For Kendra Flemons, an 18-year-old student from San Antonio, Texas, and an aspiring music-video director, the hard part of her big project this summer was figuring out how to stage the love scene.
"I didn't even have a plan," she said. She was remaking the sultry encounter from the fourth chapter of R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" mini-movie — a key plot moment in a saga involving a web of interconnected love affairs (see "Check Out The Mini-Movie For R. Kelly's 'Trapped In The Closet' "). The problem was that the actors at her disposal could only cuddle, at best: They were all digital creations of the video game "The Sims 2."
Such are the difficulties faced by music fans like Flemons, who have found a new way of celebrating their fascination with favorite songs: by making — or remaking — a music video using video games.
"I heard of the song on [VH1's] 'Best Week Ever,' " said Flemons. "I just thought it was so hilarious. I was talking on the phone with my friend and she said, 'Hey, you should make a movie out of it.' " So she did, creating as close to a shot-for-shot re-creation of Kelly's opus as she could. Flemons' work has garnered rave reviews: Since its debut in late June, the first chapter has been viewed an estimated 59,000 times (check it out here).
Making machinima — movies created with and staged within the digital environments of video games — is nothing new: It's even got its own "Video Mods" show on MTV2, now in its second season. Movies can be found on numerous sites, most prominently, Machinima.com.
But with recent games, such as "The Sims 2," including official in-game recording options and robust tool-sets that actively encourage game-players to become movie directors, do-it-yourself music videos have proven to be among the most popular kinds of homemade machinima. Music videos — including Flemons' series — represent more than a third of the nearly 1,300 machinima movies on Sims99.com. "The Sims 2," which gives players control of multiple characters in configurable doll-house environments, is a popular tool for such amateur directing.
Without the rights to use the songs featured in the videos, proponents of the form, like Nova — a 35-year-old Web programmer based in Scotland who founded Sims99.com — champion the cause as a modern form of "fan art," a way fans can show their appreciation and spread awareness for cherished songs. "I've even bought CDs because I heard a song on a machinima film from a band I'd never heard before," said.
Videomakers from Australia to Nova Scotia, ranging in age from 16 to their mid-30s, all spoke enthusiastically about their passion for making music videos from "The Sims 2." "Machinima has turned out to be my one hobby, and consumes most of my free time," said André Lopion, an 18-year-old from South Africa, who most recently made a video for a song by the singer Christopher Jak.
"Everything I have accomplished in making these films has been self-taught," said Mike Fraser, 31, who has created videos for Simple Plan's "Untitled" and Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" using "The Sims 2," and was recently enlisted by the Irish band the Fewer the Better to make a machinima music video for them. "I feel it is a good way to hone a talent, such as editing, directing or being able to tell a story."
As potent as "The Sims 2" may be for amateur filmmaking, the program has limits, as Flemons discovered when working on the R. Kelly love scene. Ultimately, Flemons decided that her virtual Kelly and his on-screen partner would spend their love scene on their feet, taking turns in front of solid-color backgrounds, hamming it up in their underwear.
She had to pull a few other tricks as well. In the videos Kelly brandishes a handgun, but "The Sims" games don't include guns; Flemons left him empty-handed but gesturing emphatically. Other aspects were much more faithful to the original: She got Kelly in his closet, in his car (thanks to a "green screen" technique) and interacting with stand-ins for all of the videos' scenes.
Indeed, ingenuity is a required talent for machinima-makers, who are often curtailed by the limits of the programs they use. Methods for shooting common scenarios aren't always obvious: According to a guide on Sims99.com, for example, the way to get a Sim to look like it's wielding a knife involves recording part of the game's canned animation for cooking spaghetti. Getting a Sim to look like it's jumping off a balcony is best built using an animation that is triggered when a Sim jumps off a diving board.
D. David Diaz, a 30-year-old "Sims" moviemaker in Houston, has assembled a list of tips for aspiring film-makers (check it out here).
And — as will be obvious to anyone who watches one — making these movies requires commitment. Flemons spent six to 10 hours apiece to remake each chapter of Kelly's R&B mini-opera. "Although it's theoretically possible to slap together a movie in a couple of hours, the people who do it really well spend days — and more likely weeks — agonizing over details," Nova said. "That's a huge time investment into saying not just 'I think this music is cool,' but wanting to be a part of the creative process."
Now Flemons is preparing for her first year of college, and making movies is going to be put on hold. "I'm going to take some time off," she said. But she's ready for Kelly's next installments. "Hopefully I'll be making the rest of the series."