The screams of impending death that recently sounded from the second-floor apartment over Railroad Street in Buda, Texas (population 3,800), weren't causes for alarm. They were the work of professionals.
Over the last couple of months, Mike "Burnie" Burns and a group of friends who collectively call themselves Rooster Teeth Productions have been screaming and joking their way through the creation of a five-part movie series based on the creepy, violent, paranormal first-person-shooter computer game "F.E.A.R.," set for release in October. (A new episode of the team's "F.E.A.R." movies premieres every week at Video Games on MTV.com)
The guys at Rooster Teeth are in the machinima business. Sometimes used to make MTV2 "Video Mods" — or to recreate R. Kelly videos (see "Gamers Remodel R. Kelly's 'Closet,' Replace Sex With Cuddling") — machinima is made by steering a game's onscreen characters into choreographed mini-movies. Voiceovers are used to inject plot, develop characters — and occasionally garnish the investigative follies of a beleaguered military-cum-ghostbusting squad of F.E.A.R. agents with cries of "Oh my God, I'm going to die!"
In Rooster Teeth's work on "F.E.A.R." — as well as "Halo," which made the machinima collective into gaming celebrities — the movies are shot through the perspective of the game's lead character, whose eyes serve as a camera. Once their "camera" is rolling, the puppeteers at Rooster Teeth manipulate each scene's other characters with a battery of controllers. "With video game controllers, it's easy," Rooster Teeth's Geoff Ramsey explained. "You can actually use up to four controllers with two feet and two hands." Shoes are not worn. Socks are.
Burns started Rooster Teeth in 2003, when he rounded up several friends to create a "Halo" machinima series called "Red vs. Blue." Now in its fourth season (available online at http://www.roosterteeth.com), the series chronicles the pratfalls of two rival squads of space marines who generally lack the energy, attitude and common sense to do better than bungle their futuristic war.
Until this year, the team recorded their audio in the closet of the spare bedroom in the Burns family home. Times have changed. To really measure the success of Rooster Teeth Productions, don't bother noting that the guys say "Red vs. Blue" and the rest of their machinimas are now downloaded 750,000 times a week, that their Web site receives 6 million page views a day or that those visitors and downloaders wolf down 400 terabytes of data a month. Instead, consider that Burns has been able to quit his day job and rent an apartment on the second floor above Railroad Street just for the purposes of making machinima.
Technically, they didn't completely trade up, they point out. Railroad Street earned its name from the tracks set 100 feet from their new recording closet. "After five months you can tell by the sound what direction the train is going and what kind of cargo they're carrying, whether it's a passenger train, whether it's got gravel in it," Ramsey joked.
Along their creative journey, the filmmakers at Rooster Teeth discovered hazards likely not encountered by a young Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson. For one thing, they are beholden to the contents of the games in which they stage their movies. With "F.E.A.R.," that meant staging scenes in such a way that explained why characters always had guns in hand or, when disarmed, had fists raised and ready to fight. Picture a lot of misfiring panic, a la Bill Paxton in the sci-fi classic, "Aliens."
With "Halo," the team unearthed a helpful glitch that circumvented a similar issue. "We got lucky," Rooster Teeth's Matt Hullum explained. "If you lowered the gun all the way down, at the very end their head would pop back up, and they would look like they're up and alert and talking to each other."
Those types of constraints have challenged Rooster Teeth's plans to diversify. "I'd love to do a sports title," Hullum said. But PlayStation football players aren't programmed to do anything but play football.
They've also faced physical challenges, like learning to manipulate all those controllers with their feet. And sometimes an amateur miscalculation, like one made by Hullum for the "F.E.A.R." series, can confound. "I made a stupid decision to do a really deep voice for my character," he explained. "I could only do it like really early in the morning — you know, when you wake up and your voice is really deep. So I've been getting up really early when I have to do lines for 'F.E.A.R.' "
Despite the kinks, Rooster Teeth has made it big in its rarefied field. The team held a "Red vs. Blue" seminar at Sundance this year and made shorts for the Independent Film Channel. "Red vs. Blue" has been screened at several Film Society of Lincoln Center events in New York, and Microsoft uses an episode in Xbox kiosks across America.
Then there are all those wedding proposals they receive. People aren't asking to marry them; they want Rooster Teeth to create "Red vs. Blue"-based professions of love for their significant others. The guys try to fulfill those, though the real-estate agent who wanted a custom "Red vs. Blue" commercial for his business didn't get his wish. Rooster Teeth also fielded a request to do their thing with a porn star's "Sims"-style gaming romp. "We respectfully declined," Burns said.
Even the police have called. "A sheriff's deputy out in some county in California wanted us to make a video he could show people who were in the back of his patrol car, to explain the rules of being in a police car," Rooster Teeth's Gustavo Sorola said. They didn't do it.
Strange requests and all, the Rooster Teeth endeavor has worked out well so far. "It defied our expectations, probably tenfold," Burns said. He hopes his team can someday present new episodes of new shows every day of the week. All that screaming is just a necessary task on the road to greater success.