Monthly Archives: August 2011

Comments vs. Critique (and groundhogs)

A while back, I joined a very active web community called DURS (Directors United for the Revival of Sims Film Site.) I haven’t participated much until now, mostly because I’ve been so busy with the Stonehaven video. But this week I learned about an event DURS is promoting called a “comment party.” It’s an effort to boost participation by members and drum up more comments on their videos.

I think it’s a great idea. And I was all over it like white on rice. But I do have a few reservations. I saw right away that some people are equating comments with critique. I piped up with the fact that I don’t think public comments (like those on YouTube or Vimeo) are the right venue for real criticism. The responses to my post were anything but argumentative. However, I could tell that the generally accepted definition of “real critique” differed significantly from my own.

This has prompted me to do a great deal of thinking over the past few days. Sims 2 and Sims 3 machinima (from now on I’ll call it simply “Sims machinima”) is in dire need of intervention. When you search for it on the web, hundreds upon hundreds of the returns you get are of such poor quality that they’re virtually unwatchable. This has led to Sims machinima being blacklisted by the general machinima community and maligned by mainstream audiences. Yet for moviemaking, it’s one of the most ideal gaming platforms in existence. So how did this happen? And what are we going to do about it?

(ADDED NOTE: Someone called to my attention that this post might make it seem that I’m less than supportive of the Comment Party’s premise. Oh! No, that’s not what I mean. I intend this blog post to promote the Comment Party, not detract from it. The commenting issues I address here are universal in the machinima community, and if the Comment Party is what it takes to get people thinking about this stuff, then that elevates it from good idea to pure genius. )

A few years ago, an active Sims 2 community thrived on YouTube. Great inroads were made into filming and modification. Then Sims 3 hit the market. It was like someone dropped a grenade into the middle of the Sims 2 machinima community and for a while all that remained was a wasteland. YouTube’s purchase by Google didn’t help matters, either. Their crackdown on copyright decimated the number of videos to watch and banished into oblivion many that might have otherwise been uploaded.

Still, several diehards kept the dream alive. And recently, there has indeed been a push for “renaissance.” New directors are popping up and old ones are rejoining the fray. I believe some are very serious about their work and are looking for ways to put Sims machinima into the center ring for good.

But the community lacks structure. It lacks standards. Just like the self-publishing book industry, anyone can create a machinima and put it out there for the world to see. No editing necessary, no minimum quality requirements. Just make it and post it, and call yourself an author (or machinima director, whichever applies.)

I think stringent peer review might solve certain aspects of this problem. It definitely works with written projects. Recently, an author I know said the publisher of her first novel remarked that it was one of the “cleanest” manuscripts they’d ever seen for a first submission. This means it was already well-edited and ready for press by the time they received it. It so happens that this writer had workshopped the novel through one of the largest online critique forums in the world. Peer review had taken her manuscript to a level above the ordinary, and I believe this same dynamic would hold true for machinima.

Some might argue that higher standards, higher expectations, and more organized critique forums will take all the fun out of creating machinima. You might be surprised to know that I agree. Machinima is a beautiful tool mainly because it’s available to nearly everyone. Small children can film their Sims in standard gameplay, post it on YouTube and share it with all their friends. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, that kind of creative activity will stimulate brain development and add a different dimension to their skill set.

However, some directors have advanced far beyond this. There is a point when hobbies turn serious. At this time, no careers exist for machinima directors. But with the advent of royalty free animation platforms like iClone and Moviestorm, the commercial potential of this craft has increased exponentially. Many Sims machinima directors express a strong interest in filmmaking and writing. Therefore using Sims machinima to develop those skills makes perfect sense.

As far as critique through comments goes, it’s time to get away from such a clannish mindset. Fellow directors, remember that whatever you post in the public comments will be seen by more than just other machinima directors. A potential mainstream audience will not give a hoot about filmmaking tips. But they do read the comments and often make decisions about whether or not they’ll click “play” based on what they see there. The “Suxx Brigade” will add enough crap to the mix without our technical deconstruction being aired for all to see. Why in the world would we want one of our best promotional tools cluttered with “feedback” that means nothing to most of the people who will read it?

Do I think only “I loved it!” and “Good job!” are appropriate comments? Absolutely not. I remarked a few days ago (in the public comments!) that a certain machinima character should be euthanized. We can (and should) be tactfully honest. Go to any book review website (Amazon, Goodreads, etc.) and you’ll see the entire spectrum of reader reaction in the comments. But what you won’t see is structured critique addressed to the author. I think it’s a good format to follow, especially if we provide an alternate critique forum where directors can get the detailed feedback they crave.

