Hollywood Halo

Texas teens turn video games into movies and get millions of hits

Diaz first got attention with a machinima music video set to his fiancée's favorite Kurt Nilsen song, "I." To the melancholy tune, a Sim (who resembles Diaz) anguishes over how to approach a pretty girl, practicing in the mirror, trying to approach her and failing.

"I was always interested in the girl who didn't know I existed," Diaz says. "I wanted to tell the story of an awkward artist trying to figure out how to talk to this girl." Of course, he gets the girl in the end.

"Broken," another of his machinima videos, is about an abusive relationship from two different perspectives, a woman with a baby and her boyfriend in prison, to a song by Seether. Diaz posted them at www.sims99.com, a host for all things Sims, and got great feedback.

Winn's bedroom was the gathering spot for filming 
The Codex Series.
Tom Jenkins
Winn's bedroom was the gathering spot for filming The Codex Series.

Diaz has now made four machinima music videos. He's started working on a 12-part series inspired by the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show with a team of creative people, including a casting director whose job is to come up with interesting Sims characters. They have finished the scripts for half of the series. Diaz plans to e-mail files of completed episodes to his voice actors for dubbing.

To support the art form, Marino founded the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences, which gives awards each year. There's machinima about everything from the Old West to World War II. And, of course, someday there will be machinima porn.

Last November, Activision, an entertainment software company that sells games like Quake and Doom, just cut to the chase and released The Movies, a teen-rated game that lets players, well, make movies. "The French Democracy," a machinima short about the recent riots in France, was made using The Movies.

Instead of fighting it, game developers like Microsoft's Bungee have embraced machinima, even inserting tools into new games that make it easier. "Game developers and publishers are seeing that machinima is a way to build their brand," Marino says. "It's like a tribute to the game. It's marketing the game publishers couldn't provide. But they are playing in a dangerous space of [intellectual property] rights. If someone was packaging the DVDs and selling them, the game publishers would crack down."

The Codex Series never would have happened except for two teenage boys as different as Walt Disney and Wes Craven. Both grew up in Highland Park, are the sons of lawyers, have curly black hair and goatees, are 19 years old and brainy. There the resemblance ends.

Ryan Luther is quiet and introverted, a loner who loves video games and has taught himself programming and Web design. He plays everything but sports games. Alexander Winn -- let's just say everyone at Highland Park High School knows who he is. Tall, always wears black. Acts in school plays. Very focused. Hang with Winn for a few minutes, and you'll learn he wants to be a filmmaker.

Meghan Foster, 18, is a naturally pretty tomboy who looks like she'd rather slit her wrists than wear a dress. She played varsity softball throughout high school and got into fencing through playing video games. Foster thrust-and-parried well enough to place third in a statewide tournament and go to the Junior Olympics. Of the four, Foster was the hard-core Halo fanatic, one of the only girl gamers at Highland Park High. As a senior she was taking video tech and started making short films. Now at Hollins University in Virginia, she wants to major in film and sociology so she can make documentaries.

Tall and funny, Patrick Malone, 18, started singing and acting after someone pointed out he needed to find something to be good at other than video games. Turned out he had talent. Malone participated in various choirs at Highland Park, starred in school musicals, won solo competitions and is now on full tuition scholarship to study vocal performance at Oklahoma City University.

Luther and Winn have known each other since fourth grade but really became buddies in middle school at an SMU video-game summer camp, which taught the basics of game design. As freshmen, Luther and most of their close friends were obsessively playing Halo, an Xbox game released in 2001. "Halo is about a war between a coalition of alien races and humans," Winn says. "You play as this super-soldier that is trying to destroy an ancient alien weapon before the aliens can set it off. Most first-person shooters have a pretty thinly veiled plot; they're just an excuse to shoot stuff. In Halo, it feels like a movie and has a really in-depth plot, a good backstory and good characters."

The game has spawned three novels. And it's addictive.

Malone would be up all night playing games even in middle school. When his parents moved the computer out of his room, Malone would wait until they were asleep and sneak out to play, draping a towel over the modem so his mom and dad wouldn't hear. He hadn't bought an Xbox because he didn't think it was worth the $300 investment. His father bought him one as a gift. "I started playing Halo and stayed up three days doing it," Malone says. "My dad was cool with it until it affected my regular life."

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