The technical, practical and communal necessities for creating a machinima film

My original project began with the goal of producing an original, quality ‘machinima’ film that Jenna Ng (2013, p. xiv) defines as ‘films made by real-time three-dimensional computer graphics rendering engines’. The aim of this project was two-fold: First, I was displeased by the apparent semantic hijacking of the term ‘machinima’ which was once understood as the practice of using games as a medium for film making, but is now synonymous with the media outlet ‘Machinima, Inc’ known instead for creating news videos and commentated gameplay which resonates with Jenkins’ assertion that ‘our core myths now belong to corporations, rather than the folk’ (Jenkins, 2000, p. 69).

Having built their business on the backs of peoples machinima contributions, they’ve since branched out and left behind the machinima art form. This conceptual warping of ‘machinima’ inspired me to create a ‘proper’ machinima project. The second factor was the notable lack of these films based around Rainbow Six: Siege (2015). Using this game as the platform for the project sounded intriguing, as the game features a grounded human setting with which to effectively create suspense but also opportunity to exploit this grave context for some subversive, genre-bending jingoistic humour to avoid being taken too seriously.

With this idea in mind I started work on the script and began establishing a theme, loose plot and the means by which to perform and record my film. Unfortunately, I encountered numerous set-backs and issues which brought my project to a halt. It became clear this seemingly trivial task had become too problematic to continue and so I decided instead to write about the issues I encountered.

To achieve this, I’ll align my experience attempting to create a machinima film with practices and paradigms necessitated for machinima making as supported primarily by readings in Understanding Machinima (2013) and Leo Berkeley’s Situating Machinima in the New Mediascape (2006). As the inciting factor, Siege will be referred to as an indicator of machinima compatibility due to its obstinate incompatibility. With this analysis I will explore what makes a game machinima-able by outlining the technical, practical and communal necessities for creating a machinima film.

LaPensée & Lewis suggest that by the simple act of ‘adapting gameplay to the cinematic form’ we are subverting the expectations of the game’s makers, and no longer playing a game as much as with the structure of a game (2013, p. 196). Despite undermining the expectations of developers, games at least need to be amenable to film-making and facilitate it however possible. For example, Blizzard’s games usually include the ability to ‘control camera and [export] video to digital editing software’ (Barwell & Moore, 2013, p. 210), allowing the player greater control over shots and a smoother transition to the editing phase.

Siege features neither of these abilities, already severely limiting its filmic potential. Leo Berkeley, as a long time filmmaker but an outsider to the medium of video games, applauds the breadth of camera options available to machinima makers stating that ‘observing the action from a high angle has some advantages’ (2006, p. 72) which are possible but rarely used in traditional film production. This dexterity holds a marked advantage over ‘real’ filming, and games with this ability, such as World of Warcraft (2004), are immediately more suitable for generating machinima works. Danilovic (2013, p. 178) supports this notion, claiming that ‘unusual camera angles portray powerful emotional landscapes and make compelling aesthetic statements’ but this is harder to accomplish without basic control over camera movement and placement.

According to Jenkins ‘modding’ not only ‘extends the game’s commercial life’ (2001, p. 67)  and helps foster a creative community, but it can completely eschew the intended purpose of a game by removing ‘restrictions on camera movements, lighting, and other production elements’ as argued by Barwell & Moore (2013, p. 221).

Depending on the genre of movie you’re making, the ability to, for example, remove HUD elements from the film-maker’s UI can be of paramount importance to the sense of immersion and tone. Second Life (2003) fully supports modding, and so the community has been permitted to produce add-ons like ‘The Eye’ (2016) which hides the user’s avatar and name-tag.

