Tuesday 29 January 2008


I had the sudden realization that I'm the only person on the dev/doc team that hasn't written a book. It makes me feel humble to be in the presence of such great minds as the authors of:

Machinima - Dave Lloyd & Matt Kelland

Machinima for Dummies -Johnnie Ingram & Hugh Hancock (send us your pic Hugh!)

3D world (regular contributions) - Chris Ollis

Actually looking at that lot, I'm quite glad I havn't written a book. I think I might even stop writing my diary - just in case ;)

Monday 28 January 2008

"Girl flies off into distance after first kiss"

From the bug report database:

Well my first kiss wasn't much better, but at least she wasn't flying away from me.

Sunday 27 January 2008


Dearie me, such a range of tutorials. Over the last few months we've just been investigating the time, cost and benefits of each type of tutorial. Here is a brief outline.

First the dreaded online PDF tutorial. The problem is its out of date and tends to just confuse first time users. You can however print it out and flip through it as you're reading it.

We also have the big red arrow tutorial (This started out as a demo graphic, I think this has become it's official name - take that dilbert):thats what you get for letting an engineer design your graphics
We're having trouble with this because it really clashes with the oru very short (agile) development cycle. It relies upon the interface being the same as it was last time so the system knows which buttons you should be clicking. However we (I) have a habit of ripping the interface up twice daily, meaning that the tutorials have to be re-done with every release. This may be the way go when we have a bigger team and a longer lead time on updates. It also forces us to keep the tutorials up to date as they are marked as show-stopping bugs if the tutorials don't play through.

On top of this we have the static click-through text tutorial.

This is fine and dandy, but it belongs on paper in "Moviestorm, the missing manual". Again this gets out of date fast, but at least it doesn't break & stop us pushing an update. It is also a little less patronizing than the BRA tutorial.

As if that weren't enough, we still have users arriving having bought copies of Machinima For Dummies, complete with a very old version of Moviestorm on the cover disk. If they use that version, they're fine to work through the chapters in Machinima For Dummies that relate to Moviestorm. If they upgrade to the latest version, though, it's all changed and they get very confused.

In the future we have plans for an online tutorial video/flash thingy, which the most excellent johnnie is investigating. Since this seems to be what our competitors are doing, it has been favored by many people as the way to go.

And now I've just played with the most excellent Sketchup - they use a hints and tips window on startup and an "instructor" window I hadn't seen before. Whichever tool you're currently using the instructor window plays a video and gives hints on how it works.

I really like this - you just play with the application, and you're given tips depending on what you're working on. While not really for n00bs, it'd be a great tool for showing intermediate or advanced techniques with Moviestorm tools. The only downside I can see is that it'd be really cramped to use on a small/1024x768 screen.

Thursday 24 January 2008

lookey what i found

I had to pry it out of the hands of a cold, dead artist & wipe the blood stains off, but lookey at this:

And although this isn't a promise of anything, anytime, ever - It's looking like we might get our sci-fi pack!

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Making machinima music videos

As you may have noticed, the emphasis at Moviestorm Towers for the last few months has been on music video. We thought you might like enjoy some of the thinking that went into our music content packs. This is a slightly edited version of the initial creative brief we did when we started thinking about how we would approach music videos.

Music video is far and away the commonest form of machinima, accounting for around 70% of all published machinima. Machinimators like to make music video because

  • they do not need to write or record dialogue
  • it's easy to create a “complete” piece – you don't have to worry about the music
  • it's a recognised “short form”
  • it's fun to make
  • there is a lot of room for freedom of expression and visual style
  • it doesn't have to be coherent like drama, or witty like comedy
  • it's an easy starting place – even a bad music video is watchable if you like the music
  • viewers will be attracted by the song; music comes with a ready-made fan base
  • there's already a strong tradition of machinima music video

This isn't unique to machinima; the same is true of many other forms of user-generated video; we have anime music video, we have people miming to music, and so on. Music video is where most people cut their teeth.

It's costume and animation reference, honest. If you'd prefer a picture of a boy band, try this instead.

There are five main types of music video:

  1. Story video
  2. Game spoof video
  3. Performance video
  4. Dance video
  5. Arty video

These represent different ways in which the film-maker interprets the music, and hence have different requirements. We will not be able to cover all of this with a single content pack: we will need to do several content packs – many of which will not even be specifically music-themed.

