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

Inspired by the soundtrack of Cirque du Soleil's Quidam, Winn came up with the plot for another short film, bought a used digital video camera for $1,300 and recruited several teens who wanted to be actors. Shot at Love Field, "Baggage Claim" also won recognition in film festivals.

Winn realized from watching Red Vs Blue that recording the action through various characters' eyes was just another way of filming. But he wanted to do a feature-length drama, not a comedy.

When Halo 2 came out, Winn and Luther explored the internal architecture of the game. "We were running on some of the multiplayer maps," Winn says. "One of the maps is a giant cave with a structure in the middle. We came up with the idea that the structure is a compendium of knowledge. Ryan came up with the idea of The Codex, an ancient book."

The Codex kids had a rule: Kill an "actor" and 
get punched in the face.
Tom Jenkins
The Codex kids had a rule: Kill an "actor" and get punched in the face.

They pounded out a plot, using an undercurrent in the game that the aliens are a religious race and revere their ancients, called "Forerunners." They broke the plot into 20 episodes.

Winn--writer, director, producer--spent a week on the script for Episode 1. Luther--lead animator and voice actor for bit parts--designed their logo and Web site. They recruited Malone, a skilled actor and singer, as the male lead and Foster, the hotshot girl gamer, as the female lead. In December 2004, the core four started filming.


When Meghan Foster sat her mom down to explain why she raced to Winn's house every night after softball practice to play a videogame until 10 or 11 p.m., Kathy Perry was bewildered. Foster's explanation sounded fishy, especially in light of her earlier compulsive gaming.

It was the middle of Foster's senior year in high school, and Perry thought her daughter needed to concentrate on her studies and college applications. But Perry and Meghan's father, Pete Foster, told her she could participate as long as her grades didn't suffer and she didn't miss important family events.

The students rounded up Xboxes and wired one into Winn's computer, where the view through one character's eyes would be recorded. The other Xboxes had four characters on each. Winn controlled the "camera" by moving his character with the Xbox controller and recording whatever his character saw. Instead of shooting, his character would move into a position to film the other characters, dodging bullets to get good shots, just like a war photographer. The other teens acted like puppeteers, putting their "actors" through actions to match the script.

The first few weeks were hard. "You just want to shoot and kill each other," Foster says. But the inadvertent demise of a player would mean re-shooting. They came up with a standing policy: Kill an actor and get punched in the face. Accidental deaths were fewer as they got more skilled.

For battle scenes, they recruited more players. At times there'd be 15 people in Winn's bedroom. When they were short-handed, Luther would use his bare feet on a controller.

They wanted to film at least four episodes before posting the first on the Web. But as true children of the Internet, they knew the value of pre-release hype. When a false rumor went around the Halo boards that something new was coming out on February 9, they decided to ride the hype.

Each of them went to various Halo forums and posted cryptic messages: "The Codex is coming!" and "On February 9th The Codex reveals itself." Winn wrote a poem in iambic pentameter that was supposed to sound biblical, and they posted it as an intercepted message from the Codex.

On February 1, Luther uploaded a short trailer on thecodexseries.com. The response melted their server: Within four hours, they'd exhausted their allotted bandwidth of 100 gigs for the month. Luther scrambled to find a Web host that would give them unlimited bandwidth, bumping their cost from $25 to $60 a month.

The trailer got great feedback except from rabid Red Vs Blue fans, who sneered at the upstarts. "They think if you use Halo, you are ripping off Red Vs Blue," Winn says.

On February 9, the core four and several other actors gathered at Winn's house for a launch party. In need of more puppeteers, they had pulled in Lauren Jenks, a 16-year-old softball player who wasn't a gamer and taught her how to use a controller. The four were now five.

They passed out Codex T-shirts and held their breath while Luther uploaded the digital files of "The Gathering Storm." The episode lasted all of four minutes and 26 seconds.

Within a half-hour, people started posting responses on their Web site's forum that described the first episode as, in general, "awesome." Their Web host's tracking system showed they had 60,000 hits the first day; the previous day they had 12,000. Ecstatic, they turned their attention to polishing the next three episodes and starting Episode 5. By March 11, their Web site had a million hits.

They had technical trouble encoding the files and uploading them because they were so large. The footage came out too dark on some screens, which they solved by saving it in a different format. They couldn't find enough people to film a battle scene. Sometimes their own ambition--trying to make their characters do things nobody had seen in the game--made them late for their release date. "People were so enamored of The Codex that they would get upset when we didn't post it when we said we were," Malone says. "It was a compliment."

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