Machinima Explained: from concept to finished scene in Bloodspell

hugh hancock"Memes don't exist, tell your friends" spouted the t-shirt of Hugh Hancock when I first met him at a Dundee hotel loby for a Scottish Screen new talent event. Hugh, for those who haven't read James' Wideshot interview with him, is one of the pioneers of the Machinima movement and through his Strange Company (whose t-shirt he was sporting) has made 16 Machinima films. If you're new to the technique, Machinima uses video game engines to allow people to quickly shoot 3D animated films - on the fly and live - so to speak. A nice example is Hard Light Film's Deviation about an existentially challenged video game character.

Hugh is currently exec-producing BloodSpell, and has written an in-depth guide to the making of the film from development through to animatic, voice recording, editing, sound and screen. 

Originally published on Bioware

The Making of Bloodspell 

When we started making BloodSpell, nearly three years ago, we thought that it would be a six-month project. Max. Just knock the damn thing out and get onto other things.

We wuz wrong.

Admittedly, some of that was the result of my script treatment turning from a quick 30-minute film into a feature-length project (what the lovely people at BioWare would probably refer to as "feature creep", except in our case it was more like "feature sprint"). But a lot more was the result of the production process on such a huge film - about the same scale as the first Star Wars movie, in terms of sets, characters, action sequences, and overall length - being rather a lot bigger and more complicated than we're used to.

So, if you want to know what goes into making thirty seconds or so of BloodSpell, are thinking about making your own Machinima project, or just want to find out more about how we abuse poor Neverwinter Nights to serve our own ends, read on.

Development

Image 1 - BloodSpell: From Concept to Finished Scene Part 1Around about August 2003, a mad Frenchman named Francoise said that Strange Company needed to "get the punk back." The day after that the folder on my hard drive called "Gettin The Punk Back" (still the main hub of BloodSpell development) was created.

We didn't have a firm idea of what we wanted to do with BloodSpell when we started it. We just knew we wanted to make a fantasy film because we were sick of aliens and space marines. We figured we wanted to use Neverwinter Nights. And that was about it.

We spent a little while playing with Neverwinter Nights to figure out what we could do with the engine, what would work well, and what wouldn't. Then I sat down with a whole bunch of people (the "Creative Consultants" you see in the credits) and started brainstorming ideas. And we kept brainstorming - as you can see in the picture.

Eventually, we narrowed our ideas down to a concrete story, which we then "broke" into acts (we were originally intending BloodSpell to be 6 acts of 5 minutes each), and then down to scenes within those acts. About now, we were starting to figure out that maybe this story we'd developed was a little bigger than we had intended.

Treatment

So, we've got a rough structure for the story. Now, we need to make sure the story's actually, you know, good.

I wrote the story up in rough form over about two pages, and spent the next two weeks bending the ear of anyone who would listen to it, telling them the story as a ten-minute monologue, then wandering off and fixing, changing, and tightening anything that didn't grab and hold their attention. Then I'd find someone else, and repeat.

Eventually, I figured we had a tight enough story that it was worth moving to the next stage and turning it into a script.

Treatment

The prisoners are lined up in a row now, and two guards start to head toward the doors. Jered suddenly attacks the captain, knocking the fully-armoured man to the ground, and starts up the steps, fighting through the guards.

The older man stands up and orders for crossbows. All around the cathedral bows are pointed at Jered. The older man orders the guards to continue opening the doors. A bright white light is shining out of them now, and we can see a huge eye looking out.

Jered stares back at the older man. A sword is in his hand.

Then he looks down at his feet, where a pool of blood is gathering, and steps back.

The older man is frozen.

From the blood, an enormous monster, the size of the doors themselves, erupts, and the guards scatter, some trying to fight and being eaten, others running.

Script

Many of you may have heard of script guru Robert McKee. I'd recently re-read his book, Story, probably the single most influential book on scriptwriting today, and had decided to use his techniques to polish BloodSpell.

So, scriptwriting was a longer but much more polished process than I'd used on previous films. For each scene, I first read my brief summary, in the treatment, then expanded that out to a sheet of story beats: each turn of the scene, whether that's Jered running up on stage, the Captain ordering the crossbows to aim, Jered cutting his wrist, or much more subtle conversational stuff, as seen in the Master and Jered's conversation up the steps, where the scene moves from Jered preemptively apologizing, to the Master setting a conversational trap, Jered walking into it, and the Master exploding with anger.