On a completely different note–for anyone who has wondered about my screen name. . .the “saymuch” part is probably clear enough already. 😉 But the “Dolittle” part? Well, have a look at the current guest in my kitchen:

“Lively” is a female groundhog I rescued from the dogs yesterday. She’d received several brutal shakes and was gnawed quite a bit before I could reach her. Assessment convinced me to try and save her rather than put her down. Last night I second-guessed that decision. She’d gone into hypovolemic shock, had developed a serious pneumothorax from a punctured lung, and I could tell her hip was displaced. But I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. Since no IV or other veterinary supplies were handy, I forced fluids down her throat (Gatorade, for the electrolytes) and said a prayer or two. This morning she was sitting up looking around. The shock had resolved, she had better lung sounds bilaterally, and fought tooth and nail to keep me from pouring more Gatorade down her throat. I suppose the stuff probably does taste pretty bad to groundhogs.

She’s not out of the woods yet, but I do believe we’re seeing a little light through the trees.

The Culprits

While I’m at it, I figure I’ll upload a few more pictures of my Zoo Crew. Carol, this is our Mean Kitty, otherwise known as Tinka:

Hollywood loves his watermelon!

Natural pest control (or slug patrol) for the garden:

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Guest Blogger: Carol Kean, Author of “Left On Stonehaven”

Today’s guest blogger is Carol Kean, author of the in-progress novel I’ve adapted for machinima. She and I make a ritual of “talking each other up;” I guess we’re trying to see who can say the nicest things about each other. 🙂 At the risk of this post sounding like a PR pitch for Yours Truly, I’ve left her post more or less intact. Truth is, I brag about her quite a bit, too. She’s a fine person, a truly talented writer, and a very, very dear friend.

Without further ado:

FROM CAROL:

Seeing my own novel unfold before my eyes as a machinima video taught me things no writing workshop would ever help me learn.

I met Rhonda in such a workshop. I loved her meaty yet elegant writing and her insightful critiques. Offlist, she sent me the link to a machinima video she produced for a local Sociology class. Wow – welcome to the world of Sims and movie producing Simmers! I mentioned how exciting it would be to see scenes from my own novel on the video screen, and Rhonda offered to make that happen. I had no idea what a tremendous labor of love and how many arduous experiments it would become for her, nor what a learning tool it would be for me.

As a writer, I indulge in complicated family sagas that slow the pace and probably cost me readers. Let’s not even discuss the science and history info-bytes I love to sneak into my prose. How many harsh critiques would it take to get me to purge it from my text? Mise en abîme! An abysmal number! But on seeing Rhonda’s Sims-video images unfold on the screen, I finally internalized “less is more.” Rhonda is a master-manipulator of visuals as well as words, so she instinctively chose exactly what was needed to tell a story. With only a fraction of a percent of the dreaded 100,000 word maximum for a novel. And in only so many minutes of viewer attention.

My own children scoff at machinima as the province of Emo kids and Goths who listen to outdated music. Duly noted: at 21, 18 and 15, my kids prefer opera and jazz to Evanescence or Thirty Seconds to Mars. They think anything less than Toy Story or The Incredibles is choppy, weird animation. I’ve tried to share with them what Rhonda is achieving. My girls play Sims 2 and their first reaction to Rhonda’s stunning visuals was, “She has more software than we do.” Uh, no. Rhonda has tenacity, determination and the patience to find out how to go beyond the Sims 2 game and achieve things that novice Simmers can only dream of.

But I’m not trying to sell my kids on the idea of my novel as a machinima video. They’re my flesh and blood but not my target audience. That’s another cool thing Rhonda taught me. Moviestorm and machinima, like steam punk, is a new wave, a technological marvel of our century. Who said the beauty of 19th Century prose couldn’t be married to home-grown video? After all, steam punk fuses the Victorian technology of steam engines with futuristic sci fi plots.

Rhonda has a finger on the pulse of the times. Maybe she’s only blowing smoke from pipe dreams, but I think she’s blazing like a comet through new territory, while my kids listen to Mozart, read Les Miserables and roll their eyes at Mom.

But Mom is learning lots of things, and not just about writing.

Hallelujah!

I won’t take up much of anyone’s time with this, but I’m so happy I just had to share it. My transparency problem is solved! Yay!

As it turns out, this was an issue I would have never, ever figured out on my own. Nothing I was doing “wrong,” just a quirk deep within the Maxis coding that didn’t show up until the notorious “Pets” expansion pack and isn’t addressed in ANY of the tutorials.

Have a look:

compared to:

HALLELUJAH!!!

Updates from the set

For the record, this Stonehaven machinima is a beast.

Of course, I mean nothing truly negative by that. But I’m pretty sure folks have wondered what the heck is taking me so long to finish it. After all, I started it in April. April! Five whole months ago. That’s a ridiculous amount of time for a machinima, especially since I’m barely past the halfway point.

But I do think I’m “over the hump” and things should move along much faster now. That’s because I’ve finally wrestled the biggest time bandit to the ground—not to say I’ve conquered it—but at least the monster is harnessed. For those of you who have never made or attempted to make custom 3D content, trust me when I say you can lose days to the process. Weeks, even. And a very large percentage of the Stonehaven machinima requires custom content. New meshes. New animations. New approaches in general. Filming is nothing. Creating the sets and props? Well, that’s a horse of an entirely different color.

