Against Gravity. The Art of Machinima

69th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

Against Gravity. The Art of Machinima.

These movies do not require actors, set designers, cinematographers, caterers, best boys, or key grips. They can be made by one person sitting at a computer. This is revolutionary. (Roger Ebert)

Being a very evasive and dynamic media phenomenon, machinima is a portmanteau of "machine", "animation" and "cinema" and commonly known as a type of filmmaking that uses video games or game engines to create animated movies. It emerged in the late 1990s, gained popularity in the early 2000s and over the years has evolved from a hobbyist pursuit to a legitimate form of art. Machinima is used today for commercials, music videos, and even feature-length films and popular TV series. Being a fruitful intermix between various forms — film, videogame, performance, puppetry among others, it also became a prominent kind of artists' moving image, which is multidisciplinary by its nature. But although it has existed for almost 30 years, it is still slowly gaining its place in the space of major film festivals. Against Gravity does not claim to be a comprehensive overview of machinima, but rather seeks to outline its most compelling aspects which artists tend to explore and develop.

The title and the essence of this year's Theme programme is inspired by the renowned American avant-garde filmmaker Phil Solomon. Finding refuge in machinima accidently, without any experience in contemporary video games or this type of filmmaking, he managed to combine the uncombinable: aesthetics of the photochemical avant-garde cinema with the capabilities of the real time 3D animation. In his own words, this can be a truly liberating experience, "especially for one who has been weighed down by the increased gravity of age and illness in the present, and rather cumbersome camera equipment in the past." What exactly liberates machinima and what is the specificity of this art form? In order to indicate the special place it occupies in the modern media landscape, it is necessary to talk about its context, history and most important features.

While the term "machinima" may sound unfamiliar and strange for the film audience, the crossover between cinema and video games is considerably well-known and has been evolving in two-way: with movies based on video games and vice versa. For example, the Resident Evil film franchise or the The Last of Us TV series are based on popular computer games, while the real-time strategy Star Wars: Empire at War rests upon George Lucas' eponymous cinematic universe. Moreover, there are certain games that themselves quite often look like pure cinema due to so-called "cutscenes," pre-recorded or scripted sequences that advance the plot, provide context or exposition, or introduce new characters or settings. In order to create cinema-like cutscenes for Death Stranding, developer Hideo Kojima casted star actors including Lea Seydoux. At the same time, gaming logic finds its way into mainstream movies. For example, in the 2021 adaptation of the popular versus fighting game Mortal Kombat, the very structure of the narrative sometimes resembles the menu, where players are asked to select characters and locations. It is not so important to make the story convincing here, because the protagonists can just announce who and where they want to fight, and the film will immediately cut to the proposed action scene. These two crossover trends are clear signs of the convergence of different media in the digital age, in which games become more and more important. Interestingly, machinima does not just follow them, but rather occupies a unique in-between area in this process being a fluid medium: not a cinema in the full sense of the word, but not a video game as well.

The early days of machinima development can be divided into two parts marked by respective technological milestones: demo replay and video capture. Describing the history of machinima, media researcher Henry Lowood claims that in the 1990's first-person shooters like Doom and Quake provided a tool for demo recording, which technically were not films yet. The software remembered the gamer's keyboard and mouse movements during the play, and this saved code could be precisely repeated later only within the same game, demonstrating the gamer's performance. The first machinima, although not yet called by this term, was born in 1996 as a 1,5 minute demo replay that was produced by a clan of Quake gamers known as The Rangers. It is called Diary of a Camper and revolves around the in-joke about the Quake's designer. What distinguished it from regular demo replays was that the code was hacked, and the first-person camera was upgraded to get an observational point of view. This spectator's shift can be seen as the first major development of machinima technology. If demo replays were essentially more of a gaming phenomenon, then, Diary of a Camper can already be considered a form of cinema or animation.

The second stage, which lasts until the present day, is marked by the video capture technology. As game developer Matt Kelland writes, the significant turning point was made in 2000 by Joe Goss, who not only created the first feature length machinima, Quad God, but also captured the on-screen footage by video camera, introducing this core technique of virtual filmmaking. He then edited the footage with simple editing software and distributed it as a video file, allowing anyone to watch it, unlike the demo files that required the video games. This caused certain debates among the machinima community, who saw it as a deviation from their established methods. However, over time, many machinima makers came to embrace this cinematic approach, which offered new artistic possibilities.