(I later modified this approach - based on McKee again - and wrote each scene I re-wrote as a short story first, with no dialogue but internal monologue from all the characters making it clear what they were thinking and feeling. These short stories read badly as stand-alone stories, but they're invaluable for crafting a strong script, as they give you a strong handle on how your characters are thinking and feeling.)

Having done that, and having made sure I had a strong handle on the characters, I sat down and wrote the script. And even then, it went through a lot of changes on its way to the screen.

Script Draft 1

Jered looks at the girl again. She's at the top of the stage, the last of the cage, being lined up in front of the door. She looks back, desperate hope in her face.

Jered turns suddenly and starts for the steps.

The captain gets in his way.

JERED

I promised.

He knocks the captain to the ground with a kick, takes his sword, and starts to fight his way up the steps.

Guards fall before him, until he reaches the top of the steps.

CAPTAIN

(Drillmaster voice) Nock and aim!

All around the cathedral, guards wielding crossbows aim at Jered.

CAPTAIN

Stop this, Jered.

It's your call.

Jered stands, trapped for a moment.

The Master suddenly leans forward in his box, an intent look on his face, like he's willing Jered not to do what he's about to.

Then Jered cuts his arm deeply with the sword, drops it, and steps back, in one move.

MASTER

(quietly) No.

And then, from the mass of blood on the stage, a massive, monstrous creature emerges, all mandibles, heads and eyes, the height of the doors, and attacks the guards holding the prisoners.

Sets and Characters

Image 2 - BloodSpell: From Concept to Finished Scene Part 1Now we moved into one of the longest phases of BloodSpell development - creating the art assets, sets, characters, skins, and models we use on the film.

We started creating art assets about January 2004, and we began filming our animatic from those assets in December 2005. We weren't working full-time at that point; however, out of those 12 months, we probably put in the equivalent of six months full-time BloodSpell development.

We created sets using the Aurora editor, which is by far the fastest and easiest way that I've ever been able to put together sets for a film (and I've been making Machinima for nearly a decade, starting in 1997). I can't overstate the practical impact of a tile-based system, which meant that our set editors didn't have to be trained 3D modellers to produce spectacular-looking sets quickly and easily. Instead, the process most resembled a cross between conventional set creation and interior decorating. At one point, working on Arianne's Apartment, we were horrified to hear ourselves saying things like, "Yes, but I'm just not feeling the utility of the space. It's too cold." The male members of the crew had to have a quick conversation about deathmatch and graphics cards to reassure themselves of their masculinity.

(It's about at this point we started our blog, which has been following BloodSpell's development for the past two years. You can find us talking about character and set creation throughout 2004).

Obviously, as each day passed, we had to create bits and pieces for the film that weren't available either in NWN or the vast, vast number of community hakpaks. I've always been particularly proud of our weapon altars, which show off the magical effects on weapons in a way that doesn't normally happen when a weapon's sitting on the ground. This is because the altars are characters that are "holding" the weapons sitting on them.

We were also working on the characters for BloodSpell at this point, with our efforts led by Barry Martin and Steve Wallace. Steve's talked about how we made up all the costumes and characters for BloodSpell in the Making Of BloodSpell, so I'll not talk about that much here. Suffice it to say, creating well over 100 custom characters for the film was a mammoth task, as well as Photoshopping each and every facial expression for those characters to well over 200 different expressions, all of which were created by Steve.

At this point, we were also working on TOGLFaces - our lipsynching tool, the various scripts and tools we were using for the film, various technical difficulties, re-drafts of the script, and casting and recording actors.

Review

Image 3 - BloodSpell: From Concept to Finished Scene Part 1Toward the end of 2004, we started going through each and every one of our maps and characters, reviewing them with the entire team. The benefits of this were huge - sets were transformed as we took our clutter, added suitable angles for later camera shots, tightened technical details, and finally got around to the dozens of tiny little problems we'd written down as non-critical bugs.

At the same time, we also started brainstorming all the tasks we had to get done before release. The result, as you can see from the image, was a bit intimidating.