Story video

This is a story set to music – see most of Britannica Dreams' works for examples. Machinimators often make this kind of film because they can use the music and the lyrics to carry the story and the emotion, and they simply need to superimpose visuals to create the film. This is probably the commonest form of machinima, accounting for around 80% of all machinima made in The Sims and around 50% of all machinima.

Christina Aguilera video made in Sims2 by LinnieC1981

Most of this type of music video are romantic ballads and sad songs. However, the full range is covered somewhere along the line, everything from Christina Aguilera to Nirvana.

The main requirement in terms of Moviestorm assets for this type of music video is to have enough emotion-driven animations that the characters can act out a story. Facial expressions are key here: it is vital to be able to get a CU on a character and know what they are feeling, and have this support the emotion in the music.

In terms of setting & costumes, almost anything is suitable; you don't need a specific "music pack" to do this kind of video. However, places with a certain romantic attraction to them would be good and contemporary dress is most commonly used - though this may just be down to the fact that most music videos are made with The Sims, and that's what The Sims comes with.

Game spoof video

This is a style of music video that machinima specialises in, and is probably the most popular after the story video. The humour comes from making game characters perform to the music, especially when this is obviously silly; for example, we have innumerable Halo characters performing Monty Python songs, or, perhaps the best known example, Warcraft characters performing The Internet is for Porn.

Possibly the funniest machinima music video ever. Apart, perhaps, from the MC Hammer video full of orcs.

This is a vein we can't easily tap into, because we don't have that game reference to riff off and create the humour.

Performance video

This is a video of musicians performing a song. This could be on a stage, in a studio or in a location – possibly even all of the above.

Whoever these guys are, they're cool!

This is comparatively rare in machinima, simply because most games don't provide the assets to allow you to have characters singing or playing instruments. The exception is, of course, The Sims, which does have a range of musicians, and so this style of video is fairly common in that engine. However, The Sims has no lip synch, so this is hard to create. On the other hand, iClone has lip synch, so it is good for singing videos, but can't yet do musicians. Paul did it in Still Seeing Breen, but it was hard work!

I think this should be a key focus point for us: we should develop a range of good performance assets that allow you to create interesting performance video. In conjunction with face creation tools, when we get them, this would allow bands to create video of them performing their own music, which would be a very attractive feature.

The two main technical issues are that we can't yet do raised stages, so we can't do proper auditoriums, and we can't do anything much with the lighting yet, which limits what we can do with a performance. At some point, we will want dry ice and the like, which will make a big difference. [N.B. by the time the packs were released, we did have some neat stage lighting.]

Moviestorm stage lighting in action

The main assets required would be:

  • Musical instruments, and the animations to support them. We will need more than a simple “play” loop for each instrument; for a guitar, for example, we should have a variety of poses, so we can do major guitar solos, Status Quo headbanging, legs apart power chords and Pete Townshend windmills, stomping about the stage, funky style reggae strumming, and so on. We should have a handheld mike as well as the mike on the mike stand so the singer has more freedom.
  • Singing visemes and the engine support to drive this. Plus some facial expressions and other rock star poses – we need our performers to be showmen like Robbie Williams or Freddie Mercury. Waving the mike in the air, clapping above your head, etc.
  • Studio equipment: a recording studio, complete with amps, speaker stack, mikes, recording desk, foot pedals, etc. Headphones if we can do them.
  • Stage outfits, hair and costumes.
  • Users should be able to customise the outfits and instruments: it should be easy to put a band logo onto T-shirts, caps, drum skins, etc.

It’s essential to recognise that the styles required for different music genres are completely different: heavy metal doesn’t look like indie rock, R’n’B, or jazz. The costumes are different, the hairstyles and make-up are different, even the instruments are different, and the way they move is different. We could go down the route of having mixed bags of styles in each music pack, so there’s a chance you can get costumes & anims that sort of work for whatever you want to do, or we can go for more specific, focused packs, which either give you what you want or don’t.

Dance video

Similar to the performance video, this focuses on dance rather than musical performance. Obviously dance and performance are often combined in “real” music video; backing dancers are very common (e.g. Kylie), or else the singer is also a dancer (e.g. Shakira or most boy bands).

