Lights Camera Action – My Adventures With SL Machinima

I’ve been a very busy bee of late (sorry to the friends I’ve not seen or spoken to for a while) both with rehearsals for The Show Must Go ON and building sets for various acts, but that is not all. Oh no, to compound my lack of time issues, I’ve finally taken up the gauntlet of learning to make movies in SL. I’m a fool to myself.

Why now? God knows.

Why making movies? Looks like fun.

Why the questions-per-line? Looks important. Grabs attention.

You blog cheat! Yes. Now carry on reading*

Let me start by saying that making films in SL (machinima is too ugly and awkward a word) is a lot harder than I thought. But, logically, if it weren’t lots more folk would be doing it. From setting up a scene, to recording it, to editing it and uploading it, nothing is simple. Well, not if you want to do it right. The learning curve for various bits of in-world kit or external software can be steep. The constant re-running of scenes to get the movement right is tiring. The editing is long and laborious. The final result is often of disappointing quality. But don’t let me put you off (I’m looking at you Miss Bracken) as it is great fun and you can always learn from my mistakes first so hopefully you experiences will be better and your learning curve faster. So let me break down what I’ve learnt and how I did it… are we sitting comfortably?

1) Seeing with the in-world camera.
This is what you see on the screen, not recording what is on the screen (not yet – that is the next step). If you record the standard view then your recorded images would show whatever you see on the screen – your av from behind, the menu bars of SL, chat and IM boxes that pop up, even the Windows start bar (I can’t speak about Macs as I’ve never used one and don’t really know what their screen stuff looks like). To record for training vids, this may well be what you want, but for films and the like the UI (user interface) should be hidden and you shouldn’t be in the shot.

To hide the UI just hit Ctrl-Alt-F1 to toggles it on and off. You may even want to set SL to NOT run in a window, but I found the changes the program had to do between window and no-window gave my poor computer a headache so didn’t bother. If you do, the option box for this is somewhere in the preferences (Ctrl-P).

So assuming that you have hidden the UI, you’ll see that you are still stuck with a shot of you from behind – not what you want. To fix this, you can either go into mouselook (but this is can be a jerky and difficult way to move a camera) or wear a clever doodah that shifts your camera view to one other than the standard behind-you-boo!-point of view. Several of these devices exist, you be glad to hear – ranging from free to moderately expensive. Naturally, for starting out and experimenting, you will want to try free ones Torley Linden offers in his office. Once you want more flexibility, you can look into the non-free systems. I used Filming Path to make my wee film, others use Machinima Cam HUD and my friend Osprey uses her bare, neked hand sat atop a fancy 3D mouse thingy.

Filming Path is a HUD system that marks the path you walk or fly with little yellow balls (called waypoints) and then rezes a seat at the start. Once you sit on the seat, it hides the UI, goes to mouselook and moves along the path at the speed you set. You can alter the path as much as you like, add a focus object that the camera will ‘look at’ as you move and all manner of other useful things. This was how I filmed the long flying, swooping pass over of my jungle. The big drawback is that it can’t be used in no build and no script areas. Difficulty and learning curve: 4/10 and 15 mins

The Alt-Zoom free kit, made by the clever bods at Alt-Zoom, is a free camera path making kit. I have tried it but it needs practice to get good quality results from. This also can’t be used in no build and no script areas. Difficulty and learning curve: 5/10 and 20 mins

Machinima Cam HUD is system that with a simple click moves the camera around you in interesting and creative ways so that you can set and compile interesting shots. This can’t be used in no script areas. Difficulty and learning curve: 4/10 and 10 mins

3D Mouse: I’ve never seen one, let alone used one but they can be used everywhere 🙂

2) Recording stuff
Right, so you have the camera set up in SL. The UI is hidden, the scene is set – you are all ready to go. But how do you record what is on the screen? Well here things ramp up a little in terms of difficulty and learning curve. Once upon a back in the day, there was a movie capture feature built into SL itself, but it wasn’t very good and has gone the way of sideburns and trilby hats. These days you have to use a third-party external program and I tried three:

