Machinima Film Festival: A Sundance For Video Game Set

What will history make of “A Few Good G-Men,” a finely crafted reconstruction of the “You can’t handle the truth” scene from the movie “A Few Good Men,” re-created using the video game “Half-Life 2″?

And what will 22nd-century film historians make of “This Spartan Life,” the first talk show recorded live on the battlefields of “Halo 2″?

Last week, New York played host to the 2005 Machinima Film Festival, a celebration of movies made with video games. That’s “machinima,” the stuff that populates the likes of MTV2′s “Video Mods,” as well as the computer screens of the more than 500,000 fans who download the “Red vs. Blue” comedy sketches, filmed with “Halo 2,” each week (see “Machinima Pros Make A Living Playing ‘Halo’ — With Their Feet” ).

Machinima is the result of staging a scene in a multiplayer game and recording voiceovers, or rearranging the guts of a game like “Half-Life 2″ and turning a grimy city of the future to a courtroom for Tom and Jack.

“Four or five years ago, if I said ‘I’m making a machinima,’ people would go, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” said festival coordinator Paul Marino. “But they actually refer to it as a noun now, so it is embodied as an actual piece of pop culture.”

Last weekend served as a milestone for the medium, a time to celebrate the best machinima films of the last year or so and to build enthusiasm with a full day of machinima screenings and discussion panels at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York.

Marino oversaw the festival weekend, which began with a Friday night awards ceremony for about 100 invited nominees and guests at Manhattan’s Crobar nightclub. Awards were given for some familiar categories, such as Best Picture, Best Editing and Best Sound, as well as machinima-only accolades such as Best Virtual Performance.

Randall Glass’ “A Few Good G-Men” took best virtual performance. Friedrich Kirschner’s surreal “Person 2184,” which bore no discernable resemblance to the “Unreal Tournament” game upon which it was based, took awards for visual design and technical achievement. Best Picture went to Ethan Vogt’s “Game: On,” which mixes live action with a modified “Unreal Tournament” setup to tell the tale of an architect who gets sucked into the “Grand Theft Auto”-style game he’s struggling to conquer. (For a full list of winners, see http://festival.machinima.org)

The non-televised awards show was geared to feel more like a movie award show than something from the gaming world: Awards were presented by actors impersonating John Waters, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, and the Independent Film Channel served as a sponsor. But it’s not every awards show that is interrupted with a baby crying or begins with a piano medley of the themes from “Mario,” “Metroid” and “Zelda.” And, at the Oscars, Billy Crystal hasn’t been known to joke — as Machinima Awards host Chris Deluca did — that “this music brought back so many memories of not being with a woman.”

But for all of the event’s rough edges and for all the clear signs of the medium’s infancy (only one award recipient who appeared onstage was female), there was a definite sense among attendees that machinima is on its way.

Hugh Hancock, a machinima pioneer who judged this year’s entries, said only a couple dozen filmmakers submitted movies for nomination for the 2002 awards. But this year there were between 50 and 60 entrants, with the quality and genre diversity greatly improved.

Hancock goes far back enough to take credit for coining the spelling of “machinima” — which was a friend’s attempt to describe the convergence of machine and cinema — in 1998. He’s a believer in the field, which he feels turns filmmaking into “a democratic medium, rather than a medium where having millions of dollars counts more than having talent.”

That said, he still sees machinima as being in its equivalent of the silent-film stage, where the rules of creation are still being figured out and the creations themselves aren’t necessarily set to stand the test of time. “We haven’t had our ‘Citizen Kane,’ we haven’t had our own ‘Casablanca,’ ” he said. “We haven’t had the film which will stand on its own — independent of games, independent of everything else — and say this is a worthy medium. I think it’s going to come.”

Vogt, who won Best Picture, suggested that machinima might be ready to emulate cinematic milestones of a different sort. “The fact that there isn’t a ‘Die Hard’ of machinima is crazy,” he said, which is a surprise, given the often-violent games that serve as machinima’s canvas. “It’s so good at explosions and stunts. I’m sure it’s right around the corner.”

However that growth comes, the filmmakers gathered on Friday pointed out that theirs is still a somewhat guerilla movement. Mega-publishers such as Electronic Arts have actively endorsed machinima-making by including options for it in “The Sims 2,” and Activision released a movie-making game called “The Movies” last week (see “Wanna Make A Movie On A Really Tight Budget? Try Out This Game” ). And Microsoft heartily, if belatedly, endorsed “Red vs. Blue.”

But many of the field’s filmmakers are doing their projects on the sly: After all, the movement was founded on hacking code and using games for things they weren’t designed to do. There’s an independent spirit that Matt Hollum from “Red vs. Blue” likens to “the early days of sampling music for hip-hop.”

And so the encroachment of the big companies — like EA, which hired Hollum’s group to make a promotional machinima film for “The Sims 2″ — leads to a concern. “Will machinima cease to be a truly artistic form of expression?” asked Hollum. “Or will it become commercialized by game developers and become something that is purely a marketing tool?”

Vogt, whose film was sponsored by Volvo, said he’s finding future motivation just to make use of the power machinima has given him. “I think we shouldn’t underestimate the cultural power of games and how important the medium will be,” he said. He is now pitching a machinima series for TV, a drama set in the same digital city set created for “Game On.”

And what place does he think his Best Picture-winner will take in machinima history? “It certainly will not go down as the best machinima movie ever,” he said. “But it was a thrill to have been there when we could all fit in the same room together.”