Today I’m uploading some fresh pictures to give everyone a sneak peek into the past two weeks of this project. Even though I devoted many hours every day to the process, it took that long to create the sets and props for these six pictures. A person who has never played Sims 2 might glance at them and say, “Oh. Okay. So what’s the big deal?” However, an experienced Simmer should—in theory—say “How the heck. . .???” Veteran custom content creators will just shrug and say, “Hmm. Looks like she used Milkshape.”

Indeed I did use Milkshape. It’s a low-end 3D modeling tool that allows Average Janes like me to do the impossible with garden variety computer games. Combine it with SimPE (Simple Package Editor) and the sky’s the limit. SimPE is a modern marvel. A plug from its home site’s About page: “While it is a powerful Tool, SimPE is absolutely free and largely based on Community work.” Yes, indeed it is free. And without serious bugs, spyware, or other malicious stowaways so common in free downloads. But as software goes, they’re not kidding about it being a powerful tool. It’s a hoss. A big old hairy-legged draft hoss, not a fuzzy little pony. My head spins every time I try to comprehend the amount of code people wrote for that program with no expectation of payment whatsoever.

But that’s the nature of the Sims 2 community. I’ve never belonged to a group of any sort with as much generosity. Sure, you have your silly little collabs who barely speak to people outside their own microcosm. But for the most part, Simmers are gregarious, helpful folks with loads of talent and creativity, and they’re eager to share it. . .with a few exceptions. I noted a glaring one below.

As far as the Stonehaven machinima goes, I’m trying very hard to make it as polished and professional as standard commercial animated “shorts.” That being said, there’s no way that machinima can ever compete with frame-by-frame computer generated animation. (For that matter, neither can claymation, yet Chicken Run happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies.) It’s important for people, especially new mainstream viewers, to understand what machinima is, and what’s it’s not. And to stop comparing it to the likes of Toy Story. Pixar did wonderful things with that movie. It was groundbreaking on so many levels. But I’d pretty much guarantee they never had to re-shoot a scene sixteen times because Buzz Lightyear kept picking his nose, or that random townies kept generating in the corner of each scene and strolling through their “closed” set.

Anyhoo. . .

The six “photographs” and media items pictured here will appear as framed wall hangings in the fictional Stonehaven Road green house. They tell their own story, which will be better understood after watching the machinima. For now, just take them in good faith, as proof that I am indeed working hard on this project, and making real (but slow) progress.

(Let’s hear it for WordPress coding: I CANNOT place the following text where I want, which is either before or after the last photo in the column, the one with the green background. So let’s all play “pretend,” okay? Let’s pretend this text is where it should be, and have no confusion over which photo it refers to, or lament the aesthetics of the layout.)

The last photo is the “exception” I mentioned earlier. This snapshot has been posted at the largest Simming site on the Web (Mod The Sims) for several weeks now. At the time of this post, it had been viewed more than 240 times. Yet not a single helpful response. Someone did say I should post photos rather than describe the problem. So I did. Then. . .nothing.

This is a meshing issue I’ve been unable to resolve on my own. It’s some sort of transparency and warp, which suggests incorrect bone assignments to me. Yet all bone assignments are complete and correct. The problem only manifests when an item is converted to an accessory. On the left, you can see what the movie camera should look like. On the right is what happens when I attach it to a Sim. I’m a bit dismayed by the fact that no one has responded on the MTS forum. I can think of many reasons for this, but still. What a disappointment.

Drop-in visitors, if you know the solution, please feel free to share it with me !!

Guest Blogger: Odara, Out Of The Closet

A few days ago my last post, “Outed,” received a comment that read like a blog post itself. Odara is someone I met through the machinima community, the producer of an outstanding new series called “Guardian Angel.” She’s a teacher by profession, a wife and mother and inspiring presence on the Web. I thought it fitting to move her comment to the main blog, into a bit of spotlight, where hopefully it will be read and enjoyed by many others.

Thank you, Odara!

Out Of  The Closet

How it happened I don’t know. I told a male teacher about my machinima hobby and he says to me, “You have two children, how do you get time to do that?” Now, I would like to punch him but then, I felt ashamed. I suddenly saw myself as an immature, time-wasting, neglectful mother, since I couldn’t possibly have two children and still find time to engage in Sims machinima. He was the first and only person outside of my immediate family to know and what a response. (Oh let me at him! Let me at him!)

Yet, I’m not an immature, time-wasting, neglectful mother. I’m still very focused and good at my job, my IQ hasn’t dropped. On the contrary, my creativity is enhanced, my social network has grown, I’ve learned from others and have helped others. So I find time to pursue a hobby – what’s wrong with that? Why blame me for having advanced time-management skills?

My problem, though, is having to explain to most people what machinima is and once the word “game” comes up, then that’s it. They won’t listen any more. Sigh. I still haven’t reached the stage of fully coming out of the closet. But the audience is changing. It is widening. We’re breaking ground just as former directors did, just in a different way. We’re blazing another trail. I imagine one day our grandchildren would come to us for movie making advice while their parents sit and wonder what they missed.

GUARDIAN ANGEL: