When I show up for our interview as my avatar, a middle-aged bald man, CMS Professor Beth Coleman does not greet me immediately. I’ve been standing next to her for a few minutes when she finally recognizes me. Coleman and I see each other often in the halls of Building 14, but today we’re meeting on location in Second Life (http://www.secondlife.com), the online virtual world where she and her machinima working group are shooting a film.
“Wait,” Coleman asks me in a chat window, “you’re the old guy?!”
I caught up with Coleman and her machinima work group on a location scouting mission. She offers me a “teleport” and I am immediately whisked away from a halting Spanish conversation I’m having with a wolf man into a wood-paneled room with a ping-pong table in the center. The sound of running water comes through my computer speakers, but I can’t see its source.
Coleman’s avatar is a small, white robot with a large gold head and what appears to be one red eye. Her head animation designer, Jenny Yi-Chen Mu (or “Hana” in SL) joins us in the room to help show me some of what the group has been working on. Her avatar is also a robot, the character that they have built to be the star of the group’s first short.
The group is working to produce high-quality machinima, an emerging filmmaking process that utilizes the construct of an established game world to create films (http://www.machinima.com). Coleman has assembled a diverse group of students and professionals to contribute a variety of skills to the project. Unlike popular examples of machinima like Red vs. Blue (which was made using the engine of the video game Halo), Coleman’s group is working on cinema that is emotionally charged and, they hope, visually stunning. The aim is not to showcase the technology—how “cool” it is to make a movie within a virtual world—but to make a quality film that happens to use Second Life as its location.
The bulk of the group’s research so far has been learning how machinima is made, picking an engine to work with, and getting familiar with the territory. Coleman chose Second Life as the first platform the group would investigate because of the relative ease of shooting as well as the variety of landscapes and locations, such as the room we have met in for the interview. Why the ping-pong table? They were trying to see if they were coordinated enough to play. I keep walking through walls, so I can imagine how difficult it will be to learn to make a movie in here.
Back in first life at the group’s weekly meeting in Cambridge, project member and designer Mu tells me that she has joined a group called “The Academy of Second Learning,” a group within Second Life that helps people learn to use machinima. MIT undergraduate researcher Kat Kuan, who is
studying computer science, took the research position because she thought it looked like an interesting way to enhance her programming skills. She has been working on customizing the tools available for movie making including cameras, characters and special effects.
She shows me one of these tricks in Second Life. I “touch” the Cute Robot actor and it displays wings the color of a rainbow.
Not even Pacino can do that.
Via Beth Coleman
Since its inception, the machinima research group has brought in various undergraduate researchers (UROPS), graduate student researchers, and young professionals working in game design, 3D imaging, and networked media to experiment with interactive filmmaking. Some of the topics we examine include:
- Transmedia storytelling
- Networked Collaboration
- 3D imaging techniques
- Virtual world and game engines as design tools
- Generative design
- Multimedia distribution
This semester’s project is to build a Cute Robot army and stage a real-time battle on a virtual world platform. Volunteers wanted—no 3D animation experience needed. Contact Professor Coleman for more information.