Hollywood Halo

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

When the highly anticipated Halo 2 was released their junior year, Malone camped out for four hours to buy the game. He didn't go home to grab some sleep. He played, then went to school, then missed a class because he went home to log on again.

Meghan Foster didn't even go to school that day. A year earlier Foster had gotten so obsessed with Everquest that her mother had to take the computer out of her bedroom.

"I'd been up three days straight playing," Foster says. "I think what happened was I forgot to do my chores for the third week in a row. I never should have started playing Everquest." She now calls it Evercrack.

They worked nonstop to get the last installment out. 
Clockwise from the middle top: Meghan Foster, 
Patrick Malone, Lauren Jenks, Alex Winn and Ryan 
Luther.
Tom Jenkins
They worked nonstop to get the last installment out. Clockwise from the middle top: Meghan Foster, Patrick Malone, Lauren Jenks, Alex Winn and Ryan Luther.
The word "machinima" is a combination of "machine" 
and "cinema."
Tom Jenkins
The word "machinima" is a combination of "machine" and "cinema."

Why are they so into games? None of them has much insight into their addiction, but the answer is probably as easy as this: It's fun. It's competitive. And game developers have figured out how to make the quest personal. David Freeman, a consultant for games, calls it emotioneering.

Foster became just as obsessed with Halo. "You become attached to the characters, your fellow marines," she says. "It shakes you up when something happens to characters you've come to trust. A lot of people don't realize the emotional impact these things have."

Like thousands of other Halo addicts, Winn, Luther, Malone and Foster loved Red Vs Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles, a popular machinima comedy series based on Halo 2. Created by older gamers who met at the University of Texas in Austin, the series features bored futuristic soldiers enmeshed in a civil war who say stupid stuff to pass the time. Ed Halter of The Village Voice called it "Clerks-meets-Star Wars." Here's a sample from the first episode:

Tucker: What are they doing?

Church: What?

Tucker: I said, what are they doing now?

Church: God damn, I'm getting so sick of answering that question.

Tucker: You have the fucking rifle. I can't see shit. Don't bitch at me because I'm not going to just sit up here and play with my dick all day.

Church: Okay, look. They're just standing there and talking, okay? That's all they're doing, that's all they ever do. Is just stand there and talk. That's what they were doing last week, that's what they were doing when you asked me five minutes ago. So five minutes from now, when you ask me "What are they doing," my answer's gonna be "They're still just talkin', and they're still just standin' there."

The creators of Red Vs Blue now run a company called Rooster Teeth, based in Buda, Texas, and earn money creating machinima for commercial use. New episodes of Red Vs Blue, now in its fourth season, are posted each week and downloaded by half a million people.

"Red Vs Blue is Beckett," says Wired's Anderson. "It's doing Waiting for Godot. It makes an asset out of its limitations." Among the limitations: The Halo marines are all wearing helmets, so they can be distinguished only by their voices. Figuring out who's who in a battle scene is difficult. And the soldiers don't have complete range of motion; for example, they're able to crouch but not sit down.

"But you can blow things up real easily," Luther says.

Red Vs Blue and its many imitators inspired Winn to think about using Halo 2 to create a movie. He assumed that after making short films -- dealing with actors, getting location permits, coping with weather -- creating machinima would be a breeze.


Winn had grown up watching old movies with his grandmother. As a teenager, he started using editing software on his computer to make trailers for real and made-up movies he'd like to see, snipping video slices and putting them to music.

The summer between his sophomore and junior years, Winn had tried making a movie based on Ender's Game, a popular sci-fi book. After writing a script, Winn recruited Luther, who'd taught himself 3-D modeling, and they built some ship models. Winn rounded up a cast of ten friends and 20 extras and borrowed digital video mini-cameras from his school. Winn had 35 minutes of the story on film when he realized that the way he was going, the movie would be 15 hours long. He shelved it.

"I got a half-hour into it before I realized there's a reason big-budget movies have big budgets," Winn says.

His next venture was more successful. In video-tech class during his junior year, Winn was given an assignment to make a seven-minute movie with no dialogue. Winn shot an homage to old Bogart movies he'd watched with his grandmother. Filming around Highland Park, Winn was shooting a night chase (and also acting in the scene) down an alley that dead-ended at a bank drive-thru when a cop car screeched up. A Dallas police officer got out, drew a gun on them and barked, "Drop your weapons and step away from the car!"

"It was pretty scary," says Becky Winn, Alex's mother, who'd been driving a van down the alley as a camera dolly. "The officer seemed nervous."

The next night, Alex passed out flyers to residents and had two friends stand with big signs at either end of the alley: "Student Film in Progress."

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