Lights, Camera, Play!

They're not exactly Pixar, but a crew of Highland Park teens find fame--not fortune--making machinima movies on the Xbox

Alex Winn's bedroom was crammed with a dozen teenagers. The smells of old pizza, rank sneakers and sweat hung in the sweltering air. Empty boxes of Goldfish crackers littered the floor and peeked from under the rumpled bed. Against one wall, emitting incredible heat and a blue glow, stood a bank of televisions, computer monitors and three or four Xboxes, all networked together to play Halo 2. Three fans buzzed in the corners.

Boys and girls were draped over each other like puppies on the bed, on chairs, on the floor, staring intently at the screens. All had game controllers in their hands and were manipulating them furiously to put their "actors" through their paces.

Armor-covered warriors could be seen on the monitors crouching, raising their guns, shooting, running, jumping, more shooting. Aliens shooting back. Then an explosion: KA-boooom! KA-blaaaaaam! Aaauuughh! Five enemies of humankind bite the dust.

Later they dubbed the voices: the "voice of God" intonation of The Praetor; the snide drone of The Cleric; the lighter female voice of tough Special Forces Commander Anda Sofadee. Close to midnight, they had one scene down and several dozen to go. Everyone left to do their homework--they were all students at Highland Park High School--and grab a few hours of sleep.

Except Winn. He stayed up a few more hours to edit and add music. The group faced a tight deadline to post their last episode of The Codex Series on the Internet. Winn was exhausted, physically and mentally. They'd been working on the project every waking moment they weren't in school or at work for 10 months. In just a few days, Winn was leaving to start his freshman year at the University of Southern California. Most of his cohorts were leaving for college as well, but they couldn't disappoint their fans.

At midnight on Friday, August 13, 2005, Ryan Luther uploaded the last episode of The Codex to the Web site he'd created. Their server was slammed by fans in the United States, Sweden, China and Korea--anywhere in the world where gamers lived and breathed Halo 2. They got 1 million hits in a week, and the praise rolled in.

The following Monday, Winn left for USC, and the others scattered to three different time zones. Their movie--their 109-minute "machinima"--was finally finished.


For those who don't know, which includes almost everybody outside the small subculture of aficionados, the word machinima is a combination of "machine" and "cinema."

The phrase was coined about 10 years ago to describe movies made using a computer game such as Quake. After writing a script, players manipulate the game's characters to act out scenes, which they digitally record and then edit, dub voices and sounds, and score the action just like film. Some games allow modification of the characters and game's environment; others don't. Some machinima works stick to the story line of the game. Others veer off wildly into new scenarios.

As computer graphics for games grow more sophisticated, some fans believe machinima will revolutionize filmmaking. Wired magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson has called machinima "basement Pixar," a way for anyone to make low-cost movies with animation. "The technology is exponentially developing," says Paul Marino, a 3-D animator who in 2002 founded the nonprofit Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences in New York. "People are starting to see this as a way to do production. Television is interested in machinima because it cuts down on production costs. The History Channel used [the World War II game] Brothers in Arms 2 to explore some narratives. There's been a lot of interest in Hollywood."

Last year, Marino moderated a panel on machinima at the Sundance Film Festival. "I guess we've arrived," he says.

It's the millions of gamers who will be at the forefront of the machinima revolution, if it happens. They're the ones willing to spend long hours manipulating the characters in games and exploring the niches and glitches that can be exploited for exciting scenes. And they understand how involved fellow gamers can become with their favorite characters. "It's even more emotional than the movies," Winn says, "because it feels like it's happening to you."

It's a world most parents don't understand and, in some ways, fear. They worry their offspring are playing games that are too violent, too gory, too amoral. What kinds of machinima could teenagers make with Grand Theft Auto or Hitman: Blood Money?

Relax, parents. That kid who spends days in his room blasting alien life forms could be the next Peter Jackson, who, by the way, is exec-producing a movie based on Halo.


The parents of the rest of the core group that created The Codex--Ryan Luther, Meghan Foster and Patrick Malone--knew their teenagers were at the Winns, but most didn't understand what they were doing. Making a "machinima" film? Huh?

Luther's mom assumed it was one more way her son could waste time in the alternate universe of online games, which he'd been obsessed with for years. She'd once put a lock on their computer. He picked it.

Foster's mom worried that her daughter had slipped off the wagon. At the beginning of her junior year at Highland Park, Foster had been playing an online role-playing game so compulsively her mom had removed the computer from her bedroom.

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