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SHORT FILM FESTIVAL IN OBERHAUSEN / 'Machinima' – films made through computer games – reflect and illuminate the digital worlds we are moving ever further into. It is also reasonable to believe that artificial intelligence will make a significant impact on this field in the future.


Film and computer games have long interacted closely with each other. In addition to the fact that games are made based on specific films, computer games largely derive idioms and tools from the film medium. But the influence also goes the other way. And although it was previously said that film adaptations of spill was doomed to failure, is both the lauded HBO series The Last of Us and the cinema success Mario Super Mario Bros. the movie (sic) just such game adaptations.

"Apparently, YouTube was created precisely because of the need to distribute machinima."

However, Machinima is a somewhat different – ​​and more direct – combination of game and film. More specifically, this is a term for films made in virtual 3D worlds using computer games or software on which games are based. This means that the films' content is often created in existing computer games where the filmmakers have made use of various recording options for what you do in the games – but this material can also be significantly processed. Within machine there are a number of types of films, which include narrative fiction films, documentaries, music videos and experimental art projects.

Janković's A Woman on the Internet (or, The Eternal Scream) deals with the stereotyping of gender in game characters.

Machine, film and animation

MODERN TIMES was present during this year's edition of the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, as under the title Against Gravity: The Art of Machinima devoted an extensive program section to machinima curated by Vladimir Nadein and Dmitrij Frolov. For the undersigned, this was an exciting encounter with a fascinating, distinctive and hitherto unknown film genre. And I was far from the only one at the festival who hadn't heard of machinima before, just to say the least.

Nevertheless, machinima has moved from being an internal hobby among die-hard gamers (or "gamers", if you will) to being recognized as a new artistic medium and a distinct form of artneric film. Eventually, machinima is taken into the heat by various film festivalis, in addition to the fact that separate machinima festivals are organised. Oberhausen is an obvious example of the former and, with this year's theme programme, was the first major film festival to present the relatively young genre through such a comprehensive and comprehensive programme. But it can also be mentioned that one of the many machinima films shown in Oberhausen, My Own Landscapes av Antoine Chapon, has won the award for best international short film at Visions of the Real in Switzerland in 2020 and the Golden Throne for best short documentary at the Short Film Festival in Grimstad in the same year – i.e. in competition with films that do not belong to the machinima category.

My own Landscapes – Antoine Chapon

The word 'machinima' is a portmanteau of 'machine' and 'cinema', as it denotes films made with computers, and software associated with computer games. However, it is said that it was originally intended to be called 'machinema' (with an e), but that this was misspelled when a couple of early machinima creators came up with the term over a glass and wrote it down on a napkin. However, the letter ii instead means that the name also includes animation ('animation'), which is a third central component of machinima, and thus it remained.

Machinima originated around the mid-nineties and became increasingly popular after the turn of the millennium. In the beginning, distribution was limited to the fact that the films had to be viewed through the games they were made in, but eventually they were saved as separate video files – and the internet became a natural sharing platform.

Apparently, YouTube was born in 2005 precisely because of the need to distribute machinima.

Freeing format

Where this environment initially consisted of computer gamesenthusiasts, 'ordinary' filmmakers and artists from other fields also gradually began to make machinima. Among these was the avant-garde American filmmaker Phil Solomon (1954–2019), as the theme program in Oberhausen and its title Against Gravity is inspired by. For many years, Solomon made experimental films with analogue film, where he, among other things, influenced the chemical and optical development process in various ways. But in the 2000s, Solomon rather surprisingly switched to the distinctly digital format of machinima. He experienced this as very liberating, at a time when he felt burdened by age and illness – but also in relation to how he had previously felt the 'gravity' of heavy technical equipment.

In line with Solomon's description, there is a 'democratic' aspect to machinima, as it allows for filmmaking without large resources. Admittedly, it requires access to a computer with a certain capacity.

Luca Mirandas The Bowl is a deconstruction of Chris Marker's experimental film classic The Pier.

It should also be pointed out that there are certain copyright issues related to machinima, all the while these films are based on other people's intellectual works. The various game producers' attitude to machinima has varied from strong skepticism to enthusiastic support, but the practice has reportedly not resulted in any lawsuits. Machinima can be considered a form of 'fan fiction' (similar to how fans, for example, write their own short stories about the characters from Harry Potter-universe), and machinima obviously often act as advertisements for the games they take their material from.

