Thursday, November 10, 2005

Postmortem of a Machinima Festival

In the last weekend of October, the Alt-Zoom Studio group hosted Second Life's first in-world Machinima Festival. Machinima is the art of making movies using a real-time computer rendering - aka making movies in a virtual world. The purpose of this was to see if it was feasible to make movies *and* screen them in SL.

What went right:
The Test
The festival was held over Halloween weekend, so I decided to crib a format from a college festival I had participated in: The Ed Wood Film Festival. In Real Life, we were given 24 hours to write, shoot, and edit a movie "in the spirit of Ed Wood," and all the films were screened the evening after the deadline. I decided to follow the format, with one change, I would give SL residents 72 hours to complete their films. This format was ideal for several reasons - first, Ed Wood was a horrible director, so it meant that filmmakers felt very little pressure to make a "good" movie - so it was more likely they would make one. Second, the short timeline would keep people from getting bored, or too ambitious, and not finishing the films they started. The screening of the films shortly after the films were made kept excitement levels high enough to attract a decent crowd to the screening, but Halloween night meant that the crowd didn't get so big that poor framerates made the movies unwatchable.
All of this worked well, and it meant that the movies were able to be made, and shown in the same weekend. The films were very watchable, and well received, and the filmmakers were very happy to be able to show their work to a live, receptive audience.

The Movies
We got 4 entries, which is not as many as I had hoped for based on initial forum excitement, I was hoping for twice that. On the other hand, all of the entries were exactly what I was looking for - they were bad, but in a hilarious way. They can all be viewed now at They range in length from about a minute to 20 minutes, giving me about 40 minutes of footage, which was a nice length for a Second Life event. They were generally featuring zombies or aliens, which was appropriate for the theme, and perfect for Halloween. The general quality was much better than I had hoped for - but I shouldn't be surprised given the pool of talent Second Life draws upon.

The Screening
With the help of Launa Fauna and Francis Chung, I built a theatre to screen the movies in. At first, I wanted to find land on the mainland facing over the void, over a sim border, within easy flying distance of a Telehub, to make a theatre that could hold 80, with minimal frame loss. I was not able to do this, but I have been leasing an island from Linden Lab for the purpose of making machinima on. The "ground state" of that island is empty, and only a few small sets sit out there now. Using the estate tools, I was able to raise the agent limit, and of course, I could put the telehub wherever I wanted it.
I posted to the forums the when and where of the forums, and also listed the event. At 8pm on Monday night, folks started to poof into the theatre. I had designed the theatre to be completely closed in from the rest of the island to enhance the experience - no one would be distracted by the few random sets outside. I gave about 10 minutes into the hour for the audience to find seats, then gave a short talk about what Alt-Zoom is trying to do, and thanking everyone who helped make the festival happen. Then we played the films.
The theatre seats were scripted to force your gaze towards the screen from just behind your head, I think that it actually felt like watching movies in a real theatre. My host, Lunarpages served the movies perfectly - they started playing almost instantly after I hit "play" on a slightly modified Linden Media Player. I forgot to "cut the lights" - aka, drop the sun, but no one seemed to mind. 40 minutes later, after the "lol", "rofl", and "lmao" settled, we finished a event some older users claimed was "the most fun I've ever had in SL."

What went wrong:

Not enough time!
72 hours might be enough for the filmmakers to complete their movie, but if it wasn't for a lot of cooperation from them and my theatre crew, I wouldn't have had it ready to screen in time. My plan was to edit all the individual films into a single longer file, making it easier to set up the streaming. I managed to get all the films put together in Adobe Premiere, along with transitions, etc, by 6pm (having left work early to do so), but the full movie took an hour to render to file. This meant that if I didn't get it right the first time, I wouldn't have time before the event started to re-do it. The final file spit out, and I dragged it into QuickTime to play - it was looking good until the sound kicked in, and I had to tear my headphones off my head. It was loud, squealing, and awful. I quickly tried to export the sound only from Premiere - I could put it in using QuickTime Pro, but Premiere crashed - tried again, same result. I tried to convert some of the individual movies to QuickTime compatible, and Premiere just wouldn't work. If I had given myself an extra day, I could have taken more time to experiment with sound codecs and quality. For the next festival, I am giving myself 3 days.

What is the best format to be played in Second Life? I don't know - but I have a better idea now. I did not specify what format to turn in a film, because I was confident that Premiere could convert them safely. Unfortunately, because of the failure of premiere, I was left with 4 movies, two of which were in formats that QuickTime could not play! I was able to get a hold of one of the filmmakers, who was able to convert and give me a link last minute, but the fourth film was not shown at the screening because I could not convert it. I don't want to specify formats in the future, because movie makers using free editors like Windows Movie Maker will be excluded, but I am hesitant to shell out the $600 to purchase Autodesk's Cleaner software, an industry standard for format conversion, even though Premiere failed.

The forums do not reach out to enough Second Life users. I was hoping they would spread via word of mouth, but there was not enough time. I also got a hit, but I'm not sure that it helped at all. I have a feeling that this will be a constant struggle for the next several festivals - trying to capture the interest of residents and non-residents alike to both make the movies, and to show up at the in-world screening. There are several decent out-of-world vectors - New World Notes, SL Herald, Snapzilla - but I'm not how to pursue advertising in-world.

What's Next?
Overall, I think that this Machinima Festival was very successful, so I have already announced the next one. One thing that is very apparent from what went wrong is that organizing the festival is just as difficult and time consuming as actually making a movie. I am not sure yet that this next one will be more successful than the Ed Wood project - I think that it needs at least a weeks worth of preparation before announcing the project in order to get ahead in the publicity right. This project, which I am calling the Take 5 Machinima Festival, will have a different format as well, limiting movie makers to a 5 minute film, but giving a month to make one. I'd love to see films from all of SLog's Readers!

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