This is acknowledged by Barwell & Moore who applaud Second Life machinima in particular because of its ‘extensive amount of modification owing to the user-generated nature of the virtual world’ (2013, p. 197). Siege does not allow for user-generated content, complete disabling of HUD, or mods of any kind which greatly limits its thematic scope and community engagement to what’s already been established. There’s little opportunity for remediation; limited to cinematic action sequence as it’s only practical application caused by the regulating of options. Indeed, my multiple inquiries to Ubisoft and individual developers via Twitter regarding the broken ‘widescreen letterbox’ feature in Siege was met with silent indifference.

That said, Second Life’s popularity as a medium for machinima films can be attributed to a number of features. The lack of explicit goals makes this genre of simulation games cinematically malleable; they ‘present novel and unusual ways of looking at animated bodies, identities, stories, and worlds’ (Danilovic, p.184) by virtue of their contextual flexibility and accessibility.

Combined with a dynamic economy and situation within a real, albeit virtual, society, Berkeley states that this creates an invaluable ‘potential for uncertainty and unpredictability’ (2006 p.73) which can be a unique and envied quality of narrative storytelling. The narrative driving his machinima film Ending with Andre (2005) was a direct result of unscripted AI behaviour intruding the ‘actor’s life, depicting ‘an angry man dressed in black’ hounding the protagonist. Berkeley was able to use this random encounter to weave a plot that portrays an abusive ex confronting the character.

This scene was possible due to the game’s random nature, making it possible to ‘follow a script but also… improvise and adapt’ as LaPensée & Lewis propose (2013 p. 200), and despite the limited ‘expressive possibilities of animated game characters compared to human actors’ and inability to lip-sink that Berkeley faced during production, when edited and framed by narration it achieved surprisingly emotional moments (2006, p. 72).

Alternatively, Siege has somewhat limited room for chance events that only encompasses situational occurrences akin to a poor grenade toss resulting in the death of the thrower. There isn’t, as LaPensée & Lewis remark, much in the way of ‘unique combinations of opportunities for creative remediation’ (2013, p.188) owing to the predictable AI and fundamentally unavoidable first-person perspective and associated tropes.

Unfortunately, uncontrollable factors can also be a detriment. Barwell & Moore caution that choosing to film in an ‘MMO’ environment such as World of Warcraft ‘leaves open the possibility of interference from players not involved’ with the machinima process (2013, p. 217). This is a problem that’s largely dependent on both the genre of game, and any restrictions barring custom game sessions which could be used to minimise interference by other individuals. To its merit, while other games can suffer from this, Siege allows for custom servers that don’t require a minimum number of participants and can be accessed online, not just via the same network.

As machinima practitioners rely on ‘wide dissemination of their work across the Web’, an online connection to servers isn’t an unthinkable prerequisite (Danilovic, 2013, p. 184). However, the ability to access a game in the event there’s no internet connection so the ‘machinimator’ can continue recording is appreciated. Siege prevents prospective machinimists access to the entirety of its gameplay, including single-player campaign, should they not have the means to perform mandatory updates.

While it’s anticipated that ‘game manufacturers [will] regularly update the game world’, it should not unnecessarily ‘disrupt the machinima production process’ (Barwell & Moore, p.217). Despite this, Siege’s offline modes I just finished lauding are rendered inaccessible when the game’s own client repeatedly crashes and cannot complete the update. Therefore, a game like The Sims (series) with the ability to function offline should be considered as a potential candidate even if the performance is more akin to janky ‘virtual puppetry’ (Nitsche, 2005) than something more natural like the animations that could be captured with Siege.

Ultimately, the factors discussed to assist would-be machinima makers in choosing a game do minimise the ‘intense and meticulous labour… concentration, and organization’ (Ng & Barrett, 2013, p. 234) necessary while film-making, however one must recognize the external factors that can determine either the success or failure of a project. Danilovic makes sure to point out the ‘technical quirks of shooting with capture screen software’ that are distinct to working in a digital setting. These range from choosing compression formats or codecs and sorting out frame rate issues, to managing the ‘excessive’ storage requirements for raw video files (2013, p. 183).

