Machinima (/məˈʃiːnɨmə/ or /məˈʃɪnɨmə/) is the use of real-time 3D computer graphics rendering engines to create a cinematic production. Most often, video games are used to generate the computer animation. –Wikipedia

Now that we have good, cheap video cameras and video-editing software, people are making movies in all kinds of crazy ways. One way is to capture video from a video game, add a soundtrack, and edit it all together into a movie—machinima. The term is a blend of “machine” and “animation.” Usually, machinima is set in the world of the video game used to generate the computer animation. In other words, it’s a derivative work or remix of the original game in video form. As such, machinimators (those who make machinima) tend to find fans within the fan community of the game. Most machinima is kind of like video fan fiction.

There are machinima studios, websites, contests, festivals, top-ten lists, and YouTube channels. Second Life and World of Warcraft are popular machinima platforms, but any video game or 3D modeling engine can be used to make machinima.

Making Machinima With Your Kid

One cool thing about machinima is that you can learn a lot from making it, and making it with your kid can be a good family project. I know how that works, because I was half of a two-person team responsible for the production of four World of Warcraft machinima. They’re on YouTube here. My mom wrote the scripts; I did everything else.

Tip number one is to start with an engaging script. It can be about anything! I’ve seen machinima of everything from movie spoofs to music videos to tales of drama and revenge. If you want your machinima to get a lot of hits on YouTube, it seems to help to include game references and inside jokes for your audience: other fans of the game you’re making machinima out of.

For that reason, before you write the script you should decide what game you’re going to make it out of. All of the machinima I worked on were derived from World of Warcraft (WoW). One nice thing about that is that WoW has a huge user base, and therefore a large built-in audience for your machinima. That also means that, since there are a lot of WoW machinimators, there are some great ready-made tools for producing WoW machinima, such as WoW Model Viewer.

When planning your script, remember you’re better off keeping it short. In this, the age of short attention spans, a lot of people might not have the patience to make it all the way through a 15-minute-long epic before the 15-second-long cat clip in recommended videos becomes too tempting. One page of screenplay script (formatted using Final Draft or other screenwriting software) usually translates to one minute of the movie. But in all the machinima I worked on, the video consistently ended up being longer than we thought it would be from the script. Nothing wrong with being concise!

Next, you can either start working on the video or the voice acting. It all depends on whether you think it would be easier to match the voices to the character animations or vice versa. If your recording setup is right by your computer, it may be easier to watch the video as you record your lines and make it match up that way. On my machinima we recorded the voices in a home studio away from my video-editing computer, so watching the machinima and making the lines match the animations wasn’t really an option. Plus, in my opinion it sounds more natural when you record the voiceovers first. However, one downside to that approach might be that matching the animations to the voices is extremely time-consuming and tedious. You should decide what you think will work best for you.

Choosing the Right Software

But first a disclaimer:

From here on out, I’m basically going to be speaking from my experience. Since my experience is with a specific set of programs, making a specific type of machinima (the WoW type), my explanation of the process is going to be rather… specific. That is to say, I’m sure there are other ways to make machinima, but I will not be explaining them.

Whichever you decide to do first, you’re going to need editing software. I liked using Sony Vegas because I had some prior experience with it and knew that it was both a solid video and audio editor. However, I’m sure there are other programs out there that work—and are less expensive.

Of course in order to edit anything you’ll need to record some footage first. It seems like most people use Fraps. It’s pretty easy to use. You download the software (it’s free) and then you just press a button and Fraps records video from whatever window you have open on your computer.

This is where things get specific to WoW. In order to have a reasonable degree of flexibility in what kinds of actions your characters can perform on screen, it’s usually best to record the backgrounds and the characters separately from each other and then put them together in editing. You can use a program like WoW Model Viewer to create the character animations. Model Viewer allows you to create all kinds of character models and dress them up however you want. Being able to select every piece of armor and every weapon in the game from a drop-down box and then being able to put them on any character model is much easier than having to create a level 1 Tauren, level it up, and run Icecrown Citadel for tier 10. I, for one, would be happy with never fighting Sindragosa ever again.

Once you dress your character, you give it a green-screen background and record your character doing the animations you want with Fraps. Model Viewer lets you pick from a list of actions; for instance, you can make your character walk, dance, or laugh. Later, you can edit together the game backgrounds and the character animations. It’s like placing your actors on a set.

Those are the basics. There are specific tutorials all over YouTube. Here’s a pretty good starter tutorial for WoW machinima.

When you make machinima you learn a lot about storytelling, screenwriting, video editing, audio editing, and teamwork. If you do it with your kids, everyone will learn a lot, have some fun, and maybe even end up with a pretty cool movie.

Chris Jaech

Chris Jaech

Chris Jaech is a voice-over actor and writer. His voice-over work is featured in HER Interactive's video game Nancy Drew: The Silent Spy. He lives in Seattle.