kind of take it as far as we could, which meant creating all new assets, all new characters, everything. We wanted to show it around, be able to distribute it without it being so tied to the game from which it came and to give it, of course, its own look and feel."

Machinima, in short, is what Scottish filmmaker Hugh Hancock calls "an adaptive technique, something out of a Bill Gibson or Bruce Sterling novel...a whole collection of different technologies grabbed and dragged together" by kids with digital cameras who aspire to make something bigger than mere real-world movies. It merges video games and digital video, allowing its practitioners--its directors--to "film" CG characters in a virtual reality using little more than cracked computer code and a joystick. All you have to do is tape some dialogue, use a few tools to create characters and props and sets, then record it all in real time. It's more like puppeteering than animating, actually, since the director controls the characters' actions with a joystick or a keyboard or a mouse--point and click, in essence, without shouting "Action!"

Still have no idea what the hell we're talking about here? Be patient: Machinima is in its infancy, a child trying to read The Odyssey before it has uttered its first word. To that end, Marino and a handful of would-be filmmakers have actually formed the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, the mission of which is to "promote, organize and recognize the growth of Machinima filmmaking and filmmakers," according to the organization's Web site (www.machinima.org). Marino's the executive director of the academy, which is based in Manhattan, but a handful of machinima mavericks sit on the board and wield equal power. Among their ranks are Hancock, who runs www.machinima.com, an impressive site containing not only films but also several lengthy how-to essays; Anthony Bailey, whose Quake Done Quick was among the earliest examples of machinima; and Katherine Anna Kang and Matthew Ross, whose Fountainhead Entertainment develops animation specifically for "new media" applications.

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