For their part, Barwell & Moore recognize machinima as a ‘translocation of various forms of filmmaking skills’ (2013, p.217) and the required skillset necessitates the ability to navigate any technical pitfalls. If the creation of machinima is the ‘employment of wit, subversion, and mischief’ as Ng & Barrett suggest (2013, p. 232), the post-production and composition can be exercises in tedium, restraint, and compromise. LaPensée & Lewis, however, remark on the relative flexibility machinima possesses throughout the entirety of the production process compared to film or television however (2013, p. 200).

Lastly, machinima produced with footage from a commercial video-game, or what Jenna Ng dubs as ‘first wave machinima’ (2013, p. xvi) while detractors might write-off as ‘low culture’ film (DeLappe, 2013, p. 164), is contingent on the state of a game’s community.  If the developer has continually supported the game and empowered users, as is the case with Linden Lab’s Second Life, then there likely exists both encouragement to produce fan material and a passionate community interested in consuming it. Unfortunately, while Siege has a somewhat active player following, publisher Ubisoft does little to encourage fan work based on the game or promote existing examples.

Evidently, there’s a multitude of factors that contribute to the machinability of a video-game. Some are embedded in the core design decisions of the game like being able to willingly change cosmetic details and remove the HUD, while other hurdles can sometimes be surmounted via the approval of modding to add functionality that assists production i.e., making both the user and their name invisible or completely overhaul the visual theme.

Similarly, the goalless nature of simulations in particular can lead to unscripted and unrepeatable situations that are a distinctive characteristic of video-games as a platform. As a completely digital medium, the need for updates is inevitable yet can be an unexpected hindrance should you choose to film with a game that requires an internet connection. To further complicate matters is the post-production and finalising the film with technical considerations like frame-rates and codecs which require a basic familiarity with the editing software and production pipeline.

Rainbow Six: Siege fails to comply with all of these outlined concerns and is ultimately unfit for adaption to the machinima art form, with the coup de grâce being the apathetic community and lack of promotion or encouragement by Ubisoft.

UPDATE 30/9/17: With the renewed interest in Siege from the average gamer, the Source Filmmaker suite has kick-started a number of machinima films such as this. The accessibility of this tool-set doesn’t require the base game to make films, so restrictions in the original game’s environment can be by-passed.

References:

  • Berkeley, Leo (2006), ‘Situating Machinima in the New Mediascape’, International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, Vol 4. no. 2, pp.65-80.
  • Barwell, G. and Moore C. 2013, ‘World of Chaucer: Machinima and Adaptation’, in Understanding Machinima: Essays on Filmmaking in Virtual Worlds, edited by Jenna Ng, Continuum: London.
  • Jenna, M. and Barrett J. 2013, ‘Introduction’ & ‘A pedagogy of craft: Teaching Culture Analysis with machinima’, in Understanding Machinima: Essays on Filmmaking in Virtual Worlds, edited by Jenna Ng, Continuum: London.
  • LaPensée, E. and Lewis JS. 2013, ‘Call it a vision quest: Machinima in a First Nations context’, in Understanding Machinima: Essays on Filmmaking in Virtual Worlds, edited by Jenna Ng, Continuum: London.
  • Danilovic, S. 2013, ‘Virtual lens of exposure: Aesthetics, theory, and ethics of documentary filmmaking in Second Life’, in Understanding Machinima: Essays on Filmmaking in Virtual Worlds, edited by Jenna Ng, Continuum: London.
  • DeLappe, J. 2013, ‘Playing Politics – Machinima as live performance and document’, in Understanding Machinima: Essays on Filmmaking in Virtual Worlds, edited by Jenna Ng, Continuum: London.
  • Jenkins, H. (2001) ‘Convergence? I Diverge’, Technology Review, vol. 104, no. 5, p.93.
  • Nitsche, M 2005, ‘Film Live: An Excursion into Machinima’, Developing Interactive Narrative Content, vol. 103, no. 2, p. 103, viewed 29/5/16,
    < http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/~nitsche/download/Nitsche_machinima_DRAFT4.pdf >
  • Jenkins, H. (2000) ‘Digital Land Grab: Intellectual Property in Cyberspace’ Technology Review, vol. 103, no. 2, p.103.
  • Magic Emerald 2016, [ The Eye ] Invisibility HUD Hide Avatar & NameTag, Second Life Marketplace, viewed 29/5/16,
    < https://marketplace.secondlife.com/p/The-Eye-Invisibility-HUD-Hide-Avatar-NameTag/4393940?id= >
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Report On Automation & Labor Share

