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...


AngriBuddhist said...

You all are putting much more effort into the "music" aspect of MovieStorm than I thought. I can see how with Music Videos being so popular to create it's a very good opportunity for SF.

I, myself, would like to see packs that targeted specific genres. Getting the drum machine, the fire-covered guitar, and the harpsichord all in the same pack just doesn't make sense.

Also, you mention Dance.

Dance can and will be used in such a variety of films. I personally would rather pay for separate fully fleshed out Dance packs than get a couple dance moves per Music Pack.

Seriously, R&B, Rock, 50's Rock, 60's Rock, Disco, even Victorian. You know that someone, somewhere, wants to make their own Sense and Sensibility.

Matt Kelland said...

Yeah,that's what we're thinking too. The idea is to release some basic music packs so you can do all sorts of different things, and then in due course, if there's a market for them, produce more genre-based packs.

Personally I'd be up for a Bollywood song and dance pack - that would be a lot of fun to try and make!