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Alex Winn's bedroom was crammed with a dozen teenagers. The smells of old pizza, rank sneakers and sweat hung in the sweltering air. Empty boxes of Goldfish crackers littered the floor. Against one wall, emitting incredible heat and a blue glow, stood a bank of televisions, computer monitors and three or four Xboxes, all networked together to play Halo 2. Three fans buzzed in the corners.
Boys and girls were draped over each other like puppies on the bed, on chairs, on the floor, staring intently at the screens. All had game controllers in their hands and were manipulating them furiously to put their "actors" through their paces.
Armor-covered warriors could be seen on the monitors crouching, raising their guns, shooting, running, jumping, more shooting. Aliens shooting back. Then an explosion: Ka-BOOOOM! Ka-BLAAAAAAM! Aaauuughh! Five enemies of humankind bite the dust.
Later they dubbed the voices: the "voice of God" intonation of The Praetor; the snide drone of The Cleric; the lighter female voice of tough Special Forces Commander Anda Sofadee. Close to midnight, they had one scene down and several dozen to go. Everyone left to do their homework -- they were all students at Highland Park High School in Dallas -- and grab a few hours of sleep.
Except Winn. He stayed up a few more hours to edit and add music. The group faced a tight deadline to post its last episode of The Codex Series on the Internet. Winn was exhausted, physically and mentally. They'd been working on the project every waking moment they weren't in school or at work for ten months. In just a few days, Winn was leaving to start his freshman year at the University of Southern California. Most of his cohorts were leaving for college as well, but they couldn't disappoint their fans.
At midnight on Friday, August 13, Ryan Luther uploaded the last episode of The Codex to the Web site he had created. Their server was slammed by fans in the United States, Sweden, China and Korea -- anywhere in the world where gamers lived and breathed Halo 2. They were getting 60,000 to 70,000 hits a day, and the praise rolled in.
The following Monday, Winn left for USC and the others scattered to three different time zones. Their movie -- their 109-minute "machinima" -- was finally finished.
For those who don't know, which includes almost everybody outside the small subculture of aficionados, the word "machinima" is a combination of "machine" and "cinema."
The phrase was coined about ten years ago to describe movies made using a computer game like Quake. After writing a script, players manipulate the video characters to act out scenes, digitally record them and then edit, dub voices and sounds and score the action just like film. Some games allow modification of the characters and maps; others don't. Some kinds of machinima stick within the story line of the game. Others veer off wildly into new scenarios.
As computer graphics for games grow more sophisticated, some fans believe machinima will revolutionize filmmaking. "The technology is exponentially developing," says Paul Marino, a 3-D animator who in 2002 founded the nonprofit Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences in New York. "People are starting to see this as a way to do production. Television is interested in machinima because it cuts down on production costs. The History Channel used [the World War II game] Brothers in Arms 2 to explore some narratives. There's been a lot of interest in Hollywood."
Last year Marino moderated a panel on machinima at the Sundance Film Festival. "I guess we've arrived," he says.
It's the millions of gamers who will be at the forefront of the machinima revolution, if it happens. They're the ones willing to spend long hours manipulating the characters in games and exploring the niches and glitches that can be exploited for exciting scenes. And they understand how involved fellow gamers can become with their favorite characters. "It's even more emotional than the movies," Winn says, "because it feels like it's happening to you."
It's a world most parents don't understand and, in some ways, fear. They worry their offspring are playing games that are too violent, too gory, too amoral. What kinds of machinima could teenagers make with Grand Theft Auto or Hitman: Blood Money?
Relax, parents. That kid who spends days in his room blasting alien life-forms could be the next Peter Jackson -- who, by the way, is exec-producing a movie based on Halo.
The parents of the rest of the core group that create The Codex-- Ryan Luther, Meghan Foster and Patrick Malone -- knew their teenagers were at the Winns', but most didn't understand what they were doing. Making a "machinima" film? Huh?
Luther's mom assumed it was one more way her son could waste time in the alternate universe of online games, with which he'd been obsessed for years. She'd once put a lock on their computer. He picked it.
Meghan Foster's mom worried that her daughter had slipped off the wagon. At the beginning of her junior year at Highland Park High, Foster had been playing the online role-playing game Everquest so compulsively her mom had taken the computer out of her bedroom.