This report is a brief, critical exploration of the imminent wave of automation with acknowledgement of past innovations and possible future societal effects and implications. Not to mention, the culmination of weeks of research.

Please download the .pdf file linked above to access.

E-Waste Podcast: What we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and why we need to stop

Reflection

With a bevy of assignments piling up towards the end of this session, I grabbed the BCM bull by its horns and knuckled down like an upstanding, model student. Having already an interest in Amazon due to their imminent Australian debut, I dove into their use of automation for DIGC335. Upon seeing the BCM310 lecture on data centres and their environmental impact, I knew I’d have to look at the way companies manage their e-waste. While it became difficult to identify the methods of individual companies, like Amazon, I found a wealth of information, statistics and exposés on the broader flow of e-waste.

Most concerning, was the realisation that much of the world’s e-waste, corporations’ included, ends up either in landfill or lining the streets of impoverished nations. So, this shaped my focus instead to investigating the status of e-waste worldwide, with an emphasis on international legislation that informs ethical businesses, tied up by looking at the Australian e-waste landscape. Having committed to completing a research report for DIGC335, and not a digital artefact, I thought it might be therapeutic exciting to hone my content production skills with this project instead.

Having overcome one of my early obstacles in hiring a microphone (turns out you just need to say you’ve “borrowed one before”), I set about researching. One key challenge was having to ignore sources due to there being so many available; the Dateline report comes to mind, which I only sampled once in favour of focusing on ABC’s similar story. Another challenge was being only able to digitally ‘rent’ eBooks for 24 hours via UOW’s catalogue Research done and script written, it was time to record my lines. Again and again. Because upon editing them together, I noticed a slurred word here, my phone ‘pinged’ there, and the neighbours running their water audibly shaking the plumbing. These made many lines unworkable. Half an hour and many fits of giggles later, Madelyn’s lines were recorded. Everything was coming together.

Until, of course, I had to delete a thousand words because 2,500 words doesn’t actually equal 9/10 minutes of speech. Hmm. That was soul-crushing another challenge.

I’m very happy of the final product. I believe the podcast medium has allowed me to convey a large amount of information in a more digestible format than a written report, and I’ve comfortably satisfied the assessment criteria. I’m also pleased that I completed it in a more humane, relaxed timeframe, even if that is out of necessity. While I spent a lot of hours editing, mixing, finding appropriate music and generally fussing about, I feel like it was worth it.

Some of the disadvantages, however, include that same requisite pedantry. While there’s formatting involved in written work, it takes much longer for a podcast. Additionally, extra time is taken up in the podcast by acknowledging sources on the fly as opposed to relegating them in citations and references.

References

ABC, Background Briefing: How did Westpac’s e-waste end up on the worst dump in the world? 2017, Radio programme, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Produced by Vivien Altman, Presented by Rebecca Le Tourneau,
<http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2017-03-12/8329068 >

Baldé, C.P., Wang, F., Kuehr, R., Huisman, J. 2015, The global e-waste monitor – 2014, United Nations University, IAS – SCYCLE, Bonn, Germany
< https://i.unu.edu/media/unu.edu/news/52624/UNU-1stGlobal-E-Waste-Monitor-2014-small.pdf >