This is going to be hard to do well in machinima, with all the different styles of costume and movement.

Dance is something that a lot of machinimators try to do, with varying degrees of success. Few games provide dance animations, but machinimators show a surprising amount of imagination in turning standard animations into dance sequences. The Sims, iClone, SL and WoW all contain specific dance moves, and these are used a lot.

This is another key focus area for us, though arguably dance would be a good candidate for doing as a separate standalone pack. The main assets required would be:

  • Lots and lots of dance animations in varying styles, both single-person and multi-person moves. We would have to ensure that they can be linked together in various ways to provide variety, and they work on a common timebase so that they can be easily synchronised to the beat.

There are, however, several new features that we would need before dance works really well. [This section deleted as it contains confidential information. Sorry, guys!]

Arty video

This is the type of video you normally see on TV; it is typified by clever, complex camerawork, special effects, and sophisticated editing. A typical video of this type would contain a mixture of video and a collage of stills (or pseudo-stills), and frequently contains elements of story, performance and dance. It often uses extreme costumes and sets, and often involves quite surreal action. It is normal for these videos to use many different costumes and sets, and to cut rapidly back and forth between them.

This style of music video is hardly ever done in machinima, as it requires a great deal of post-processing, and also relies on having high quality footage to start with. Costume changes are rare in machinima, as the facial quality isn't high enough, and when you change the costume, the viewer normally interprets it as a new character. Machinima simply can't do most of the really cool shots, such as hair blowing in the wind, splashes in puddles, people frolicking at the beach, time-lapse shots, and so on. It's also really, really difficult to do well - it takes a lot of editing skill, and you need to think carefully about what you're doing if you don't want it to end up looking like a total mess.

Striking, but perhaps not versatile enough for us?

The main requirement in terms of Moviestorm assets for this type of music video is make-up, costume and set. However, there is a danger of having little reusability with the more extreme costumes. For example, in the video for Firestarter (The Prodigy), the make-up and costume is very memorable, but that's because it's unique. If we supply that as an asset, it wouldn't be nearly so interesting because it would be used over and over again and would lose its impact.

Using that as a basis, we then kicked off the first design phase, out of which the first two music packs were born. The best bit was shooting the reference poses of Chris playing air guitar - but I don't think he wants us to post those photos...

gpl vs startups

This started out as a forum post but got moved here when I started ranting (these are twak's opinions and not those of ShortFuze or Bill Gates):

Someone pointed out that the Physics Tracker software is very useful for video work. Wouldn't it be great to integrate it into Moviestorm (so we can capture simple movements from video)? Its in the Java language, it would take an afternoon's work to get tech demo working, so why don't we?

Ah yes, the General Public License. The Physics Tracker source code is released under the GPL, a popular OpenSource license. One of it's terms is that if you release software that uses GPL'd source code, you must also release your source code under the GPL. In this way it ensures that nasty big companies can't use your work in their product without also giving away the product. In the big scheme of things this is important for several reasons:
  • You know what your application is doing - if you want, you can go and find out why the operating system crashes when you type "con/con" on the command line.
  • In the future you will always be able to read your old work. Some versions of Word stopped you opening old files (presumably to force old users to upgrade), this wouldn't happen with OpenSource as you could write your own solution to the problem.
  • Commercial companies can't just steal your work, make minor improvements and sell it on.
Apparently Dave and Matt did try to drum up some enthusiasm for an entirely open source Moviestorm (it was called Machinimascope back then) , but no one wanted to help. So they turned to investors for funding to do it themselves. We can't release Storm's source code as it would remove the need to get Moviestorm and its content from ShortFuze. This wouldn't be in our investor's interests and so Moviestorm wouldn't happen (I for one would still be in bed).

But there are alternative open source licenses (BSD, Apache, LGPL...) that do not require the release of the source code and these have been vital to getting Moviestorm where it is today. Our wonderful HTML renderer, FlyingSaucer, is one example. It would have taken us 6 months to build our own, but we where able to plug Saucer in quickly and so we where able to have nicely rendered help files within Storm that afternoon.

So it seems that the existence of the GPL damages startup companies. While OpenSource is great at re-making applications, only commercial companies (and in particular startups) seem to have the time, energy and coordination to break into new territory. Visicalc, WindowsXerox Star/Mac Lisa and Photoshop are all examples of ideas that became popular commercially, and once the risky work was done, ported to OpenSource (as OpenOffice, linux/KDE and GIMP).

