'Machinima' Becoming Used for Social Criticism

In Spike Lee's thriller "Inside Man," there is an arresting moment when an 8-year-old boy, who is being held hostage during a bank heist, makes his captor blanch when the boy casually shows the bank robber scenes from a horribly violent portable video game.

When the robber threatens to tell the kid's father about the game, it not only provides a flash of insight into the thief's demeanor but also expresses Lee's personal take on black-on-black violence, the overt glamorization of gangster culture and the desensitization of video game-obsessed youth.

The moment also points to a quickly developing new hybrid genre -- video game narratives, also known as machinima. Using desktop computer tools, visual artists have begun using the style of video games to create animated short stories. The first wave of these creations often carried light skits or dark, violent and sometimes pornographic fantasies. Now, the genre is evolving to include hand-crafted social commentaries that use the visual vernacular of the gaming world to make pointed cultural critiques.

Whether it is a scalding tract denouncing the glamorization of homicidal gangsters or a view of the Paris riots told from the perspective of marginalized youth or a series of user-generated Web games that depict the plight of Sudanese, video games have become the narrative medium of choice for a generation of filmmakers who wish to dramatize societal ills.

In the case of "Inside Man's" game, which uses Rock Star Games' "Grand Theft Auto" as a point of reference, Lee insisted on storyboarding a custom-made scene rather than building off of an existing game. He wanted to depict a scenario that was even more grotesquely violent than any game already on the market.

"Inside Man" cinematographer Matty Libatique enlisted his cousin, Eric Alba, to create the fictional "Gangstas iz Genocide" game.

Alba brought in a collective of graphic artists he works with called House of Pain, organized by Mitch Deoudes, that includes Casey Steffen, Eric Cheng, Jean-Renaud Gauthier and Scott Lebrecht.

The director gave the House of Pain artists two stylized and exaggerated mock-ups of loose game play meant to appear in the movie for about a minute. One showed a savage stick-up at an ATM, the other a disturbingly graphic drive-by shooting -- both end in homicide.

"In the script, it was supposed to be very violent game a kid was playing, and he was supposed to be really desensitized to the violence of the game but (enamored by) the glamorized gangsta lifestyle," Alba said. "The title of the game is 'Gangstas iz Genocide' so, to some extent, there was an equation that being in a gang has an element of race -- (Lee) was very specific that the characters be black."

Lee asked for the sequences to show two black characters in a ghetto environment dressed in West Coast-style gangster attire: baggy white T-shirts, baggy pants, do-rags and Timberlands. Alba digitally photographed reference stills of buildings near the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. Portions of "Gangstas" were pre-visualized in 3D Studio Max, then stills were imported as textural samples and added to animated cut scenes created in Maya.

Alba said House of Pain considered using a gaming engine to create an actual machinima for the movie, but they wanted complete control of the animation. The sequence also needed to play both in-camera as a practical playback on the kid actor's PlayStation Portable and also had to be rendered out to play onscreen in full film frame resolution (2K or 4K files), which a professional animation tool like Maya supports.

It took 10 days for House of Pain to produce the sequence. Most of the time outside of production was spent choosing a weapon for a street fight that was both completely over the top -- like a rocket launcher -- but that still had street credibility. The final solution was a hand grenade that gets shoved into a character's mouth. After the grenade explodes, the character's brains splatter on a wall "like a huge bloody Jackson Pollock painting," Alba said.

When Lee saw how brutally violent House of Pain's handmade game sequence was, the director had them add the previously unscripted line "Kill Dat Nigga!" as a subtitle. The final sequence was cut from 60 seconds to 30 because Lee thought that made it more impactful.

Lee declined a request for comment, but in an interview with the U.K.'s Guardian, he said: "I just hope people understand that is an absolute statement about my horror at how violent these games that young kids play are, and also the infatuation with violence and gangsta rap among the black community. It's not a real game, but it's not that far-fetched from the games that are being sold."

Real-world violence in another urbane corner of the world inspired a 27-year-old Parisian named Alex Chan to produce "The French Democracy," a piece of machinima he created on his desktop computer in one week using a gaming engine.

The short film represents Chan's social critique of alleged police abuse of non-white nationals that provoked the Paris riots in the fall. "The French Democracy" has attracted international media attention, heralding the new maturity and story-telling potential of machinima, which has existed on the geeky fringe of gaming since the late '90s.

Chan's machinima has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times worldwide since it first was posted online in late November. The native French speaker and industrial designer, whose parents are from Hong Kong, said he wanted to present another side of the story of the riots, in contrast to what had appeared in the established media's reporting.

Chan crafted his film in Sandbox mode, a real-time gaming production tool that comes bundled in the PC game "The Movies," which is made by Lionshead Studios and published through Activision.

"Through these tools you can get some more spontaneous reaction or reflection not from mass media but from a simple citizen like me," Chan told MTV.com.

Habib Zargarpour, a senior art director at Electronic Arts in Vancouver, observed that during the past six months there has been a convergence of more user-friendly tools -- in particular "The Movies" -- and more users becoming aware that they can quickly craft stories at home in animated 3-D environments.

"The video game narrative is defining its own genre partially because of its look but also because real-time graphics engines allow people to work faster and get ideas out," Zargarpour said. "That development really puts animated storytelling tools in the hands of almost anybody who has a computer, and that opens doors to thousands of new voices."

MTV's college channel MTVu recently provided financial incentives for young game developers with a conscience to try their hand at the emerging genre. The cable channel set up an online contest with a $50,000 grant to be awarded to contestants who develop an interactive project designed to help stop the Sudanese genocide in Darfur.

The novel online program, dubbed the mtvU Darfur Digital Activist Contest, recently named four semi-finalists from USC and Carnegie Mellon. The contestants submitted games that ranged from fetching water from the village well without being killed to inhabiting a United Nations worker avatar charged with maintaining peace in the region.

John Gaeta, visual effects supervisor of "The Matrix" trilogy, predicts that filmmakers creating personal stories in gaming environments is the next logical step in the evolution of cinema and gaming.

"We'll see a movie that preserves the singular vision of the creator that also allows the viewer-player to observe it, to play it and go into a hybrid exploratory mode," he said. "That's the most exciting format I can possibly think of. That idea is the most powerful new idea. You can't call it filmmaking, you can't call it games."

Sheigh Crabtree writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

For more news from The Hollywood Reporter, click here.