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Your guide to machinima – the movie genre made using Grand Theft Auto mods

What you need to know about the art form with a history stretching back to the 90s

On 350 5th Ave, Manhattan, the world’s tallest movie star stands at 1,454 feet. From a mile across town, on a quiet summer’s night, a small crew ascends the Time & Life Building to its 41st floor, mounts a 16mm camera at the southeast window, and shoot their subject until sunrise: the Empire State, nude against black. If you’re familiar with avant-garde history, you may recognise this as the logline for Empire (1964) Andy Warhol’s iconic prank on structural cinema – eight hours of one stationary perspective, “to see time go by.”

But I’m really describing Empire (2012), a virtual remake of Warhol’s film shot “on location” in a Grand Theft Auto mod. So despite its façade, this is not New York, nor the Empire State, but actually Rotterdam Tower, a fixture of the Liberty City borough of Algonquin. Director Phil Solomon describes his video as a study on “the material fragility of film,” and his digital facsimile of Warhol’s project – which exposed 656 feet of celluloid that the crew couldn’t even afford to print – speaks directly to the socio-economic and technological shifts that are being exploited by a new generation of artists. While Warhol and co. had to acquire legal permits to the Time & Life Building, Solomon recalls his Empire shoot in terms that might arouse suspicion in reality: “I hijacked a ‘copter, leaped onto the rooftop of an adjacent building, spawned a scooter out of thin air and then gingerly drove it down to the very edge of the precipice in order to approximate the view from July 25-26, 1964.”

The practice of filming real-time 3D environments is known as machinima (machine cinema), and its history may be longer than you think. In 1996, a clan named the Rangers released Diary of a Camper, filmed in the deathmatch mode of Quake. Its plot is simple – a platoon are ambushed by a squatting soldier and send their remaining force to kill him – but the Rangers’ manipulation of camera for spatial tension marked out machinima’s potential for short narrative filmmaking.

As video game and capture technology improved, so their influence grew. By the early 2000s, Steven Spielberg was using an Unreal Tournament mod to map the Rouge City of A.I. (2001), and in prepping his psychogeographic drama Gerry (2002), Gus van Sant played Tomb Raider to explore the possibility of a “swinging, swimming” camera. Tomb Raider also became a staple of the avant-garde, as Peggy Ahwesh’s She Puppet (2001) demonstrates – in her examination of female autonomy and mobility in coded, masculine environments, Lara Croft becomes the archetypal woman bound by a ‘controller’.

Machinima has since been used to produce everything from sitcoms (The Strangerhood, 2004 – 2006) to music videos (a pixelated Iggy Pop swaggers through the promo for The Pure and the Damned). For young filmmakers, the freedoms are inspiring. Imagine that, like me, you live in a rural area of the English Midlands, but you want to make a Western. Your panorama is a boggy field and duck ponds, but you want yawning canyons and wild rapids. Well, now you can load up Red Dead Redemption and shoot a dusty, Eastwood-inspired revenger, as everyone from YouTuber flatbryan112 (Public Enemy) to Hollywood auteur John Hillcoat (The Man From Blackwater) has done.

In 2017, machinima movies took another step forward to find original modes of contact with their audience, but as more adventurous projects receive wider attention, concerns over authorship and breach of copyright will persist. As the worlds of these films belong to creators like Rockstar, the question remains: is machinima a ‘found footage’ genre (as in Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space, 1999), or are the films original by virtue of their stories and gestures? For now, I’ll leave the answer with a precedent cited by Maya Deren in her 1946 volume Anagram. “When Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa, he accepted the painting as a ready-made reality out of which, by the addition of a few well-placed lines, he created a Duchamp, which he thereafter exhibited under his own name.”

5 MACHINIMA MOVIES YOU NEED TO SEE

ANOTHER PLANET

In Another Planet, documentarian Amir Yatziv questions the ethical responsibilities of reproducing, as an endlessly modifiable virtual space, the site of a historic genocide. The filmmaker inserts himself into five virtual models of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he interviews avatars of their creators. The most compelling subject is a Bavarian forensics expert, whose inch-accurate, freely traversable simulation has been designed for the trial of a suspected war criminal. The model hopes to determine “what the suspects could see from their positions,” attempting to verify the account of a now-elderly Nazi suffering from dementia. Can video games deliver justice?

EVERYTHING

Irish artist David O’Reilly had been experimenting with computer graphics for years before animating the video game scenes in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), but the process inspired him to develop games of his own. In Everything (released for PS4), players can control and experience the perspective of various objects in the universe, from bacteria to planets, and in his film of the same name, O’Reilly rhymes the creations of his game’s engine with the lectures of philosopher Alan Watts, creating a meditation on reality that’s as silly as it is sublime. A genuine masterpiece.

MARTIN PLEURE

In Martin pleure, the heuristic sandbox of GTA is opened up to an existential mystery. In Liberty City, a young black man (the game’s index of customizable features will allow greater possibilities for artists seeking diversity) named Martin wakes up to discover that all of his friends have disappeared. As he searches from strip clubs to penthouses, he finds a city eerily empty and still under construction. “Sadness has blanketed the world,” Martin whispers, before embarking on a rampage that locates GTA’s consequence-free violence in a renewed context of urban ennui and industrial erasure: think Un homme qui dort (1974) meets Falling Down (1993).

LIFE IMITATION

Chen Zhou takes a similar approach in Life Imitation, his live-action/machinima hybrid about the languor of teens in Shanghai. The director carefully selects real-world locations (amusement parks and shopping malls) to rhyme with the environments of GTA, eventually pushing beyond ‘representation’ into a fully virtual world. Will our emotional over-reliance on screens finally result in this kind of sensory break from reality? If the project sounds pessimist, I found its depiction of blurring worlds oddly pacifying, and Chen shows a great sensitivity toward both flesh and pixel textures.

HERITAGE

Produced with the Unity 3D engine, Heritage is a VR sci-fi with the spectacle of a Hollywood blockbuster. The plot follows a mercenary who descends to a de-colonized Earth to search for the burial place of the prophet Luke, and director Benjamin Huel utilizes the POV of a spacecraft for full 360° immersion. The world of Heritage mixes ancient iconography with derelict technological sites, traveling from deep space to colossal subterranean networks. It’s a rare sci-fi that represents a leap forward – not for its vision of the future, but the tools of its own creation.