Animatic

Image 4 - BloodSpell: From Concept to Finished Scene Part 1At this point, we started what was probably the most controversial part of BloodSpell's development, and also the part that is, today, most crucial in ensuring we can meet our schedule - the creation of BloodSpell's animatic.

For the uninitiated, an animatic is a storyboard, scanned in and converted to a video file, with voice laid over the top at approximately the pace of the finished film. It's a handy tool to tell whether or not your film will work for your audience in its finished form.

In our case, our animatic was created by taking screenshots in Neverwinter Nights, based on a rough storyboard (and as you can see in the picture, I'm not kidding about the "rough" part - Ridley Scott I'm not). For each shot, we took either one or several shots of the expected action, then edited them together at about the pace of the film.

It was a mammoth project that rapidly gave us an idea of the scale we would be working at - the first draft of the animatic took from December 2004 to May 2005 to create, with either two or three people working from three to five days a week on it, as we created what essentially was a static version of the whole film.

In hindsight, I don't think BloodSpell would be half the film it is today without the animatic. We went from shooting half a page a day, maximum, to shooting four or five pages of script per day by the end of the animatic's production. It was through the animatic that we managed to find and iron out literally hundreds of problems with our sets and characters, and develop the toolset we use today to film. In addition, from the first draft of the animatic to the final shooting-ready draft, we added nearly 20 minutes of new plot, exposition, character development, and de-confusing.

View a sample animatic (AVI 2.9 MB)

Review

Image 5 - BloodSpell: From Concept to Finished Scene Part 1We expected our review process after the first draft of the animatic to take about two weeks.

We revised that opinion pretty sharply after the evening we spent watching the first two acts in animatic form. We expected the entire process of watching and discussion to take about three hours. As it happened, we started at 7pm and left, finally, about 1:30 am, having filled sheet after sheet of paper with problems, plot holes, dodgy camera angles, dubious bits of artwork, and so on.

The next four months were spent fixing those problems. We re-shot, added scenes, re-wrote lines ("It's not hard, it's wrong!" looks fine on paper, but sounds distinctly dodgy in practice), and even re-created entire characters.

Probably the most difficult process in this period was the re-creation of Jered. It rapidly became evident during the review process that, well, everyone hated Jered's long, flowing blond locks. We needed to do something. But deciding what turned out to be more difficult than we expected. Eventually, having flirted with inspirations from everything from Brad Pitt to Jet Li, our uber-modeller/animator/artist Justin Hall created the bald Jered you see today.

Animatic reshoots

Act 1
* Re-shoot first two scenes
Write a new script for first two scenes
Write a storyboard for first two scenes
* Congregation shots in 3 are offline
Experiment with sideways tracking shot/reverse on the bishop/long moving shot, with cutaways?
Do a location scout
(Going to change anyway, cos adding in shots of the prisoners)
* 3: Re-shoot all the Two shots with FOV
* 3: Where was the Master?
We need to establish his location. Probably in the long bishop walk.
* 3: Close up of the angel
Close up in the introduction shots.
Add in the bishop abasing himself (shot and script wise) to the angel at the start of the ceremony
Put in some shots during the bishop walk sequence
Check that all the angel emitters work
Check that all the angel emitters are turned OFF when it's a statue
Take the angel's weapons away and put him in a beneficient pose
(Change the angel's sword into the light sabre-appearing weapon)
(Make him look like a better statue: marble?)
* 2: Better ending shot
Master toss last line over shoulder
* Blurriness is because Jered is fuxxored
Make a reverse shot of Jered being fuxxored
Camera swinging around more as a POV shot

 

Voice Recording

And now, I must take you back to 2004, when we first put out our call for actors.

We cast our film in much the same way a conventional film or theatre director would do: created some posters for the film (using suitable artwork from the 'net before we had our own), plastered anywhere we might reasonably expect actors in Edinburgh to frequent with said posters, and waited for e-mails. We took over the cellar room of a convenient pub on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, and proceeded to audition down to the cast we've got today.

We rehearsed the script over the next few months, and finally recorded all the dialogue for the film down onto our Tazcam hard-drive recorder over a mammoth weekend in June, 2004. We then forgot about it for the next few months whilst we worked on getting the film ready to shoot.

