Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What Happened to the Machinima? (Halo)

(Crossposted from Halo Fanon)

A few years ago, RelentlessRecusant and I got together to make Halo Fanon’s very own machinima called Common Denominator. We wrote a bit, recruited some other guys, acted out scenes, filmed our scenes… and nothing really came of it. We basically got one scene ready, a trailer, some concept credits, and that was it. What happened to Halo Fanon’s machinima? Do we have any hope of making one now?

"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Said by the King to the White Rabbit
Well, back in 2007, Vtar_'Kakumee started a forum thread suggesting that Halo Fanon users get together and start a machinima. The idea was that since a bunch of us were good writers, we could come up with a good storyline for a machinima series. We started throwing together ideas for music and ways to glitch the game that would be useful without actually coming up with a plot.

Finally, we started organizing a brainstorming session of plot ideas. The idea was to comment on each other’s plot ideas and vote for our favorites. I volunteered three different plots: a 24-esque political drama (as in Palmer’s side, not Jack’s) set on Sanghelios with an anti-racism/pro-cooperation theme, an i love bees adaptation, and a Lost-esque adventure about a group of human and Sangheili diplomats stuck on a mysterious planet run by a dangerous cult of Forerunner-worshiping Insurrectionists. Out of all of mine, the third got the most positive response.

I’m not quite sure what happened after that, but as best as I’m able to put it together, RelentlessRecusant liked my first idea, mulled it over for a few days, consulted with his roommate as to what his roommate felt was a good idea for a machinima, and decided to merge the two and produce a machinima based on both of our concepts (and eventually forgot who had the idea in the first place, crediting me, him, and his roommate at different points). In any case, he posted on my plot idea and said he wanted to make it, and then pitched a very different idea based more on Jack’s side of 24 with Sangheili ultranationalists and an ONI black ops team. I talked to him on the Halopedia IRC and insisted that his pitch was quite different from my idea. We talked it over for a few days and we settled on a compromise with a pretty cool ending. And thus was born Common Denominator.

So, we basically decided that Common Denominator was going to be the Halo Fanon’s official machinima, and this is where things started to go downhill. We shouldn’t have arbitrarily decided that this was going to be the machinima of a whole community just because we were admins. We should have just said “This is a machinima being made by some Halo Fanon users” and encouraged other users to work on other machinimas if they so wished. We didn’t expressly forbid it, but we discouraged it by playing up Denominator as Halo Fanon’s machinima.

Our main problem was that we couldn’t decide on a concept. We had the basic plot down, but not the meat of it, nor the nitty-gritty details. We started with an ending. While it’s good to have the ending before you start writing, it’s really good to have the beginning too. And a middle. And some characters.

RR set up a page for our machinima, and he put in a header for the script. The idea was that we would work on the script there. RR started us off by writing a scene close to the climax about the ultranationalists killing human civilians and a few fighting back. I thought some of the lines were clichéd, and we edited it a bit. I added a scene that would take place earlier, about a good Sangheili politician arguing with a demagogue. RR and I discussed it on Skype instant messaging; he at first thought a line was silly but changed his mind later. All the while, users were sharing their opinions on the talk page, offering their own suggestions.

At some point, RR decided to remove the script from the public view so as to keep suspense and not ruin any plot twists. This was the point that CD became entirely a private project, and that was a mistake. Nothing against private projects, but it was supposed to be a project of the Halo Fanon community. By making it secret, it ruins the community spirit that was supposed to go into making a machinima for Halo Fanon.
Well, anyway, we continued working on it as a private group. We even made a few pages for it on the World Wide Web. None of which actually hosted any real content. But we had pages! We recruited voice actors. We got Rotaretilbo to co-write it with us. We got a film student to help us put the thing together. We started recording. We… still didn’t have a completed story.

That’s what ruined us, more than anything else. We had a basic idea: there’re terrorists on Sanghelios, it’s a parallel to the Invasion of Iraq, there’s this psychopath who may or may not be our protagonist, there’s a demagogue, there’s a really cool ending… but we didn’t have a finished story. Every week or so, RR would okay a new script for our first episodes. Sometimes material we just recorded would have to be redone. And we, the writers, couldn’t agree on what story we were writing. Was our Jack Bauer clone a psychopath or not? How big a political element would there be? Were we critiquing the Invasion of Iraq or just drawing parallels? Would we write in more female characters? Was the atmosphere too dark? Did we assume our viewers were morons or geniuses? These were, in fact, the kind of questions we should have answered before we ever started to actualize the machinima. We should have decided on a full story early on, and then written a script, and then edited the script. And then, when we thought we had a decent script, and only then, should we have tried to make the machinima.

That’s why Denominator never got past a trailer and a couple scrapped scenes. I mean, there were other factors. RR transferred to Rutgers and his free time was diminished significantly. Rot suggested I and he write the story on our own, but I wanted to keep the dynamic we had with RR finalizing changes. Of course, by the time we got a group chat of me, RR, and Rot, Rot was often too lazy to help. We had actor disagreements, too. A lot of our male actors brought their girlfriends onto the project, and things became awkward when two actors broke up. Some actors were just being obnoxious. Everyone but RR goofed off too much. There were a lot of factors that led to the failure to launch, yes, but the biggest one was the lack of a complete story.

Sometime after progress slowed significantly, I contacted RR and told him I would try to write a complete script on my own and then he and Rot could make whatever changes they wanted, and then we could work on the machinima. He agreed, and I started work… and found it was a lot harder than it sounded. I decided to work on the story in prose, since I was good enough to write Halo 3: Ascension that way. I went back to my original concept, came up with some new characters, new situations, and wrote and… got writer’s block. -blam!- it. After a few months of no new content, I started considering posting my accomplished fiction online, reasoning that users’ responses would be enough to motivate me to write. The problem with that, though, is that I would give away the story.

I put it on ice for a while. One day, I was messing around in Photoshop, and I discovered that if I used a specific filter on a Halo 3 screenshot, it made it look just like a certain style from one of the gallery images in the Halo Graphic Novel. I wanted to play around with that, so I started thinking about what kind of story I should use, and I decided to use my CD fiction as a basis, and thus was born the Common Denominator comic.

I’ve started writing again. Yay! And this comic could work as a storyboard for an actual machinima once I get it completed. I mean, I’ll probably have to drop my lesbian characters to get voice actors actually willing to play the roles, but that’s fine. The problem is, updating is sloooow. I’m in college now, and my free time is heavily reduced, so I’m basically like how RR was when he went to Rutgers. Though I have the first episode (now book) planned out, I’ll be lucky to finish it by the end of the year, let alone the full story. So, Halo Fanon is still without its machinima.

But it doesn’t have to be. CD was a good idea; we just didn’t execute it very well. I want to fix the damage done. I propose making what that original thread was into a full Halo Fanon project page where users can come together to make machinima. The first mistake was shutting users out, so I propose making an area where people can work on machinimatic undertakings out in the open and attract supporters and get critiques from anyone wandering around. All you need is a TV tuner and a program like BB Flashback to record gameplay on your computer, and then all you need is to record lines and get editing, and, bam said the lady, you’re in business.

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