By Columnist
msnbc.com

Too often critics take the artistry behind computer gaming for granted. It’s times like these when events like Saturday’s Machinima Film Festival 2003 in New York City serve to remind us that video gaming represents more than just, well games. It’s also a powerful medium for storytelling.

For those unfamiliar with the term, machinima is a film that uses graphical techniques first developed for the computer game engine — the block of code responsible for rendering and artificial intelligence. It started in the late 1990’s with the rise of first-person shooters like “Doom” and “Quake” and the spread of a highly technical gaming culture that tweaked the game engine to build new settings and customize characters.

People soon discovered that the lightning-fast rendering capabilities of your typical first-person-shooter game engine made it a powerful (and cheap) tool for 3-D real-time animation. Eventually proto-machinima enthusiasts started to guide their characters — via mouse and keyboard — along scripted scenes. They discovered that lighting and camera angles — all properties of the game engine — could be adjusted again and again in post-production after the scene was recorded; provided they had the technical know-how to make sense of the code.

Filmmaking, or at least underground filmmaking as made by a couple hundred first-person-shooter fanboys, was never the same again.

Since those early days, increasingly sophisticated game engines like “Quake II,” “Unreal,” and “Half-Life” have been co-opted by the machinima community, with the resulting films boasting impressive camera angles and lighting effects. Thus this weekend’s Machinima Film Festival hopes to promote the genre’s evolution from the proverbial “garage” to Hollywood’s next big thing.

“We want to see machinima as an art,” explained Paul Marino, festival director and member of the machinima collective ILL Clan.

For more proof, take a look at some of the films up for awards at the Machinima Film Festival 2003.

“Blood Gulch Chronicles” — The science fiction shooter “Halo’s” character models and Beckett-like desert landscapes serve as backdrop for this popular Internet serial on several warriors dripping with the sarcasm of the very bored.

“In the Waiting Line” — Built using customized tools and the “Quake III Arena” engine, this film uses arresting visuals and the music of the group “Zero 7” to capture a robot’s search for meaning beyond the daily routine.

“Bouncer Please” — Lacking fashion sense, a “punter” tries to talk his way past a bouncer of a nightclub in this U.K. produced machinima. Unfortunately for him, fists speak louder than words. Built using the “Quake II” engine.

“Hero” — From the game “Battlefield 1942,” “Hero” is not so much an original rendered narrative, but real scenes from the game — each choreographed — stitched together to form an MTV-fueled war flashback.

“Avatara” — A documentary on the people who inhabit “Digitalspace Traveler,” an online 3-D chat community as told within the medium itself. The reporter and the subjects are all represented by their avatars.

“Common Sense Cooking” — This sitcom-influenced machinima was originally produced live at the Florida Film Festival. Built with the “Quake II” engine, “Common Sense” features machinima’s two comedic “stars,” Lenny and Larry Lumberjack.

Machinima is not Pixar quality. But sometime after this weekend’s festival, the quality of machinima will explode when id Software, the game company that jump-started machinima in the late 1990’s with “Quake,” releases “Doom III.” At around the same time Valve Software will release “Half-Life 2,” another eagerly anticipated first-person-shooter, complete with tools specifically built for machinima — a first in game development.

“The community,” said Marino, “is salivating.”

In the meantime it is the hope of Marino and others in the community that both filmmakers and film fans pay some more attention to machinima — and the game engines that spawned real-time 3D rendering. As a matter of fact, it’s already happening. “In the Waiting Line” received airplay on MTV last year. And one, maybe two machinima films may air at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, the pre-eminent scene for indie flicks. Not bad for a genre spawned from off-the-shelf first-person-shooters.

“You look at what games were 5 years ago and then today,” said Marino. “The same with machinima. We may not yet be at the quality of ‘Monsters Inc.’ now, but that will change. Anyone that doesn’t see that is short sighted.”

When not babbling about computer games, Tom Loftus produces interactives for MSNBC.com

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