In November 2004, we decided to get the audio off the hard drive recorder and into the animatic. And lo, it was then the problems hit.

I'll not go through them in full detail here - you can find the frustrated rant over over at the Bloodspell Blog. The short version is, "if something's holding your files captive, just pay the money to get them out," and "hard drives do crash--unrecoverably."

We'd have to re-record all the audio. Every. Single. Bit. This turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to BloodSpell.

As a result of the disaster, we were freed up to do whatever we wanted to the script. We re-wrote virtually all of Act 1, changed about half the dialogue elsewhere, added characters, removed characters, re-cast. And then, as we started filming in November 2005, we recorded the first two Acts of BloodSpell in a much more professional environment, with higher-quality, newer equipment, and with a cast who'd had nearly two years to, say, act at the Globe in London and gain experience.

If that hard disk hadn't blown up, we'd have a much less impressive film now.

Script Draft 4

JERED

(quietly) I said I'd save her.

He stands, very suddenly, and rushes the steps. Knocks a guard to the ground with a kick, takes his sword, and starts to fight his way up the steps.

Guards fall before him, until he reaches the top of the steps.

CAPTAIN ABBOTT

(Drillmaster voice) Bowmen!

All around the cathedral, guards wielding crossbows aim at Jered.

CAPTAIN ABBOTT

Stop this, Jered.

Don't make it worse.

Jered stands, trapped for a moment.

The Master suddenly leans forward in his box, an intent look on his face, like he's willing Jered not to do what he's about to.

Jered looks up at him.

JERED

It could have been me.

MASTER

(suddenly) No!

Then Jered cuts his arm deeply with the sword, drops it, and steps back, in one move.

And then, from the mass of blood on the stage, a massive, monstrous creature emerges, all mandibles, heads and eyes, the height of the doors, and attacks the guards holding the prisoners.

Filming

There's an entire other article on filming, which I'll write at some point. We all get in in the morning and sit down at our PCs. I attach the VGA-out of my PC to our capture suite, we load up NWN, and we all join as DMs. Then I turn my DM invisible, act as the camera's viewpoint, and control character expressions and lipsynch through TOGLFaces whilst the other two people in the room puppet characters around, control AI, run scripts, and generally make the film happen.

We started filming with the trailer in October 2005, shooting 100 shots or thereabouts for our release in November 2005. As I write, in mid-June 2006, we're almost exactly half-way through shooting the film.

As you'll see from our raw footage here, one of the biggest advantages for us in using NWN is the simplest feature - the "Pause" button. Using that, we're able to set up a little bit of action, run that for a moment, then pause the game, set up more, and repeat. In the Jered on the Steps sequence you see here, for example, we set Jered cutting his wrist with our custom blood VFX, ran our camera script, let that run for a few moments, then paused it and fired off some effects through the DMFI One Ring. (Although nowadays we tend to use dm_visualeffect - thank you so much, whoever decided to add that into NWN. If you could write something to remove the "selected" halo too, we'd love you forever.). We then unpaused, let that run for a couple of seconds, ran another sequence of effects, and brought Lloth in from Limbo to splatter our priest in the next shot.

View sample raw footage (AVI 3.3 MB)

Editing

Image 1 - BloodSpell: From Concept to Finished Scene Part 2Once we've got all our shots together, naturally, we've got to edit them.

I'm sure everyone knows how video editing works. Editing for BloodSpell is a pretty complex process, with scenes often having well over 100 shots (Act 1 Scene 2, for example, has 121 raw video files, which often break down into two or more shots), and some scenes also requiring us to break out motion graphics programs to remove cursors that have inadvertently worked their way into shots, re-colour embarrassing flashing headbands (TOGLFaces sometimes decides to change textures where we'd prefer it didn't), and add in interior or exterior shots through doorways, which in NWN would just be black.

At this point, we also choose and assign music tracks for the episode. These won't be all the music, but they'll be the main highlight pieces, like Proxy's Slasherflick or our somewhat controversial choice of "Funk Dancing For Self Defence" on Episode 3. Phil Rice will incorporate these into his work later on in sound editing.

We generally take five or six passes through editing - the first one, known as an assembly, is usually very rough and contains lots of footage we need to edit out. From there, our next two or three passes are tightening up, usually alternating editors between Chris, Ross, or myself so that at least two people edit any one scene. From there, we assemble a rough soundtrack, usually consisting just of voice and music, and move on to....

