ETEC 511 - Spring/Summer 2012
Theorizing Assignment - Eva Ziemsen
Using Machinima to Teach Film Production Online
University of British Columbia
ETEC 511: Foundations of Educational Technology
Submitted to Dr. Matiul Alam
Submitted July 29, 2012
Using Machinima to Teach Film Production Online
Technology is having a revolutionary impact on the delivery of education and it is enabling educators to effectively teach any course online via the Internet. “The Internet revolution is the …most recent shift in human development and is the basis for the 21-century Knowledge Age,” (Harasim, 2012, p. 80). In British Columbia for example, “enrolment in online courses has grown by more than 500% in the last five years.” Post-secondary institutions are offering courses in almost all fields online, however, currently there are only select institutions offering online courses in filmmaking or film production. This may be due to the fact that up until recently, the prospect of teaching film production online would be unfathomable. Any filmmaker would attest that filmmaking is a hands-on process that you learn through the experience of doing it. This essay will argue that a new process of filmmaking, Machinima, is the ideal mode to teach filmmaking online and virtually. “Machinima” is a combination of the words “machine” and “cinema” and is simply defined as “animated filmmaking within a real-time virtual 3D environment,” (Marino, 2004, p.1). This essay will describe the machinima process and how it is an ideal replication of the essential components of traditional film production education. Applicable learning theories and frameworks, such as constructivism and Online Collaborative Learning Theory (OCL) will be analyzed to support the use of machinima as a mode to teach filmmaking online. Potential obstacles and challenges of the implementation of machinima in education will be considered and analyzed. Since the fundamental aim of film production education is applied media literacy (Payne, 2011, p.243), it would normally face considerable challenges to achieve its practical learning outcomes in the online sphere. Therefore, using an online virtual motion graphic capture process (i.e. machinima), to overcome the physical limitations of online film production education could be considered revolutionary. The use of machinima has opened a world of possibilities for online film production education, which provides institutions a robust and creative platform to develop online Machinima production courses.
What is machinima?
Machinima is the process whereby the “machinimator” uses screen-capture software, such as iShowU, to record the world of the video game or virtual worlds such as Second Life or The Sims. In order to create unique shots and camera movements, she must move the view of her avatar or its point of view within the game. As there is no actual camera to manipulate, one can change the shot sizes and movements using a mouse, which becomes the equivalent of the camera or lens, and the screen-capture software becomes the equivalent of the videotape. Once these shots are recorded, the machinimator can use any editing software, such as Final Cut Pro, to edit the shots into a film sequence.
Machinima originated in the gaming world, where gamers and hackers, who wanted to record their achievements in the games and demonstrate their coding skills, developed ways to record within the games. Game companies subsequently created ‘cut scenes’, which were essentially non-interactive animated scenes within the game, (Nitsche, 2005, p.3). Through this evolution, “game-based ‘demo recording’ was born and immediately used to exhibit the skills of players,” (Nitsche, 2005, p.3).
There are different ways to make machinima, from improvisational approaches to advanced forms of scripting everything that happens. Two different ways to approach filming are, ‘reel and ‘live. ‘Reel machinima’ is when you film segments of a scene that are then exported and cut into a sequence. This is mode is almost identical to how films are shot in the ‘real world’. ‘Live machinima’ is similar to theatre, where there is an entire performance planned and performed, and recorded without interruption, (Nitsche, 2005, p.4-5).
Machinima relies on virtual worlds that have already been built, by either gaming companies or virtual universes, such as Second Life (SL). These virtual worlds are relatively easy to enter, as one simply needs to log in, select an avatar and start to exist in a virtual world. The virtual worlds are usually user-generated content (UGC) and in the case of SL, the company, Linden Labs, owns only the virtual land. There is a successful real estate market in SL, where people buy and sell everything from ‘space motels’, islands, and even clothing for their avatars. This means, if a filmmaker wants to record a plane crash scene, he does not require a Steven Spielberg budget, but only a fast computer, a little patience and software. Beyond the thousands of available assets within the virtual worlds, machinimators also have the option of creating their own digital elements, including custom characters/avatars, settings, props and costumes. The final step of the virtual component is that the machinimator will export the captured sequences and import them into editing software.
In the post-production phase, the machinimator becomes a video editor. He is able to edit all the material produced within the virtual world and applies non-linear editing skills. In terms of audio, the machinimator can add voice-over, additional dialogue recording (ADR), music and sound effects. Similar to a traditional film production, tasks should ideally be performed by ‘crew members’ (different people who are experts in these areas), although a machinima crew will be distinctly smaller and slightly modified. For example, a possible machinima crew could include, actors/camera operators, who will play the roles of their avatar and record their avatar and their avatar’s point of view, a production designer, who helps design the setting and leads a team of 3-D prop and costume builders, a production manager or producer manages logistics, the budget and schedule. Essentially the machinima process proves to be very similar to traditional film production, and yet it is possible to complete all tasks virtually and over the Internet, making it the ideal method for teaching film production online.
