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

Becky Winn, a writer, was lukewarm. She thought her son Alex, a budding filmmaker, should have been writing his college application essays.

And it was safe to say that Malone's parents weren't thrilled; when Halo 2 came out, Malone had stayed up for three days to play.

But no one was more stunned than the teenagers when The Codex became an international sensation on the Internet, getting 3 million hits in one week and not just from Halo players. A month after the last episode was released, Wired's Anderson raved about it in his online diary after his elementary-age kids showed it to him.

Alexander Winn
Tom Jenkins
Alexander Winn
Meghan Foster
Tom Jenkins
Meghan Foster

"My children's favorite film was not made by Disney," Anderson wrote on September 29, "but by a dozen Dallas teenagers playing a videogame in one of their parents' basement." Well, he got the room wrong, but no matter.

In his online diary,, Anderson called The Codex the best machinima he'd ever seen, with a "stirring plot...edge-of-your-seat pacing, distinctive characters and a pulse-quickening soundtrack...I'm on my third viewing myself, and I must say that Episode 18 is a stunner, a masterful interweaving of simultaneous rally-the-troops speeches by commanders about to battle. It builds to a crescendo that will leave you breathless."

Quentin Tarantino would have killed for a review like that when he was 18.

Luther and Winn took the long and elaborate Halo plot and created a script with their own characters. The Codex tells the story of a battle between humans and a group of aliens called the Covenant on the planet Ariaos II. The Covenant, led by the Praetor, invade in an attempt to find the Codex, an ancient structure created by a long-gone race called the Forerunners. Gaining control of the Codex will allow the Covenant troops to activate super-weapons known as "Halos," which will destroy life in the galaxy. (Why would the Covenant want to do that? It's a religious thing. Go figure.) The Spartans, human soldiers, must find the Codex first and destroy it.

For nonplayers, watching the movie is, at first, confusing; the soldiers wear helmets and, except for the color of their armor, are indistinguishable. But every episode develops the main characters, each with a unique voice, and as it builds, it sucks you in. There's power-grabbing, duty, betrayal, sassy feminism, courage, a bit of romance, the cynicism of grunts and lots of blasting away with loud weapons. The score deftly weaves together music and sound to build and release tension. Most important, by the end, you care who wins.

Now The Codex creators get recognized by peers on their college campuses and at gaming conferences. They're selling Codex T-shirts, giving away DVDs and CDs of their soundtrack to sponsors and running a forum for people who want to discuss the movie. Their success is all the more amazing when you realize most machinima makers are in their 20s and 30s, not teenagers.

"It's a testament to machinima," says Marino, the author of 3-D Game-Based Filmmaking: The Art of Machinima. "These young kids who had a great idea for a series had the tools to do it. It's the democratization of animated filmmaking."

The seminal moment for machinima was a 1996 film called Diary of a Camper, made by a group of Quake players called the Rangers. "Quake came with a cool feature that allowed you to record the game, so you could share the moves you made," Marino says. "With that recording feature, this group decided to create a narrative point of view."

The film was short and silent, the story slim: The Rangers encountered a lone gunman and had to go get him. "It became hugely popular among the gaming community," Marino says.

At the time, Marino was living in New York, doing computer animation for television, a laborious and time-consuming process. "It can take hours and hours to create," Marino says. "With games it's all real-time. It takes a more live-action approach. It was logical the technologies would meet."

In 1998, Marino and his fellow Quake players--the ILL Clan--made a machinima called Apartment Hunting. Then people started doing it with other games, including Unreal Tournament and Half-Life. Gaming technology has advanced so much in the last three years, Marino says, that the difference is obvious on the screen. "The talent has matured," he says. "It's spreading out. It was, at first, just gamers. But machinima filmmakers are broadening. We are seeing kids, adults, homemakers and older people."

David Diaz, aka "Bard Noir," posted his first machinima music video--based on characters he created for Sims 2--a year ago before he even knew what machinima was. Manager of a car rental shop in Houston, Diaz is a movie buff and fan of role-playing games. He dresses up every year as a bard for the Texas Renaissance Festival.

"The Sims games are anti-escapism at its best," Diaz says. "You create miniature virtual people. You design everything about them. The point is to see how they interact with one another. When they added the technology to record this, capturing the interaction, it opened it up."

Diaz first got attention with a machinima music video set to his fiancée's favorite Kurt Nilsen song, called "I." To the melancholy tune, a Sim (who resembles Diaz) anguishes over how to approach a pretty girl, practicing in the mirror, trying to approach her and failing.

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