As You Sow, 2016, Amazon.com, Inc. Request: Report on Electronic Waste, viewed 3/5/17
< http://www.asyousow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Amazon-E-waste-2016-Resolution.pdf >

Hieronymi, K., Ramzy K., Williams, E. 2012, E-Waste Management, ProQuest Ebook Central,
< http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=981726 >

SERI, About SERI 2017, Sustainable Electronics Recycling International, viewed 24/5/17
< https://sustainableelectronics.org/about >

Zhang, K. 2011, Recycling of Electronic Waste II, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
< http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/lib/UOW/detail.action?docID=699415 >

Basel Action Network 2010, Country Status / Waste Trade Ban Agreements, Basel Action Network, viewed 24/5/17
< http://archive.ban.org/country_status/country_status_chart.html >

1-800 EWASTE 2012, Monitoring the effects of our obsolete CRT monitors, 1-800 EWASTE, viewed 24/5/17
<http://www.ewaste.com.au/ewaste-articles/monitoring-the-effects-of-our-obsolete-crt-monitors/&gt;

Planet Green Recycling 2016, Landing Page, Planet Green Recycling, viewed 25/5/17
< http://planetgreenrecycling.com/ >

SBS, Dateline: E-Waste Hell 2011, television programme, Special Broadcasting Service, Produced by Donald Cameron, Presented by Giovana Vitola,
< http://www.sbs.com.au/news/dateline/story/e-waste-hell# >

Bonningston, C 2014, Our E-Waste Problem Is Ridiculous, and Gadget Makers Aren’t Helping, viewed 25/5/17,
< https://www.wired.com/2014/12/product-design-and-recycling/ >

Gunther, M 2015, Amazon, Best Buy and the free rider problem, viewed 5/5/17,
< https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/aug/05/amazon-best-buy-electronic-waste-walmart-recyling >

Gough, M 2016, Australian laws lag on electronic waste management, University of New South Wales Newsroom, viewed 27/5/17,
< http://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/science-tech/australian-laws-lag-electronic-waste-management >

AMTA, The Recycling Process, Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, viewed 26/5/17,
< http://www.mobilemuster.com.au/learn-about-recycling/?gclid=CJ7YlYapj9QCFQwEKgodPgoOpw&gt;

Department of the Environment and Energy, National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, Australian Government, viewed 26/5/17,
< http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/national-waste-policy/television-and-computer-recycling-scheme >

Dearne, K 2011, Participants fear e-waste recycling scheme has lost direction, The Australian, viewed 26/5/17,
< http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/technology/participants-fear-e-waste-recycling-scheme-has-lost-direction/news-story/f88ddf68d940c69debcdf8eed6081d57 >

Johnston, R 2017, Australia’s E-Waste Problem Is Getting Worse, Gizmodo Australia, viewed 27/5/17,
< https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2016/07/australias-e-waste-problem-is-getting-worse/ >

The Economist Intelligence Unit 2015, Global e-waste systems Insights for Australia from other developed countries, Australia and New Zealand Recycling Platform, viewed 27/5/17,
< http://anzrp.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Global-e-waste-systems-A-Report-for-ANZRP-by-EIU-FINAL-WEB.pdf >

Travers, P 2017, e-waste: What happens to discarded televisions, computers and mobile phones?, ABC Radio Canberra, viewed 27/5/17,
< http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-22/e-waste-what-happens-to-old-computers-televisions-and-mobile/8372516 >

Stone, M 2015, A Slimmer Smartphone Means Mountains of E-waste, VICE Motherboard, viewed 27/5/17,
< https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/slimmer-smartphones-mean-more-ewaste >

Electronic Recyclers International, Inc. 2016, Reusing and Recycling: Big Challenges, Big Opportunities, University of Pennsylvania, viewed 5/5/17,
< http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/sponsor/electronic-recyclers-international-inc/ >

Bensound, The Lounge,
< http://www.bensound.com/royalty-free-music/track/the-lounge >

The impending societal ramifications of automation

My last blog post focused on Amazon’s, now confirmed, entry into the Australian market and the potential impact that such a move might have on domestic consumers, retailers and workers. Many of the sources I came across while digging deeper concerned Amazon’s increasing use of automated systems. As such, I’ve decided to shift the focus of my project towards the broader implications of automation on the global workforce. This change means I don’t have to limit myself topically to either Amazon or, necessarily, Australia.