The decision to complement or convert traditional film production education, which has been historically taught in a classroom, a studio and in the field, to the online format requires a theoretical foundation. Applicable learning theories that can be used to support and ground online modes of education are Constructivism and the Online Collaborative Learning Theory. The Constructivist Learning Theory “posits that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing the world, and reflecting on those experiences…As such we are active creators and constructors of our own knowledge,” (Harasim, 2012, p. 60). Educators with teaching experience using machinima and SL connect the practice to constructivist learning theory. For example, in Everything I Need to Know about Filmmaking I Learned from Playing Video Games: The Educational Promise of Machinima, Matthew Payne emphasizes that using machinima to teach filmmaking is compatible with the constructivist learning theory, broadly stating that we learn by doing and “playing” (p. 243, 247). In her presentation on Experiential Education in Second Life, Hilary Mason states “experiential education is a learner-centered educational philosophy, sharing many similarities with constructivist and active learning paradigms,” (p.14). She lists the essential skills of experiential learning, including collaboration, critical thinking, and reflection. Therefore, constructivism supports the concept of learning how to make films using machinima, since the student machinimator will be required to collaborate with other ‘players’ (classmates), perform active tasks and thereby construct knowledge of filmmaking.
It is vital to remain critical of the conversion of any curriculum to the online realm, as highlighted by Dall’Alba and Barnacle in Embodied Knowing in Online Environments. The article is critical of decontextualized knowledge, emphasizing the importance of ‘embodied knowing’ which is apparently missing in much of online education, (2005, p. 720). It warns that delivering curriculum online does not necessarily guarantee a quality improvement, despite the recent wave of its adoption. Admittedly self-evident, the authors remind us that only the technology that enhances learning should be adopted and not just because it is capable of doing something, (2005, p. 729). Therefore, it is noteworthy that machinima is a solution that enables and enhances the teaching and learning of filmmaking virtually. It is arguable that by way of its collaborative, interactive, creative and distinctly cost effective application, machinima is the superior in some aspects to ‘real’ film production.
The larger context for our education system is that it is situated in the 21st century ‘Knowledge Age’. “Knowledge has become the principal component of today’s economy…The use of the Internet for collaborative knowledge creation is the basis of the Knowledge Age and a new theory of learning with relevant pedagogies and technologies must respond to this new reality,” (Harasim, 2012, p. 80). Namely, the Online Collaborative Learning Theory (OCL) defined by Linda Harasim is one that was created to support new forms of learning, especially online education. Essentially, OCL “refers to educational applications that emphasize collaborative discourse and knowledge building mediated by the Internet,” (Harasim, 2012, p. 88), where the role of the teacher is to connect the students to the larger knowledge community. While OCL distinguishes itself from constructivism, its emphasis on knowledge building through collaboration and discourse is supportive of the use of machinima as a mode of teaching film production online. For example, one of the key learning outcomes of most filmmaking education is to teach students to collaborate and to solve problems through a building of diverse knowledge. This outcome is in line with the intellectual convergence that Harasim refers to, which she states can also result in the output of a work of art, (2012, p. 93). Thus, the theoretical framework that supports the use of machinima to teach film production online stems from constructivism, with an emphasis on experiential learning and extends to the Online Collaborative Learning Theory, for its support of knowledge convergence mediated via the Internet.
Advantages and Pitfalls (of Machinima in Online Education)
There are many advantages of using machimima to teach film education online. Machinima democratizes film education, it closely mirrors the collaborative traditional phases of film production, and it is low cost.
It is somewhat dangerous to claim that something is “democratizing” education, because inevitably, one can argue the opposite is true, due to a lack of access to basic requirements. However, if compared to traditional film production, machinima is a highly accessible mode of filmmaking. Machinima is open to anyone, around the world, with almost no additional costs beyond the computer and Internet. In certain instances individuals with mobility disabilities would have opportunities to make machinima that they would not otherwise have. Finally, you need not be enrolled in an academic program to participate in learning machinima, as there are many forums and even “in-world” mentors that can teach you how to operate.
What is likely the most important point is that machinima replicates the traditional filmmaking process accurately, (Jones, 2005, p. 135) and therefore is an ideal mode to teach the essential elements of filmmaking. For example, in an interdisciplinary program at the University of Utah, students are collaborating with a variety of students to create machinima films. Van Langeveld and Kessler’s course learning outcomes listed:
- “Learn and apply filmmaking techniques including: storyboarding, scriptwriting, cinematography, sound, lighting, editing and film/storytelling
- Learn tools for building sets, props, lip synching, and character acting
- Learn to work with students from other disciplines: Teamwork, Problem solving—partially due to limitations in the tools and technical environment and yet still allowing expressions of creativity.” (2009, p. 465).
