A scene from the short "Everyday Apocalypse."
A scene from the short "Everyday Apocalypse."

University of Utah computer-science students are putting a new spin on the phrase "shooting" a movie. They're using graphics from a first-person-shooter video game to create short animated films.

This method of filmmaking -- called machinima -- offers a computer-animation shortcut, allowing the filmmaker to tell stories using the graphics engines of games such as "Half Life 2" or "Halo."

Fifty students from the U.'s Interactive Machinima class will be showing off their creations at the school's fourth annual festival Friday. The free event, which will premiere eight short films, runs from 3:15 to 5 p.m. at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts' Dumke Auditorium, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City.

"It's different than watching traditional animation, for sure," said Virginia Pearce, of the Sundance Institute, who is one of the festival's judges. "They use templates for gaming and manipulating them for the story they want to tell. Animators are using whatever tools are available."

Student Kevin Smith (no, not the Kevin Smith of "Clerks" fame) created "Unfortunate Rescue," a silent black-and-white Western comedy. "I've been interested in computer animation [since]I first saw it on an Apple IIe in the fifth or sixth grade," he said.

Machinima is a cheap-and-dirty form of animation, unlike the sophisticated computer animation from top-tiered production companies such as Pixar (which, by the way, was founded by U. graduate Ed Catmull). This mashup form of filmmaking began in the 1990s when gamers started producing shorts using graphics from popular shooting games such as "Doom" and "Quake."


Then in 2003, a group of filmmakers from Rooster Teeth Productions in Austin, Texas, made the art form even more popular with "Red vs. Blue," a hit Internet video series. The Web sensation is about a group of smart-alecky space soldiers, told with the graphics from the blockbuster Xbox game "Halo."

For the U.'s machinima class, the students used the rendering engine from the game "Half Life 2," a popular first-person shooting game for the PC. Instead of drawing animation cels frame-by-frame as in traditional 2-D animation or creating computer characters, the students use the video-game engine to move their virtual actors.

The students give the game's graphics a different look by adding new textures for backgrounds and characters. They also use a program called Faceposer that interprets the recorded dialogue from the actors and automatically moves the virtual characters' mouths to the spoken words.

"We build the set and place the character in the set, and we tell it to go from one area to another by writing a script for it," Robert Kessler, professor of computer science, said. "To do a five-minute movie of the quality of Pixar takes a long time. In machinima, if we want a character to walk, we just tell it to walk."

The video is captured in the computer and then edited into the short film. As in traditional filmmaking, students still have to grab an audience's attention with compelling stories and characters.

"When I saw machinima for the first time, I was incredibly impressed at what they can do. It was real eye-opening for me," said Pearce, Sundance's associate director of artist relations. "I did not know there was so much animation going on in Utah, from BYU's animation program, the University of Utah and Utah Valley University. [Utah] has become this place that people are really looking to now. I'm not surprised these machinima students have progressed with the tools they have."


How to make "machinima"

There are two ways to produce animated films with video-game graphics.

Filmmakers can capture video of game characters in motion by hooking up a PC directly to a video-game console, such as a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. A video-capture card, installed in the PC, records video of the game in action while someone controls the character by playing the game. The video is then edited later.

A second method, which was used by U. students, is more complicated. You use a software program -- typically the same one used by the game's makers to produce noninteractive cut-scenes for the game's story -- to create your own set of scripted moves for the characters. Those scenes are captured and recorded in a PC and edited later into the short film.

Machinima Fest '10

Eight short films produced by University of Utah students using video-game graphics.

When » Friday at 3:15 p.m.

Where » Utah Museum of Fine Arts' Dumke Auditorium, 410 Campus Center Drive, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

Admission » Free and open to the public.