Summary: Machinima is a quirky and growing art form, turning games into films, cartoons, and featurettes. Our contest winner CanadaDave runs us through how to make your own.
Is Machinima really that easy? The answer is as you'd expect: It depends what you want to do. Red Vs. Blue, for example, takes a crew of people 40+ hours to assemble a single episode, employs professional voice actors and musicians and makes use of heavy video editing tools. While this is impressive, it doesn't mean that you need to go to those lengths to create a short using machinima.
Here is a simple look at an approach to creating machinima. I'll assume the use of a first person shooter game, as well as a Windows machine. If you're using Linux or a Mac, your mileage may vary.
Step 1: Come up with an idea
As silly as this sounds, you do need an idea before you can proceed. Not only will a basic idea make the end product watchable for someone who isn't you, but it will influence step 2:
Step 2: Choose an engine
People tend to gravitate to a few games to create machinima. World of Warcraft, for example, is very popular among comedy series due to the range of characters and actionable emotions (dancing, laughing, etc). Of course, you can't easily use World of Warcraft to do a series about life in an accountant's office, and The Sims (another popular software for machinima) won't play well in a medieval world. Choose your software to suit what you want to do, and you'll spend a lot less time trying to shoehorn dialog in to incompatible situations.
Step 3: Record your movie
At this stage in the game, you're not looking to record sound or anything like that. All you want to do is record the "actors" doing what you want them to do. You're also not interested in it being a continuous scene - set up the scene that you want to shoot, and record the character doing what they need to do so you can overlay the dialogue later.
There are numerous programs to help act as a virtual "cutting room". Free examples of these are Windows Movie Maker and Avid Free DV. Essentially, this is the part where you're going to string together your film by chopping the "bad" parts of video out, and putting the remainder together in continuous sections.
Usage of the tools may vary, but there are numerous tutorials for using these tools to make Machinima. Googling "machinima and windows movie maker", for example, brought up several very strong tutorials.
Step 5: Laying dialogue and audio
Giving your actors a voice is arguably the most important part of the equation. Have a funny voice saved up that you used to use to make people laugh? Bring it out here, if it makes sense. You can even use your own normal speaking voice - after all, most people on the 'Net have no idea what you sound like.
Step 6: The Finishing Touches.
You've now got a movie together which has your actors doing what you want them to do, and saying what you want them to say. The story has, essentially, been told - and you now need to watch the movie as if you were seeing it for the first time. Have a look. Did the dialogue flow properly? Is the scene set up to convey the message you wanted?
While this may seem like an incredibly complex and cumbersome process, it really doesn't have to be. Someone with a camcorder can make a funnier, more watchable film than someone with a multimillion dollar budget. There's no way the camcorder can match the huge production technically, but with a bit of common sense and attention to detail, the camcorder movie can have the effect intended.
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