Orc A.I.

“Ozymandias” poem done as video-game movie!

Have you heard of the “machinima” movement? Basically, it’s a bunch of film artists who realized two years ago that video-game 3D engines could be used to create animated films. After all, when you play a 3D game, the engine creates the scene on the fly. It takes some bits of data — i.e. what the environment looks like, what the characters look like, where they’re located and what they’re doing — and renders it as a moving picture. Most of the time, of course, the “action” is composed of gamers blowing the hell outta each other and spraying raw guts around the screen.

But it doesn’t have to be. The engine could just as easily be used to script a short animated film. Thus was born “machinima” filmmaking — an artistic movement that has spawned a web site with hundreds of films. They range from the original pioneering “lumberjack” comedies (the main characters were lumberjacks because the early Quake game-engine rendered an axe as each character’s base weapon; you couldn’t put it down!), to some really sophisticated Matrix rip-offs.

But here’s where it gets really weird. A while back, a British production house called Strange Company did a machinima version of … Percy Blythe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” I’m not kidding. It’s an animated representation of the, er, action of the poem, such as it is. (You can download it the film here.) Sure, it may be kind of stilted — the “actor” in the film seems oddly modern, and thus out of place for the poem’s vintage, and the desert. But the atmosphere neatly captures the eerie desolation of Shelley’s original work. This easily one of the most innovative things I’ve ever seen done with poetry. And hey: Imagine if someone did this with the first book of Paradise Lost; with all the satanic fires and flying demons, it’s a natural for video-game rendering! Or how about Emily Dickinson’s nutsoid hallucinations? Or e.e. cummings? The mind boggles. Thankfully, Strange Company’s “Ozymandias” has been picked up already and praised by media ranging from the New York Times to Roger Ebert; I’m coming late to the party here.

I think I’m going to email this film to Joe Lieberman — as well as every other politician or pundit who constantly brays about how video games are turning people into violent, mindless drones.

(Oh, interesting update: here’s a “Director’s Diary” of the Ozymadias project, written by director Hugh Hancock. He has some very cool meditations on the aesthetic style of machinima, and how it’s not just a “poor cousin” of normal CGI animation.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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