So is it fair that the GPL doesn't give back to the proving ground of new ideas, the commercial world? Answers on a postcard.

Monday 21 January 2008

Matt & Dave talk Moviestorm

Yep, that's us talking about ourselves Moviestorm over on The Overcast. Without the aid of Red Bull and alcohol this time, (unlike the babblings Hugh recorded at the Machinima Festival) so it's a lot more coherent and informative.

Frank talks Moviestorm

The upcoming 3-day 24/7 DIY Video Summit at the USC School of Cinematic Arts promises to be a rather prestigious event, with speakers including Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons; and Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. On Sunday February 9, there’s a 90-minute workshop on making machinima, in which Moviestorm will take centre stage.

“The goal of this workshop is to help participants gain first-hand experience with the skills needed to create a short machinima. We will be using the Moviestorm software package to teach concepts of set design, character concepting, scene layout, and storytelling. Through active engagement and succinct tutorials, visitors will soon be able to grasp the basics, film a short movie, and learn about how to further their interactions with the online machinima community.”

The session was due to be given by Paul “Thinking MachinimaMarino, but he’s had to pull out. Instead, it’s due to be helmed by one of our longest-standing and most experienced users, Frank L. Fox, aka FLeeF of Fling Films, who you may know as the creator of such movies as The Internet, You Am A Winners! What I Hate! and Morning Run Amok.

Frank’s the one on the left.

I gather the workshop is pretty much packed out, but if you are going, let us know what it was like. Oh – and good luck, Frank!

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Ginger Lincoln: The First Movie

He was born because the old beard model no longer fit the newer face models, causing it to look like Lincoln's beard. Once we realised there was a ginger variation of the beard available, a red suit and top hat quickly followed. That's how things go in QA. Ginger Lincoln made regular appearances in daily test movies, accompanied by cries of, "It's Ginger Lincoln!". It was merely a matter of time before he made his cinematic debut.

A startling insight into the mind and mentality of your average QA tester.

A higher-resolution version is available here.

but can you walk the walk?

We've working on the geriatric shuffle of the characters. We're giving them zimmer frames! Only messing with you, we have curvy walks and faster ways to get into the walk cycles:

I also overheard someone in the office talking about lopsided alien walks other day (johnnie does a good impression of a lopsided alien btw). But I think that's a little way off.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

What I still hate about Christmas

So, throughout the world, the Christmas tree has been put back in its box, the lights are packed away in the attic, and all evidence of the Winter Festivities are vanished. Except for one small corner of East Anglia, where, in a darkened, soundproof room, Christmas is still very much alive and kicking.

As if they hadn't had enough of Christmas already, our judging panel are now locked away poring over your entries for the "What I Hate About Christmas" competition. We're shovelling left-over mince pies through the letter-box into the judging room, making them wear silly hats out of crackers, piping Frosty the Snowman through concealed speakers in the walls, and we're not letting them out again until they choose a winner.

We'll let you know later this week if they manage to come to a unanimous decision.

Thursday 10 January 2008

how to get your feature requests noticed

Now listen up class, if you want to get your feature requests noticed, this is how to go about it (thanks to the amazing Dr Overman)

The next (~2 weeks) code update included the request:

Seriously, this level of enthusiasm, together with ShortFuze's agile development cycle is an awesome ride to be on (even if it feels like living in a tumble drier). I'm a little afraid the release cycle will slow down as we aim for stability in a larger company, but I always hope to have a free-and-fast pioneers version.

context palettes

Moviestorm is a complex bit of software - we (I'm) constantly fighting requests to add more to the interface, to keep it as simple as possible for the n00b. One of the techniques for this is only showing users options when they are applicable.

So for example we hope to only show the "add doors" or "paint walls" options once users click on a wall that they've already created. The latest move in this direction is an experimental widget for moving marks around the set.

Most apps show this widget in 3D, but this has the disadvantage that the widget isn't under the mouse when the drag is finished, so continuing the drag isn't fluent. Putting it in 2D and making it appear on demand should be a cleaner solution, but as with most of UI design, we won't know if it's the right way until we see people using it.