Preview

It's vital to get an outside opinion on each episode before it's released.

For the first Act (the first three episodes), we organised an event with the Edinburgh University Anime Society, and showed the entire three episodes to an audience of 100 or so, who were all given comment cards (you can see an example in the image) and asked to fill them out for each episode. Yes, focus groups have a bad reputation, but having external input on your film is absolutely vital.

Once we'd completed the preview, and recovered from the ensuing hangover, we collated all our comment cards and wrote down the most frequent comments - including, in Act 1, comments about the Master's beard, which in the preview appeared to be escaping from his face.

View sample preview (AVI 4.0 MB)

Re-shoot

Image 2 - BloodSpell: From Concept to Finished Scene Part 2Next, we look over the comments we've got, and figure out which ones are the most urgent, and which we can fix in our available time.

At this point, we could be doing anything from re-recording voices, to re-shooting individual shots, to re-modelling character faces and re-shooting or inserting every shot they're used in. Sometimes we lengthen shots or insert exposition where we'd gotten a bit over-enthusiastic. More often we take out shots and tighten our editing to remove "shoe-leather," which outsiders are invariably better at spotting than the crew who have, by this point, been staring at these shots for about six weeks.

Sound

Once we've got a rough edit, about preview time, we send a cut of that edit, along with separate music and dialogue tracks, off to our SoundMeister, Phil Rice.

Sound is vital for any animated film. I can't stress how vital it is. I'd say that probably half the action of the film comes across purely as a result of Phil's foley work - from clashing swords to subtle footsteps and creaks. There are hundreds of individual effects on each episode, and Phil spends hours and days parading up and down in a leather jacket, for example, to get the leathery creaks of Gad's armour across.

(You can read some of Phil's superb summaries of his work at the Bloodspell Blog: Episode 2 Did You Know, Episode 3 Did You Know, and elsewhere on the blog.)

Phil also levels out, treats, and cleans all our vocal tracks, removing the sounds of actors shifting their feet as they record, or planes going overhead nearby (or the sound of my television emitting interference because I'd forgotten to turn it off - sorry, Phil!). He records incidental music in an incredibly wide range of styles, and generally makes the film happen.

We generally go through two or three iterations of the sound track. Phil will send me a preview to review and comment on, which will usually be met with an equal number of comments from Phil himself as he re-listens to his work. He'll then edit the track into an improved version. We'll usually then send him the final, locked version of the film, which Phil will then turn around in record time, re-timing music, sound, and dialogue to our changes, and return to us with a final version a few days before release.

Listen to the final audio (MP3 4.0 MB)

Complete - Or Is It? - Finished Video

The last few days before release are a rush, as we run off a release candidate video, review it for last-minute changes and fixes (we've gotten tighter about this since the embarrassing "falling through the stairs" shot on Episode 3), then run off seven different versions of the episode in Quicktime, AVI, Flash, and WMV formats. Some poor sap then gets to watch through all seven versions looking for any encoding errors before we finally announce they're done, upload them to the Internet Archive, and announce to the world that another episode of BloodSpell has been birthed.

But is that the end? No, we don't think so. "A piece of art is never finished, only abandoned," and we don't intend to abandon our work just yet. We've already got plans to release the entire film as a (Creative Commons licensed) DVD version, and we'll probably be going back over the entire film and fixing things yet again. But that's a long, long way away now, probably four or five months of shooting and releasing. We've got 10 episodes of BloodSpell to go, and Jered's got a lot of running, fighting, decision-making, mystery-solving, and, of course, bleeding to do.

And so, if you'll excuse me, we're nearly finished with footage for Episode 7, I've got to master Episode 6 for sound edit, I've got an extras voice recording session to organise for Acts 4 and 5, and Steve's just finished the new Ghoul faces, which means we need to get on with the re-shoots there....

View the final film (AVI 6.3 MB)

Bio

Hugh Hancock has been described as "the guru of the Machinima movement." Former editor of Machinima.com and director of 16 Machinima films, he is currently working full-time as Executive Producer on the BloodSpell project.

This article and the images included was originally published on Bioware

Print