Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Future of Movies: Machinima

It seems like whatever happens in the music industry (MP3's starting to make CDs obsolete) always affects the movie industry a few years later (iTunes starting to make DVDs obsolete), so I always pay very close attention to the music scene as a crystal ball in which I can peer into the near future of the movie biz.

A friend of mine forwarded me this article about Peter Gabriel and how he's been on the cutting edge as an entrepreneur of his own music. Gabriel has been known to do some cool stuff over the years, especially his brief foray into computer games with Eve, which wasn't a "hit" game but had such striking imagery and sounds that it still resonates with me today.

Anyway, in the article, this part in particular grabbed my attention:"[Gabriel] foresaw the time when the public would be able to take music and mix it the way they wanted to hear it."

As I gaze into the crystal ball, I see the future of filmmaking as something quite similar to this, startlingly interactive compared to today's films, where users will have more freedom to sculpt their own film, including even the way stories unfold. Google Wave is already hinting to us how filmmakers could be collaborating in the future. In the same way musicians are shifting towards creating and offering multiple overlaying tracks for users to mix and match their own tracks, computer software will simplify the process for users—either solitarily or collaboratively—to create machinima-like films with total control over every filmmaking aspect: music, actors, story, dialog, setting, etc. This will result in an explosion of shoestring budget home-made videos entertaining in themselves, the most popular of which might even be made into conventional films since these cheaply made machinima would essentially be a feature-length polished pre-vis storyboard. We'll start to see this in the mainstream in the next 5-10 years, but in 20 it will dominate global culture, even to the extent of having a cable/internet channel of nothing but machinima films. I'd bet money on it. The programmer or software company who devlops a machinima producing program that's intuitive, capable, and fun will make money hand over fist.

The animated film Renaissance was an eye-opener for me. Its motion capture technology let the actors record a scene... and then, afterwards, the director chose whichever angles he wanted the camera to render for his final cut. That's 100% the opposite of how films have been made in the last century—first plan the scene, then shoot the actors. This new, inverted workflow is highly adaptive and will become very popular because users can create infinite variations of scenes and generate fantastical settings constrained only by the user's technical mastery of the software. At some point in the development of these new "mo-cap" films, even the actors will become obsolete, or effectively so since computerized actors will become realistic enough for mass consumption. We can already see the beginnings of this with Afterworld, a 100 part series of 3 minute animated storyboards.

Low budget projects allow for wider experimentation and the most creative of those experiments can sometimes become the most popular... so the question at hand is how to monetize this emerging industry. It could be through ads, it could be through donations, or it could be through investment. The advantage machinima has over all other forms of cinema is that it's so cheap to make that it won't need much to break even. And, if it's a labor of love, any extra profit is just gravy. In the Brave New World of free, homemade high-quality machinima will dominate.

Here's a professionally made machinima short to promote Team Fortress 2. Funny stuff. We'll be seeing a lot more of these in the coming years.

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