As early as 1967, figures like Marshall McLuhan were criticized (p.237) for believing that ‘total automation is upon us’.  So to did William Gibson poignantly state time and again, that ‘the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed’. So to that end, let us assess the current status of automation: What systems have been made obsolete by automation? What specific technologies are emerging today, and who is it displacing? Finally; what is on the horizon, and what professions, if any, will be safe from the process of automation creep? These will be the questions that my research report will engage with, and what I’ll be touching briefly upon in this post.

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Novelist William Gibson

To talk about automation is to talk about what John Maynard Keynes coined (p.3) in 1930 as ‘technological unemployment’. He described this emerging phenomenon as the unfortunate ‘[availability] of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’. Keynes added that this is only ‘temporary’, and standards of living will be multitudes better in one hundred years when there’s little work for anyone to do. But it was Keynes belief that ‘everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented’ (p.6) as work provides meaning to one’s life, a topic for another time.

Since the process of industrial mechanisation saw a decline in production-line jobs that manufacturing industries provided, we haven’t yet seen any mass unemployment from the introduction of new technologies. Aside from the advent of electronic computing decreasing the need for human computers, and automatic exchanges largely making switchboard operators redundant, the workforce has survived. We’re only now seeing the beginnings of the technological unemployment Keynes imagined.

With the introduction of technologies such as the self-checkout machines at supermarkets, many commentators including Barack Obama himself, see automation as ‘relentless’ and  ‘killing traditional retail’ jobs. With robots capable of sorting more than 200,000 packages a day in warehouses, and capable of working on cents worth of electricity instead of minimum wage, it’s hard not to be concerned. But importantly, it’s not just blue-collar industry workers who are at threat. White-collar professions relying on skills like decision making, paperwork, and writing are newly susceptible to automation via learning AI.

Platforms like Quill from Narrative Science can analyse large amounts of data and identify meaningful trends, then output a report reflecting these findings in ‘everyday language’, be it finance or sports results. While it’s been criticized for an inability to ‘discern the relative newsworthiness’ of stories, the unmatched speed and lack of bias that an AI system writes with is undeniable.

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In addition to AI software, ‘general purpose’ robots are being developed with an ability to ‘learn’ new tasks. ‘Baxter’, from Rethink Robotics and Roomba creator Rodney Brooks, is being developed to fulfill ‘quality assurance or small assembly’ in factories, but still requires a human to initially ‘teach’ it these functions. This universal robot represents a leap in usefulness comparable to the first personal computers. Baxter is capable of fulfilling whatever task is ‘within his reach‘, but perhaps this is an agreeable compromise; there will still be work available for workers on an assembly line, but it will be less laborious and more about oversight and refinement of process.

Other systems are being designed to take over more skilled professions. IBM’s ‘Watson‘ for example is being touted as an AI doctor, networked to be constantly up to date with the newest research and possessing the ability to instantly access and share your medical records as required. Similarly, Enlitic has a program which can analyse medical imaging results and boasts a ‘false-negative rate of zero’.

The impact that automation makes on employment isn’t always clear until years later, however. The Economist reminds that although automated teller machines briefly reduced the number of human tellers in 1988, bank branches became cheaper to operate and so they grew by ‘43% over the same period’. So, will a technology like self-driving cars destroy the transport and hauling industry, or will new, unprecedented roles appear for the millions employed in those sectors?

While time will tell, I’ve plenty of sources to investigate for my final report in the meantime.