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

Meghan Foster didn't even go to school that day. Probably the top female gamer in her school, a year earlier Foster had gotten so obsessed with Everquest that her mother had to take the computer out of her bedroom.

"I'd been up three days straight playing," Foster says. "I think what happened was I forgot to do my chores for the third week in a row. I never should have started playing Everquest." She now calls it "evercrack."

Why are they so into games? None of them have much insight into their addiction, but the answer is probably as easy as this: It's fun. It's competitive. And game developers have figured out how to make the quest personal. David Freeman, a consultant for games, calls it "emotioneering."

Ryan Luther
Tom Jenkins
Ryan Luther
The makers of The Codex spent 10 months in 
Alexander Winn's bedroom filming, editing and dubbing 
voices on a bank of computers, Xboxes and TV monitors.
Tom Jenkins
The makers of The Codex spent 10 months in Alexander Winn's bedroom filming, editing and dubbing voices on a bank of computers, Xboxes and TV monitors.

Foster became just as obsessed with Halo. "You become attached to the characters, your fellow Marines," she says. "It shakes you up when something happens to characters you've come to trust. A lot of people don't realize the emotional impact these things have."

Like thousands of other Halo addicts, Alex, Ryan, Patrick and Meghan loved Red Vs Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles, a popular machinima comedy series based on Halo 2. Created by older gamers who met at UT Austin, the series features bored futuristic soldiers enmeshed in a civil war who say stupid stuff to pass the time. Ed Halter of the Village Voice called it "Clerks-meets-Star Wars." Here's a sample from the first episode:

Tucker: "What are they doing?"

Church: "What?"

Tucker: "I said, what are they doing now?"

Church: "Goddamn, I'm getting so sick of answering that question."

Tucker: "You have the fucking rifle. I can't see shit. Don't bitch at me because I'm not going to just sit up here and play with my dick all day."

Church: "OK, look. They're just standing there and talking, OK? That's all they're doing, that's all they ever do--is just stand there and talk. That's what they were doing last week, that's what they were doing when you asked me five minutes ago. So five minutes from now, when you ask me 'What are they doing?,' my answer's gonna be 'They're still just talkin', and they're still just standin' there.'"

The creators of Red Vs Blue now run a company called Rooster Teeth, based in Buda, Texas, and earn money creating machinima for commercial uses. New episodes of Red Vs Blue, now in its fourth season, are posted each week and downloaded by half a million people.

"Red Vs Blue is Beckett," says Wired's Anderson. "It's doing Waiting for Godot. It makes an asset out of its limitations." Among the limitations: The Halo Marines are all wearing helmets, so they can be distinguished only by their voices. Figuring out who's who in a battle scene is difficult. And the soldiers don't have complete range of motion; for example, they are able to crouch but not sit down.

"But you can blow things up real easily," Luther says.

Red Vs Blue and its many imitators inspired Winn to think about using Halo 2 to create a movie. He assumed that, after making short films--dealing with actors, getting location permits, coping with weather--creating machinima would be a breeze.

Winn had grown up watching old movies with his grandmother. As a teenager, he started using editing software on his computer to make trailers for real and made-up movies he'd like to see, snipping video slices and putting them to music.

The summer between his sophomore and junior year, Winn had tried making a movie based on Ender's Game, a popular sci-fi book. After writing a script, Winn recruited Luther, who'd taught himself 3-D modeling, and they built some ship models. Winn rounded up a cast of 10 friends and 20 extras and borrowed digital video cameras from his school. He had 35 minutes of the story on film when Winn realized that the way he was going, the movie would be 15 hours long. He shelved it.

"I got a half-hour into it before I realized there's a reason big-budget movies have big budgets," Winn says.

His next venture was more successful. In video tech class during his junior year, Winn was given an assignment to make a seven-minute movie with no dialogue. Winn shot an homage to old Bogart movies he'd watched with his grandmother. Filmed around Highland Park, Winn was shooting a night chase (and also acting in the scene) down an alley that dead-ended at a bank drive-through when a police car screeched up. A Dallas police officer got out, drew a gun on them and barked, "Drop your weapons and step away from the car!"

"It was pretty scary," says Becky Winn, Alex's mother, who'd been driving a van down the alley as a camera dolly. "The officer seemed nervous."

The next night, Alex passed out fliers to residents and had two friends stand with big signs on either end of the alley: "Student Film in Progress."

Jack O'Neill, Private Detective, written, directed and scored by Alex Winn, was accepted by a number of film festivals and won, among other prizes, a CINE Golden Eagle Award in 2004. He was the only high school student to do so that year.

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