FRAPS – This is probably the best known of these programs. Very simple to use and the basic, limited version is free (the full version costs a one-off payment of around 30$US / £20). Once downloaded and installed you just choose a few settings and then, when in-world, press a pre-set key to start and stop recording. It’s that easy. There are some settings I really don’t know much about yet (FPS rate and full screen vs half screen being two) but there is plenty of help on the web. The files it records are large (very large) AVI format files. Difficulty and learning curve: 4/10 and 20 mins

CamStudio – This free program looks easy enough but I couldn’t get it to give me good results – just sort of jerky, flickery pictures. Also it buggered up my in-world FPS like you wouldn’t believe! Difficulty and learning curve: 5/10 and 30 mins

TAKSI – I simply didn’t understand this one and couldn’t make it work. It is free though. Maybe I was doing something wrong. Difficulty and learning curve: 7/10 and ? mins

As far as I can tell, you need a program that has very little CPU usage so that it doesn’t reduce your in-world frames per second, and pumps out the best quality files it can. FRAPS seems the best for this task.

3) Editing stuff
Once you have recorded several scenes, what to do with them? You need to edit them together you fool! What kind of damn silly question is that? Errr, sorry. It’s been a long day. Anyhoo, as I was saying, you’ll need to edit the scenes together, add sound effects and music, fades and transitions, text and credits. This is the bit where it can start to get daunting. Up until now, using various cameras in SL and pressing a button to start or stop Fraps recording has been easy, but here you need to switch SL off and start learning a new skill – video editing.

Don’t be scared though. I was and I need a new seat now, so don’t make the same mistake as me. There are some great and easy to use editing tools out there – and the two I downloaded are free! The first is Windows Movie Maker and the second is VideoSpin (Osprey also told me about Avid’s free version of their world famous editing software, but I’ve not tried that yet).

Windows Movie Maker: I liked this – dead easy to use (actually harder to find, download and install) but I got confused about video formats and stopped using it when I discovered it only made WMV files. I thought that videos had to be uploaded to SL and WMV isn’t supported by Quicktime I think… I’m not sure. Anyhoo, the long and short is I downloaded VideoSpin instead. But I’ll try Windows MM again – watch this space. Difficulty and learning curve: 4/10 and 30 mins

VideoSpin: This is a nifty free program designed to take the pain out of editing with a simple drag and drop style interface. Actually the interface is its worst point as it’s not very intuitive, but there is a help file and tutorial video so I got there in the end. My film of the jungle was edited on this, the text and fading transitions were added with this and I saved it from the huge AVI format to a compressed MJPEG with this. Difficulty and learning curve: 5/10 and 50 mins

Now we get into Dark and Murky Waters. Compression, Codecs and file types. I *really* don’t know enough about this stuff to advise anyone on what to use as I’ve no idea. I will be experimenting, but for now you’ll have to google and read up like I will 🙂

4) Uploading the bugger
Welllllll, I use Blip.TV as I read they had a better quality uploads than You Tube, but I think it all depends on what you need to do with the result. I’ve not looked into how to get the videos in-world, but I’ll let you know about that when I do.

So, there you have it. My potted guide to how I’ve taken my first faltering steps into the world of SL machinima 🙂

Here are some useful links for you:
SL Machinima Tips
Eric Linden’s Machinima Tips
Torley Linden’s Video Tutorial Guide
SL’s Guide to Video Making Software
Wikipedia list of Video Software

EDIT: D’oh! I forget to put a link to Ayumi Cassini’s great machinima work! Here you go 🙂


* Carry On Reading, a great film in which Sid James takes down Babs Windsor’s particulars over the late loans counter whilst Jim Dale and Bernard Breslow examine Fanny’s Hill. Happy daze.