Critical reflections

The selection of machinima films in Oberhausen was consistent with the festival's profile, with an emphasis on the experimental and cross-genre. Nevertheless, the program gave an insight into many different varieties of machinima – of which a review of some of the films will paint a clearer picture.

Film Hardly Working , credited to the group Total Refusal, is an observational study of a bunch of 'non-player characters' (programmed game characters that are not controlled by the players) in the western game Red Dead Redemption 2 – a carpenter, a street sweeper, a woman washing clothes, and a man working in a stable – while a voice-over reflects on their routine actions. Hardly Working is both a political and poetic consideration of class differences, monotony at work and the opportunity to influence one's existence and can be categorized as a documentary.

More classic documentary elements can be found in Tracing Utopia av Catarina de Sousa og Nick Tyson. It depicts a group of queer teenagers in New York who create a virtual free space for gender identity in the game Minecraft – and where this room forms a significant part of the film itself. A related theme is discussed in Jamie Janković's A Woman on the Internet (or, The Eternal Scream#) , which deals with the stereotypical representation of gender in game characters, also when you have the opportunity to shape your own avatar, and how it affects people's actions and sense of self in virtual worlds. In other words, Machinima can also be an arena for critical reflection on the game medium.

Free exploration

A recurring feature in machinima is the game series Grand Theft Auto , often just called GTA – which, with its diverse possibilities for staging in realistic environments, is perfectly suited for such films. These ground-breaking games feature a hugely detailed and expansive world, consisting of fictional cities strikingly similar to Los Angeles, New York and other existing locations in the United States – open for players to freely explore and interact with. Previously mentioned Red Dead Redemption, also from the company Rockstar Games, is a similar concept in a western version.

In The Grannies, a group of players are in search of various 'holes' where the logic of the digital world is broken.

The latter game is explored to its extremes in Marie Foulston's film The Grannies from the festival's machinima programme. It tells of a group of players who choose not to follow the game's narrative threads, but instead go in search of various 'holes' where the logic of the digital world is broken, often with surreal consequences. With these players' own comments on the audio side, this film must also be called a documentary – which gives some interesting perspectives on virtual realities and how to put them to use.

pork is an atmospheric, non-narrative film with more or less clear echoes of Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Alice Bucknell's is also decidedly exploratory The Martian Word for World is Mother . This film is not based on existing computer games, but uses game development software to visualize imagined colonizations of the planet Mars, where the colonization aspect itself is problematized. Bucknell has also used artificial intelligence to create its own "Mars language" – and the film thus points to new directions machinima can develop in. It is reasonable to believe that artificial intelligence will leave a marked mark on this field in the future, also in ways that are hard to predict.

The Martian Word For World Is Mother (Alice Bucknell

Several machinima films have recreated well-known feature films in their entirety, as a kind of 'remake' through games. Luca Miranda's the bowl (La Jatte) , which the festival showed in a program of machinima films that refer to film history, is perhaps more of a deconstruction of Chris Marker#s experimental film classics La Jetée, here compiled from images from a large amount of games.

Other films in the same category can be mentioned Marlowe Drive by Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse and Quentin L'helgoualc'h, following paths from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive i Grand Theft Auto and even takes a Lynchian twist when the players in the film are hacked. As well as Sid Iandovkas pork, an atmospheric, non-narrative film with more or less clear echoes of Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Innovation in hybrid

The last machinima program block in Oberhausen was appropriately dedicated to the previously mentioned Solomon. Bolken included two of the films he made before switching to the machinima format, both shown in 16mm film copies. This was followed by a machinima trilogy he created in memory of his late friend, filmmaker Mark LaPore, with whom he collaborated on his first machinima film. The films in the trilogy are all created through the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In contrast to the game's reputation for violent content, these are melancholic, pensive and highly evocative avant-garde films – where you can see both similarities and breaks with Solomon's analogue works.

As both conventional films and television series become increasingly digital, and some even rely on software for games, one can always debate whether these cannot be called machinima. But such questions of definition are not necessarily so interesting. With its origin in two existing and already related media, machinima is a hybrid genre in its nature, where much of the strength lies in the free mixing of media, tools and expressions – and which can equally well result in genuinely innovative works. Machinima is not least suited to reflect and illuminate the digital worlds we are moving ever further into, and it will be exciting to follow this further into the technological development.

This year's short film festival in Oberhausen was organized in the period 26 April to 1 May. A selection of the machinima films from the program was recently shown at Kunstnernes Hus Kino in Oslo, and more may appear on the cinema's streaming service. A series of machinima films
can also be found on YouTube and other channels online.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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