The learning outcomes for this machinima course are identical to many course outlines of traditional film production courses. The key differences are that the students collaborate virtually and online, to write a script, via email, chat, Skype or in the form of their avatars. Instead of driving to scout for locations, they must find them in SL or a game, and possibly build digital props and sets. They plan their shots using a traditional storyboard format and finally, they would shoot their production virtually, instead of physically. Lighting and camera ‘operation’ differs slightly from ‘real-world filmmaking’, but nonetheless are required in a modified manner in SL. The students coordinate whose avatar shoots what, in order to obtain adequate coverage of their production. Once all footage is captured, the students edit the footage in a method akin to any traditional edit. From beginning to end, the learning outcomes of a machinima course are analogous to traditional film production course.
The cost of machinima is significantly less if compared to traditional filmmaking. The average thesis project in a film school ranges between six to twelve thousand out-of-student-pocket dollars, (and more in some cases), on top of the tuition-covered equipment rentals from the college or university. If the equipment cost is accounted for, most student thesis projects amount to about twenty thousand dollars. While cheaper films can be produced, these numbers are realistic and average for most thesis films. To create machinima, you must simply have access to a fast computer with a good graphics card, a high-speed Internet connection, and a non-linear editing software program, such as Avid or Final Cut Pro. If you wish to add other effects, you may wish to own Adobe Photoshop, After Effects and 3-D modeling software to build custom sets. A computer microphone is also useful for voice-over. This is the extent of your film studio, which may amount to two to four thousand dollars, depending on software costs. This cost set up, however, will allow you to produce countless films. Therefore the cost difference between machinima and traditional filmmaking is substantial (Carr, 2007).
On the other hand, there are pitfalls of using machinima to teach film production online, which include copyright issues, technical limitations, the steep learning curve involved in virtual software and real-world applicability.
One of the most limiting factors affecting machinima today is the issue of copyright. Copyright law could completely hinder the production and distribution of machinima. Machinimators use virtual worlds and video games that are owned by other companies. “Because copyright owners control the rights in those games, machinima production occurs at the copyright owners' discretion. This means that video game copyright owners will literally hold the keys to an entire art form,” (Freedman, 2005, p. 236). Currently, there is a fine balance at play, where game companies are providing the tools to make machinima in an effort to propel the product and engage the players, however, the commercial distribution rights remain restricted. All the while, machinima films are being shown at film festivals and online, despite the law.
Technical limitations are also an important factor, specifically bandwidth, base media literacy, and also limitations of the software. While much of the developed world enjoys fast, reliable Internet access with a bandwidth that allows the transfer of large files, many parts of the world lack this. For example, Bhutan is a country that is very eager to join the digital revolution and educate its own crop of filmmakers (Ziemsen, 2011), but unfortunately does not have reliable or fast Internet throughout the country, (Rennie & Mason, 2007, p.2). Therefore, machinima courses, just as many other subjects, are limited to locations with fast Internet connections.
Furthermore, although literature on machinima makes it seem that it is rather facile to learn to exist in Second Life, to create an avatar and to participate virtually, in reality, it is not so simple, (Fortney, 2007, p. 85). It requires much time, patience and guidance. A way to overcome the many initial hurdles, several educators encourage using SL as a social network, whereby you can ask for help internally, (Joseph, 2007, p. 9). However, this peer-mentor approach is one that would also need to be taught. Level of difficulty will also depend on prior knowledge of gaming and other media literacy. Base computer skills are assumed and stipulating prerequisite skills would be essential in ensuring the success of a machinima student.
In terms of ‘real-world’ applicability, machinima does not teach students some of the skills they would require to work on a ‘real’ film set. For example, the skill of directing a live actor, perhaps inspiring him to cry, would be impossible in machinima. The physical skills of operating equipment would not be developed using machinima, and would need to be learned outside of a machinima class. Finally, the people that make up a crew often become life-long friends, which is a significant shortcoming of not being on a real-set. However, collaboration, problem solving, overcoming limitations, storytelling, and the concepts of lighting, editing and sound, would all be learned using machinima.
The integration of Machinima online courses is already happening, but the adoption amongst some of the large film production education institutions is lagging. The Second Life Educators conference, which is in its fifth year, indicates that Machinima using SL has been successfully used in education for years. These conferences showcase complex examples of the use of Machinima in education and also provide best practices. The evolution of the SL community is referred to as an ecosystem, (Linden & Linden, 2007, p.iii). The ecosystem metaphor is effective to use in framing the integration of a new technology into a school. For example, researchers Zhao and Frank compare how the Zebra mussels integrated into the Great Lakes to how technology is successfully into schools, (p. 808). As they demonstrate, a mix of complex factors will contribute to the successful adoption, or evolution, of a technology in a school system.
With a push to teach 21st Century skills, combined with pressures of lowering school operating budgets and paradoxically increasing enrollment, institutions may become more open to the innovation of teaching film production online. The democratization of access and open resources will drive students towards using machinima as a mode of creative expression. Most importantly, machinima proves it can replicate most of the learning outcomes of traditional filmmaking including, collaboration, creativity and problem solving, all at a significantly lower cost. While there are pitfalls of using machinima to teach film production online, such as copyright issues and technological limitations, these can evolve and be overcome with time. Machinima is the ideal mode of teaching film production online and has the potential to revolutionize film production education.
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