Professional filmmakers and artists eventually pick up this technology, but the process of appreciation took place gradually. Initially, machinima films both in the form of demo replays and video files were primarily created and distributed by and for the gamers. These early works were distributed via floppy diskettes, CDs, internet forums, message boards and emails. In 2000, machinima pioneer Hugh Hancock, founded the seminal online platform, which became a significant driver of the medium and the community as a whole. In his own words it was "the showcase and the hub of the revolution", for collating, archiving, and listing everything related to the genre so that it was easily accessible to anyone interested. Dedicated film festivals have become an integral part of the scene in the US and the UK. The first Machinima Film Festival was held in 2002 as a modest collateral event of a gaming tournament QuakeCon. However, by 2006, it had evolved into a two-day event taking place at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, and was сelebrated as the "Sundance for the Video Game Set" by MTV News. The Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences was established to take part in organising machinima festivals, as well as to counter the Hollywood Academy Awards with the Mackies' own award. Game developers have also played a vital role in bringing this medium out of the community towards the wider audience by implementing accessible filming tools into video games like The Sims, The Movies or today's groundbreaking GTA V Director's Mode. Thanks to these initiatives of gaming community enthusiasts, today, a big number of machinima works are published regularly on YouTube or Vimeo. Perhaps the most striking example demonstrating the expansion of the machinima audience is The Mandalorian, television series, made with the Unreal game engine for the streaming service Disney+.

The early days of machinima, briefly described above, illustrates its evolution from a gaming subculture to a mainstream Internet video genre. However, as in the case of any other modern medium, the contemporary art practices have also developed in parallel. Already since the end of the 1990s, artists such as Eddo Stern, JODI and Cory Arcangel have been experimenting with computer games, hijacking them for their purposes. The diversity of the market and accessible gaming hardware, such as the PlayStation, has encouraged many artists to experiment with the virtual worlds in various ways including online durational performances, in-game reenactments, glitch art and critical analysis. Following a number of researchers in this field, we believe that machinima in its most interesting forms has become primarily an artist's medium due to two major reasons.

First of all, today's media landscape is very diverse in regards to the production of content related to video games. Video hosting platforms are filled with new release reviews, tutorials, speedruns, etc. One of the most noted bloggers on Youtube, PewDiePie, became famous thanks to his Let's Play videos, i.e. playthroughs with comments. There is also Twitch, a video live streaming service that is particularly popular among gamers. All these moving images formally meet the loose definition of machinima, as they are created by means of video games. And since there are many different ways to relatively easily produce this kind of content, machinima, in a sense, has dissolved in the online media ocean. In this respect, the accessibility that Roger Ebert wrote about in the epigraph to this text is no longer a unique and revolutionary property of machinima.

Another significant trend that blurs the medium-specificity of machinima has to do with the means of production. Recently, there are more and more films, created not with the help of games as such, but with the help of game engines. Such software as Unity or the most recent version of Unreal Engine 5 that are real-time 3D creation tools. It has been widely used not only for the development of new video games, but across industries like cinema, architecture, life simulations, automotive transportation to name a few. Becoming more efficient and easy-to-use, these computer programmes made the creation of virtual worlds cheaper, faster and most importantly more realistic. A film made using a game engine might not be considered "pure" machinima, because ontologically it is no different from another real-time 3D animation created in specialised software. In such an advanced technological environment, the boundaries of this medium become even more difficult to grasp.

So what is left for machinima? Media scholar Jenna Ng argues that it is "less a discrete, distinguishable media form than a fluid dialogue of and between media… a vital conversation." From this perspective, the distinction between machinima and various gaming videos or animation lies rather in the intention of the creator and the specifics of the content. We tend to understand this digital phenomenon as a contemporary art practice which can be diverse and pursue different goals, but remains experimental by its nature. It is interesting to think of the early machinima makers as avant-garde artists who developed new visual language and aesthetic codes. Today, when the technical possibilities for creating such works grew and machinima became less distinguishable media, the avant-garde aspiration can still be found in the field of the artists' moving image. In our programme, we tried to focus on filmmakers who have discovered and continue to discover new facets of the interdisciplinary space between cinema and video games. Understanding the fluid nature of machinima, they use it to explore ever-growing virtual reality.

Against Gravity consists of several sessions which are called in the style of a video game menu that suggests certain actions to an artist. It begins with a lecture performance that serves as a kind of tutorial level and showcases various art machinimas created in GTA V. The programme then delves into various topics, including the relationships and interactions between virtual avatars and physical bodies, counter-gaming and critical machinima, memory, history and preservation in digital environments, utopian thinking and alternative world-building, photorealism, and a new form of cinephilia in video games. The final screening is a stand alone event that is dedicated to Phil Solomon, one of the most influential and extraordinary machinima makers. Not only he inspired the creation of this programme and gave it a title, but also became a vivid example of an artist who justified the use of the term "cinema" in the word "machinima".

Curators: Vladimir Nadein and Dmitry Frolov